Perumal Murugan: 'Our society doesn’t have the right attitude towards reading and engaging with a book'
Today, with six novels, four collections of short stories and four anthologies of poetry in his folio, Perumal Murugan is not only a crucial voice in Tamil literature, but also a professor of the same.
Born to a family of farmers in the Kongu Nadu region in western Tamil Nadu, Perumal Murugan couldn’t have been further removed from literary pursuits
But the 53-year old author was drawn to writing from a very young age
Clearly, he was destined for a future beyond the fields
Few writers have the kind of journey that Perumal Murugan has had. Born into a family of farmers in the Kongu Nadu region in western Tamil Nadu, he couldn’t have been further removed from literary pursuits. But the 53-year old author was drawn to writing from a very young age. From an aunt in a nearby town who used to subscribe to weeklies, Murugan would access reading material that was outside his schoolbooks. And he would also listen to the radio. Growing up in a village allowed him to meet many people on a daily basis, from whom he would draw more material to write about. He even managed to send his writings to the local radio channel that aired it as part of their children’s programme. Clearly, he was destined for a future beyond the fields.
Today, with six novels, four collections of short stories and four anthologies of poetry in his folio, Murugan is not only a crucial voice in Tamil literature, but also a professor of the same. However, of all the things he must have been prepared for in his literary journey, the controversy surrounding his bestseller, One Part Woman (Madhorubhagan), proved too much for the writer in him to endure. The book tells the story of a childless peasant couple and how the wife is cajoled by fellow villagers to enter into a sexual union with a stranger to beget a child, according to a temple ritual. Set in a village close to the Namakkal region, which is Murugan’s hometown, the novel spurred outrage five years after it was published in 2010. In 2015, after being forced to withdraw his book by local right wing activists, Murugan announced his “death” as an author on a Facebook post. “Hereafter, only P Murugan, a teacher will live,” he wrote.
Despite his promise not to resurrect, the author and poet, much to the relief of his readers and followers, did so, following a verdict by the Madras High Court a year later, that upheld his right to creative freedom. It was a period of 18 months, from the time he announced he won’t be writing again till the court verdict. While Murugan, admittedly, isn’t entirely over the trauma, he has returned to the pen with renewed confidence and also a new style. “The first three months [of my exile] I didn’t write anything, not even for myself. And then, I started writing poetry, which was not meant for publication at that point,” he told Firstpost. The otherwise reticent writer has been attending literary festivals in India and abroad for two years now, and participated in the just-concluded Zee Jaipur Literature Festival 2019.
His first novel post-exile, Poonachi, Or The Story of A Black Goat, is already turning out to be a bestseller, and has been translated into eight languages. Caste and identity politics form the essence of Murugan’s work, and this novel is not being seen as an exception, although the writer has maintained that it is “just the story of a goat”. Having grown up in a farmer’s family, Murugan knows cows and goats only too well. In the current milieu, since cows are best left untouched, the author says he picked a goat to tell a story. As he began to end his writer’s exile, his words, however, came out in verses initially. “I have been writing poetry for a long time and I see myself as a poet first. It’s a very personal form of expression for me, so, when times were hard, I naturally turned to poetry for solace,” Murugan said. In the case of Poonachi though, he thought of it as a short story at first, but it kept growing from there. The writer doesn’t like to compartmentalise the poet and author in him, even though, his poetry is always in first person, and his prose isn’t. “Sometimes when I am writing poetry, the prose writer in me intervenes, and while I write prose, the poet might have something to say. So it’s a fluid process,” he says.
If there’s something positive that came out of the controversy, it is in how it put Murugan on the global literary map. Readers outside Tamil Nadu have been accessing his work through translations and mainstream publishing houses continue to be instrumental in the process. Murugan, however, doesn’t agree with terms as “regional” or “mainstream”. “One should call it Indian literature. Because if this is regional, what is mainstream?” He continues, “Publishers’ approach towards translations is healthy now as compared to how it was earlier. And it’s improving. Indian English publishers are showing a lot of interest in translated works of fiction and non-fiction.” What should a publisher’s stance be, in times of controversy, we ask. “They should always stand by the art,” Murugan says.
Unlike most of his counterparts, Murugan never worries about being lost in translation. He says, “When I have a plot in mind, only 50 percent of what I think is expressed in my actual writing, which for me is a great achievement. Now, when there is so much loss in that process, yes, there can be some loss in translation. But, it is not always loss in translation. There can also be gains in translation. Sometimes, my words can come out even better when translated. So, both possibilities are there, and that’s the reason why I don’t worry about losing anything in the process,” the writer says.
He is also an avid reader of works of translations. “I am greatly influenced by writings in Bangla, Kannada and Russian, among others.” Post the controversy, he admits to have become more cautious. “I don’t regret writing the book, but I felt sad that our society still doesn’t have the correct attitude towards reading and engaging with a book.” But having been pushed in a corner has taught him a lot and he is happy with the writer that has emerged on the other side of it. This is not a continuation of the erstwhile P Murugan. He tells us his next book will be about his mother. “I am trying to write in a new style. More than being conscious of censorship, my focus has now shifted towards how to overcome it. Censorship will be there, but I am trying to build on techniques to beat that challenge,” he signs off.
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