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Perumal Murugan: ‘Death’ of A Writer

Part 1 of Reading Across India

Perumal Murugan’s richly realized fable of a childless couple, and the price he paid for telling an unconventional tale.

Perumal Murugan
I post this instalment of Reading Across India with a feeling of devastation that surpasses all what I have seen in censorship incidents in art in my lifetime. Perumal Murugan, the Tamil writer, is the newest victim of the Censor regime in India. Copies of his novel Madhorubhagan ( translated into English under the title One Part Woman) had been burned and a ban called for by some caste/religious organisations accusing him of offending religious sentiments and writing sexually permissive content. 

There was also a public call by some organisations for the writer’s arrest and he and his family had to seek police protection. There had been widespread public support for Murugan, but the protests continued against the book. Discussions were on with the perpetrators of unrest on to reach a solution. But this January, in a surprising and shocking move, an obviously emotional Perumal Murugan announced that ‘the writer Perumal Murugan is dead’.

Perumal Murugan tendered an unconditional apology for “hurting the sentiments of the people of Tiruchengode”. He also decided to withdraw all his novels, short stories, essays and poems published so far. He said he would compensate the publishers for any unsold copies.

This is what he posted on Facebook in Tamil. “Author Perumal Murugan has died. He is no god, so he is not going to resurrect himself. Nor does he believe in reincarnation. From now on, Perumal Murugan will survive merely as a teacher, as he has been.”

Murugan’s book, published in 2010, and translated brilliantly in 2013 by Aniruddhan Vasudevan deals with the theme of a childless couple and consensual free sex connected to an ancient and now non-existent temple ritual to be blessed with a child. I had read this book a while ago in translation and reviewed the book for a journal online. This is my contribution to express my anger and anxiety upon this dark moment for art and literature.

Perumal Murugan, the author of ‘One Part Woman’, is a Professor in Tamil and an academic with a proven expertise in the Kongunadu region of Tamil Nadu, India. In fact, his grant from the India Foundation of the Arts, Bangalore, was to study the folklore around the Thiruchengodu, a temple town. During his research Murugan met with several men who were called sami-pillai (a child of god), or ardha-nari (half-woman). The more curious part was that these men were all above a certain age. This called for more research and what Murugan unearthed was fascinating information about the idols and their rituals on Thiruchengodu.

The idols on Thiruchengodu mount each have their own specific boon-giving capability, and the idol of Ardhanareeswara is the form of Lord Shiva where he has given the left side of his body to his lady, Parvathi. Murugan found that, as lately as half a century ago, the Ardhanareeswara temple had an annual temple festival with a quaint ritual. On a specific day of the festival, custom allows any childless woman to couple with any man, disregarding their marital status. If a child was born out of this holy festivity, the child would be totally accepted as a gift from God by the husband and family of the woman who gave birth to the child. Women suffering from the stigma of barrenness were known to use this ritual as a road to motherhood.

It’s this premise that Murugan has explored in his narrative about Kali and Ponna, a couple who remain childless even after twelve years of marriage. They are from the farming community of Gounders, a commune where childlessness is not easy to survive, even with the huge energy of love and sexual attraction bouncing between the couple. They do the regular rounds of prayers and penances to no avail. Now the family on both sides conspire to send Ponna to be blessed with a sami-pillai. The story is placed in the immediate post-independence period.

What stands out about Murugan’s writing is his voice. It’s distinct, and with that rich bouquet that only stories native to India can offer. Everything about this book is rich; the locale, the conversations, the protagonists, the plot; there is no one moment that I would call bland. One eagerly drinks in every single word that appears on the page, and then wishes for more. The only fact that reminds you that this is a translation of a Tamil novel that appeared three years ago is the story. It’s rare that such stories are adapted to narration in IWE.

The layers of the novel are underlined with the texture of the various relationships. The characters are quite of the earth, and the excellent translation by Aniruddhan Vasudevan retains the essence of Tamil quite exactly, especially the dialogues. The role of inevitable destiny as a web that captures them all to a state of no escape raises the reader’s anguish. The plot is simple, yet, complex at the same time but does not daunt the reader.

Does Kali consent to Ponna’s final desperate endeavour for a child? Is Ponna herself willing to go through this ordeal to claim motherhood? Can society or even family dictate such decisions? Tragedy is inevitable in such situations, but it’s not for the reviewer to pass on the spoilers.

Fully recommended.

About the Author

Perumal Murugan is a well-known contemporary Tamil writer and poet. He was written six novels, four collections of short stories and four anthologies of poetry. Two of his novels have been translated into English to wide acclaim: Seasons of the Palm, which was shortlisted for the prestigious Kiriyama Award in 2005 and Current Show. He has received awards from the Tamil Nadu government as well as from Katha Books.

One Part Woman

Perumal Murugan ( translated by Aniruddhan Vasudevan)
Hamish Hamilton, Penguin Books India
Rs. 399 (Hard back)

This link will give you the sequence of the incidents that happened in the wake of the protests against the book. 

Here is a detailed interview with the writer which brings out the hows and whys of his writing and will tell you what loss the ‘death’ of the writer Perumal Murugan will bring to Tamil Literature. 

This article is published with permission from Suneetha Balakrishnan as a part of her project Reading Across India. It was originally published in her blog here. Suneetha is a writer and a translator whose works have been published in several Indian newspapers and magazines including The Hindu Metro Plus, The Hindu Literary Review, The Business Standard, The Economic Times, Caravan, Muse India and You can read more of Suneetha’s writings here.

1 Comment on Perumal Murugan: ‘Death’ of A Writer

  1. I read novels rarely. I decided to read this only because of the controversy. Thanks to Hindutuva outfit who made this book popular. Reading the translated version is a curse for anyone who can read Tamil. Translator did a good job as I can feel the Tamil expression while reading in English.
    It is fascinating to read this story of childless couple in pre-indepedence cultural backdrop. It is a very good read.

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