After nineteen painful months, Tamil author Perumal Murugan ended his literary exile with the release of a book of two hundred ‘secret poems’. This return – and the Madras High Court judgement that preceded it – are just what advocates of free expression hoped for and are in themselves extremely welcome moves for Murugan himself, as well as for Indian writers in general.
However, it remains to be seen how Murugan’s writing will be affected by the coordinated attack on his freedom to live and write in the Kongunadu district of Tamil Nadu. As far as Murugan’s prose writing is concerned, these two freedoms are one and the same. As N. Kalyan Raman pointed out in his Caravan profile of Murugan, and as many other commentators have pointed out since, Murugan is profoundly a writer of place, a conscious decision he made early on in his literary career:
“In 1988, at the age of 22, he came to Chennai to pursue his MPhil in Tamil studies at Madras University and went on to earn a PhD. Here, he came into contact with a splinter group of the Communist Party of India-Marxist Leninist, called Makkal Kalachara Kazhagam (Ma Ka Ka), then led by writer and veteran journalist Paa Jeyaprakasam. Murugan’s interaction with the writers belonging to this group, along with his study of essential Marxist texts, led him to decide that his fiction would be primarily about the region and community of his origin and the life he knew from direct experience.”
The events of late 2014 and early 2015 that led to his literary silencing were the same as those that caused his exile from Namakkal, where he had lived and taught for fourteen years. Murugan was in the middle of a particularly productive time in his literary career when the well-coordinated attacks began. He had just returned from a Sangam residency, during which he had finished two sequels to Madhurobhagan, based on two different endings. It was at this point that he began to receive abusive calls and threats. Things escalated rapidly. His books were burned in Tirchengode, a strike was called and no matter how much and how reasonably he tried to explain the intentions behind his writing of Madhurobhagan, he was not heard.
At an event organised by the Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust in early 2015, and in countless articles and interviews, his publisher Kannan Sundaram recounted the frightening details of the attack. Murugan’s extended family, friends and neighbours were all threatened and a ‘peace meeting’ organised by a district administration backed Murugan into a corner, forcing him to sign an unconditional apology. Sundaram wrote in an article on DailyO:
“There was no way Perumal Murugan could write freely and live at home. He had two choices – either give in or live in exile. He was not prepared to live in exile; he had responsibilities towards his family and students. He felt the need to stay in the community. He is one of the most important writers of his generation of Kongunadu, putting it on the literary map of Tamil Nadu, India and even the world. But his community hasn’t valued him. His decision to stop writing is in fact, a form of revenge against the community that turned against him.”
Despite this resolve, Murugan sought a transfer to Chennai, and he and his wife – who taught at the same college that he did – were granted this transfer. His own community had turned against him, and the state had utterly failed to make him feel safe enough to stay in Namakkal.
The protests against Madhurobhagan must have left Murugan bewildered. The novel, which was published in Tamil in 2010, is a work of historical fiction about a couple, Kali and Ponna, who are happily married, but constantly taunted about their childlessness by those around them. At the chariot festival in the Ardhanareeshwar temple, a custom allows childless women to have sex with men who are not their husbands and any children born of this union are accepted.
In 2013, an English translation by Aniruddhan Vasudevan, titled One Part Woman, was published. Then, suddenly, at the end of 2014, there was a furore against the novel for being ‘blasphemous’ and for insulting women.
Writing in Murugan’s defence, A.R. Venkatachalapathy said:
“Any anthropologist would attest to similar practices existing in many pre-modern societies with no access to assisted conceptions. … It is this section of the novel that has provoked the ire of Hindu fundamentalists and caste purists. Portrayed as a slur on Hindu women, Mr. Murugan is being pilloried for denigrating the whole town. The Sangh Parivar, seeking a toehold in Tamil Nadu, sensed an opportunity. A local Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh functionary was in the forefront of the assembly that burnt the book. After the state leadership disowned responsibility, Hindu outfits are now working from behind the scenes. Over the last few weeks, thousands of the supposedly offending pages, ripped out of context, have been reprinted and distributed to devotees. One would have thought revering books rather than burning them was Hindu tradition.”
