Even as we rage against Perumal Murugan’s forced exile from literature, a generation of Tamil writers is pausing mid-thought and self-censoring its work in what is a clear victory for fundamentalists
People in Perumal Murugan’s Madhorubaagan are in search of hideouts, away from the judging eyes of the family and the village. Each time Kali visits his wife’s home in Tiruchengode, his brother-in- law Muthu whisks him away to a secret cave in the rocky wilderness where they relive the revelry of their youth as grown men weaned on arrack. For Kali, madly in love with his wife Ponna but unable to beget a child, the real sanctuary is his barn, the last place on earth he can go to forget his misfortunes. If there is such a place where Murugan can find solace today, it exists only in the hearts of his supporters, many of whom haven’t read a single work of his.
Last week, amid the harvest bliss in Tamil Nadu over pots of pongal, a simmering cauldron of caste and religious tensions finally boiled over in the writer’s backyard in Namakkal. A mob of book- burners had threatened him for his alleged sacrilege and portrayal of Goundar women in a bad light. When even an ‘unconditional’ apology and an offer to edit out the portions under scrutiny did not prove enough, 48-year-old Murugan, a teller of tangible stories from western Tamil Nadu, a father and a husband, threw up his hands in despair and announced the death of the writer in him in a wrenching Facebook post that shocked readers more than his work ever had. A sense of loss and outrage at another attack on free speech so soon after the cataclysm of Charlie Hebdo turned into solidarity for Perumal Murugan—the first such wave in the history of modern Tamil writing—and it seemed to sweep over the differences of caste and religion, right and left, genre and status. PDFs of Madhorubaagan, published by Kalachuvadu in 2010 and translated into One Part Woman by Penguin in 2013, were widely circulated online. Mass readings from his work sizzled with unbridled energy and hope. Moving epitaphs presaging Perumal Murugan’s Lazarus-like rise graced the opinion pages of English dailies that would not ordinarily concern themselves with regional writers.
Behind the scenes, however, a sigh echoed through the world of Tamil literature. It was a collective sigh of resignation from a generation of writers that is pausing mid-thought and self- censoring its work in what is a clear victory for fundamentalists. Even Murugan, celebrated for his honest sociological portraits of life in Kongu naadu—the region comprising Erode, Coimbatore, Namakkal, Tiruppur and other western districts— had tried to temper the text knowing he was stepping into a social minefield, says Kannan Sundaram, his publisher and managing director of Kalachuvadu. “When a writer begins to think this way, it disturbs me. Across the world, many writers are thinking about the consequences as they write today,” Sundaram says. The resurgence of religious and caste identities in Tamil Nadu, the land of rationalist thought, makes it harder for him to defend free speech. “Murugan and I used all our contacts to cool down tempers, but it didn’t work,” he says. “Tiruchengode will become a metaphor, like Gujarat is today.”
Va Mu Komu, another contemporary chronicler of Kongu naadu, says the day is not far when he may resort to writing innocuous love stories under a nom de plume. “These are combustive times. You can never be too careful as a writer,” Komu says. “In my novels, I don’t name a place or a caste, I just set the stories in one of the hundreds of palayams dotting Kongu naadu. And I make sure I am in the good books of locals.” Members of the dominant, land-owning Kongu Vellala Goundar community are presumed to be behind the organised attack on Murugan, who married outside his caste and dedicated much of his work to Dalits. “He has also been raising uncomfortable questions about private education and other activities in Namakkal. When his mother died a couple of years ago he did not bury or cremate her in the graveyard meant for the caste but used the electric crematorium and he wrote two articles about his mother and why he took this decision,” says CS Lakshmi, a historian and feminist researcher who writes as ‘Ambai’. Murugan, it appears, fell prey to an unholy nexus of personal and political vendettas.
Tamil author and folklorist Ki Rajana- rayanan’s tongue-in-cheek portrayal of the Telugu migrant community of Naickers drew none of the ire that Murugan’s work provoked “because there was no political agenda attached to the issue,” notes Gnani Sankaran, a Tamil writer and political commentator. Yet, for all his immediacy, Murugan may have been dismissed as one irritant among many had he not committed literary suicide, Sankaran says. “It was a clever way of mobilising more support.”
