Home / Opinion / The importance of being Perumal Murugan

Perumal Murugan, the writer who announced his own death in a Facebook post, is still dead. But the media spotlight has shifted from his death—a death that has been described by some as merely symbolic. Symbolic or not, it is a death that is very much alive amidst us—haunting writers, stalking dissent, mocking our fabled Constitution.

Of course, Murugan’s death has been duly condemned. Though physically alive, he has been added to our roster of free speech casualties: Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare, Avijit Roy. The latest target of free speech foes is the writer-activist Bharat Patankar. According to media reports, Patankar has received a letter saying that after Dabholkar and Pansare, he is next.

Clearly, the adversaries of free speech aren’t done yet. So long as writers believe they are entitled to speak their minds, those who want to silence them will not rest.

It is in this context that it becomes important to go beyond ritual condemnation. Even as liberal defenders of free speech are ever ready to get into condemnation mode over the next silencing, it is vital that every one of the already silenced remain active in public memory, at least so long as the space for free speech and dissent continues to shrink, as is happening at present.

God forbid that we one day start speaking of free speech casualties in quantitative terms, like we do, for instance, with farmers’ suicides—no names there, only numbers. Though if someone were to ask why a writer’s death at the hands of illiberal political forces should matter more than a farmer’s death at the hands of liberal market forces, the short answer would be: nothing. The long answer would warrant a teasing out of the links between the two—but that is another exercise for another day.

Today, I want to talk about Perumal Murugan. For two reasons: one, what we call the nation has stopped talking about him; two, it appears that the import of his living death has not been fully unpacked.

Murugan’s case is different from the rest, not only because he is a dead writer who wakes up to his death every morning. It is different also because it insists on an engagement that goes beyond the simplistic duality of the individual’s right to freedom of expression versus the social responsibility of not hurting the sentiments of a community.

An agreement like a death sentence

Murugan was pushed to the extreme step of announcing his death as a writer after a mob of caste-based and religious groups staged violent protests in his home town of Thiruchengode. They accused him of having hurt the sentiments of the people of Thiruchengode in his 2010 novel, Mathorubagan. They burnt copies of his novel, and successfully enforced a bandh.

What is most interesting, and has not received adequate attention—at least not as much as the protesters have—is the role of the state in silencing Murugan. When the protesters created a law and order crisis, so-called peace negotiations were held at the office of the local district revenue officer.

The Namakkal district administration, instead of trying to protect the author’s constitutionally guaranteed right to free speech, laid the onus of restoring peace squarely on the author. Murugan was bullied and intimidated into signing an extraordinary agreement, one that I want to dwell on at some length.

In this agreement, Murugan’s initial expression of sincere regret was forcibly changed to unconditional apology for having hurt the sentiments of the people of Thiruchengode.

He had to agree to remove all potentially controversial references to the town and the people of Thiruchengode in future editions of the novel and anything he might write in the future—this is anticipatory censorship of his as yet unwritten works.

He agreed to not give any media interviews or write articles on this issue that might offend the people of Thiruchengode.

He affirmed that Mathurobagan was completely a work of the imagination.

Clarified that he had no intention of hurting the sentiments of the people of Thiruchengode.

Agreed to withdraw from circulation all the unsold copies of his novel.

What is striking is that caste and religion find no mention in the agreement, even though it was caste-based and religion-based groups that had protested. The agreement was simply between Murugan (party B) and party A. The mysterious party A was a group of individual signatories, none of whom had found it necessary or wise to display their affiliation to any organization or association.

Yet they all collectively claimed to speak on behalf of the people of Thiruchengode. Who appointed them as representatives of the people? Why were they taken seriously in their claims to represent the people of Thiruchengode? How can a district revenue official, who is a state government representative, give recognition to a bunch of trouble-makers claiming to represent the people of a town?

Given the threats to his life and family, the political patronage enjoyed by the protesters, and a state administration sympathetic to his adversaries, Murugan did not believe he had any option but to comply.

In other words, it was not Murugan who gave up writing but the state and the self-appointed spokespersons of the public that sentenced Murugan, the writer, to death, by failing to stand by him. Moreover, this is not just a symbolic death. It is a real one, for it has real consequences in the real world. Henceforth there would be no new Perumal Murugan novels to publish or to read.

