Chennai: It’s not every day that a court verdict resurrects a writer who pronounced himself dead.
A verdict on Tuesday by the first division bench of the Madras high court has done so. Tamil writer Perumal Murugan, the target of a fierce right-wing attack for his book Madhorubagan, has just declared himself clambering back from the dead.
The judgement began with Voltaire’s quote from S.G. Tallentyre’s The Friends of Voltaire: “I may not agree with what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it."
A high court bench comprising chief justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul and justice Pushpa Sathyanarayana delivered a lucidly written verdict—a firm rejection of a slew of petitions seeking to prosecute Murugan.
The judgement stressed the “presumption in favour of free speech and expression" of a citizen.
“This presumption must be kept in mind if there are complaints against publications, art, drama, film, song, poem, cartoons or any other creative expressions," the verdict said.
The 160-page ruling added: “Merely because a group of people feel agitated about it cannot give them a license to vent their views in a hostile manner, and the state cannot plead its inability to handle the problem of a hostile audience."
Madhorubagan, a Tamil novel penned by Murugan in 2010, was translated in English as One Part Woman in 2013. After winning many literary awards, it came under attack from Hindutva and caste-based outfits. The groups alleged that the book was “perversely vulgar", narrated “non-existent conventions", depicted the visitors of local temples in poor light and tarnished the image of the Kongu Vellala Gounder community or people of the region.
“Religion is a major influence in our country, even though sometimes its credibility and relevance is questioned. However, all this is eternal and personal," said the judgement.
Art can be provocative
Madhorubagan is the story of the travails of a couple—Kali and Ponna—and set in the writer’s hometown Tiruchengode in Erode district of Tamil Nadu. It portrays (among other things) a practice permitting a childless woman to have sex, during a temple festival, with a man outside marriage in order to aid conception.
“Art is often provocative and is meant not for everyone, nor does it compel the whole society to see it. The choice is left with the viewer," said the verdict, which emphasized that sex and obscenity are not always synonymous.
“Can we say the Mahabharata or the various other literatures, which we have quoted herein above, are part of our history, yet they say something that is unusually lascivious and therefore should be banned?"
The chief justice went on to add, “As a society, we seem to be more bogged down by this Victorian philosophy rather than draw inspiration from our own literature and scriptures. Or perhaps may be it is only a small sect of people who believe so, but are vociferous enough to create such a pandemonium."
When the protests against the book intensified in December 2014, Murugan wrote on Facebook: “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."
The row over Madhorubagan echoes some aspects of another debate.
Two weeks ago, the hacking of a 24-year-old Infosys employee, S. Swathi in Chennai, sent shockwaves across Tamil Nadu. The arrest of the alleged killer, P. Ramkumar, following a statewide hunt sparked a debate across the media on how Tamil cinema glorified stalking and violence, along with discussions on the safety of women.
Cinema and moral responsibility
Yes, there are films that eulogize and justify stalking by its protagonists, celebrate violence on screen, portray women as mere objects and also showcase submissiveness in the name of femininity. And, for the Tamil audience who literally “breathe" cinema, its incursion is deep—socially, culturally and politically. It is so deeply entrenched that the hero is diligently emulated. The hero is expected to instill “only good deeds" on us.
Tamil cinema once took Tamil literature to the screen, influenced masses, helped drive an entire Dravidian movement and produced political leaders.
That literature upheld and revolved around concepts of ‘love and valour’, and while these concepts still largely reflect modern Tamil cinema, there are exceptions glorifying violence and objectification of women. But does it make sense to blame cinema, hold it responsible for every crime?
Unfortunately, the media debates following Swathi’s murder and Ramkumar’s arrest by focussing narrowly on the role of cinema ignored the crucial aspects of the wider society.
There are many unanswered questions:
What sort of education was imparted for more than 15 years to Ramkumar before he dropped out of studying engineering? What level of understanding leads us to solely blame cinema—or rely on it to shape our lives?
Or, what force led a section of people to blindly raise their voice against Madhorubagan, which sways on historical explorations, societal pressures, bigotry against women and literary richness of Vattara Ilakkiyam (sub-regional literature)?
Right to write
Justice Sanjay Kishen Kaul’s verdict is clear:
“If you do not like a book, throw it away," said Kaul, who eight years ago pronounced a historic judgment to end the exile of acclaimed painter M.F.Hussain. “There is no compulsion to read a book. Literary tastes may vary – what is right and acceptable to one may not be so to others," he added.
“Yet, the right to write is unhindered."
“If the contents seek to challenge or go against the very constitutional values, raise racial issues, denigrate castes, contain blasphemous dialogues, carry unacceptable sexual contents or start a war against the very existence of our country, the State would, no doubt, step in," said the verdict.
The judgment concluded: “Let the author be resurrected to what he is best at. Write."
On Wednesday, Murugan in a statement expressing his happiness said: “It comforts a heart that had shrunk itself and wilted. I am trying to prop up myself holding on to the light of the last lines of the judgment."