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Perumal Murugan and the Politics of Literary Oppression

The 48-year-old Tamil language writer from India, Perumal Murugan, could never have imagined that he would have to draw an end to his literary career with a public announcement to the effect that the writer in him had died. An acclaimed voice of marginalised communities divided along caste lines in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, Murugan wrote six novels – three of them translated into English – four collections of short stories, and four of poetry, before abruptly declaring himself dead as a writer.

His announcement came in the wake of violent protests among local groups in his home town, Namakkal in Tamil Nadu, against his 2010 novel Madhorubagan, which was published in Aniruddhan Vasudevan’s English translation as One Part Woman in 2014. On 12 January 2015, this statement appeared in English on Murugan’s Facebook page:

He writes the status as Perumal Murugan, the person, talking about him the writer. Note: Dear Friends, the information below will remain as my status message for two days. Later Perumal Murugan will be relieved from all social networking site activities. He thanks all the well-wishers for supporting him on social networking sites.

Pe. Murugan’s release for Writer Perumal Murugan

Writer Perumal Murugan is dead. He is not a God to resurrect. He doesn’t believe in re-birth also. The person who lives here after will just be an ordinary cheap editor Pe. Murugan.

I sincerely thank the press, media, readers, friends, writers, groups, political parties, party leaders and students who fought in support of Perumal Murugan and his freedom to write. This problem will not end with Madhorubhagan novel alone. Different groups and individuals will persistently create problems for his other novels too…

Hence Perumal Murugan has taken a final decision which is as follows:

1. Apart from Perumal Murugan’s compilations and publication of books, the books, novel, short-stories, essays and poems written by him will all be withdrawn by him. None of his works will be sold to the public anymore.

2. I request the publishers Kaalachuvadu, Natrinai, Adayalam, Malaigal and Kayalkavin who published Perumal Murugan’s books to stop selling them. Pe. Murugan will take care of the necessary compensation for that.

3. Those who have already purchased Perumal Murugan’s books have all the right to burn them. If anybody has incurred a loss and they approach with the grouse, they will also be compensated with the loss amount.

4. Perumal Murugan will not participate in any literary functions in future.

5. I request all caste, religious groups and political parties not to involve in any protests or create any problems since all the books are withdrawn. Please leave him. Thanks to all!

This dramatic ‘suicide note’, from a writer whose fiction has made him something of a flag-bearer for caste issues in Tamil Nadu, burst upon an India where artists and writers have been coming under increasingly intolerant and strident attacks for perceived slights in their works. Both Hindu and Muslim extremists have, over the past few years, launched threats of violence that have forced writers to back down. The administration has been unwilling to support the case for freedom of expression, citing the possibility of law and order problems.

The current National Democratic Alliance government and its predecessor, the United Progressive Alliance, as well as the governments running the specific states where the problems have arisen, have repeatedly taken this position. In 2012, for instance, Salman Rushdie was prevented from making an appearance at the Jaipur Literature Festival after Muslim fundamentalist groups threatened to storm the festival. Since then, intolerance for anything perceived as affronting Hinduism has grown sharply, especially on social media. Nor has the voice of Muslim protest changed – as recently as this month (April 2015), protestors forced the Facebook profiles of the Bengali poet Srijato and the Bangladeshi writer Tasleema Nasrin (who lives in India) to be shut down for alleged insults to Islam.

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In One Part Woman, husband Kali and wife Ponna are seen, through twelve years of marriage, engaged in an increasingly desperate quest to have a child. In a society where the new bride’s mother-in-law sniggers in disgust at her daughter-in-law’s first menstrual period after marriage – ‘not pregnant yet!’ – the pressure on both husband and wife can well be imagined. The couple is still in love and desire each other, but not even the most passionate lovemaking can ensure pregnancy.