Early this week, at the Chennai Book Fair, visitors vying for the last copies of Madhorubaagan hastily scanned Murugan’s crisp prose, which clings to the land like the monitor lizards he describes, to find passages about a controversial sexual custom from another age. On the final day of the temple festival of Tiruchengode in Murugan’s novel set in the 1940s, a woman could seek sex with any consenting man in a union blessed by the gods. Madhorubaagan, however, hasn’t run into trouble because of the sex. It glides in ever-narrowing circles around a childless couple who, in their desperation, resort to this final compromise and pay a heavy price for it. Murugan shines a probing light into the recesses of a society that abhors the vacuum of childlessness and in the process, questions the dictums of caste and purity of lineage. “Explicit sex is permissible in literature today,” says Tamil poet Salma, who withstood opposition for writing about the sex lives of Muslim women in her 2004 debut novel, Irandam Jamankalin Kathai (‘The Hour Past Midnight’). “Religion and caste are the insurmountable taboos. As long as Tamil politics is associated with these identities, writers cannot be free,” she says, admitting that her recent work is tamer, “safer” in an era of increasing intolerance.
The scene of protest on the streets of Tiruchengode was a familiar one that had played out dozens of times before in the chequered literary history of Tamil Nadu. In 1966, the year Perumal Murugan was born, T Janakiraman faced flak for writing Amma Vanthal (later translated and published in English as The Sins of Appu’s Mother), a Lawrencian novel that explored relationships within an orthodox Brahmin family in the context of an extramarital affair. As the new millennium dawned and writers wore their progressive views on their sleeves, attacks on free speech continued unabated as communities seemed to resist efforts at honest sociological profiling. HG Rasool’s poems in Mailanji were slammed for being ‘anti-Islam’; Bama was reviled and exiled for Karukku, an autobiographic account about Dalit Catholic society. “In 2013, Senthil Mallar attempted rewriting the history of the Pandyas. The book was banned by the Tamil Nadu government and a case was filed against him for being ‘anti-national’ under Section 124- A. His father-in-law was arrested and it was announced that the book could create disharmony among certain castes,” Ambai points out.
The moral gentrification of dominant castes has left them feeling uncomfortable with who their ancestors were. And in their new histories, rewritten to reflect current sensibilities, there is no space for writers like Murugan, who evoke primal emotions and expose shared secrets. Murugan’s enemies worked in much the same way as Salma’s had a decade ago. Thousands of copies of ‘objectionable’ passages, culled out of context, were distributed among locals, who responded by erupting in protest and staging a bandh in Tiruchengode. Here was someone, they had been told, who was out to besmirch their family honour by suggesting that they could be bastards, born to ‘untouchables’, no less. They demanded documentary proof that such a practice ever existed and Murugan, an academic who only had stories from his field research in Tiruchengode, was forced to stand down. “When you attempt an intimate portrait of a community, it is always fraught with danger. People see their own faces in your work, even if it is fictional,” says Joe D’Cruz, who dissected the cultural history of the Roman Catholic community of Parathavars in his novels, Aazhi Soozh Ulagu (2005) and Korkai (2009). “Let me give you an example. A few weeks ago, there was a death in an elite family from a village near Nagercoil. When the old man’s body was brought to his hometown, he was refused a burial because according to members of his sect, he had not been a practising Christian. A soul had departed and people were being wholly insensitive. If I cite the incident in my next novel, even changing names and circumstances, the people involved will recognise it and attack me,” he says.
You can only write about your own community, argues eminent historian AR Venkatachalapathy. “It is a double bind. On the one hand, you want to document the lives of a people, but it is seen as a betrayal,” he says. Murugan, in the preface to his book, seems torn by this dilemma. ‘I cracked open the pride that this was the place of my childhood, that this was the place that stays soaked in my being,’ he writes.
There are writers skilled in guerrilla tactics who thrive on controversy. Murugan is not among them. His is not the slick literature of byzantine plots and invented characters. He is an important writer of his times, interested in the role of caste in people’s lives, in the geography and the birds of the region, and even the origin of cusswords and their link with sexuality. But the groundswell of support for him in the wake of his ‘death’ is entirely unprecedented, says Venkatachalapathy, clearing his throat, exhausted from talking to the media. “I have never been sought out for comment so many times in a week,” he says.
To paraphrase Dickens, we could well be living in the best of times as in the worst of times. If the economic prosperity of dominant castes— protestors allegedly spent Rs 10 lakh on the campaign against Murugan—and their access to information technology played a role in the ostracism of Murugan, social networks and the resultant media attention ensured a backlash such as the world of Tamil literature had never seen before.