Far from being a spontaneous protest, the attack against Murugan was, as Venkatachalapathy points out, deliberate and calculated. The community members who protested seem to have believed that a work of historical fiction, based on an ancient custom that may or may not have existed, cast their community in an undesirable light. Here is a quote from one of the most vocal protestors, S. Sasidevi, an advocate based in Tiruchengode:
“However, Sasidevi admits that she has not read the book entirely. ‘The Tiruchengode Girivalam Sangam people told me about this and I bought the book and read some of it,’ she said. ‘I could not stomach reading it fully. I was very angry and told all my relatives and neighbours about it. They too read it and got angry. Even the elders said nothing of this sort had ever happened in this area. Why has he written about things which never happened? It will become history, won’t it?’”
It isn’t difficult to see why Hindutva groups would object to Murugan’s novel. The past that it portrays doesn’t match the Hindutva idea of a pristine past, at once imbued with Victorian prudishness and a desire to project an authentic cultural heritage that is superior to Western traditions. Murugan’s portrayal of non-conjugal sexuality flies directly in the face of such ideas, as does his nuanced portrayal of caste and gender relationships in the region.
But it wasn’t just Murugan’s writing that would have ruffled feathers, because that was not the only site in which he challenged established social orders. In his work as a college professor, he put together an anthology of thirty-two articles by his students who have endured casteism. In an interview that he gave soon after the protests, he said:
“Caste organisations and so-called educationists, who are running schools in Namakkal and Tiruchengode areas that specialise in rote-learning and deny students sporting activities, have been looking for an opportunity to settle score with me as I have been constantly writing against the education system and caste practices.”
Now that Murugan’s literary exile is over, it is worth returning to the question that Sundaram asked soon after he was forced to abandon his writing: “What kind of writer will he come back as?” What does it do to a writer to be wrenched away from his writing and his life at the height of his powers?
It is significant that Murugan’s return has been in the form of poetry, his first and favourite medium of writing. At the launch of the collection of poetry in Delhi, Murugan said, “A conflict is running through my mind now… most of my writing so far has been in the realist mode. I doubt that I can continue to write in the realist mode – I have to think through other techniques. Only time will tell what I’ll be able to write.”
It is not just future writing that is at stake – Murugan must also revisit older works to see if he must revise the text in any way. In a powerful statement that he read out at the event, Murugan explained the nature of his current struggle: “I’m not sure if this is right. However, when so many things that are not quite right are happening all over, why not this? What am I to do? A censor is seated inside me now. He is testing every word that is born within me. His constant caution that a word may be misunderstood so, or it may be interpreted thus, is a real bother. But I’m unable to shake him off.”
At the same time, two things speak of Murugan’s great resilience. The first is his production of the poems that have made up this collection during some of the darkest days of his life. In a beautiful foreword, one that is as much worth reading and circulating as his writer’s statement, Murugan has demonstrated his prodigious creative power through his evocation of doing this quiet work:
“I had strangled my gift. I had thought that the grief of that loss would be covered up with mud in a few days, but that did not happen. My strangling hand wasn’t quite strong enough, perhaps. After lying barely alive for a few months, my mental habit pushed back up through the mud, rose with a loud wail, and came back to me. Like in a wellspring that kept filling up even as the water was bailed out constantly, there was water spilling over on every side….Poetry is the great potion, the sanjeevi herb that can bring the dead to life. It was indeed poetry that restored me to life.”
The second factor – and this is especially significant because the ugly attack on Murugan has also shot him to more fame, and to the status of an icon – is Murugan’s desire to be left alone to write. “It is silence that gives me strength now. I’ll write to gain further strength. My request therefore to the media and organisers of literature festivals is this: ‘Please do not ask to me speak. Let me be quiet. And write. I shall speak to you through my written words.’”
Under the circumstances, this is the wisest and bravest possible thing Murugan can ask of the world around him and perhaps the only way in which he can find his way back to his art in the way that he wants to. Perumal Murugan has been a conscientious, dedicated artist for decades – may he write for decades to come.