All posts by Nilanjana Roy

Long drives, short stories; ooks, cooks and writes. Author of The Wildings (Aleph, 2012) , The Hundred Names of Darkness (Aleph, 2013). Coming soon: The Girl Who Ate Books, from HarperCollins.

Picture This: on Radhaben Garva’s remarkable art

Radhaben Garva, from Kutch, has been painting the Indian women’s movement for the last 20 years in vivid, layered sketches. I was thrilled when asked me to do an essay accompanying the artwork from her book, Picture This!

Picture This! Painting The Women’s Movement by Radhaben Garva, published by Zubaan Books.
‘Stepping out was stepping in,’ Garva and Sushma Iyengar write, ‘The more we travelled out, the more we met ourselves.”

The essay is up on the site here:

In another of Garva’s paintings, Malji, a sheep rearer, thrashes his young bride Sarli; she lies on her side, her mouth turned downwards at the corners in dismay and pain, cartoonish drops of blood staining the earth as the cows watch. She is in colour, her assailing husband and the silent cows in outline; and so are the two women who watch and who will go back to tell the rest, three splotches of vivid pink and leaf green connected by the thread of gender and solidarity.

Alternatively, many of the happiest sketches are about the journeys the KMVS women make once their movement has grown apace. The women are depicted leaving the village, riding on the back of a tractor, their red and green odhnis and wide skirts and the blue of the tractor’s sides providing a vivid splash of colour in an otherwise brown and white sketch. ‘Wherever we went,’ Garva writes, ‘we stared and were stared at – for we were now claiming spaces that were not considered ours.’

Speaking Volumes: A Thousand Tongues

(Published in the Business Standard, March 30th, 2015)

How long have Indians been arguing about language? For centuries, in some style. Shankar Goapl Tulpule records that it was roughly seven to eight centuries ago that Mukundaraja prefaced his great work, Vivekasindhu, with a defiant excuse for using Marathi instead of Sanskrit:

“If common trees can bear fruit on par with the wish-tree,
Why should they not be planted with growing zeal?
So also, even if here the language is Marathi,
The content is the same as that of the Upanishads,
Why should it not, therefore, be stored in the recesses of the heart?”

He had, Tulpule writes, “already anticipated the displeasure of the orthodox Sanskrit pundits” of the day – in their eyes, Indian regional languages were not considered refined enough to be used for serious work. That argument over hierarchy and power between languages ran fiercely in the 13th century: another story Tulpule tells is of the time Kesiraja asked the Mahanubhava preceptor Nagadeva a question in Sanskrit. He replied: ““Please, I do not follow your asmat (‘for this reason’) and kasmat (‘why’). The Master preached to me through Marathi. So, ask me in the same language.”

In many of the present-day arguments over language, English and Hindi dominate the discussion. The arguments over English have not substantially changed over the two centuries that it has been an adopted Indian language: it is an alien tongue (not after 230-plus years), it is unfairly the language of power and jobs (as true of English as it once was of Sanskrit, Persian and sometimes Hindi), it is the carrier of class privilege (an increasingly inaccurate claim as the language spreads, adapts and democratises), it divorces Indians from their root language (this ignores the very large number of Indians who are comfortably bi-or-multilingual).

The imposition of Hindi is a tricky subject: claims made for the dominance of Hindi speakers often club together the speakers of allied dialects – GN Devy, the formidable linguist, points out that over 100 “feeder” languages surround the Hindi belt, and act as the “roots” of Hindi. And opposition to Hindi as the national language rests on the fact that it is an alien tongue, just as much as English, for large swathes of the country. On the plus side, Hindi is easy to learn, and is considered one of the fastest-growing languages in India today; it has also become more adaptable in the sense of assimilating words from other Indian languages.