Desperate, the families of both husband and wife suggest resorting to a local custom in a last-ditch attempt at having a child: on the last night of the chariot festival in honour of a god worshipped locally, a childless married woman is allowed to sleep anonymously with a man – usually a stranger – in the hope of conceiving. Naturally, this raises psychological and moral questions to which there are no easy answers. The husband and the wife are torn. Kali wonders whether Ponna secretly harbours a desire for a sexual dalliance, for why else would she agree? And Ponna is beset by guilt. The novel is open-ended about whether Ponna does conceive, and whether Kali will accept this or not. A suicide is hinted at. This leaves the door ajar for a sequel, of which Murugan actually wrote two. Titled Aalavayan and Ardhanari, each explores one of the two options – in the first, Kali kills himself; in the second, he does not. Neither had been translated into English before Murugan decided to withdraw his entire oeuvre.

The novel’s publication in 2010 did not elicit protests; it was only in 2014, after the release of Penguin Books’ English translation, that a storm erupted. Mobilising public support by distributing hundreds of copies of the original novel, the protestors stoked community anger to a point where it hovered on the edge of violence, leaving Murugan with no choice but to put his family’s safety first. He left the village he lived in to take a new job in Chennai, the capital of Tamil Nadu. Before this, the local administration, almost certainly sympathising with the ‘outraged’ Hindu protestors, brokered a one-way deal that saw Murugan agreeing, first, to make some alterations in his novel, and, later, to withdraw it altogether. He had very little option – the mob would continue to threaten him and his family, perhaps even making good on their threats, while the administration had already specified that law and order was a bigger issue for it than freedom of expression.

The protests came from members of the Gounder caste or community, which not only features prominently in One Part Woman but across Murugan’s oeuvre, ostensibly because the community had been shown in a bad light. The objection focused on the portrayal of Nuthu, Kali’s brother-in-law, who was the principal instigator in persuading his sister Ponna to sleep with a stranger in order to bear a child. Since this supposedly amounted to championing extra-marital sex, the protesters argued that the entire Gounder community had been smeared. What could have been a local issue quickly became a larger one, as a result of the participation of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) – a right-wing, cadre-based organisation that provides a powerful ideological underpinning of religious orthodoxy, political conservatism and ‘traditional Indian’ values, including an unshakeable belief in the supremacy of Hinduism, to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the party that controls the National Democratic Alliance and, therefore, the present government of India.

The RSS believes in a single narrative of Hinduism – defying the complexity and multiplicity of a religion that has developed over centuries and has no definitive scriptural text such as the Bible or the Quran to guide it. This narrative makes no allowances for anything other than a patriarchal, feudal and rigid sociopolitical system, one that brooks no deviance or alternative versions, offering, in return, Ramrajya – a prosperous, peaceful state in which everyone is looked after, provided he or she asks no questions.

With its political arm now running the government of India, the RSS has not been shy about voicing its intolerant opposition to any form of art in general, and to literature in particular, that questions this single narrative. Several acclaimed works of scholarship had been withdrawn under its relentless pressure, even before the BJP won the general elections in May 2014. Among these is the poet and scholar A.K. Ramanujan’s masterly essay Three Hundred Ramayanas (1991) – which examines alternative versions of the great Sanskrit epic poem. The poem’s central character, Rama, is not only considered a reborn version, an avatar, of one of the most revered of Hindu gods, but is also the figure whose supposed birthplace led to the destruction of a mosque built by the Mughal emperor Babar by violent Hindu mobs in 1992, despite there being no certainty that Rama was a historical rather than a mythical figure.

Supported by other ‘Hindu’ organisations such as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), the RSS has also been instrumental in forcing Penguin Books to withdraw Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History (2009) – the intention of the book is self-evident in the title – on grounds that it offended the sensibilities of Hindus. While the legal case, filed by an ideologue named Dinanath Batra, might not have succeeded in a court of law, the publishers chose not to engage in a long and expensive legal battle. Since then, of course, the right-wing protestors have become more aggressive.

