New Delhi: On Monday evening, when Tamil writer Perumal Murugan came to New Delhi to launch a collection of poems that would formalize his return to writerly life, it wasn’t the triumphant return that everyone gathered at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library had expected. What they witnessed instead was a broken man attempting to gather the pieces together, a tormented writer swinging between courage and fear.

In December 2014, post the publication of an English translation of his 2010 novel Madhorubhagan (One Part Woman), Murugan had been hounded out of the life he had known till then by caste groups who claimed to be offended by his story of a childless couple who took recourse to a temple fertility ritual involving consensual sex outside of matrimony. He had declared then that Perumal Murugan the author was dead and would not publish any more. Post the controversy, Murugan would leave his home too, after he was transferred out of a government college in Nammakal, where he’d taught Tamil literature for nearly 15 years, to Chennai.

Last month, in a judgment sympathetic to the writer, the Madras high court had declared that there was nothing obscene in his novel, even observing, "And how do you obviate any offences caused to you? Would what Salman Rushdie said, be the cure, ‘It is very easy not to be offended by a book, you simply have to close it’?"

In a statement read out in Tamil last night, translated into English thereafter by A.R. Venkatachalapathy, Murugan thanked the court for giving him the courage to make a new beginning as a writer. “If a faceless force can put a full stop to writing, can’t a line in a judicial verdict bolster writing?" The publication of his collection of over 200 poems, Oru Kozhaiyin Paadalkal (A Coward’s Song), written in the past two nightmarish years, was thus the first step.

And yet, at the same time, he admitted that it wasn’t so simple to return to being the writer he was; there is “a censor seated inside me now. He is testing every word that is born within me… I’m unable to shake him off." While he was also considering reissuing his earlier books, he said he would so this only after taking on the weary task of reviewing the books, and if required, revising them.

Also read: Perumal Murugan revives literary career with two new poems

If one were expecting anger to fuel his words, it is instead with caution that he is now proceeding. In a conversation with critic and writer Nilanjana Roy, Murugan refused to answer questions on the events that led to his literary exile of 19 months, saying “I do not want to relive the dark days". Murugan’s statement is a testimony of the conflict tormenting his mind. If he spoke of self-censorship, he was also apologetic for not being able to shake off his fears. “If this is wrong, let the Indian intellectual world forgive me. The learned judges have said that ‘I should not live under fear.’ But my old teacher, the great Thiruvalluvar has said, Folly meets fearful ills with fearless heart;/ To fear where cause of fear exists is wisdom’s part.’"

And yet, there were also moments when one saw the glimpse of a writer who would not be diverted from the recurring theme of his books: the divisive nature of caste. During the conversation, Murugan stated forcefully and unequivocally, “I don’t believe that a writer cannot write about caste … My belief is that no writer can write a single word in defence of caste."

Earlier, speaking of his dual role as a novelist and a teacher of Tamil literature, he noted with sarcasm, “The education denizens who consider Sangam literature to be literature don’t consider contemporary Tamil literature to be literature." The reason perhaps why he had never revealed to his students that he was a writer as well.

The events of the past couple of years have changed Murugan irreconcilably. He doesn’t yet know whether he will be able to write anything but poetry, which he considers a private act. Even if he does, he doesn’t know what shape that will take. For three months after December 2014, he said he couldn’t even scratch a line. It was only in February 2015, when he went to Madurai to visit his daughter and lay at his friend’s house thinking of his existence, that he began to write,in verse, again. “I chronicled the moment when I felt like a rat, dazzled by the light, burrowing itself into its hole."

Will he write prose again? This is a question that plays on his mind constantly. “Most of my writing is in the realist mode. I doubt I can continue to do that. Only time will tell me what I will write," he said, declaring that he planned to withdraw from public life once again. “It is silence that gives me strength now. I’ll write to gain further strength."

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