But all of the English versus Hindi (or English/ Hindi versus The Rest of India) debates in the mainstream, if not in academia, ignore a far bigger question: could India’s dominant languages strangle the rest? GN Devy and his colleagues conducted the People’s Linguistic Survey of India, working over a four-year period to track the number of languages still in existence and the number threatened. The Census of India names 122 languages, of which 22 are scheduled; the PLSI found over 780 different languages and 66 different scripts. In the past 50 years, they discovered that India had lost about 250 languages.

What India should be concerned about, more than the reductive and frankly useless Hindi/ English versus the Rest of India debates, is an environmental issue. Given that this is such a radically, almost magically, multilingual country, preserving language diversity is more important than lingering over the angst of the Indian writer who uses English as his primary publishing language.

In a fascinating 2002 paper for UNESCO, Rajeshwari V Pandharipande offers a simple way to assess power equations between Indian languages: how many domains do they cover? In her analysis, English emerges as powerful because it is used across several domains – business, education, national/ international communication and technology. Regional languages, especially state official languages, also have power: they cover private domains (home), but also education, government, law. Tribal languages emerge as the weakest because they are only used in the private domain, and as their power wanes, they are used less and less often at home.

Another historian of Indian literature, Sisir Kumar Das, makes a comparison between the influence of Persian and the influence of English. Persian, used as the “power” language until it was displaced by English, was, he points out, the language of the elite – but that elite was cross-community, and included both Hindus and Muslims. It had the advantage of being a living tongue, unlike Sanskrit whose reach was more written than oral. And for centuries, Persian served as a medium of translation, receiving texts translated from Indian languages as well as translating other Indian language texts into Persian, from where they spread across the world.

The Persian versus Urdu debate raged as strongly some centuries ago as the Hindi versus English one does. However entertaining, these debates should not blind us to a key fact about India: the dominant language in any region has often posed the greatest threat to smaller local and tribal dialects. Even multilingualism does not cut through hierarchies of power. As Das remarks of the 18th and 19th centuries: “Bilingualism was an accepted fact of life. Bilingualism, however, did not mean equal prestige for both languages.”

It might be utopian to imagine a time when Indian schoolchildren are encouraged to learn one of the many Indian languages on the endangered list as their third language. Or to imagine a time when English, Hindi, Bengali, Marathi, Gujarati and other dominant languages do not, like bullies, overshadow the many, many other tongues that people call their mother tongues. But as our understanding of the map of Indian languages changes and shifts, so should the old, atrophied arguments yield to newer debates.

Speaking Volumes: The Kids Are All Right

(Published in the Business Standard, April 14, 2015)

This is from a favourite essay by a favourite writer – Philip Pullman, who should know, on why children need reading and the arts in their lives:

“Children need to read and listen to proper stories as much as they need to be loved and cared for. The difficulty with persuading grown-up people about this is that if you deprive children of shelter and kindness and food and drink and exercise, they die visibly; whereas if you deprive them of art and music and story and theatre, they perish on the inside, and it doesn’t show… I’m not going to argue about this; I’m right.”

Children also need the right kind of books, by which I mean chiefly the kind that doesn’t preach or talk down to them. They sense when you’re sneaking a moral into a story, or trying to sell fiction that is a lesson in disguise, and their bullshit detectors are as sharp as ours were as kids. “I don’t like books that talk to me like Teacher Madam,” I was told once by a bright ten-year-old who was volunteering with his school’s fledgling library programme.

The kids who loved to read in his rural school didn’t pick out the easy, well-meaning and frankly stodgy books that someone had donated by the cartonload; they reached for books that were often above their vocabulary level, but that had great stories. That’s one reason why Ruskin Bond’s Rusty stories speak to so many generations of Indian children: they know he’s not talking down to them. The Room on The Roof novels worked because they were great storytelling, but also because there was no cautionary tale attached, no statutory warning that said “Running away from home is bad for your health”.

