The story of Perumal Murugan: Freedom of expression begins from us
You can’t have freedom of speech if people are not ready to be offended: Paranjoy Guha Thakurta
Born in 1966, Perumal Murugan is a Tamil professor in his native town Thiruchengode and an author with about eight books to his name. A simple man, Murugan keeps away from the limelight. Or at least he used to.
In the first week of December 2013, Murugan started receiving threatening calls and messages for his book Mathorubagan which was published in 2010. The people threatening him demanded that he either withdraw the novel or edit out the "objectionable" parts.
A WhatsApp message "written in a fairly offensive language" asked people to assemble around the local temple on a particular day at 9:30am, especially "people who have Hindu feelings".
They were assembling to condemn a "street louse who has been insulting local women and Hinduism".
Under the leadership of the local RSS president, a mob took out a procession in front of the local police station demanding the arrests of Murugan and the book’s publisher, and also a ban on the book itself. It was a call for a bandh that touched a nerve with Murugan. He didn’t want people to suffer so called a press conference and apologised saying he was prepared to make the changes being demanded. He requested people to withdraw the call for the bandh.
But he wasn’t successful. The police then called for a peace meet before the bandh only to find that nobody showed up. That night, the police told Murugan that it wasn’t safe for him and his family to live in the town anymore and that he needed to leave the town. By midnight, the author was gone.
As he took refuge in Chennai, a local officer asked him to come in for a meeting. After a four-hour long negotiations, he was forced by the RTO officer to sign an apologetic statement.
That day, a broken Murugan declared his author-self dead. "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," read his post on Facebook.
As Murugan’s publisher Kannan Sundaram narrated the sad tale of Murugan at the Jaipur Literature Festival during a session titled 'Ankahee: What Must Not be Said', many in the audience flinched while some shook their head.
Kannan then read the Tamil version one of the "offensive" parts of Murugan’s book followed by moderator Salil Tripathi’s reading of the English translation of the passage.
And no one in the audience objected, there was only the echo of applause.
A bewildered CP Surendran, Indian poet, novelist and journalist, said he found nothing distasteful or provocative in the passage which simply talked about love-making and didn’t even detail it. The passage didn’t even name body parts.
Kannan went on to explain that was the story-line these fundamentalists objected to. He said there was a theory that the objections were triggered by the book’s English edition which was published in 2013. "Apparently, there is a Hindutva group sitting in Delhi who are scanning all the Indian language books that appear in translation and then decide what should be objected to, what should be banned and what should be withdrawn. But I can’t be sure about this," he said.
But author and publisher Urvashi Butalia had an even stronger question: "Why did the police ask him to leave? Why didn’t they say we will protect you?" And though everyone on the panel agreed, no one had an answer.
Author Paranjoy Guha Thakurta was of the opinion that "you can’t have freedom of speech if people are not ready to be offended."
Guha has written a book on the Ambani brothers and their "Gas Wars" and has received numerous legal notices for it. Notices he referred to as "love letters". He added that the only purpose these served was to put fear in an author’s mind.
Once the panel debated possible solutions to the country’s rampant problem of intolerance, questions were invited from the audience.
A young man suggested that publishers and writers join hands and contribute financially to form a legal-help forum in an effort to prevent more authors like Murugan from falling victim to this intolerance. As the audience applauded, Butalia added that he and everyone else in the audience too had to contribute to such forums – whenever they are formed.
And that was the message the session delivered. Freedom of expression begins from us and can only be taken forward by us.