By now, though, Perumal Murugan must know that the brief period of tacit mourning is over. The dead are not beyond reproach. Not even martyrs. He must feel assailed by the pert critiques that are pouring in four years too late, and the lessons—well-meaning and otherwise—in cultural camouflage that, in retrospect, could have helped him dodge an attack. “The novel itself is mediocre and amateurish, with no literary nuance. It is not up to the standards of literature,” says Charu Nivedita, a writer of popular Tamil fiction who got into a verbal scuffle with supporters of Murugan at the Chennai Book Fair. “Writers are always under threat. You should be able to stand your ground,” he says. Nivedita claims he was physically attacked at his own reading and forced to leave the fair under police protection. The publishing industry has rubbished the allegation and labelled it an attention- seeking act. “Holding a contrarian view on the matter could get him a taste of fame. He might even get quoted in The New York Times,” says a publisher.
Leading writers, meanwhile, have maintained a deafening silence over Madhorubaagan, while a few sensationalists have authored cynical blogposts calling Perumal Murugan’s retirement a ‘vanishing act’ and an elaborate parlour trick staged in time for the Book Fair. Kannan Sundaram says Madhorubaagan is a rare book that sold 500 copies at the 2011 fair—a big number for a Tamil work—much before its brush with national fame. “It was the bestseller among our books that year,” he says. “The initial response from readers was largely positive.” The average print run of a Tamil book ranges from 500 to 1,000 copies. Lobbying for translation isn’t easy, says Sundaram, who estimates that not more than a dozen Tamil books get translated into English every year.
“Time and again during this debate I recalled what AK Ramanujan told me in a conversation once on how a story—it was a folk story we were discussing—should be seen,” says Ambai. “‘We are not looking for truth, but human experiences,’ he said.” Some of these experiences would be lost to us if they weren’t preserved so well in the amber of literature. “In another 50 years, they will say ‘untouchability’ never existed,” says historian Theodore Baskaran, who is among the intellectuals from the Kongu region to have stood by Murugan. “Denial of history and culture go hand in hand with in- sensitivity to literature.”
The dust is yet to settle over Tiruchengode and Murugan’s body of work is already being exhumed for careful scrutiny. From an objective literary standpoint, Madhorubaagan isn’t his best novel, says D Ravikumar, a Dalit ideologue and publisher of Manarkeni. “The healthy support for Murugan is welcome, but the novel is just above average. It lacks the literary spontaneity of Eru Veyyil (literally, ‘The Rising Heat’), his debut novel published in 1991,” he says. Despite Murugan’s pro-Dalit stance, his literature doesn’t carry the voice of subaltern communities in Kongu naadu and characters who populate his world are often patronising toward Dalits, says Ravikumar. “The Kongu identity has been associated only with Vellala Goundars and literature written in their dialect further perpetuates this myth,” he says.
Ravikumar also raises questions about the historical veracity of the temple customs that are at the heart of the controversy. “In the novel, set in the 1930s-to-1940s, ‘untouchables’ are said to have participated in the temple festival. This is highly doubtful. At the time, Gandhi was campaigning to allow Dalits to enter temples, but this was more a symbolic affair. It wasn’t until much later that Dalits were accepted in temples,” he argues, citing a recent instance from the Kongu belt where the owner of a marriage hall, a caste Hindu, refused to rent it out to a Dalit. “I would say the novel was a good attempt, but not a success,” Ravikumar says.
Is it a time to poke holes in Murugan’s literary technique or even to debate his decision to weave a fictional account around a controversial custom, wonders Vaa Manikandan, a young Tamil writer who works as a software engineer in Bangalore. “The way I see it, Tamil writers are very much wary of taking risks now. They are wilting under pressure and they cannot be Salman Rushdies. This should be the focus of the debate,” he says. Murugan had the courage to borrow liberally from the realities of his own life. Nizhal Mutram (published in English as Current Show) evoked his childhood in the neighbourhood of Kootapalli in Tiruchengode, where he had helped his father hawk soda and snacks at the local cinema. Pookuzhi, a tribute to the tragic real-life love story of Divya and Ilavarasan, also drew from his personal experiences. “The book took me a while to get over. The violence that gets so easily discussed by the people of the village can send a chill up one’s spine. I could not sleep the night I read the novel,” says Ambai.
Last month, as fresh controversy brewed over Madhorubaagan, Murugan and his wife, professors in Namakkal who met as Left-leaning students of Tamil literature in Chennai, began receiving threatening and abusive phone calls. Murugan’s students and protégés, many of whom he had groomed as writers and publishers, wore a worried look. Among them was Mu Harikrishnan, a writer and koothu artiste from Salem who counts Eru Veyyil among his earliest inspirations. “He wanted to be left alone. He wanted to go back to teaching and agriculture. It wasn’t fear, but detachment and a broken heart that made him say this,” Harikrishnan says. “But knowing him, I can bet he will pick up his pen again. Whether he publishes his work or not, we won’t know.”