FOR A POET WHO is acutely aware of the space around him, the city is a bourgeois contrivance incapable of fostering any sort of capacious sentiment. “I need space. I like being outdoors,” says Perumal Murugan, 51, looking around with amusement at his compact hotel room in Chennai. “This is where I have been meeting the media. I stay with a friend when I visit Chennai,” he says. For the first 25 years of his life, Murugan rarely slept indoors. “The house was a place to keep our things. We slept out in the cattle shed or in the goat pen, or on the terrace on a cot. In my student days in Chennai, I never could stay cooped up in a hostel room. I rented a house in Alandur near Pazhavanthangal, which wasn’t as populated as it is today,” he says.
Space is freedom. And that sacred freedom comes with a sense of being home. Murugan’s love of village and small-town life is a key adjunct to his sensibilities as a writer dealing with caste and class striations, but his work, as he himself has only recently discovered in his newfound life of literary celebrity, has universal appeal. A collection of his short stories, newly translated into English, will be out this month, The Goat Thief (translated by N Kalyanra- man; Juggernaut; 240 pages; Rs 399).
While Juggernaut, one of his publishers, clubs his stories under The Small Town India Collection, it is important to not dismiss him as a voice of Kongunadu, Tamil Nadu’s western belt. Interested in chronicling the immemorial customs and tradition of his people—he has compiled a ‘dictionary’ of Kongu words that other writers from the region now find useful—Murugan is not, however, a mere ethnographer. Murugan consistently punctures the surface to explore what lurks beneath the smile of the girl who ran away with a boy from another caste, the youthful figure of a woman over 40 who waited too long for a husband bearing a resemblance to the actor Aravind Swamy, the twinned lives of landowners and underprivileged boys who work for them. With his authentic characters and his sparse style—a professor of Tamil literature, he abhors trenchant sentences, although urban readers and non-Tamils will find the dialect in his works daunting—Murugan belongs to that threatened species of modern writers who examine microscopically the intimate realm of human relationships and how they are moulded by society.
His own relationship with the world has frayed since the attack on him in December 2014, when a Hindu mob took offence to eyebrow-raising social mores once prevalent in the temple town of Tiruchengode and described in Mathorubagan , his 2010 novel, translated as One Part Woman by performer and writer Aniruddhan Vasudevan and published in English in 2013. The novel alludes to a custom that may have allowed childless women, who were desperate to conceive, to have extramarital sex under the pretext of going to the temple fair. Writer and historian Theodore Baskaran, who hails from Kongunadu, noted in a review of the book the existence of such a practice until some decades ago, but to the Gounder community, Murugan’s was an act of treason that cast aspersions not only on their morality but also on the purity of their gene pool. The novelist’s apology under duress, and his literary ‘death’ post the outrage remain singed in our memory, even if his two sequels to Mathorubagan, Aalavayan and Ardhanaari, exploring alternative endings to the lives of the couple at the centre of the controversial work, didn’t get enough attention. Cowed by the thuggery on display, and stunned that his own words could detonate in his face, Murugan retreated to Madurai, where his daughter was then studying—she is a homoeopath now—and for three months, did not read even a newspaper. The time spent alone and with family helped and he slowly began to recover his lost voice. Agonised poems poured forth, full of anger at the vindictive vortex he had been sucked into, and the existential urgency of a writer ‘wandering in a wordless dawn’. Like the sun meeting a tamarind tree in a Perumal Murugan landscape, he was floating towards life, one poem at a time. “I am known as a novelist, but poetry is what helped me when I needed to reclaim myself from the abyss,” he says. Two hundred and ten poems, among them dedications to Rohith Vemula and slain rationalist MM Kalburgi, penned between February 2015 and July 2016—when the Madras High Court, in a restoring judgment, upheld his right to write and publish—were published in Tamil, as also in English last year as Songs of a Coward: Poems of Exile, offering a chilling glimpse into the mind of the desolate writer:
Every day now
I eat a whole neem tree
Of turning my whole body bitter
These are times
When the very air is venomous.
Is this the same man who sits, at the edge of a chair in this nondescript hotel room, politely answering my questions on Kongu lexicon and life in Namakkal, where he taught until the incident in 2014, and Attur, where he now lives and works? This may as well be a scene from one of his stories—his most recent one, in fact, titled Maalaineratheneer (‘Evening Tea’) and published in Kalachuvadu, a Tamil magazine, in January 2015— where a young man, yet to find employment, is ill at ease perched on a chair while his friend and classmate, buoyant at landing a job, is seated on a rickety bench in their teacher’s living room. About an elderly professor who lives alone and his relationship with objects and with his students, the short story is a subtle commentary on class. The two students trade places at the first opportunity and equilibrium is restored. Murugan, too, is a man who now finds himself uneasy with his place in the world. While he makes public appearances—he spoke eloquently about tackling caste as a writer at the Bangalore Literature Festival last weekend—and interacts with the media upon the request of friends and publishers who stood by him in his darkest hour, he has yet to recover fully from the shock of being choked. He has not the courage to return to Tiruchengode, where his brother’s family still lives. Last year, a wedding in the family had to be conducted on the outskirts of the town so he could attend it. Understandably, Murugan is also more cautious of what he says and writes. In the foreword to the collection of stories in Tamil published by Kalachuvadu Publications last year (Perumal Murugan Sirukathaigal), he includes a caustic disclaimer about everything in these stories being entirely fictional. “You noticed?” he says, with a grin. “That is reassuring.”