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Murugan’s novels and short stories are a continuous commentary on the plight of castes, such as the Gounders, which his characters belong to. The central figures in these novels, such as Current Show (1993), Seasons of the Palm (2000) and Resolve (2008), as well as One Part Woman, are usually waging a battle against the currents of change in the form of urbanisation; against oppression by members of other castes considered marginally superior to theirs in the pecking order; against social expectations and demands which they are unable to fulfil. And through each of these novels is threaded the economic subjugation and resultant disenfranchisement that such communities have had to endure.

The caste system in India originated in ancient times as a means for classifying the citizenry on the basis of their professions. This quickly led to the creation of a hierarchy of castes and sub-castes, and the imposition of a tyrannical oppression by the so-called upper castes of the so-called lower ones. The maintenance of this pernicious form of social inequality led to the formation across the country of communities, such as those represented in Murugan’s novel, of the victims of serial oppression. Discrimination on the basis of caste is officially illegal in India today, and legislated affirmative action has been enacted to compensate for historical injustice and exclusion, but caste identities are alive and well, as are various forms of sociopolitical injustice.

Read in this context, Kali’s and Ponna’s desperation for a child is not just a response to social and familial pressure; it also has an economic imperative. If the small plot of land that Kali’s family owns is to be kept in the family, he must have an heir – and a male heir, at that. In the absence of an inheritor, this scarce resource, which is never easily available to a Gounder, will be divided up between other members of the extended family after Kali’s death. And that, in turn, will negate the very purpose of a man’s existence. This is why the central problem in Murugan’s novel is not just the agony of two individuals, but a sociopolitical issue that must be solved by the intervention of society as a whole.

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Murugan engineered a collision between extreme orthodoxy and an innovative bypassing of the established moral code by writing the novel when he did. Presumably set in the early years of the twentieth century, the story itself demonstrates no social or moral hand-wringing over the practice of a childless married woman sleeping with a stranger in order to conceive. Indeed, by ‘sanctioning’ this act on a specific date marking the culmination of a religious ceremony, society elevates the process to one of spiritual significance. The (presumably) retrofitted moral explanation: since it is god who chooses whether a woman shall have a child or not, it is god who manifests himself through a stranger to ensure that the woman is impregnated. This was acceptable even for the rigid, rule-bound society in which the story is set.

But what was accepted as socially-sanctioned ingenuity in the period during which the novel is set, has turned into severe indigestion for readers now, almost a century after the life of the characters depicted in the novel. Defying the flow of history, moral positions have hardened across much of India, especially when it comes to decisions about sexuality. In part, this is a backlash against the emerging sexual freedom that women in some parts of urban India are beginning to secure for themselves. It is also the expression of a deep-rooted anxiety, conditioned by generations of scriptural and societal indoctrination, about the central role of marriage in the sexual matrix of the individual. This is true even of ‘modern’ India – though that is not where the protests against Murugan’s novels emanated from – where the psychological acknowledgment of the impulse for non-monogamous relationships, or ‘sex outside of marriage’, as a recent video campaign featuring the popular Bollywood star Deepika Padukone put it, is accompanied by severe moral discomfort with such an attitude.

So if Perumal has denigrated women, as the accusers suggest, by depicting Ponna as ready and even eager for sex with another man – not even a specific man, at that –such behaviour is to be construed as a blow against the presumed values that Indian women live by. This, in 2015 – not in the early part of the twentieth century, the period in which the novel is set. When the novel was originally published in 2010, there were no protests. The responses were either literary, or heartfelt complaints from readers who identified or empathised with the plight of the couple and questioned with great anguish the choices that the author made them take. But the liberal atmosphere in India has changed a great deal in the five years that have passed since then.

The underlying conflict is evident: the kind of literature that Murugan and many others like him across India are interested in creating inevitably challenges the status quo, sometimes using history as both a precedent and an ironic comment on the reversal of liberal values in India. And this, obviously, is a problem for a right-wing world view that relies on rigid ‘traditional’ roles and identities for individuals, with power being concentrated in the hands of a few, mostly male people, instead of being shared to a degree where self-determination transplants the command-and-control structure of social and gender hierarchies.

