Perumal Murugan: The Before and the After

It is the ‘before’ and the ‘after’ of Murugan’s literary career that really offers rich and useful insights into his work, more than the period of his literary exile.

K. Srilata and Perumal Murugan in conversation in Spaces. Credit: Santosh M.

K. Srilata and Perumal Murugan in conversation in Spaces. Credit: Santosh M.

On an evening uneasily sandwiched between the demise of the former chief minister Jayalalithaa and the arrival of cyclone Vardah, a small group of people had assembled at Chennai’s iconic Spaces. The occasion was Prakriti Foundation’s launch of Perumal Murugan’s book of poems, Mayanathil Nitkum Maram (A Tree that Stands in the Crematorium) – a book that contains four previous collections of poetry: Nigazh Uravu, Gomuki Nadhikarai Koozhaangal, Neer Midakkum Kanngal and Velli Shani Bhudhan Nyayaru Vzhyayan Chevvai. I was in conversation with Murugan, a role that I, with Murugan’s consent, have recast slightly. I made some introductory remarks following which there was a bi-lingual reading. Murugan read his Tamil poems and I read Peter and Thirugyanam’s English renderings of the same. There was a solemnity to the occasion, for it marked the resurrection of Murugan, the writer. The event itself lasted for less than an hour and there were a few questions and then it is all over before we know it. As we wrap up, I notice a big pile of unsold copies – the story of most poetry book launches.

In January 2015, Murugan had famously announced on Facebook that his writing self was dead. He was being hounded by Hindu right-wing forces and threatened with death. Murugan had made the fatal mistake of portraying certain sexual customs of the people of Tamil Nadu’s Kongu Nadu region in his novel Madhorubhagan. It was a grim, grim story – the sort of thing no writer anywhere in the world would wish for, the sort of thing no writer anywhere in the world should have to face. In the case of Murugan, the threats to his life and to the lives of his family members had the worst possible effect – it very nearly stopped him from writing. He was to say later, as part of his address to the audience on the occasion of the launch of his book of poems Kozhaiyin Padalgal in Delhi in August of this year:

“Between December 2014 and June 2016 I couldn’t so much as scratch a line in the first three months. As though the fingers of my heart had become numb. I couldn’t read a thing. Even when I turned the newspaper my eyes would scan the print but my mind would not absorb a word. I’d flip through the pages like an illiterate person and fold it away. I consoled myself that there were things to do in this world other than reading and writing. And I did my best to turn my attention to them. But it was impossible. It was then that I realised the full meaning of the Tamil phrase, ‘nadaipinam’, ‘a walking corpse’.”

Writers are porous people. They write of the worlds they have allowed in or have newly discovered, of the worlds they remember or have been marked by. When these very worlds turn against them, they become walking corpses and their pores close up.

I remember thinking, when the ugliness broke out, of the effect it might have on a man whose gentle, lyrical writing I had come to love. I remember wondering if it would harden him, make him something of a cynic, make him write what was less than the truth. So, in a sense, I was not surprised at the intensity of his response to the undeserved horrors that had descended on him. Even if he had been in a position to write in the midst of those horrors, that writing would have been less than the truth. Does the fact that he came so close to giving up on his writing make him something of a coward? Murugan would perhaps be the first to admit that this, indeed, was the case. But cowardice can be a sound position sometimes and not merely the only tenable one. As Murugan says in his poem A Coward’s Song:

Misery befalls no one
because of a coward
Riots break out nowhere
because of a coward
Nothing gets destroyed
because of a coward

A coward
does not draw his sword
or aim it at a tree
to check its sharpness
Why, a coward has no sword
to begin with

A coward
causes no one to feel fear

A coward
fears darkness
Songs come forth from him

(translated from the Tamil by Aniruddhan Vasudevan)

Mayanathil Nitkum Maram is a testimony to a “coming forth of songs” from a position of “cowardice”, a position that ought to be understood not so much in opposition to “courage”, but as one of honesty and quiet reflectiveness.