I am known as a novelist, but poetry is what helped me when I needed to reclaim myself from the abyss
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When we get talking about his past work, he holds his tongue on matters he once freely wrote of, including foeticide, infanticide and the long-prevalent two-child norm among Gounders (in Kanganam, his 2008 novel). “There are a lot of ideas in my mind—my wife, who is the first to read all my works, says it is a perennial spring. I have always wanted to write about our ancestors, about life in Kongunadu over 200 years ago. Many of my novels and stories are steps in that direction. I am yet to write that one long novel about our past. But I hesitate now,” he says. “I doubt I will write about the relationship between castes, for instance. I cannot muster the strength.”
I ask if he will situate his future fiction in a more modern landscape, away from the scorched earth of his home. After all, rurban India has changed more than ever in the past few decades, with migration, technology and urbanisation helping to breach some of the older boundaries and creating new ones. In his own hometown of Tiruchengode, many Gounder families have made a fortune from the borewell business and from trucking. Murugan was the first boy from his family to attend college—his parents had hoped he would fail Class 9 or 10, but he was a rank holder who spent his summers at an aunt’s feasting on old Tamil magazines and popular fiction. But now, education has begun to blur caste boundaries, he says, even if people are the same at heart. Murugan does address some of these changes in his newer novels, Pookkuzhi, translated as Pyre by Vasudevan, which is a love story inspired by the tragic intercaste marriage of Ilavarasan and Divya, and Aalanda Patchi (‘The Misanthropic Bird’), which delves into themes of land, migration and exile. He admits there is scope for a finer reading of change in small-town India. “In a sense, I was caught in a time and a place. Now there is a chance to free myself from the genre that I am known for.”
Murugan has also written of the pressure on him to keep creating fiction:
Write, they request…
No one seems to notice
The rotten fingers I am showing them
The demand to write
Grabs at my throat
With the same force
As the demand not to
While poetry is spontaneous, “seeping in all directions like an unstoppable spring”, novels require composure and careful planning, and he is not sure he is ready for that. “For the first time, my family is complaining, even as they are overjoyed at my busy-ness, that I don’t spend enough time with them, what with all the travel and the excitement around my work,” Murugan says. He wants to sail out to the open sea of ideas but nostalgia keeps him grounded. Several of his works feature children and youth navigating rocky landscapes in search of ephemeral happiness, their bittersweet lives blighted by inequity. “I continue to draw inspiration from the first 30 years of my life, including the early years when I spent hours every day at my father’s soda stall at the local theatre and observed people. The village life is still fresh in my mind. Even now, I live in a small town—a big village, really—where the government college I teach at is built on pasture land. The students hail from less privileged families,” he says. There are more takers for Tamil literature than when he was a student, he notes, happily. “My teachers and even the principal of my college tried their best to make me pursue Mathematics, but I was mad about Tamil poetry,” he says. He spent eight years in Chennai getting an MPhil in Tamil, and gaining exposure to world literature and to Marxist thought. He wrote his first novel at the age of 25, Eru Veyyil (‘Rising Heat’, 1991), a searing story of loss in the wake of urbanisation that was nearly turned into a feature film by Balu Mahendra. “I am very fond of films. I must have watched 4,000 films in all,” he says.
I am yet to write that one long novel about our past. But I hesitate now. I doubt I will write about the relationship between castes, for instance. I cannot muster the strength
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In his period of silence, he wrote 40 odd viruttams—a type of verse that is often set to music in the Carnatic tradition— so as not to lose touch with classical forms of poetry, which he continues to teach. When Carnatic singer TM Krishna came across one such composition, he was inspired by Murugan’s word and requested that he compose kirtanas -—structured compositions with a pallavi, anupallavi and charanam—which he and his collaborators could then set to raga and tala. The kirtana, traditionally, is a devotional paean to God, and Krishna, who has been trying to free Carnatic music of the burden of caste and religion, was glad to sing of nature and the elements in Perumal Murugan’s Kongunadu dialect. Last year, Krishna sang a two-hour concert in Namakkal with Murugan’s compositions alone. He has since assimilated the songs into his Carnatic concerts where they have evoked every emotion from disgust to awe and confusion. “His lyrics lend themselves to music with utter naturalness; they are inherently musical. Perumal Murugan and I have been working on kirtanas over the last year. He has written compositions on subjects that have never been handled by classical music—such as the palm tree, and un-irrigated land. He has written beautiful compositions on the five elements. These are very different from the compositions that we render now on this subject. He treats the elements as living, real, active participants in life and does not eulogise them in an esoteric sense,” says Krishna. “His entry into the Carnatic sphere as a writer will enrich and expand the music’s lingua-musical ecology.”
Murugan is determined to sweep away the debris and build on his torqued relationship with his oeuvre. Mirroring his state of mind today, as he walks away in his sandals towards a silvered sky, cutting across the clutter of Anna Salai, is a rare hopeful verse from June 2015:
I will clear away the darkness
Of the moment of my death
Turn it into a star
And fix it on the sky
That will speak
Forever and ever.