That’s why this year’s Crossword Books Award shortlist in children’s writing is a triumph: because none of the five books on the shortlist are earnest, preachy or are moral science lessons in disguise. Three of the books come from Duckbill Books, which began its operations in 2012 in typical fashion: instead of a book launch, it had the publishers’ family and friends singing the P-p-p-platypus song, and it asked authors to draw them a duckbilled platypus.

Duckbill’s publishers have the right credentials. One of its founders, Anushka Ravishankar, is a very popular children’s books author in her own right (Moin and the Monster, At Least A Fish), and is absolutely brilliant at singing monster songs. Co-founder Sayoni Basu learned the business of children’s book publishing at Puffin and Scholastic and is also an authority on the subject of what you should use to de-fluff a bellybutton (mustard oil and orange peels).

The three Platypuses on the shortlist are fairly typical of Duckbill’s list. In Shalini Srinivasan’s Vanamala and the Cephalopod, Vanamala puts up a notice offering her 8-year-old sister, Pingu, for sale; in Shals Mahajan’s Timmi in Tangles, the heroine has to deal with all sorts of annoyances, such as an Idli-amma who eats up all her idlis and dances on her stomach; and Balaji Venkataramanan’s Flat-Track Bullies is an unusual coming-of-age story set in Chennai.

The other two books on the shortlist are from different publishers. Richa Jha’s The Susu Pals (SWPB Books) brings together a trio of friends and enchanted all but the most humourless of parents, but then you have to be really humourless not to smile at the pun on “wee-wee girls”. Samit Basu already has a massive fan following for his Gameworld trilogy and the paired Turbulence and Resistance speculative fiction novels. The Adventures of Stoob (Red Turtle/ Rupa Books) introduced a ten-year-old with impossible hair, facing an Incredibly Dangerous Exam Adventure and some other creatures – a teacher called T-Rex, a Nalinisaurus and plotting monkeys.

None of Pratham Books or Tulika Books’s titles are on the shortlist this year, but these two publishing houses have also changed the way Indians read. Pratham is an NGO that publishes books in several languages – English, Hindi, Kannada for example – and also publishes story cards, priced at Rs 4/- in an attempt to take stories to the millions of children who might not be able to afford an English-language story book. They invite Champions to read a story every year on Literacy Day to children from under-represented schools: they had 250 champions in 2011, which grew to 1300 by 2014. Tulika Books, like Tara Books, does beautiful production and design on their children’s books while keeping the prices relatively low. Their bilingual books are particularly interesting, while Tara Books scores with its innovative illustrators – Swarna Chitrakar’s patua version of Pinocchio, for instance, beautifully updates an old story.

Twenty years ago, the complaint about Indian children’s books in English was that you didn’t have good production or innovative local storytellers and writers. You have both today; what’s missing is the bridges that connect publishers with readers. There are few imaginative, well-stocked children’s bookstores; the decimation of books pages to one-tenth the space has meant that children’s books don’t get reviewed outside of individual blogs; and there are almost no children’s magazines that carry thoughtful, useful books pages. But at least the books and the writers are there – perhaps the Invisibility Cloak around them will drop soon.

Günter Grass and the losers of history


(Published in the Business Standard, April 14, 2015)

When I heard that Gunter Grass had died at 87, in the town of Lubek, I thought of what he had been at 17 and 18. He was still a boy then, despite what he’d seen in World War Two. He weighed just 110 pounds in his Waffen SS uniform after the 850-calorie diet in the US Army-run camp he had reached after his surrender.

The boy, sensitive, already a storyteller by nature, was slow to understand that the word “capitulation” meant “final, incontrovertible”. The conquering US soldiers’ ability to chew gum was impressive; so were their silent rubber soles in contrast to his army’s jackboots. The Third Reich was over, but even when the American education officer showed them the pictures of Bergen-Belsen, the corpses, the ovens, he couldn’t believe it. He wrote in Peeling The Onion, the 2007 memoir that came out eight years after he won the Nobel Prize for Literature:

“You mean Germans did that?” we kept asking.

