The language of court judgments has often come in for criticism — for either being a little too mired in legalese or for going off on such wild flights of fancy that deciphering its actual meaning can take considerable effort.
But the ruling of Chief Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul and Justice Pushpa Sathyanaraya of the Madras High Court, dismissing a ban against Tamil writer Perumal Murugan's 2010 novel Madhorubhagan, doesn't fall into that category.
The approximately 150-page judgment is worth reading, not only for its decision, hailed by Murugan's supporters and literary circles, but also as a document in and of itself.
The judgment begins by acknowledging the scope of the debate — the "wider" one over freedom of expression, and the "narrower" discussion, which is restricted to the facts of the case
The document also has a perfect balance between the literary and the legal.
On the one hand, it harks back to the example of Lady Chatterly's Lover to show how novels down the ages have run into opposition, and how what gives offence is always changing.
To point out how even if a book does contain material that a reader finds objectionable, it is not always necessary to seek a ban on it, the judges quote Salman Rushdie: "It is very easy not to be offended by a book. You simply close it".
Elsewhere, the judges provide a succinct summary of the issue as it unfolded — the protests against Murugan and how they escalated, with the writer being left with no recourse but to tender an "unconditional apology" to a mob under duress, and have a statement sent out to the effect that his books would be withdrawn from stores.
The documents also includes a quick lesson in how not to read a book: by focusing on certain sections without understanding the context. It offers an indictment of society on the censure childless couples face (the fate of the central characters in Murugan's Madhorubhagan), the lack of agency women have over their own bodies, and our willingness to seek bans against creative expression — be it of artists like MF Husain (whose obscenity case Justice Kaul had also presided over) or films like PK, The Da Vinci Code and even Udta Punjab.
The judgment draws on detailed excerpts from Murguan's novel, but its finest moments are when it makes observations on the literary art of writing. Sample this:
"A book is the literary expression of an author. A painter paints his thoughts; a sculptor expresses his thoughts through his murals; an author writes. The first two are simple expressions of a mixed set of thoughts and have to be observed in that manner... A book is definitely a more detailed and expressive method of setting forth one’s thoughts. It is not a single expression. It weaves a theme. Thus, while judging a book on any parameter not necessarily restricted to obscenity, it has to be read, digested and examined as a whole. Thus, a book is not to be read like a statute to come to a conclusion. Sentences cannot be picked up here and there to give a conclusion."
Then there is this astute observation that professional outragers would do well to give thought to: "We're bogged down by a Victorian morality rather than being inspired by our own (ancient) literature and scriptures... Pablo Picasso, a renowned artiste, defined art as 'Never
being chaste — and what is chaste not being art'. Since in the same way writings are vehicles of personal expression, they must be understood and appreciated, even if provocative, keeping in mind our rich cultural heritage."
The judgment has a ringing endorsement for the book as a form of not just storytelling, but truth-telling:
"Despite the profitability and popularity of other media, books remain a powerful tool, for they maintain a unique role in shaping up history and there are obvious reasons why good books are authoritative, well reasoned and articulate. They make considered determination about the characters of their subjects. Books create a space for reflection by both the author and the reader. Some books, though less worthy might make a splash at first blush, but eventually fade away. However, good books remain in the swim forever. The collective objective of publishers,
which is more pressing than ever in these days of online advocacy and intimidation, must be to bring the truth to the readers."
It is however, in its conclusion that the judgment is most uplifting:
"The author, Prof Perumal Murugan, should not be under fear," it states. "He should be able to write and advance the canvass of his writings. His writings would be a literary contribution, even if there were others who may differ with the material and style of his expression... Time is a great healer and we are sure, that would hold true for Perumal Murugan as well as his opponents; both would have learnt to get along with their lives, we hope by now, in their own fields, and bury this issue in the hatchet as citizens of an advancing and vibrant democracy. We hope our judgment gives a quietus to the issue with introspection on all sides... Time also teaches us to forget and forgive and see beyond the damage. If we give time its space to work itself out, it would take us to beautiful avenues. We conclude by observing this – 'Let the author be resurrected to what he is best at. Write.'"
It is a ruling that Murugan himself has taken to heart.
After the judgment was pronounced on Tuesday, 5 July, the writer issued a short statement: "The judgment gives me much happiness. It comforts a heart that had shrunk itself and had wilted," Murugan said.
He also shared a poem titled 'The Flower' with his readers:
"A flower blooms/ after the big bang/ Sharp fragrance/ Sweet countenance/ Shining Splendor/ The flower would/ take up and establish/ everything.”
Read the full text of the judgment here: