For an author with international acclaim, Perumal Murugan appears extraordinarily ill at ease with adulation. He keeps his gaze low, refuses interviews and shows his discomfort when the camera flashes all descend on him.
He says the hounding by right-wing forces over the past year made him into a ‘nadaipinam’, a walking corpse. He refuses to dwell on the experience of being pushed out of his hometown of Namakkal in south Tamil Nadu, even when prodded by media and an interviewer.
But at the release of his new collection of poems in Delhi on Monday, the Tamil writer signalled that the episode left a deep scar. The author of One Part Woman and Pyre may be back on the literary scene, but says he will revise his earlier work and revise the text, if necessary.
“A censor is seated inside me now. He is testing every word that is born within me. His constant caution that a word may be misunderstood so, or it may be interpreted thus, is a real bother,” he told a packed hall at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library.
“I’m not sure if this is right. But I’m unable to shake him off. If this is wrong, let the Indian intellectual world forgive me.”
His Madhorubagan – whose English translation One Part Woman Penguin published in 2013 – talks about a mysterious temple ritual where childless women supposedly have sex with strangers. The novel sparked violent protests in his hometown as right-wing groups said he brought disrepute to the region. It’s a trauma that reverberates in the title of his new book, Kozhaiyin Padalgal (A Coward’s Poems)
The episode may fundamentally change Murugan’s characteristic style. He burst onto the literary scene more than a decade ago with his precise exploration of caste, class and gender dynamics in Tamil Nadu’s Kongu region. But on Monday, he admitted he didn’t know if he could sustain his style of realism and may have to opt for other literary techniques. “Only time will tell.”
But he appeared sure only one time in the evening, when he was asked if he would continue writing on caste. “I believe a writer cannot write a single word in defence of caste. Why caste exists and why it is so divisive is a question that plagues me,” said the writer.
He detailed how he saw caste determining daily lives in his village and the conflicts between different castes –descriptions of which fill his latest Pyre and have angered right-wing groups.
He thanked the Madras high court, which last month quashed charges against him and upheld his rights as a writer. “Perumal Murugan should not be under fear…let the author be resurrected to what he is best at. Write,” the court had said. The author seemed to have taken the advice to heart, saying the court order came as both a command and a blessing to him and said he plans to write 50 more books.
“Across the country, voices were raised in support of freedom of expression and against intolerance. It is those voices which have brought me here today. I speak here only to express my gratitude to those voices,” he said.
Murugan’s first writing was a short ode to his cat and he first published in Tamil in 1988. For many years, he taught at a local college and wrote in the middle of the night in his home, unknown to his colleagues and students. He hails from a peasant family in southern Tamil Nadu and says he saw his first proper house when he turned 20. This, he says, inculcated a passion for open spaces and landscapes.
“I led a contented life in an out-of-the-way small town. But circumstances have thrust me today to the capital city. This cannot be without cause for regret,” That regret was especially evident in his poem, Hometown, that was read out in Tamil and English.
Don’t be in haste
to ask anyone
about their hometown
It is possible
that there are also those
who have no place
to call their hometown.