“Germans could never have done that.”

“Germans don’t do that.”

Drafted into the Waffen SS at a late stage of the war, he had not done any of that, or participated in any military action of any significance. But “they” did, “they” had, and for the rest of his life, he would be burdened. “One word evokes the other: Schulden, Schuld,” he wrote. “Debts, guilt.”

Grass at 19, 20, away from home in Dusseldorf; he filled out, put muscle back on when he found work as a sculptor. His job was to chisel tombstones, and change the names. The inscriptions – “such as: ‘Death is the Gate To Life’” – were recyclable. In his twenties he tried to write his first novel, The Kashubians, but he didn’t get very far. He managed to kill off all his characters by the end of the first few chapters, so there were no more chapters to write.

But he had been writing all his life anyway, sketching, making notes. His hands were restless, they never stopped. At the Bittweg tram stop, waiting to go home, he would see a line of stonecutting establishments, including the firm of Moog; he put it in The Tin Drum, his most famous novel, as C. Schmoog, sandstone and basalt specialists. When they were not working on tombstones, he and his fellow apprentices restored the arms and wings of park statues that had been maimed in the bombing.

In the 1950s, Grass travelled to Paris. He was close to thirty years old, and he was smoking Parisiennes, deep in conversation with friends and family, when a three-year-old boy came into the room. The boy had a toy drum, a tin toy, that he struck with wooden sticks; he refused to leave or to stop, and he circled the table, drumming determinedly. Then the child left, but his image stayed with Grass: “It would be a long time before the bolt slid open, the flood of images was released and with the images, words I had been saving since childhood.”

He wrote poems and plays (Mister, Mister; The Flood), and then The Tin Drum came out in 1959. The New York Times reviewer recognised its genius, calling it remarkable, and calling Grass “probably the most authentic literary talent to appear in Germany in 25 years”. But, Orville Prescott added in his 1963 review, “It is very German and in many episodes very repulsive… It is gross, grotesque, gruesome and horrible throughout.” Grass wrote many other striking and memorable works – From The Diary of a Snail, The Flounder, The Rat, My Century, Crabwalks – but it was The Tin Drum that readers remembered most and that made the most powerful impact.

In 1987, Grass and his wife came to Calcutta for the staging of one of his plays, The Plebieans Rehearse The Uprising. He made fast friends there among the city’s writers, notably Sunil Gangopadhyay; he caught up with some of them, including the painter Shuvaprasanna, when he went back for a visit in 2005. The city made a striking impression on him. For a while, Grass said, he could not write at all – he set down drawings until the words came back. His account of his time in Calcutta and Bangladesh was called Show Your Tongue, in a reference to Ma Kali:


“Kali Puja announced, I saw Calcutta descend on us. Three thousand slums, usually rapt in themselves, crouched low by walls or sewer water, now all ran out, rampant, beneath the new moon, the night and the goddess on their side. Saw, in the holes of uncountable mouths, the lacquered tongue of black Kali flutter red. Heard her smack her lips: I, numberless, from all the gutters and drowned cellars. I, set free, sickle-sharp I. I show my tongue, I cross banks, I abolish borders. I make an end.”

Grass’s reputation was severely tarnished, mostly outside Germany, in the 2000s when the revelations about his wartime past came to light; Grass said in an interview that he should have written his memoir sooner. The shame had silenced him for some decades, but in 2007, he spoke eloquently enough in Sweden at the Nobel Banquet: “I come from a land of book-burning.” Writers, he said, were such a threat to churches, the politburo and the mass media because they saw truth in the plural, they were unable to leave the past in peace, they cast doubt on the victors of history by giving the losers a voice.