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It is possible that the significance of the other half of the complaint against One Part Woman – that the novel heaps disrespect upon a deity – is lost even to the protesters themselves. The divine figure presiding over the festival of chariots, the climax of which is the night of sanctioned free love, is the Ardhanariswara – a figure represented literally and metaphorically as half woman and half man, and referred to in both the Tamil and English titles. There are several explanations for the existence of the Ardhanariswara in Hindu mythology, most of them centred around the idea that the original man was split into a male and a female form to procreate, thus giving birth to humanity. The male and female principles of divinity are thus part of a single unified whole. Interestingly, one of the explanations for this fused form is that the goddess Parvati was suspicious of the philandering ways of her husband, the god Shiva, whereupon Shiva ensured that she was always present with him to assure herself that he was up to no mischief. Unknown to the protesters, then, the Ardhanariswara may also symbolise the same anxiety about sexual infidelity that informs their distaste for Murugan’s novel.

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The theatre of this particular literary controversy is the state of Tamil Nadu, which, traditionally, has been a progressive region when it comes to empowering the deprived castes. The pioneering work of the politician Erode Venkata Ramasamy – popularly known as Periyar – who founded the Dravidar Kazhagam party, was directed towards eradicating caste, empowering women, and propagating rationalism and self-respect among Tamils throughout the 1920s-1940s.

Despite this history, the state has seen several instances of the persecution of writers from the under-privileged classes. In 1992, for instance, a Tamil Dalit (oppressed) woman from a Roman Catholic family, who wrote under the pen name of Bama, faced major protests for her novel Karukku. In 2000, poet H. G. Rasool was made to apologise to a Muslim group for his book Mailanji, which was supposedly ‘anti-Islam’. And in the past three years, there have been at least three other cases of violent protests against and even the banning of books exploring such territories as sexual perversion, the rewriting of history, and atrocities against the oppressed.

The literary establishment in India has thrown its weight behind Murugan. Despite initial misgivings at his decision to capitulate, leading to anguished pleas from several writers to continue the fight, the majority of writers who have spoken on the subject have declared their unequivocal support for Murugan and freedom of expression. The voices of solidarity have in fact become stronger as the attacks on freedom of expression have intensified. Murugan’s Tamil publishers Kalachavadu Publications, and the writers’ programme at Sangam House have issued a statement in support, stating:

Cultural vigilantes, claiming the right to be offended – a right that does not exist in the Constitution – have all too often bullied writers and publishers, attacking our fundamental rights and freedoms of speech and expression. They do not have the right to prevent others from reading the book and making up their own mind about its value or otherwise.

Publisher Kannan Sundaram of Kalachuvadu Publications has not backed down, despite threats, and is ready to continue publishing Murugan should the writer be willing. Nor has Penguin Books withdrawn the English translation, which was shortlisted for the Crossword Book Awards in the translated books category.

Had a demand been made for banning the book and the case taken to court, it is unlikely that the legal ruling would have asked for a ban. Freedom of expression is a constitutional right in India, and in such cases the only way a book can be banned by the courts is for the prosecution to make a clear case that the author intended to hurt the sentiments of the members of a particular community or the followers of a particular religion. Mala fide intent must be established – a very difficult task. A government can, of course, ban a book pre-emptively on the grounds of hurting a religion, as the Indian government did in the case of Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses (1988).

The case of Perumal Murugan’s One Part Woman will almost certainly be a milestone in the history of the battle in India between liberalism, which upholds freedom of speech, and violent intolerance, which uses force to suppress anything it perceives as dissent, especially if it is a work of art or literature. While Murugan’s response may suggest that this milestone will be one that signifies the defeat of liberal values, the fact is that Indians as a whole have never taken kindly to attempts by individuals, groups or governments to decide what they should write, read, watch or even eat. (For instance, there was widespread disapproval of the recent decision by the governments of the states of Maharashtra and Haryana to outlaw the possession and consumption of beef, on the grounds that it hurts the sentiments of Hindus, who revere cows.) It is unlikely that writers in India will be silenced. Or that they can be silenced.