The return of Perumal Murugan
Perumal Murugan is no longer a writer in exile but the last two years have had a lasting impact on him. With four books ready, he is fighting back with words
It’s a little past 5am, and the darkness in the streets of Namakkal, a town in Tamil Nadu, is broken by the light streaming out of tea shops, the only shutters open at that hour. A few early risers, middle-aged men, stride down the road with purpose, their white veshtis folded firmly up to their knees, feet in sports shoes. We stop to seek directions from a man sitting on the steps of a storefront, his hair tousled and face still warm with drowsiness. He looks confused when we spell out the address. We’re about to move ahead when someone in the car has an idea: “Perumal Murugan’s house?” His face brightens, and we get precise directions, reaching the Tamil writer’s home within minutes.
Murugan would have cringed.
We pick him up and head to Vattur village, about 20km away, where his niece, who practises naturopathy, lives with her family—her six-year-old son, husband, his parents and grandmother. They are small-scale agriculturalists and cattle herders, and the farmland is much like the rural landscape Murugan grew up in—Kootapalli, which falls within the Tiruchengode city municipal limits in Namakkal district, and has now been overtaken by housing projects—and which is described so lovingly in much of his writing. Solitary palm trees rise up against the skyline, but the small fields in this arid region grow corn and groundnuts, which feed the cattle and require little water.
As we turn into a side road, alongside fields where the red earth has been freshly ploughed, we stop to take photographs of the writer, attracting the attention of a few men at a tea shop. Murugan, his eyes betraying his discomfort, urges us to move on: “People know me here.” A couple of kilometres down the road, where it is quieter, a similar scene plays out: We are alert to the car that comes to a halt next to us, and slight tension builds in the air. This dissipates as soon as we reach his niece’s farm; he is with people he trusts.
It’s been over a year since the Madras high court, in July 2016, ruled against petitions seeking that the author’s novel Madhorubhagan (One Part Woman) be withdrawn from circulation. “The author Perumal Murugan should not be under fear….
“Let the author be resurrected to what he is best at. Write,” the judgement read, upholding Murugan’s right to freedom of expression. The judiciary’s stand was emboldening for Murugan, who had been forced by the local administration to tender an unconditional apology for his writing. Clearly, however, the wounds still fester.
In 2015, the deep anguish that followed weeks of threats and violent protests by caste groups against his novel had led Murugan to declare his death as a writer. His wife, P. Ezhilarasi, and he, both professors of Tamil literature at Namakkal’s Government Arts College at the time, had to abandon their home of 17 years and were transferred to colleges in Chennai. As they saw it, they had been exiled. “I felt like a refugee. I had built my life here. We have our home here. Our children studied here. In Chennai, we felt trapped in the confinement of our apartment,” he says.
They still return to Namakkal, but only on weekends. The week is spent at Attur, about 100km away, where Murugan is principal (in-charge) and head of the Tamil department at Arignar Anna Government Arts College, having sought a transfer after the high court ruling. It’s at least close to Kongu Nadu, a region—comprising Coimbatore, Erode, Salem, Namakkal, and some other western Tamil Nadu districts, besides sections of adjoining Kerala and Karnataka—that has a cultural unity, a particular landscape, and uses a dialect of Tamil that Murugan writes in. In Chennai, there was an incredible loneliness. “I wasn’t lonely physically. I met 300 students every day. It was my mind that had shut down. I couldn’t read a book, write, attend literary meetings, and meet writers or readers.” He felt, he says, “like a dead man walking”. In poems that he started filling a diary with, he turns to the metaphors of nature, with which he has had a deep connection since his childhood, to describe his condition: “like a rat”; a snail in its “little calcium box”; the sea that “has fallen silent”. Defined immeasurably by “the day you were killed/in front of your eyes”, he wrote in the poem Strange Beast on 22 February 2015: “Someone has painted over my head/a pair of horns everyone can see/Someone has turned me/into a strange beast.”
Unlike his fiction, which has consistently been a third-person narrative, with the author recreating a world and a people he has lived amongst, Murugan’s poetry is personal, an emotional outburst, of the moment (“if I skip that moment, I can’t write it again”). These poems from his diary now form part of the collection Songs Of A Coward, whose Tamil edition, published by Kalachuvadu Publications, is valuable to him since the cover features an image of the signature he had taught his father to use for his report cards. In the absence of a photograph, it serves as his only memory of a father who died when Murugan was in his early 20s. He didn’t even know what the letters in the signature signified, says Murugan, who was the first in his family to complete school. He went on to do a doctorate on the works of R. Shanmugasundaram (1917-77), another Kongu writer.
