(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.