These were all flaws Grass had himself, in ample measure. But he also had wisdom, and an intimate understanding of the nature of evil. In The Rat, he anticipated some of the most pressing arguments of our own decade with chilling prescience:

“Towards the end of human history, the human race had developed a soothing, appeasing language, which spared people’s feelings by never calling anything by its name, which sounded rational even when it represented nonsense as wisdom. Marvellous how their politicians succeeded in making words supple and bending them to their purpose. They said that the more terror the greater is the security.”


(Wrote Softspeakers for Antiserious, an online magazine run by Sumana Roy from Siliguri: “Antiserious is anti-spotlight: it aims to democratise serious attention from a handful of issues of ‘inter/national importance’ to everything that constitutes our dailiness, the gun and the gum.”)



Those who lived in that city woke up late, not knowing why they felt so rested or what had brought them such an unusual sense of peace. Some woke to a sound they remembered from their childhoods, before the city had expanded and grown clamorous: the morning chorus of birdsong. Some woke to the sound of traffic, as they had for years, but the wheels of the trucks were hushed, and the car horns honked quietly, as though from a long distance away.

It was only in the evening that the citizens began to realise how great the change was in their circumstances. In the markets, a great lament rose from the tent-houses. Priests, politicians, devotees, celebrants, wedding guests (and happy couples, and their importantly busy families) found themselves baffled: none of the mikes or the loudspeakers in the city worked correctly any more.

The mikes appeared to be completely worthless, from the imported velvety-furred, red-lit mikes of the major TV channels to the humble, steel-grey versions available for hire for all kinds of functions, celebrations, festivals and meetings. The more loudly speakers shouted, the more raucously singers raised their voices, the less audible they became over even the most expensive fully-guaranteed Japanese and Korean mikes. Haranguers, demagogues, jaagaran and wedding singers, tambola announcers, campaigning candidates, preachers, teachers, all kinds of creatures: no matter how much they yelled, screamed, roared and threatened, the mikes were on strike.

By evening, a few clever and more patient speakers had discovered a workaround: if they lowered their voices, and spoke in reasonable tones, or even in whispers, they were audible. Well, they were audible as long as they held the interest of their audiences. A bored audience could drown out a tedious speaker without needing to raise its collective voice – just a general hum of rising chatter was enough to drown out the voices of rabble-rousers who weren’t rousing their rabble enough. As for the loudspeakers, they had turned into softspeakers. Though the mechanics and the electricians did their best, none of them could find a way to turn up the volume again.

In a few weeks, most of the citizens had adapted to their changed circumstances. Wedding songs continued to play, but instead of blaring the latest dance numbers across a sleepless neighbourhood, the playlists became more seductive, more lilting, vying to lure the attention of passers-by with melody instead of volume. Those who loved dancing found, to their astonishment, that their enjoyment was not curtailed.

The softspeakers did not amplify bands and singers in the same way as before, but they did, in a gentle rumbling way, make bass lines and beats more distinct, as though you were listening to the conversations of friendly dinosaurs. People flocked to discos to dance, but also to stand in long queues until their turn came to curl up against the softspeakers, where the low rumbles soothed them to sleep. It was like spa music, only less annoying.

Politicians and priests alike adjusted – grumbling – to the new order. The priests and the imams grumbled the most because they could no longer shout the word of God, and they had to hold more interesting prayers in order to bring in the devout. Politicians wondered in despair how they would hold rallies without yelling at the masses, but to their surprise, they discovered that far more crowds flocked to see them once they had shut up.

People liked watching politicians more than they liked listening to them, and the more cunning strategists put on beautiful light-and-soundless-firecracker shows, filling the city with their images picked out in glowing, gaudy, brilliant but mercifully silent holograms and billboards.

Festivals changed, too, but only a little; though pandals could no longer grab the attention of the city by its ears, they became more and more sprawling, attempting to cast giant shamianas across as much ground as possible. And they spent more on flowers and on food stalls than ever before, to attract followers, and so even though they still took up a great deal of space and time, no one minded because of the fragrance and the tasty food.

