Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint
Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint

Perumal Murugan returns

He had the support of fellow writers and human rights activists, but the state's executive failed to protect him

In William Shakespeare’s eponymous play, as Julius Caesar was warned of the doom that lay ahead if he went to the senate, he said: “Cowards die many times before their deaths; the valiant never taste of death but once."

If the bard had followed the trajectory of the brilliant Tamil writer Perumal Murugan, he could as well have added: And when some valiant are threatened, they retreat into silence, not to embrace cowardice, but to return as heroes, with the halo of moonlight under a sky full of stars.

Murugan returned to centre stage quietly on Monday, revealing that the nearly 20 months he was forced to stay in silence were in fact productive. After so-called upper-caste Hindu groups campaigned against him and obtained from him a dubious apology under duress (with the complicity of authorities), Murugan had said, “Perumal Murugan the writer is dead. As he is no God, he is not going to resurrect himself. He also has no faith in rebirth. An ordinary teacher, he will live as P. Murugan. Leave him alone."

In A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce had said: “I will tell you what I will do and what I will not do. I will not serve that in which I no longer believe, whether it calls itself my home, my fatherland, or my church: and I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defence the only arms I allow myself to use—silence, exile, and cunning."

The exile Murugan chose was internal; the silence he opted for was personal, a form of protest; and the cunning he revealed by refusing to stay silent, producing a series of poems, called Oru Kozhaiyin Paadalkal (A Coward’s Song). (Two poems from the collection appeared in Mint Lounge over the weekend).

Some forms of exile are chosen—as with expatriate American writers who moved to Paris in the 1920s and witnessed the rise of fascism and the tumultuous era between the the two World Wars. Some are imposed, when writers from China, the former Soviet Union, and indeed, from Cuba, Eritrea, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iran, Vietnam and many other places, are compelled to live elsewhere to be true to their art and by refusing to compromise. Taslima Nasreen has been forced to make home in countries other than her own; bloggers and publishers from her native Bangladesh are seeking refuge elsewhere.

Murugan had the support of fellow writers and civil liberties and human rights activists and groups in India and around the world, but the state’s executive and bureaucracy had singularly failed to protect him, a point apparent in the stirring judgement of justice Sanjay Kishen Kaul at the Madras high court in July, which paved the way for Murugan to return with honour.

“The right to write is unhindered," the judgment said, adding: “[Murugan] should be able to write and advance the canvas of his writings. His writings would be a literary contribution, even if there were others who may differ with the material and style of his expression… Let the author be resurrected to what he is best at. Write."

And write he will. But his return to the public arena is on his terms. At a public event in New Delhi on Monday, he thanked the community of writers who stood by him, but added that he is at peace writing alone in his small town. Now he will write; he will let his words speak on his behalf.

When Salman Rushdie was forced into his exile—far longer, lasting nearly a decade, with the very real threat of state-sponsored death after the Iran-backed fatwa imposed on him for writing The Satanic Verses—he continued to write. His first response, the novel Haroun and the Sea of Stories, was outwardly aimed at children but carried a profound message defending freedom of expression. There, he celebrated speech—the land of gup—against the dark forces of silence—the land of chup—and found harmony emerge from the din and cacophony of many speakers, many tongues and many arguments. The chupwalas wanted to impose order through silence, so that one view should prevail over all.

We live in a time where such chupwalas are on the march—they want to silence writers and critics who raise their voices. They seek submission, surrender, retreat and silence, if they can’t get acclaim. They define their bigotry and totalitarian tendencies by claiming that they too have the right to speak. Of course they do. What they do not have is the right to silence others. That’s the line they crossed. Having little regard for the law, they would—but it was for the state to defend the writer. It failed. A judge stopped the madness. He implored the writer to write.

The writer has now obliged. He will speak—it is time to listen.

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London.

Your comments are welcome at salil@livemint.com. To read Salil Tripathi’s previous columns, go to livemint.com/saliltripathi

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