“Over the past 50 years, communities around Tamil Nadu, hitherto marginalized in our modern literary culture, started telling their stories for the first time. Writers like Murugan tell the human story of individuals situated within specific communities, cultures and landscapes, pursuing their destinies, day by arduous day. At this historical moment, these works serve, in Susan Sontag’s words, ‘to extend our sympathies; to educate the heart and mind; to create inwardness; to secure and deepen the awareness (with all its consequences) that other people, people different from us, really do exist’,” says N. Kalyan Raman, who has translated a collection of short stories by Murugan, The Goat Thief, that has been published this week by Juggernaut Books. Raman is also currently translating Murugan’s new work of fiction, Poonachi Alladhu Oru Vellattin Kathai, or The Life Of A Goat, which will be published by Amazon Westland in January.
Shanmugasundaram, says Murugan, was hailed as the pioneer of sub-regional writing in India by the literary critic Ka. Na. Subramanyam. “I follow in his footsteps. I now write what he has left unwritten,” he says. “He left out writing about the caste system in his times.”
But there are questions—in his mind, and certainly in the minds of his readers—about what the harrowing two years have done to him, and the writer in him. It is nearly impossible to read him now without trying to decipher this.
The groups protesting against Madhorubhagan had purportedly taken offence to a section that refers to an ancient custom from Tiruchengode that allowed childless women sexual relations with strangers on a particular day of a temple festival celebrating the return of a god who assumes both the male and female personas. Here, in this novel, amid the barren rocks that have the sun bearing down on them, as harsh as the sharp-tongued women whose cutting comments carry in the air across open fields, Murugan’s story builds on the love and desire a young couple, Ponna and Kali, feel for each other 13 years into their marriage. Like Kali’s beloved portia tree that spreads its branches and shades the ground beneath, their love does not sway despite the social ostracization and heartless taunts they face for being childless.
Caste is a fact of life in Murugan’s novels, not always the theme of the story, but exposed in the minutiae of the social contract. It makes its way in through momentary encounters, such as the slippers Dalits do not ever expect to wear, the gnawing hunger that never subsides, and more directly and dangerously, the consequences of marrying outside one’s caste. “We cannot write leaving out the caste system. It’s there in whatever we see. It’s the reality. I don’t have to consciously go in search of the experience,” says Murugan, who married outside his caste and had to face the scorn of his community.
“It is not him alone that the resentment is trained at,” says V. Geetha, editorial director of Tara Books, who translated two of Murugan’s novels in 2004—Seasons Of The Palm, about a bonded child worker on a farm, and Current Show, about a bunch of boys who work in a cinema hall, much like the ones he encountered at his father’s soda shop at a theatre in Tiruchengode. “It is the resentment of elements from his caste who are resentful of Dalits, of women’s mobility, and of dissenting voices in general.” The Gounder community, to which Murugan’s family belongs, is influential in the state’s deeply caste-divided political sphere (chief minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami, too, for instance, represents the Gounder caste).
A left activist in college who now sees himself as a Periyarist, Murugan’s battle against caste has been a moral, personal one. The decisions can be tough sometimes, especially since they are confrontational, and particularly when you’re making them on behalf of someone else. One of the most difficult would have been when his mother died in 2012, and he decided against utilizing the cremation grounds maintained by three different temples, reserved for “keeping” those from the Gounder community and where he had been paying the temple tax for years. He turned to the neutral electric crematorium instead.
Realistic to the core, Murugan allows the matter-of-fact detailing of his characters’ lives to speak for itself. “As a naturalist writer, Murugan writes about life as it is lived. If caste is present in the lives of individuals and communities that he describes in his works, then there is no way he can avoid it. His narrative stance, however, is unwaveringly secular left. He uncovers the horrors of caste for his readers in an authentic and nuanced manner, without any grandstanding; like an artist, in fact, and not like an upstart urban radical,” says Raman. Geetha mentions that there has been criticism, not unfair, of his portrayal of Dalits—that they are not as Dalits would portray themselves. There is a similar dominance of the male gaze in his narratives, even if he is entirely empathetic to his women characters.
There are moments when one can sense a note of mischief, the author laughing at his readers’ discomfort. The Goat Thief includes two tales from his collection Pee Kadaigal (Shit Tales)—one of which has a sweeper jumping into a septic tank to fix a leak. The title had shocked his Tamil readership so much that many were ashamed to buy it or be seen with it, “and even today, when I am introduced at a literary meeting, Pee Kadaigal is not included in the list of books authored by me”.
So, is it fear that makes Murugan now recoil from public attention? Is it the fact that he continues to feel like “a live exhibit”? What is it that he felt about those who had turned on him and which made him decide that the world would no longer read him? “I felt anger and a sense of betrayal, but more than anything, I felt pity for these people,” says Murugan. “They are ill-read, they have no association with literature.”