Gradually, the city’s natives grew to love their softspeakers and their whispering mikes. Many found that they were saying what they wanted to say far more often, now that they didn’t have to raise their voices or speak with force in order to be heard. Many found that their speech had lost none of its edge or wit, but that it seemed to be easier to listen as well as speak, in this city where everyone could be heard.

The only ones who hated the new order were the permanently angry and those who were full of hate. The haters had tried to start whispering campaigns, but these had been only moderately successful – you could only listen to those insidious and poisonous voices for about half an hour without wanting some diversion, and in the absence of blaring noise, other, quieter forms of entertainment had returned, from puppet shows to street singers to bioscopewallas.

Those who loved the softspeakers felt sorry for their angrier brethren, but provision was made for those who missed raising their voices. They could gather at spots outside the city limits and shout, “I hate softspeakers! I miss noise!” to their heart’s content. They could clang and clatter and quarrel, and make a ruckus, and create pandemonium for as long as they wanted, and many did, for hours and hours, and sometimes for days and days.

But every so often, one of them would stutter into silence in mid-rant, or would find himself turning down the volume on his loud, loud mike. And then when darkness fell and they thought no one was watching, they would go back to the city of softspeakers, missing the hush, the peace, the million murmuring conversations.

Speaking Volumes: India’s suffragette-princess


For the last two decades, I’ve taken my voter’s ID card for granted: it’s just there, like the “sovereign socialist secular democratic republic” of India itself. I almost voted for Dharatipakkad in my first election, before using my franchise a little more wisely, and will vote along with much of Delhi this Saturday. Like most of my generation, I can neither imagine living in a country nor a world where women had to fight for the basic right to vote.

In my favourite photograph of Sophia Duleep Singh, the princess stands outside Hampton Court, an elegant woman whose face expresses her determination. She is selling copies of The Suffragette. Until Anita Anand wrote Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary (Bloomsbury India), even most feminist historians were unaware of the role played by Maharajah Duleep Singh’s daughter in the Votes for Women campaign.


Sophia Duleep Singh died a year after India gained its Independence at the age of 71, peacefully in one of the estates marked out for the former royals by Queen Victoria, who was also godmother to the princess. She had seen her father, the deposed king, fritter away a large part of his legacy after his move to England; she and her sisters had grown up without “roots, playmates or competent parents”.

The loss of the kingdom and the riches symbolized by the handing over of the Kohinoor had only been partly alleviated by the allocation of grace-and-favour houses to Sophia and her siblings. They were close; in the portrait of the three sisters taken at their Buckingham Palace debut, Bamba, Catherine and Sophia lean towards each other, comfortable in their long white debutante’s gowns. Ranjit Singh’s grand-daughters did not receive their due from the British, then or at any other time, though Sophia and Queen Victoria remained close.

Anita Anand’s liking for her subject is obvious; Sophia, who appeared to be apolitical in her teens, made strong choices all through her life. Aside from her lifelong love of animals, she had a tendency to take up causes with intensity and involvement.

She had grown up in Elveden: “The estate had an air of surreal but pleasant madness,” Anand writes. The Prince of Wales came down to shoot pheasants with Duleep Singh; the duties of footmen included chasing after parrots, jackdaws and the odd baboon. For a while, Sophia appeared in the papers as one of London’s fashionable young women, known for the elaborate dresses she wore, the Borzois she bred and for being a “first-rate cyclist”.

 Debutants, credit Peter Bance (c)

But in 1903, on a visit to India, Sophia explored Punjab for seven weeks, while her sisters retreated from the warm weather to Shimla. She began to understand her heritage, and to love the country that had shaped her history without ever being home. On the ship back to England, Sophia was one of the rare passengers to notice the plight of the lascars, the “ragged merchant seamen” who lived precariously on London’s docks. She changed the lives of thousands of sailors by setting up a home for able seamen; later, after the Great War, she would channel her philantrophic energies similarly towards the cause of Indian soldiers in Brighton, volunteering at a hospital for the wounded.

