Perumal Murugan’s decision to stop writing following the outrage by Hindu right-wing groups against his novel Mathorubhagan shows the challenges faced by Tamil writers in a society steeped in the caste system.
Murugan, 48, published the Tamil novel in 2010, but the English translation titled One Part Woman, which was launched by Penguin recently, has triggered the burning of copies of the novel and threats to the writer.
A professor at the Government Arts College in Namakkal for the past 17 years, Murugan has written six novels, four collections of short stories and poetry and a lexicon based on the oral tradition of the Kongu region in northwest Tamil Nadu.
Set in the temple town of Tiruchengode, Mathorubhagan tells the story of Ponna and Kali, a childless couple.
The blurb of One Part Woman reads like this: “All their hopes and apprehensions come to converge on the chariot festival in the temple of the half-female god Ardhanareeswara and the revelry surrounding it. Everything hinges on the one night when rules are relaxed and consensual union between any man and woman is sanctioned. This night could end the couple’s suffering and humiliation. But it will also put their marriage to the ultimate test. Acutely observed, the novel lays bare with unsparing clarity a relationship caught between the dictates of social convention and the tug of personal anxieties, vividly conjuring an intimate and unsettling portrait of marriage, love and sex.”
Murugan has said that he used to presume that people who were referred to as saami pillai (god-given child) were called so because they had been born after much prayers. “But during my search, I chanced upon the connection between the temple festival and god’s children,” he claims.
In the last week of December, RSS activists set fire to copies of the novel and called for a bandh. Murugan was allegedly threatened with dire consequences if he did not pull out “objectionable” parts from the book. Reportedly asked to flee Namakkal and promise never to write anything that may hurt religious or communal sentiments, he declared that the “writer in him had died” and posted a brief obit on his Facebook wall.
Noted poet and thinker K Satchidanandan feels that Murugan decided to quit writing because of pressure from his family and right-wing groups. “He wanted to live in the same village too,” says Satchidanandan. “It was an act of emotion and despair.”
Writer and translator Suneetha Balakrishnan, who is an alumnus of the Sangam House residency programme like Murugan, says that an era of silence has finally arrived. “His step is important because it shakes us up into thinking why we need to react; reminds us that we cannot think this is yet another ban, another book or writer shown the door,” says Balakrishnan.
Noted Tamil writer Salma, whose books have also been subjected to criticism, says it is a shame that such a thing has happened in the land of Periyar. A social activist and politician in the 19th century, EV Ramasamy Naicker, better known as Periyar, stood for self-respect and founded the Dravidar Kazhagam.
Salma, who blames the state government for allowing right-wing groups to silence Murugan, says that she will try her best to convince the novelist to write again.
Tamil Nadu Progressive Writers’ Movement president Tamil Selvan says that the group will spread awareness among the common people about the novel and its role in society. “People tend to believe that novels are, and should be, only about romance and love,” he says.
The group has filed a PIL in the Madras High Court, seeking to declare as null and void the ‘peace meeting’ called by the Namakkal district administration on 12 January in a bid to broker peace between Murugan and the temple devotees and locals who had raised objections to the book. The group said in the PIL that Murugan was forced to tender an unconditional apology and delete certain portions from his novel. After the meeting at the Namakkal collectorate, Murugan decided to stop writing.
In a society of increasing intolerance and violence, writers find it hard now to talk about certain practices and rituals without fear of being targeted. “Awareness and education on the roles of novel and fiction are the two ways to confront this,” adds Selvan.
It is interesting that the attacks had been triggered by an English translation of the novel published in Tamil four years ago. Who triggered and instigated the local activists to turn against a popular writer?
Such threats and challenges have forced writers to curb their narratives and efforts to expose rituals that discriminate against some sections of the society, especially women. In his novel, Murugan has tried to showcase how the society looks at a barren woman.
In his famous essay, Why I Write, George Orwell points out four reasons why he or any writer writes: sheer egoism, aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse and political purpose.
In Mathorubhagan, Murugan’s “historical impulse” is evident as he wants to see things as they are and show them to posterity. Murugan, who was influenced by Marxism to write about his people and land, also has a subtle but strong “political purpose” to write. And that is exactly why the right-wing groups cannot let it go.
The son of a farmer, who sometimes doubled up as a soda seller at a local cinema to keep the pot boiling at home, Murugan has mostly written about the vagaries, disillusionment and helplessness of peasants and the struggles of children to repay their fathers’ loans.
A noted representative of the Tamil writers’ community, Murugan’s decision to call it quits shows how difficult and challenging it is for writers to go about their business of holding a mirror to the society.
“Perumal Murugan, the writer is dead. As he is no god, he is not going to resurrect himself. He has no faith in rebirth. As an ordinary teacher, he will live as P Murugan. Leave him alone.” This is what Murugan wrote on his Facebook wall, like an epitaph on his tomb.
We can leave him alone. Let him be silent or let him write. But for how long can we ignore the knives being sharpened somewhere to cut off tongues?