expression must, by definition, be limitless and not be subject to the
sentiments and beliefs of people. If taken any other way, this unique freedom
is bound to die a painfully slow death at the hands of right wingers and other
The ‘death’ of Perumal Murugan
The author spoke of his contentious work,
Mathorubagan, a week before he declared his "demise" after the
religious Right burned copies of the book in Namakkal.
Perumal Murugan's Facebook post on January 13,
2015, was an obituary of his own composition. In it, the 48-year-old
contemporary Tamil author announced his decision to quit writing entirely
following widespread protests in his hometown Namakkal in Tamil Nadu. The
outcry was sparked off in response to his novel Mathorubagan, published in
Tamil in 2010, a recent English translation of which was printed by Penguin as
One Part Woman.
"Author Perumal Murugan is dead. Only the
teacher Perumal would be alive. People could have issues with my other books,
that's why I've decided to withdraw them all... I shall pay due compensation to
publishers. Don't indulge in protests and let me go," his post
Murugan has a doctorate in Tamil literature and
is Professor of Tamil at the Government Arts College, Namakkal, where he has
taught for the past 17 years. His literary output includes six novels (three of
which have been translated into English), four collections each of short
stories and poetry and a lexicon based on the oral tradition of the Kongu
region of North Western Tamil Nadu (which includes the districts of Coimbatore,
Erode, Tiruppur, Salem and Karur).
Tamil writer and historian Dr A R
Venkatachalapathy of the Madras Institute of Development Studies (MIDS),
describes Murugan as a "scholar with a deep sense of history, whose
literary rich ethnographic portraits of non-sedentary and lower caste lives
animate his work."
Indeed, when I met him at his home in Namakkal
last week, before he posted that lament on Facebook, and shut out the world,
refusing to meet visitors, Murugan told me that Marxism was an
"inspiration" that made him write about "my land and people with
a sense of history and deep empathy."
Mathorubagan, translated into English by the
writer, performer and activist Aniruddhan Vasudevan, is a story of the impact
of childlessness on Ponna and Kali, landless agricultural labourers. Narrated
with rare sensitivity and insight, the book raises several issues about gender,
patriarchy and masculinity - all of which converge in a worldview mandated by
narrow social conventions, that describe a childless marriage as
Mathorubagan is set in the temple town of
Tiruchengode, where the presiding deity is Ardhanareeswara (Mathorubagan in
Tamil), the iconic half-man half-woman representation of Shiva and Parvati. The
narrative, lyrical and terse in turns, follows Ponna and Kali's lived
experience of the pain of childlessness.
Taunted by family and friends about their
inability to have a child, despite being married for 12 years, the couple's
otherwise happy life disintegrates. Potions, penance and prayers do not work
their magic. Cornered, the couple becomes defiant, questioning these norms. (A
strong counterpoint in the novel is Uncle Nallupayyan, who chooses to lead a
single life and even questions the institution of marriage. He provides
emotional support to Ponna and Kali, who begin to wonder if they too can live
life on their terms.)
The family arrives at a "radical"
solution. Much against her wishes, compelled by societal and familial
pressures, Ponna agrees to participate in an ancient rite at the annual Vaikasi
temple festival in the Kailasanathar Temple in Tiruchengode. The practice
allows a childless woman the latitude to have ritual, consensual sex with a
stranger in order to become pregnant.
Murugan grew up in Tiruchengode. As a young
boy, during summer holidays, he sold soda water and cool drinks in the
Kailasanathar Temple so he could fund his next year of schooling. "Even as
a boy, I had heard of this practice of ritual consensual sex during the temple
festival. In the absence of medical alternatives, this was also availed by
couples who did not have children," recalls Murugan, who adds that the
practice fell out of vogue in the early 1960s. "The children born of such
a union were regarded as 'sami pillai' (children of God) or 'ardhanari'
(halfwoman). In fact, I've known several people over 50 years who are thus
named. There was no taboo attached to the practice, which was socially
The author explains that oral records and
anecdotes testify to the existence of such practices. "When I began to
write the novel, British anthropologist Edgar Thurston's masterpiece Castes and
Tribes of Southern India was a valuable reference, where he records instances
of such practices in several parts of South India, including
Tiruchengode," explains Murugan.
Great literature enables one to transcend
specifics and thereby acquires a universality that reflects essential human experiences.
That is what Ponna and Kali's story does. Although it is set a century in the
past, it invokes the sort of anxieties and stigmas associated with
childlessness in contemporary society. The subtext of Mathorubagan is not a
commentary on prevalent social practices. Rather it is an indictment of society
and the narrow conventions that destroy people by denying them choices to live
outside socially mandated roles.
For over a month, Murugan has been hectored by
caste-based and religious organisations that branded the book as
"blasphemous" and which claimed it denigrated the women of the
Vellalar Gounder community (to which Murugan belongs) and the temple town of
On December 26, a mob led by the local
Rashtriya Swyamsevak Sangh (RSS) president, Mahalingam, set fire to copies of
the book on the streets of the town. A bandh was called in Tiruchengode last
Friday and the writer was threatened with frightful consequences if he did not
withdraw "objectionable" portions of the book.
The instigators were not mollified by Murugan's
reconciliatory gesture - he offered to delete references to the town in
subsequent editions. Forced to flee Namakkal, he, however, signed an agreement
at a so-called "peace meeting" on January 12 at Namakkal, "promising
to issue an unconditional apology, delete controversial portions in the book,
withdraw unsold copies in the market and also not write on controversial
subjects which could hurt sentiments of people."
Since I met him in Namakkal and following the
mutilation of his work, the author has retreated into silence, cloaking himself
from the outside world. Those that speak for him - writers, friends and
acolytes who seek to further the canon - despair at the "passing" of
a voice that is vital to Tamil literature and the chronicling of mores.
Kannan Sundaram of Kalachuvdu Publications,
which has published Mathorubagan, is among their number. "Religious
fundamentalism and caste affiliation is a death knell for creativity," he
says. "Our experience as well as that of other publishing houses is that
negotiating with fringe elements is counter productive. Perumal Murugan is an
artist who is at the peak of his creativity. He needs to be protected and
supported by people and the state, especially since he's a responsible
The puritanical tenets that were summoned by
Mahalingam and his gang to protest what they deemed prurient and degenerate are
what hastened Murugan's death. They are the same impulses Sundaram denounces;
they elicit the Whitmanesque warning that the dirtiest book of all is the