Perumal Murugan on row over his book One Part Woman: 'I am not the controversy, I am the writer'
With the Madhorubagan controversy and legal troubles behind him, Perumal Murugan is looking firmly to the future
“Taking the podium or giving interviews has never enthused me. I’ve given the occasional short interview. It is silence that gives me strength now. I’ll write to gain further strength. My request therefore to the media and organisers of lit fests is this: ‘Please do not ask to me speak. Let me be quiet. And write. I shall speak to you through my written words'.”
This was Perumal Murugan's address at the Bengaluru Literary Festival on resuming writing after his self-imposed literary exile.
A slimmed down (he's on a Paleo diet) Perumal Murugan is upbeat. Donning a khadi shirt and a kind smile, he is a muted presence in a room of literary bigwigs. After lunch, he strolls around to greet writers warmly, many of them asking him what's next on the cards. “I’m writing. That's achievement enough,” he remarks.
“I like doing interviews in libraries,” he says, chuckling. “Just don't ask me about controversy, please,” he requests, and this time, his chuckle is laced with discomfort. “I want to put it past me. I am not the controversy, I am the writer,” he declares. Perumal Murugan is tired.
In December 2014, after the publication of an English translation of his 2010 novel Madhorubagan (One Part Woman), Murugan was attacked by caste groups who were reportedly insulted by his story of a childless Gounder couple, the woman consenting to sex with a stranger at a temple festival’s fertility ritual. He had declared then that Perumal Murugan the author, was dead and would not publish any more. He was then transferred out of a government college in Nammakal, where he’d taught Tamil literature for nearly 15 years, to Chennai, as there were threats to his life.
In a 2016 judgment, the Madras High Court had declared that there was nothing obscene in his novel, even observing — “And how do you obviate any offences caused to you? Would what Salman Rushdie said, be the cure, ‘It is very easy not to be offended by a book, you simply have to close it’?”
“Let the writer do what he does best — write,” the court declared.
Back in conversation with Murugan, the writer says, “I learnt my literature by ear, through radio. Trichy radio and Coimbatore radio stations were always reverberating through the house. My first big break was a little ditty called 'Poonam Nalla Poonai' (Poonam the good cat), written for a Trichy radio station. I was sent to poetry competitions. I was quiet, I was a loner, I just observed."
“In school, that helped. It gave me my voice. It was my entry into serious literature. That’s when I knew I wanted to be a writer. Poetry is all where it began,” he reminisces.
For Murugan, much of his childhood memories reveal a reserved and aspirational young man. “We had to walk 4 km to school and the area was dotted with tamarind trees. There was no transport and a part of the route was so silent, it was deafening. People said there were ghosts. I would close my eyes, carry my bag, and run through it. I think I learnt how to power through,” he says.
“There was a rule in my school that only certain people — who were tall — could ring the school bell. I wanted to ring that bell but I was never tall enough. One day when there was no one around, I rang the bell. That was a moment of triumph for me because there was a prestige in ringing the bell. That everyone could see and hear who did it. I wanted to be seen and heard,” he says, conscious of these memories, shifting their way through his voice as a strong male writer.
In Madhorubagan (One Part Woman) and Pyre, Murugan touches on the affection that is often lost in the narratives of marriage, when recalled in real life. His characters, in love, retain just as much individuality, sense of autonomy, and challenges define them instead of disempower. But he has little faith in it as a societal institution. “Marriage is an institution for family, never love. It never appealed to me in a sense. There is property, caste and children intertwined. It hasn't changed, especially in villages. I am very interested in these problems and emotional complexities that are wrung together in the web of caste kin and property,” he says.
Murugan prances, hops and skips around the concept of spaces. In a moment in Madhorubagan, the male protagonist Kali's friend often gropes in the dark of nooks and crannies to pull Kali out of his little self imposed cocoon. Male spaces are the world. “It's a man’s world, whether a TASMAC (government-owned liquor retail stores in Tamil Nadu) or even a tea shop,” Murugan says.
Space before marriage and after marriage changes, Murugan observes. “Kali reduces his line of vision, his radius after being constantly confronted with childlessness and impotence. And he makes do with whatever space he has. But it is different for a woman.”
A woman's space differs little societally, from birth to death, Murugan feels. “A woman who comes to drink tea is even seen differently. Women can go to a supermarket or a bazaar. In small towns, a woman going to a movie with a man, her own husband, is looked down upon, she must only go to watch a movie with her family. We have unspoken rules like that to define spaces,” he says.
His much loved characters are the jokester and the tree. In a moment in his book, the man playing the joker mulls on the peculiarity of Madhorubagan, the half-man-half-woman God: “What is the point if they can't touch each other,” to which the crowd retches in unison. “That's how we're all here, after all,” he responds. “There is a joker who questions everything. He is the jester, but the questions he asks are far more piercing than funny. It was a pivotal character in my stories. To push humour into introspective questions,” Murugan explains.