The tyranny of hurt sentiments

At a solidarity meeting convened in Delhi last month in support of Murugan, historian Romila Thapar spoke about the need to interrogate the trope of hurt sentiment. When a group of people take to the streets, or file a first information report, or attack a writer on the grounds that the sentiments of a certain community have been hurt, is it really the case that a community’s sentiments have been hurt, or is something else at play?

In the case of Murugan, the truth of hurt sentiments is rather complex. First of all, the book was published in 2010. Why did the sentiments wait till December in order to get hurt, especially since the book had already become a bestseller and gone into reprints?

Some say it was because the English translation (One Part Woman) came out in end-2013 and early 2014. Somebody read the novel in English, then went looking for certain passages in the original Tamil that could be spun off as offensive. Who were these offence-takers? What motivates them? Has anything changed, politically, between 2010 and 2014, that might warrant such a project of offence-taking?

Well, one can only speculate. Firstly, an obvious change is that, unlike in 2010, we now have a government at the Centre that the majoritarian religious rightwing considers as one of its own.

With Tamil Nadu up for assembly polls in 2016, it is likely that these elements are eager to make their presence felt in the state.

They may be following a formula that they believe has worked electorally in other states: woo the powerful upper castes in the expectation that Hindu votes could be consolidated around the regionally dominant caste group. Murugan’s native Kongu region is dominated by the Gounder caste, and it is clear this conservative upper caste community was what the protesters had in mind when they claimed to speak for the people of Thiruchengode.

Incidentally, Murugan’s novel is hostile to both caste and patriarchy, as it well should be. Its reference to the temple town’s age-old religious festival where a childless married woman could choose to sleep with a stranger in order to conceive—if construed as a historical fact and not a fictional invention—would indeed cast aspersions on the proclaimed caste purity of the Gounder community.

But this would be an offence-taking issue only if we assume that caste purity is a value worth fighting for. At any rate, for four years—from 2010 until December 2014—the local Gounders who could read Tamil did not take offence, or if they did, did not take to the streets over it.

Third, a novelistic interrogation of traditional social structures and practices is well within the ambit of a community’s encounter with modernity. If this interrogation happens by means of a critique initiated by a writer who not only hails from the same community, but lives and works in that community as one of them, even better.

Next, the attack on Murugan needs to be viewed in the context of his wider engagement with his readers, for it went beyond the literary realm and earned him powerful enemies. Just before the orchestrated campaign against his novel, he had put together a collection of 27 articles by Dalits, titled Jaadiyum Naanum (Caste and I), that attacked caste resurgence in the region and was empathetic to the Dalit Arundhatiyar community.

Plus he was influencing students and the local youth to steer clear of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Plus he had been writing against the cash-rich private schools in the region which were, according to him, not very different in their ethos from the hatcheries the area was famous for. Murugan’s publisher, Kannan Sundaram of Kalachuvadu magazine, told me in a telephone interview that the local education mafia may have funded the caste and religious groups that organized the protests against Murugan.

The overall picture that emerges is one that doesn’t sit comfortably within the discursive parameters of mainstream liberalism, and reveals why those who blame Murugan for not standing up and fighting back with his pen are deeply mistaken.

Simply put, Murugan’s vision of authorhood goes against the grain of the dominant Western paradigm of the writer as a deracinated creative genius who produces works of art for the delectation of individual readers. It also bypasses the individualistic notion of a right as something vested in an entity that is a person. His very conception of writing as a vocation is organically—and irreversibly—socio-political and communitarian. It cannot conceive of creative expression divorced from the idea of a living, pulsing, geographical community—the people of Thiruchengodu and the Kongu region.

They are Murugan’s primary readers, his inspiration, his material, and his identity. Snatch that away, uproot him from his community, and he is effectively dead as a writer. In this sense, Murugan was not being melodramatic when he said, “Perumal Murugan, the writer, is dead."

In proclaiming his death as a writer, he was merely naming a deliberately, and politically, instituted event, an event that was a fait accomplished by the time he formally acknowledged it in a Facebook post.

It was also why, in a recent affidavit filed with the Madras high court, he felt compelled to state, “Whether others believe in the death of Perumal Murugan as a writer or not, I believe in it." What he is saying here is that social reality is a matter of belief. The death of Murugan, the writer, is therefore an event that holds a mirror up to what we effectively believe—as a society, as a culture, as a nation.

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