A separate book could be written on the number of women in that age whose relative privilege – wealth, estates, position – could not compensate for the frustrations of not being allowed to join the workplace, run industries, or participate in political life. Philantrophy was among the few acceptable outlets for their intelligence and energy.

In 1907, Sophia met the revolutionary Sarla Devi Choudhrani, and was profoundly swayed by the speeches she heard Gopal Krishna Gokhale and Lala Lajpat Rai make in Lahore. The sisters were taken aback to find themselves on stage with the nationalists: “Up we got amid cheers… oh dear we were cockatoos with a vengeance today.” By 1908, back in London, she had found the cause that would stir her almost as much as the talk of Home Rule in India: women’s rights, and the meetings of the WSPU, where Emmeline Pankhurst, Uma Dugdale and others gave animated speeches.

In the next few years, Queen Victoria’s god-daughter would become a headache for the British government. Sophia marched with Pankhurst, witnessing and being badly jostled in the many assaults on the suffragettes by London’s police; she funded the cause, and joined the hundreds of women who refused to pay their taxes until they had the vote. In a more flamboyant moment, Sophia attempted to stop the prime minister’s car as it left Downing Street; she had concealed her women’s rights poster in her fashionable furs.

It is so easy to erase women’s names from history. In Indian newspapers today, the conversation centres on just a few stalwarts of the nationalist movement, almost all of them male – Gandhi, Nehru, Patel, but so rarely even a mention of Sarojini Naidu, Aruna Asaf Ali, Annie Besant and the rest.

Anita Anand mentions that Sophia’s voice would have been lost had she not kept detailed diaries, which were fortunately passed on to the British Library. Anand managed to speak to three people who knew Sophia well, including her god-daughter, Drovna. She had almost given up on tracking Drovna when she received a phone call in July 2012: “My name is Drovna – what do you want with my Princess?”

Sophia: Princess, Sufragette, Revolutionary is a painstaking biography, perhaps more thorough than brilliant. But by resurrecting Sophia Duleep Singh’s overlooked life and memory, this book is a reminder of how bitter the battle was for the women’s vote, how remarkable it was that an Indian woman would have joined that cause in London, and how the early calls for nationalism resonated in the heart of this maharajah’s daughter. The last word should be left to Drovna, who remembers Sophia often telling her: “I want a solemn promise from you. You are never, ever not to vote. You don’t realise how far we’ve come. Promise me.”

“Please leave him alone”: reading Perumal Murugan

(Published in the Business Standard, 20 January 2015)

The day before Perumal Murugan declared Perumal Murugan, the author, dead, I had begun reading his novel One Part Woman on my Kindle. The download of the book was prompted by fellow readers of an unpleasant sort – professional offence-takers, who had been harassing Murugan with threats since December.

One Part Woman is about a childless couple whose lives change after they take recourse to an old temple ritual, a day of special licence, so that the wife, Ponna, can have a child. The offence takers had shrunk the intricate world of the novel, narrowing it down to the complaint that Murugan had offended the Gounder community by speaking of the ritual.

Two years before Murugan felt the need to kill off his writer self, I had read his novel Seasons of the Palm with intense interest, spurred by a profile of the author and professor in the Caravan magazine written by N Kalyan Raman in December 2013. Raman, translator and critic, had placed Perumal Murugan’s four novels against the backdrop of the tradition of “vattaara ilakkiyam”, or sub-regional literature, explaining that while these were praised for their mann vaasanai (fragrance of the soil), they were felt to lack the universality of mainstream literature.

But Raman disagreed with this assessment, and in his essay, he unwrapped the riches of Murugan’s Kongunadu novels – making special note of the landscape, both geographical and social, of Thiruchengodu and other places – in such a way that he must have sent many other readers off to the library as well as me.

