Loudness of an Obituary: “Writer Perumal Murugan is Dead”
The controversy over writer Perumal Murugan’s novel Madhorubagan and the suicidal death of the writer within him reminds me of the French literary critic Ronald Barthes’ essay ‘Death of the Author’. Barthes argues against the practice of incorporating the intentions and biographical context of an author in the interpretation of a text, and instead argues that writing and the creator are unrelated. Once the author has given birth to the text, the author is dead; on the contrary any child born into this world requires nurturing, without which the fate of the child is predictable. Perumal Murugan is not granted this right over his own creation Madhorubagan. The novel was published in 2010 by Kalachuvadu Publications, the story is set around a century back in Thiruchengode and revolves around the tribulations of a childless couple.
In Namakkal, the home town of the author, select pages from the novel have been photocopied and distributed to thousands of people in early December last year. Opinion was mobilised, especially amongst women that he wrote about the children of the women of the Kongu Vellala Gounder community as bastard children. Certain parts from the novel have been de-contextualised from its plot which is periodically set a hundred years back. The claims for the protests by the Hindu Munnani, RSS affiliated outfits and other casteist groups were that the novel advocates sexual permissiveness as a traditional practice in the yearly temple festival at Kailasanadhar temple of Thiruchengode.
The society we live in and our practices have not always been the same, they are constantly changing; the views our ancestors held were different from our own worldviews today. The desire to have children to continue one’s lineage in an agrarian society is inevitable, and more so within the landed communities who want to pass on property to their own blood. At a time when conception was not assisted by technology and medical science, people have followed the practice of begetting a child by the woman engaging in sexual union outside wedlock, says Pe. Murugan in his clarification to Madhorubagan upon the attacks. Art being a reflection of social reality, naturally folklores and oral histories attest to this tradition from where the writer draws inspiration for his novel.
Novel writing brings together life, fiction, and imagination. “The Tiruchengode of the novel is not the Tiruchengode of today. It has been constructed as a fictional and imagined town of ages ago. If you remove the name of Tiruchengode, the story could happen anywhere” contests Pe. Murugan in the clarification. For the writer Pe. Murugan it is the people of Kongu Nadu and the land from where he belongs that he holds close to his heart. He asserts that using his town’s name in the fictional novel only adds to its fame. He has even singlehandedly compiled a dictionary of words in dialect of the Kongu region of Tamil Nadu. But now the people of his own community have been manipulated to turn against him and have excommunicated him.
Strangely, since Madhorubagan was written four years ago and translated into English two years later as One Part Woman, no reader has raised any disagreement with the characterisation of women in the novel. But, sadly since the thought has been sown in the minds of the people of the Kongu Vellala Goundar community Pe. Murugan has been attacked. This clearly illuminates the organised efforts of the Hindutva to make inroads into Tamil Nadu and disturb communal harmony in the name of caste pride or honour. If certain groups felt that Madhorubagan was offending, they could file a petition in the court or begin a discussion in the form of writings and seminars. But, the writer was preyed upon to the diktats of a ‘kangaroo court.’
Those who have canvassed against the novel have not asked Pe. Murugan for an explanation. Nor have they been respectful to those who have tried to engage them in conversations. Even though the two major political parties of Tamil Nadu the DMK and AIADMK did not come to Pe. Murugan’s rescue; independent writers, progressive literary/writers groups, CPI, CPI(M), his publisher Kannan Sundaram of Kalachuvadu and others were in support attempting to engage in conversation with the ill-witted groups. But, undoubtedly intensifying the issue seemed to be the prime intention of these frenzied groups.
It is not only Pe. Murugan, but also several other writers in Tamil Nadu have come under attack from their communities with the instigation from Hindutva groups. Durai Guna, a Dalit writer and member of the CPI(M) has been living in Pudukottai since a year because he and his family were subjected to social boycott from Kulanthiranpattu village in Pudukottai district. Caste-Hindus detested his novella Oorar Varaintha Oviyam that illustrated the humiliation confronted by a Dalit boy for entering the caste Hindu temple and taking holy ash from the priest’s plate. Caste Hindus directed his community to excommunicate him and his family from the village. Similarly, writer Ma. Mu. Kannan who wrote the novel Kaana-inaavin Kanini was ostracised for talking about the debauchery of society and deep-seated sexual perversion in all walks of life. His hut in Kothamangalam was burnt in 2012; he has been living in Pudhukottai since then. “I have written only five per cent of what I have seen and experienced. The villagers might have feared that I will write about other things in the future,” he says in an interview to a newspaper.
For the writer Pe. Murugan it is the people of Kongu Nadu and the land from where he belongs that he holds close to his heart. He asserts that using his town’s name in the fictional novel only adds to its fame. He has even singlehandedly compiled a dictionary of words in dialect of the Kongu region of Tamil Nadu. But now the people of his own community have been manipulated to turn against him and have excommunicated him.
Generally, any book coming under attack by the state, communal or casteist forces only makes it more popular, but at the cost of constant fear of attack on the authors. A.K Ramanujan’s essay Three Hundred Ramayanas and Wendy Doniger's The Hindus: An Alternative History are perfect examples of texts that were attacked through the organised Hindutva forces in India. But, what makes Pe. Murugan outstanding is that he announced the death of the Writer Perumal Murugan.
Some consider that Pe. Murugan has succumbed to attacks on him and is not fighting back to regain his freedom to write, but the strategy he has employed is in silencing himself and making the deaf hear with his words, “The writer Perumal Murugan is dead.” We can only hope that the writer in Perumal Murugan rises to life again like a phoenix from the ashes; and that can happen if we extend our solidarity and support him.