Writing, he says, is a state of mind for him. In Songs Of A Coward, he writes that he thought “I could perform the final rites for it and get on with my life. But I couldn’t.... Finally it rose with a roar and possessed me again—words, thoughts, poetry.” But for a person so connected to his soil, it was not the only option. In 2015, when his mind closed to literature, some family members suggested he breed cattle instead. “I like taking care of cattle. I will even settle down with a few goats when I retire,” says Murugan. Till about eight years ago, when his mother was alive, he used to run a farm even though he was teaching; he sold it once he realized that agriculture could not be a part-time occupation.
The day we meet, 14 October, is Murugan’s 51st birthday. After a generous breakfast of three courses of rice—with ghee poured over sambhar, local herbs-infused rasam, and thick home-made curd—we return from Vattur to his home in Namakkal in the early afternoon. On the first floor is an enormous terrace that offers a view of the rock-hill, with a 17th century fort on top, that is central to the town. Local legend traces the hill to the epic Ramayan, to Hanuman’s journey from the Himalayas with the healing plant sanjeevani.
This terrace has been the scene of many literary meets, titled the “nest” or koodu, which started with a group of 15 but grew to include 50-60 people, students, local literary-minded people and guest speakers. To commemorate the 50th meeting, the group decided to come out with a book, which turned out to be essays of personal experiences with caste: Black Coffee In A Coconut Shell: Caste As Lived Experience, edited by Murugan, and just translated by Tamil author C.S. Lakshmi (known to her readers as Ambai) into English for Yoda Press-Sage.
We settle down to talk at the homoeopathy clinic that his daughter Ilampirai has started from a room on the first floor, next to his own bookshelf-lined study. His son, Ilamparidhi, who works for an information technology firm in Chennai, is home for Diwali. His wife offers us some of the creamy chocolate cake with which the family had rung in Murugan’s birthday at midnight.
Ezhilarasi, whose father was part of the Dravida Kazhagam movement that aimed to eradicate the caste system, is also a poet and has an essay in Black Coffee about a casteist slur that she used inadvertently on the day of his funeral. It is not easy to shake off the complications of caste. When the family moved into this particular neighbourhood, her nosepin had attracted the attention of suspicious neighbours—Gounder women don’t pierce their noses.
“I just want to see him happy,” says Ezhilarasi, as she supplies us with fortifying cups of tea. It’s been more than a year since his resurrection, but Murugan is still a writer coming out of his shell. This year, there has been a buzz of activity around his books, but he says he finds it difficult to override the censor within him. “I don’t think it will go away soon.”
“But then, I will only know when I write now. The things I had planned in my head that I would write, I have lost interest in writing them now. What I have written recently are things that I hadn’t planned,” he says.
Unfortunate as the controversy was, it has created far more interest in his writing than ever before. His works have been translated into English, Malayalam, Telugu and Kannada (published, incidentally, by Gauri Lankesh, the journalist who was murdered outside her Bengaluru home in September), and there is a Hindi and German translation of Madhorubhagan in the works. Murugan, despite his earlier request that he be left alone to write in silence, has also been invited to several literary festivals, including one that he attended in Berlin in September. “I have never been so busy in my life. It is also unavoidable. These people stood by me, so now I can’t say no,” he says.
The return to writing has been slow. In August, he wrote a short story, Bypass. He believes that he becomes a different writer with each new book that he writes, consciously so, but the feeling may be a bit stronger now. Songs Of A Coward is important, of course, to understand the depth of the turmoil within him. Black Coffee In A Coconut Shell, first published in Tamil in 2013, provides a context both to what he writes and what he has gone through.
But Murugan is also revisiting his past work. Earlier this year, his Tamil publisher Kannan Sundaram, who has been one of his staunchest supporters and spokespersons since the protests, put together 81 short stories, earlier published in four separate books, into a single volume. The Goat Thief is a selection of 10 of these stories that Murugan says gave him the most satisfaction as a writer. Interestingly, many of these stories, all of which start in his pronounced realistic style, achieve an other-worldliness towards the end.
In the preface to the book, Murugan contemplates the nature of short stories, and his own actions. “I realized all stories fall into one of two categories. The first category focuses on the problems of living according to the rules of society, while the second concentrates on exceptions to these rules…. When he talks about rules, a writer can bring a story alive by striking a note of mild sorrow. And what is this sorrow? It is the wretchedness of taking every step in life with the fear that one might violate the rules.” The stories in The Goat Thief, he writes, are about the exceptions, subject to “derision, abuse and apathy”, but those “who render the old rules defunct and lead us to new ways of being”.
Murugan, thereafter, makes a declarative statement about his own self: “My own choice is to know and to follow the rules, and to live under their authority. Even so, I look upon this as a stepping stone to a mode of conscious defiance.”