In his final paragraph, he wrote: “It is a curious paradox that even as progressive Indians would like to abolish the caste system, they have little or no understanding of the lived reality of specific caste groups in their traditional homelands. Even as these communities are stalked and often dispossessed by the forces of modernisation, they remain hostage to the ways of the past that have sustained them for centuries. Will they ever be able to enter a secular future? Perumal Murugan has at least shown us a glimpse of what our collective struggle may be about.”

Perumal Murugan’s One Part Woman (Madhorubhagan, 2000) was translated into English in 2013 by Aniruddh Vasudevan. In December 2014, reports came in that the Hindu Munnani and other caste organisations had launched a campaign against the book. They had political support – Tiruchengode town Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh President Mahalingam led “more than 50 cadres” in a march; they burned copies of Murugan’s book in front of the local police station in December 2014.

On January 12, the district administration called the author in for “peace talks”; instead of upholding the author’s rights, officials told him to issue an unconditional apology. Murugan wrote a short, blunt note on his Facebook page: “Author Perumal Murugan has died.” He said he would withdraw all his books and writings, and requested all “caste, religious and political” groups not to engage in protests or create problems. “Please leave him alone,” the note ends.

Like so many others in India and elsewhere, I am tired of writing indignant columns that point out the uses of and defend the need for freedom of expression, or rail against the rising tide of violence that artists, writers and ordinary people not affiliated to political parties or well-organised religious protesters face. Many Indians – lawyers, journalists and writers, yes, but also just aam junta (common man) – are also tired of pointing out that we had predicted that offence laws would have terrible repercussions.

It is not just power-hungry preachers from all faiths, and politicians ditto, who use these laws as bludgeons, but castes and communities. They should really form a giant group of cultural censors, deleting from the official record all viewpoints that have challenged or critiqued caste, communities and religions in India. This would in effect erase most of the gains made by gender, environmental groups and civil rights movements over the last six decades.

Meanwhile, in my small corner of Delhi, I am trying to read the works of Perumal Murugan in peace. Tamil writers had been speaking in his defence in local papers from December onwards; at the Hindu Lit for Life festival in Chennai last week, statements of support for Murugan are made, and at the Kochi Biennale, the assembled artists hold a mass reading from Madhorubhagan.

I would like to believe that these gestures will be enough to keep the books alive, but there have been too many empty chairs in our lives – one for the late MF Husain, one for Salman Rushdie, too many for all the film-makers and playwrights from Deepa Mehta to Habib Tanvir who faced violence and disruptions through their careers, too many for the rationalists exiled, like Sanal Edamaruku, or gunned down, like the late Narendra Dabholkar. In time, unless the offence laws change, this climate where thugs rule and he who has the biggest mob wins will prevail; and bookshops will silently take Perumal Murugan’s books off the shelves.

I turn back to One Part Woman with these thoughts buzzing in my mind, and then, over the next few hours, the voices of the protestors recede, the threats and righteous indignation of offence-takers are muted.

Murugan’s own voice as a writer is quiet, imbued with love for the landscape and for the forgotten bits of land between two villages, for instance – the Narikkaradu, the Fox Land. His novel speaks to (and for) women trapped between the demands of society and the high cost of transgressing social norms, and it unpacks the way caste works in a community as simply and naturally as a gifted child takes apart a clockwork toy, to see how it works. As time passes, I am drawn into the intricate tracery of friendships he weaves, the way in which the village’s history from the times of the British winds itself around the lives of Ponna and Kali.

Perhaps the only free space we have any more, until these times change, is here, in the private compact between writers and their readers that takes place in the wide, broad-bordered lands inside our own heads.

In this land, the offence-takers and the angry protestors have no valid visas and cannot cross the frontiers. In this imaginary world, the author Perumal Murugan has not died, nor have his books; he continues to write, with close, loving attention to the places he knows so intimately, free from the fear of violence. In this country, if nowhere else, all is well.