The tree is another of Murugan's much loved characters. Trees are explored as leases of life and the end of a life, as essential to livelihoods, and occupy a place as important as a protagonist. “There are places for humans and animals. But trees are constants. I want to talk about the culture of both trees having a personality, a character as much as a human being,” he says.
In terms of spaces, for Murugan, his grasp on the concepts has seasoned his approach towards his own spaces. “I was born and brought up in Tiruchengode. My life is there. But after the controversy, nothing changed. My identity will never be erased. It is close to my heart. The cord between me and Tiruchengode will never be cut no matter what happens,” he says.
Murugan is at this point, well rested. He senses the writer in him being tapped, instead of the man of controversy. In his descriptions of intimacy, he deftly explores the purpose, sheaves of touch and even breath. The mundane hanky panky on beds are often a window into the character's space and place in life, society and relationships. “Bodies are seen two ways — to celebrate, or to destroy. We are people who celebrate bodies. For characters in my stories, their body is central to their occupation. They are labouring bodies. Their life depends on it. It's not one dimensional for my characters,” he says.
The trials since 2015 have tempered Murugan. He has transcended the dangerous pits of self pity and doubt, takes a deep breath and recalls this time, adopting a composed tone. “I think I want to look back at it in an empowering sense. I have lived five years without writing anything, this is not new to me. But when I was depressed, I thought to myself, does a writer only exist to write? Does he or she not live otherwise? When I let go of this conditioning, I realised that my best mode of expression is in writing. That letting go helped me pick up the pen. I write today. I put behind everything and write. I'm not defined by controversy, I am defined by my writing.”
In one of his poems, Oru Kozhaiyin Paadalgal (A Coward’s Songs), he writes -
Misery befalls no one
because of a coward
Riots break out nowhere
because of a coward
Nothing gets destroyed
because of 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
causes no one to feel fear
Songs come forth from him
He doesn’t pinch away a leaf
or pluck a flower
A mother gathers a terrified child
and suckles it
For he steps out only
to feed himself
He stays in and
keeps out of trouble
also finds it hard
to stay confined
He keeps cleaning up
nooks and corners
You won’t find a coward
in a playground
He never rouses crowds
into hateful nationalist frenzy
joins no political party,
abides by no ideology,
and is loyal to no leader
cannot prepare a welcome flyer
he cannot pour milk over big banners
he simply cannot whistle, prance about,
and go out in processions
steals from no one
he doesn’t stop those
who come to take away this things
does not attempt to rape anyone
he cannot even look in stealth
at another’s body
never turns into a murderer
He thinks about suicide
and does it, too
“I don't know why everyone thought I was referring always to myself as kozhai (coward). Sometimes I don't always talk about myself; a lot of people read that and thought I was talking about myself. We all decide to look at things circumstantially, that is the mistake we make when it comes to reading writers sometimes,” he sighs.
Murugan clams up at the mention of caste and clears his throat, squinting his eyes and meditates on how to answer. He doles out a little advice for writing on caste. “If there is caste violence, and Dalits are involved, we must call out the oppressor. We must not be patronising and fall into that trap. That's what I keep in mind. We need to transcend from the fixed mindset of poor so and so. We run away from the caste system and don't try to understand it fully. We must reconsider our perceptions, our gaze,” he elaborates.
When Murugan began to put pen on paper, or rather, fingers on keyboard, the ideas flooded back. “My son and daughter asked me how many books I would write, when I started writing again. We put together a list and it came to 50 novels. I don't know if I will live long enough to write all of them, but the fact I have them in mind gives me joy.”
“I don't want to go back to that time. I don't want to skim through those memories again. Sometimes, we never absorb how fortunate we are, the good things we have in our lives, the positive times,” he says, and then adds: “Magizhchi dhaan (only happiness)."
Find latest and upcoming tech gadgets online on Tech2 Gadgets. Get technology news, gadgets reviews & ratings. Popular gadgets including laptop, tablet and mobile specifications, features, prices, comparison.
Perumal Murugan, in his enviable ability to liven the village scene, brings out his usual toolbox in 'Pyre'.
Copies of Tamil novel "Madhorubagan", which has come under fire from some Hinduvta and caste outfits, have been withdrawn and will be up for sale only after deletions that have been promised by its author Perumal Murugan, the publisher said.
Sanjay Kishan Kaul is no stranger to such judgments. In 2008, Kaul quashed the obscenity case against late MF Husain and backed the painter, who was forced to go into exile after his painting of Mother India as a naked woman was accused of hurting religious sentiments.