After Chennai HC judgment, will author Perumal Murugan write again?

Published on Jul 14, 2016 04:46 PM IST
The Chennai High Court may have given a landmark judgment asking author Perumal Murugan to write again, but can he?
A bench comprising Chief Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul and Justice Pushpa Sathyanarayana went on in their order to uphold Perumal Murugan’s freedom of expression in writing his controversial book Madhorubagan (One Part Woman).(Photo of the book cover)
A bench comprising Chief Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul and Justice Pushpa Sathyanarayana went on in their order to uphold Perumal Murugan’s freedom of expression in writing his controversial book Madhorubagan (One Part Woman).(Photo of the book cover)
BySandhya Ravishankar

The 35-km stretch between Namakkal and the quaint temple town of Tiruchengode in Tamil Nadu is a nightmare to navigate. The single lane road is being widened, cut up in parts and the path is paved with sharp stones.

The route seems eerily symbolic of author Perumal Murugan’s situation in these two towns.

Tiruchengode’s residents are not happy. On July 5, the Madras High Court issued a lyrical, landmark judgement in the case, opening with a quote misattributed to Voltaire: “I may not agree with what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it.” A bench comprising Chief Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul and Justice Pushpa Sathyanarayana went on in their order to uphold Perumal Murugan’s freedom of expression in writing his controversial book Madhorubagan (One Part Woman). Some had protested the book’s depiction of historical traditions of the Ardhanareeswarar temple in Tiruchengode.

“The choice to read is always with the reader,” read the verdict. “If you do not like a book, throw it away. 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. Yet, the right to write is unhindered.”

The verdict ended with a poignant note to Murugan himself - “Let the author be resurrected to what he is best at. Write.”

An unhappy Tiruchengode

“Write? Of course let him write,” repeated an animated S Sasidevi, an advocate practicing in the temple town of Tiruchengode. “No one is stopping him from writing. But if he continues to write in this manner, we will definitely oppose it. If he writes about anything else, we do not care.”

Sasidevi, 43, was one of the loudest voices opposing Madhorubagan and condemning Murugan in late 2014 and early 2015. She, along with a number of women in the area, submitted a petition to the district authorities demanding a ban on the book in December 2014.

Sasidevi is still upset and claims that she feels humiliated by Murugan’s work. “I myself did not have children for six years after marriage,” she explained. “We prayed to all deities, including Ardhanareeswarar (deity of the temple in Tiruchengode), for a child. If someone writes a book saying that ‘saamikoduthapillai’ (God given child) is a demeaning thing, how can we stomach it? He has written demeaningly about the God too. This God is the most powerful God in these parts,” she said.

The controversy over Madhorubagan began late in 2014 when its English translation was released at an event in Singapore. Originally published in Tamil in 2010, the book was suddenly noticed by Tiruchengode residents four years later, who began to buy and circulate it amongst themselves.

Their ire was directed at the plot of the novel itself. In Madhorubagan, Murugan weaves a tale of a childless couple Kali and Ponna, living in a village near Tiruchengode and their travails in a society that places a premium on bearing children. The Ardhanareeswarar temple is well known here for one key reason - it is believed that childless couples who pray there will be blessed with child. Women, especially, throng the temple.

A view of the Ardhanareeswarar temple atop the hillock in the background at Tiruchengode. (Photo: Sandhya Ravishankar)
A view of the Ardhanareeswarar temple atop the hillock in the background at Tiruchengode. (Photo: Sandhya Ravishankar)

Madhorubagan attributes such birth miracles to a more banal reason - on the 14th day of Vaikasi (the month of August) when the Ardhanareeswarar deity is said to come down from the hillock, a ritual abounded whereby a childless woman was allowed to be impregnated by a stranger, and the subsequent conception attributed to the miracle of the God. According to the book, the term ‘saamikoduthapillai’ (God given child) was, in fact, a consequence of this accepted but unspoken practice in the area. This, in essence, was the cause for the angst among Tiruchengode residents.

“The daughter of one of my friends lives in Chennai and she called home crying one day,” continued Sasidevi. “Her husband had asked her whether she was a child like this (the result of the ritual described in Madhorubagan), since she was born after four years of her parents’ marriage. How humiliated she was! The novel insults all of us women in Tiruchengode,” she stated angrily.

However, Sasidevi admits that she has not read the book entirely. “The Tiruchengode Girivalam Sangam people told me about this and I bought the book and read some of it,” she said. “I could not stomach reading it fully. I was very angry and told all my relatives and neighbours about it. They too read it and got angry. Even the elders said nothing of this sort had ever happened in this area. Why has he written about things which never happened? It will become history, won’t it?”

Fury over Madhorubagan

Protests against Madhorubagan gathered pace in December 2014, with copies being burnt and small gatherings formed condemning the book and author. A complete bandh was also organised in Tiruchengode to protest the novel. On 24th December 2014, Perumal Murugan, having received threatening phone calls, decided to seek police protection for himself and his family. They were living in neighbouring Namakkal at the time and Murugan was an assistant professor of Tamil at the government college there.

On 12th January 2015, the district administration called for ‘peace talks’ in an effort to settle the issue amicably. It has been alleged in subsequent litigation at the Madras High Court that Murugan was browbeaten by both the protesters as well as the district administration into submitting an ‘unconditional apology’, promising never to write about Tiruchengode again and that he would withdraw all copies of Madhorubagan from circulation. He and his wife then applied for a transfer to Chennai.