Much has been written and said about that dark period in Murugan’s life, a period of death threats and much abuse and all because of his choice and fictional treatment of a subject that in other times would perhaps have been considered innocuous. I am, however, more interested in the ‘before’ and ‘after’ than in the dark period itself. For it is the ‘before’ and the ‘after’ really, which offers rich and useful insights into Murugan’s work, constituting as they do positions of stability from which to read and engage with his oeuvre.

Murugan and I were both writers-in-residence at Sangam house in 2010, but unfortunately, our time there did not overlap. He remained till December 10, 2016, the day of the launch when I finally met him. Murugan, that mysterious, absent writer whose presence I had felt keenly thanks to having read and re-read Seasons of the Palm, the excellent translation by V. Geetha, of his novel Koolla Madari. A lyrical novel that describes the difficult lives of a group of Dalit goatherd children, Seasons of the Palm uses the realist framework to talk about young people whose lives are otherwise not considered worthy of being written about. They are not heroes or heroines in the usual sense. But then, I suppose that is the task of the writer – to excavate his or her own protagonists from a pile of forgotten, invisible stories.

Impulsively, I had put the novel on the syllabus for a course I was teaching on Indian literature in translation. By the end of that semester, my students were captivated by this layered narrative, an amazing mixture of naturalism and fantasy that poignantly detailed the everyday brutality of caste. What was remarkable was that the narrative remained lyrical, gentle and dream-like – though the underlying commentary was anything but. It is one of the few books I will return to over and over again – notwithstanding the pressure of hundreds of other unread books piling up on my desk.

When AniruddhanVasudevan’s English translation of Madhorubhagan (One Part Woman) came out, I ordered a copy at once. It is, in retrospect, the “original” translation minus the cuts. Like I had done with Seasons of the Palm, I decided to put it on my syllabus. Only later, did all the ugliness break out.

On July 5, 2016, the world woke up to a heart-warming, lucid court order on the petitions that had been filed against Murugan by caste-based and pro-Hindutva organisations – petitions which had accused the novel of being blasphemous and morally offensive. The court order essentially said, “Let the writer do what he is best at: write”.  It is this judgement that has, in many ways, enabled this ‘after’ moment. Both Kozhaiyin Paadalkal and Mayanathil Nitkum Maram, have appeared in the aftermath of that ghastliness. They are survivors of sorts and have been ways for Murugan to heal. In fact, in his preface to Kozhaiyin Paadalkal (Songs of a Coward), Murugan likens poetry to the sanjeevani herb that can bring the dead to life. Mayanathil Nitkum Maram performs another function. In his foreword to the book, Murugan argues that it is time for him to do the accounting:

“Most people tend to be befuddled about where their money goes, what they spent it on. For the creative person, the reverse is true. It is the in-flow which is difficult to calculate. What flows in and from where? Where does it all go and hide? When does it rise up? At what point is it remembered?  To understand all this is a difficult exercise.”

Indeed, one wonders how Murugan will eventually process all that has flowed in. For now, there is the comfort of this new book which offers a rich, perspectival view on his poetry.

As I leave Spaces, I think of how deeply ironic it is for a man who doesn’t appear to be fond of limelight in the least, to have it thrust upon him in this violent fashion and how remarkably well he has fought the darkness which had threatened to engulf him. Had all this not happened to him, Murugan would have remained, of course, just as wonderful a writer but perhaps very much on the shadowy edges of the literary world. And it is very likely that he might have been a happier man. But all this, of course, is not the point. The point is that we live in a world that is increasingly intolerant of its story-tellers, chroniclers and intellectuals – a world that has forgotten how to read a text, a world that is deaf to all but the loudest of voices, a world that understands brute force but not subtle words. A world that knows how to market but has forgotten what to do with its writers.

K. Srilata is a poet, fiction writer and Professor of English at IIT Madras