Murugan may convince himself otherwise, but his life has been exceptional, wilfully made so by himself. When he was a child, then chief minister K. Kamaraj introduced the concept of midday meals for students, inducing farmers to start educating their children. Even so, education was not considered important—while the girls would drop out once they completed primary school, the boys would be allowed to carry on till they failed. Murugan’s elder brother’s luck ran out in class IX, but he himself continued to do well. When he was in class X, Murugan’s father, inspired by a teacher who worked part-time as a ticket seller at the same cinema, decided that whatever the odds, his son too would become a teacher.
He always had an independent, creative streak. Since he was a loner, Murugan says, he would observe intensely, and had been wanting to write since the age of 8. “I have always had questions about why caste differences existed. At the soda shop, I observed the way the kids who worked under my father were treated by patrons. At the farm, I realized the kind of relationship we shared with people who worked on our land. I was aware of the limits they had.” While this resulted in Current Show, the takeover of Kootapalli by housing projects is revisited in his very first novel, Eru Veyyil (Rising Heat). “I have a deep connection to this landscape. I feel I have lost that now. That yearning for the landscape is always there,” he says.
As part of the Tamil literature course that Murugan graduated in, he studied linguistics and folklore, both of which came to define him as a writer. He started compiling words particular to the Kongu dialect, publishing, 20 years later, a dictionary that comes in handy now for his translators. Ambai points out that his interest in lexicography led him to study words of abuse that “has made the language come closer to the common person and not just to elevated academic people who study classic Tamil”.
Then he started researching local folklore, which makes its way into his fiction, particularly Madhorubhagan. “I have this habit of going in search of my past, to try to understand how my ancestors lived. My family has neither a written nor an oral history. I don’t even know the name of my great-grandfather’s father. I am someone who would like to live in the present, but also travel to the past. I want to depict both in my stories.”
In Vattur, his niece’s father-in-law approaches us with a puja thali. A childless couple had come to him that morning; they had offered prayers at the small shrine to Lord Shiva under a vilvam tree next to the goat pen. The tree, its spread-out branches laden with pear-shaped fruit, is special to Shiva, and can be found at most temples dedicated to him here. Behind the tree are placed a few terracotta cows painted in white and yellow, with patterns in red. There is one of a man as well. These are offered when cattle or men fall ill.
Our host is a healer, Murugan explains, and knows the local herbs well. “He also knows many mantras.” Murugan’s face is impassive. His stories, too, include instances such as this that reveal a world view, a mix of organized religion and a local belief system—the character Stumpleg in Seasons Of The Palm, for instance, too could cure cattle with his mantras. While those above him in the social hierarchy had faith in his powers, this Dalit boy still did not get any privileges; he remained impure.
In an essay on his mother after her death, Murugan draws a portrait of himself as a nervous, introverted boy who needed to be gently coaxed out of his many inhibitions and fears. “His acute sense of the social is a major strength, and the manner in which he has been pitiless about the limits to dominant caste existence is another,” says Geetha.
In this family of healers, it is poetry that has helped Murugan regain his sense of being, bringing the words back on his pages, giving him some perspective to what he has gone through. “I fight back with my words. If how I fight back is termed cowardice, doesn’t cowardice need some space in our lives too? If you ask me if I am a hero or a coward, I would say I can’t be framed into these two categories.”
Archana P.N. was the interpreter for this interview.
2017: the year of Perumal Murugan
The Goat Thief: Translated by N. Kalyan Raman, Juggernaut Books, 232 pages, Rs399.
Revisiting his works over this past year, the 10 stories Murugan has selected for this book are among those where he considers he has done justice to the form. The characters in these stories respond to their fears, insecurities, vulnerable circumstances, and, as the translator writes, “most of them go down fighting, and in Murugan’s telling, with the fragile dignity of the wounded”.
Songs Of A Coward—Poems Of Exile: Translated by Aniruddhan Vasudevan, Penguin Random House, 291 pages, Rs299.
These poems, written at a time when Murugan had retreated from the world as a writer, are deeply personal, something he never allows himself to be in his fiction; they are the emotional outburst of a creative soul who had come to look upon his gift as a curse. This entry into his private thoughts is discomfiting.
Black Coffee In A Coconut Shell—Caste As Lived Experience: Edited by Perumal Murugan, Translated by C.S. Lakshmi. Yoda Press-Sage, 229 pages, Rs595.
The product of literary meetings that would take place at his home in Namakkal, the 32 essays here are personal experiences of caste, “not only an oppression”. The essays, says Lakshmi, are “about living, loving and dying with caste as an indelible marker”.
Poonachi Alladhu Oru Vellattin Kathai: Translated by N. Kalyan Raman, Amazon Westland, Forthcoming
A novella that Murugan brought out in 2016 is being translated into English for publication in January. Karthika V.K., publisher of Amazon Westland, describes it as a “particularly delightful and insightful take on the direction our society is headed in; a fabulist and deeply insightful reading of our time”. It is in some ways a direct response, she adds, to the controversy the author has lived through.