Tiruchengode belies the picturesqueness of its name, divine red hill. It’s an industrial city in Tamil Nadu. But Tiruchengode’s soul is ancient — fertile with myths, animist folklore, rituals and the sweet ramble of the Kongu Tamil dialect of west Tamil Nadu’s Kongu Nadu. And its inhabitants seek boons and blessings from the god on the temple on the red hill that towers over the city. The presiding deity is a rare avatar of Shiva — Ardhanareswarar, who embodying creation and fecundity by fusing the masculine and the feminine. In the last 20 days, hardline Hindu groups in Tiruchendgode have expressed outrage over Maadhorubaagan (an archaic Tamil term for Ardhanareswarar), a novel by Perumal Murugan, 48. They have accused Murugan of spreading calumny over the traditions and moral practices of Tiruchengode. On 26 December, a group burnt copies of the book, demanding its ban and the arrest of the author.
Set in the 1940s, the story is of a childless couple, Kali and Ponna, very much in love after 12 years of marriage despite the taunts of the locals and their own sense of disappointment at not turning parents. An annual festival at Tiruchengode is held at the Ardhanareswarar Temple. In the time before IVFs and fertility clinics, it was the one day when a ‘divine’ social sanction allowed childless women to climb the hill to the temple and mate with men, not their husbands. The tenderness of the marriage is torn apart when Ponna, egged by family elders, considers taking part in the ritual for a child.
Murugan, in the author’s note, explains that his research in Tiruchengode revealed many middle aged men were quaintly named Sami Pillai (God’s child) or Andhanareswaran, marking them out. Even today, the temple hosts its annual car festival with pomp, but the Tiruchengodans are silent about whether the ritual takes place now. “It’s fiction,” says a temple person over the phone.
Murugan, for his part, shocked the literary establishment by issuing a statement that he was withdrawing from the literary world and would go back to his academic job as a professor. His anguished statement said he would withdraw his collection of published fiction, poetry, essays and asked people who had copies of his works to destroy them or take compensation from him. Excerpts from an interview with Aniruddhan Vasudevan, translator of One Part Woman:
What is the appeal of Murugan’s works?
Murugan’s writing is very sensitive and catches even the tiniest gestures and feelings. His contribution to the literature of the Kongu region is enormous. He has, singularly, compiled a dictionary of words specific to the region. He has edited and published works by writers from the region. His works document the lives, language, labour, flora, fauna and history of the region.
Tamil literature since Kamban has been rife with innuendo, sexuality. Whether it is Salma’s poetry or today’s Murugan. Why this rejection of sexuality in this century?
I think any discussion of women’s desires and their rights over their bodies upsets patriarchy immensely. Also, any suggestion of non-heterosexual, non-marital, nonmonogamous sexuality throws bigots into a mad frenzy. As long as men control the representation of sexuality, as long as there is no suggestion of a woman even considering a choice, things are okay. Ponna in the novel considers it. Tradition sanctions it. People around her, except for Kali, want her to go to the last day of the festival, find her ‘god,’ and conceive a child.
As a cultural anthropologist, how do you respond to cultural mores that put pressure on women in the name of tradition? And this culture is rejected conveniently when it disturbs the male order of control.
Yes, we have much to be ashamed of in what we tout as our culture. If anything deserves to be burned, it is caste and patriarchy, not books. If we don’t have the culture to engage in debate something we wish to critique, we really do not have much culture. Childless couples, especially the women in these marriages, suffer untold humiliation even today. If anything deserves to be banned, it is this control over women’s sexuality.
Have to you talked to Murugan about his decision? Will he reconsider?
I have been in touch with him ever since the issue started. But he needs some space now. While I know what is happening is not only about Perumal Murugan and the novel; while I know that all our freedoms are implicated in this and other struggles that throttle life and expression, my caring cannot but take a personal form — right this moment, my highest priority is Perumal Murugan and his health and well-being. Right this moment, he needn’t carry the mantle for all of us. We all should be doing it for him and ourselves. He doesn’t need a pep talk. Perhaps he should be allowed to feel the exhaustion while we speak, write, march, and read. Hopefully, after allowing himself to fully feel the sadness and exhaustion, he will emerge.