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India: It would be tragic if novelist Perumal Murugan is silenced in his prime

Friday 13 March 2015, by siawi3


January 12, 2015
Updated: January 12, 2015 00:06 IST

In defence of the chronicler of Kongu

A. R. Venkatachalapathy

Photo: A PROFOUND ENGAGEMENT: “Perumal Murugan is a scholar with a rich sense of history.†A file photo of the novelist.

It would be tragic if Perumal Murugan is silenced in his prime

In 1983, a 17-year-old student of Chikkaiah Naicker College, Erode, inspired by a dictionary of the Karisal (black cotton soil) region of southern Tamil Nadu, resolved to prepare a similar lexicon for the Kongu region. He collected dialect words from friends and relatives, and from oral traditions. The historical Kongu region, covering the districts of Coimbatore, Erode, Tiruppur, Salem and Karur, with its hostile agricultural environment and hardy peasants, would hold an undying fascination for this young man.

The Kongu region’s achievements in modern literature are about as low as its water table. But for R. Shanmugasundaram, the author of the classic novel, “Nagammal†(1942), few had fathomed the rich life in the Kongu region. From 1991, a stream of novels and short stories would flow from his pen. Almost single-handedly he would put the Kongu region on to the literary map of Tamil Nadu.

Modern Tamil fiction had for long been obsessed with village life in Thanjavur and Tirunelveli, and urban middle class life in Chennai. In the fiction of this young man, the hardy peasants of the Kongu region came into their own. Who can forget the Marimutthu of “Kanganam†or Muthu of “Alandapatchi†? Literarily rich ethnographic portraits of non-sedentary and lower caste life would animate his work.

A scholar with a rich sense of history, he unearthed writings on the region by earlier authors and published two volumes of their writings. The early attempt at lexicography would come to fruition 17 years later, in 2000. He would retrieve and republish a long-lost book on the history of the Kongu region (by T.A. Muthusamy Konar). In sum, his over 35 books provide a veritable cultural map of the Kongu region.

Threats and protests

It is this great literary chronicler who is now virtually banished from his beloved Kongu region. On the night of January 8, on the pointed advice of the police, Perumal Murugan fled his hometown with his family. A day later, Tiruchengode town observed a total shutdown protesting his novel, “Mathorubhagan.†This came after weeks of abusive and threatening phone calls. Earlier, on December 26, an illegal assembly of people burnt copies of his book, demanded a ban on the book and the arrest of its author and its publisher.

“Mathorubhagan†was published four years ago. The novel marks the second phase of Mr. Murugan’s fictional explorations. It poignantly tells the story of a childless peasant couple set in a time about a century ago. Ponna and Kali rejoice in their conjugal love but their pain of being childless is accentuated by the taunts of neighbours and insults on religious functions. Tiruchengode, the abode of Siva in the form of half-woman half-man, is the sacred temple to which childless couple flock to this day hoping to extend their lineage. Over 125 years ago, Chinnathayammal and Venkata Naicker of Erode circumambulated the “varadi kal†at Tiruchengode resulting in the birth of the great rationalist, Periyar.

After exhausting all means, childless couples seek what is, from a modern perspective, an exotic, even ‘immoral,’ solution. Every year, at the Vaikasi Visakam car festival, childless women indulge in consensual sex in a carnivalesque atmosphere. The lucky are able to conceive. Children born of this socially sanctioned ritual are referred to as sami kodutha pillai (god-given children). Any anthropologist would attest to similar practices existing in many pre-modern societies with no access to assisted conceptions. Classical Hindu traditions refer to this practice as niyoga or niyoga dharma — an indication of its religious sanction. It is this section of the novel that has provoked the ire of Hindu fundamentalists and caste purists. Portrayed as a slur on Hindu women, Mr. Murugan is being pilloried for denigrating the whole town. The Sangh Parivar, seeking a toehold in Tamil Nadu, sensed an opportunity. A local Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh functionary was in the forefront of the assembly that burnt the book. After the state leadership disowned responsibility, Hindu outfits are now working from behind the scenes. Over the last few weeks, thousands of the supposedly offending pages, ripped out of context, have been reprinted and distributed to devotees. One would have thought revering books rather than burning them was Hindu tradition.

Provocative posters have been plastered all over the town. Reports indicate that violent views have been expressed in unauthorised meetings. In a desperate bid to avert disturbance to everyday life, Mr. Murugan issued a pained clarification, even offering to delete all references to the town in subsequent editions. But to no avail. A complete bandh was enforced.

For four years nobody was offended. In fact, discerning readers identified themselves with Ponna and Kali. The novel has a fuzzy end and readers badgered Mr. Murugan with questions on Kali’s fate. He responded creatively — with one, no, two sequels following different trajectories — “Alavayan†and “Ardhanari.â€

Evidently the advocates of burning books do not understand literature. And in a worrying scenario they have been joined by other sinister interests. Mr. Murugan is not only a novelist; he has been teaching in government colleges for two decades now. Over the years he has written scathing essays on the business of education. Namakkal specialises in two forms of poultry farming: hatcheries produce chicken and eggs while schools churn out high-scoring students. Mr. Murugan has pulled no punches in exposing the many unethical, even illegal, practices of such factory-schools. He has written in support of U. Sahayam, the crusading bureaucrat, who brought many environmental culprits to book during his term as Salem collector. The whole gamut of local vested interests has joined hands and, at least temporarily, succeeded in making him a fugitive.

Expressing solidarity

But all is not bleak. In a notoriously fractious Tamil literary, culture writers and intellectuals have joined hands in solidarity. In a context where publishers are buckling under pressure, Mr. Murugan’s publisher, Kannan Sundaram, is unconditionally backing the author and is ready to battle it out in the courts.

Perumal Murugan is at the height of his creative powers; his name was tipped for this year’s Sahitya Akademi award; “One Part Woman,†the English translation of “Mathorubhagan,†was published to rave reviews last year. Ironically, this author who shuns the limelight is now in public glare. It would be tragic if this chronicler of Kongu is silenced in his prime.

(A.R. Venkatachalapathy is a historian and Tamil writer.