Following this, Murugan put out a statement on his Facebook page saying - “Author Perumal Murugan has died. He is no god, so he is not going to resurrect himself. Nor does he believe in reincarnation. From now on, Murugan will survive merely as a teacher, as he has been.

He thanks all magazines, media, readers, friends, writers, organisations, political parties, leaders, students and anyone else who supported Perumal Murugan and upheld the freedom of expression.

The issue is not going to end with Madhorubagan. Different groups and individuals might pick up any of his books and make it a problem. Therefore, these are the final decisions that Perumal Murugan has taken:

1. Other than those books that Perumal Murugan has compiled and published on his own, he withdraws all the novels, short stories, essays and poetry he has written so far. He says with certainty that none of these books will be on sale again.

2. He requests his publishers - Kalachuvadu, Natrinai, Adaiyalam, Malaigal and Kayalkavin not to sell his books. He will compensate them for their loss.

3. All those who have bought his books so far are free to burn them. If anyone feels they have incurred a waste or loss in buying his books, he will offer them a compensation.

4. He requests that he be not invited to any events from now on.

5. Since he is withdrawing all his books, he requests caste, religious, political and other groups not to engage in protests or create problems.

Please leave him alone. Thanks to everyone.

Pe. Murugan”

This self-professed ‘obituary’ of an author sent shockwaves through the literary community, which went up in arms against the alleged harassment of the author. Following a slew of Public Interest Litigations filed by various groups against the ‘peace talks’ held by the district administration over the issue, in late January 2015, the Madras High Court directed that Murugan be impleaded in the case himself. A reluctant Murugan submitted his version to court in February. More than a year later, in July 2016, the Madras High Court gave its judgement asking Murugan to write once again.

Can Perumal Murugan write again? Will he?

The court verdict, while welcomed and celebrated by the literary community, has again angered the protesters. “Perumal Murugan wrote lies and hurt people who are living here and now,” said K Mahalingam, a Tiruchengode resident who operates a rig. “We do not accept the court order.”

A respondent in the Madhorubagan case and one of the key protesters in Tiruchendgode, Pon Govindarasu said he and his lawyer are mulling the possibility of an appeal against the verdict. “It is a shock for all of us,” he said. “The Court has not understood the feelings of the people of Tiruchengode.”

Govindarasu, who also heads the Arulmigu Ardhanareeswarar Girivala Nala Sangam (Welfare Association of Ardhanareeswarar temple), states that there is no personal vendetta against the author. “We were hurt by the book and we all went back to our lives and work after he apologised,” he said, referring to the ‘unconditional apology’ tendered by Murugan during the peace talks. “He went to court and so we too filed a counter affidavit. We are not violent people. We do not threaten anyone. If this issue had taken place anywhere else in the state, things would have gone out of hand.”

Govindarasu repeats fervently that no one asked Murugan not to write again. “We never asked him not to write,” he said firmly. “He created a scene. It is his right to write. We are saying - don’t hurt us with your words.”

Govindarasu, who was also present at the peace talks, said that when the district administration asked the protesters to meet Perumal Murugan face to face to resolve the issue, he refused. “I said no, if we meet, the problem will become bigger. Let him give the apology to us in writing. There ended the matter,” he said.

However, other writers living in the area disagree. They say the atmosphere in both Namakkal and in Tiruchengode is much more vitiated.

“There has been a fear amongst all of us writers - should we write or not?” said B Velusamy, a friend of Perumal Murugan and a writer himself. “We can maybe write in Chennai, but can we write sitting in rural areas? Writers are all afraid and worried (now).”

Writer Velusamy says that Perumal Murugan must have the courage to come back to Namakkal and write again. (Photo: Sandhya Ravishankar)
Writer Velusamy says that Perumal Murugan must have the courage to come back to Namakkal and write again. (Photo: Sandhya Ravishankar)

Velusamy, 66, adds that the literary community had urged Perumal Murugan to stay and fight, promising to support him, but that Murugan was badly frightened by the alleged threats to his family. “He is afraid because his children were threatened at the time,” said Velusamy. “The police cannot protect anyone all the time. But Perumal Murugan should have the courage. He can come back to Namakkal and write. It is for him to decide.”

While Murugan himself issued a statement on messaging service WhatsApp in the wake of the Chennai High Court order, stating that he would write once again, he has been reluctant to give interviews on the subject. Murugan did not respond to repeated calls from this journalist.

An innate caste bias?

On the face of it, the Perumal Murugan issue did not initially seem to have caste overtones. The author, a Gounder himself (also known as Kongu Vellala Gounder), faced criticism from the dominant Gounder community in the area, who form around 75% of the population in Namakkal district (people from Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe communities form a little over 23% of the population).

But caste does seem to have played a subtle role in the whole controversy. “Murugan is of mixed birth,” said a member of the Gounder (OBC) community in Tiruchengode, who did not wish to be named. “His parents had an inter-caste marriage. His anger against Tiruchengode is a result of this.”

Advocate Sasidevi also spoke of caste. “The book says that a lot of porikkis (thugs) and Dalit people impregnate Gounder women. There are so many women who come to the temple to pray. He (Perumal Murugan) himself is a Gounder. If people like him write so poorly about this area, everyone will tend to believe it,” she said. The western belt of Tamil Nadu, comprising the districts of Coimbatore, Erode, Namakkal, Salem and Nilgiris amongst others, is also known historically as the Kongu belt. In the past few years though, honour killings have been on the rise in this area, turning the spotlight on rising casteism here. Sasidevi’s comment is a reflection of the mood among the dominant Gounder caste - that it is considered demeaning and a social taboo for a Gounder, and especially a woman, to have physical relations with a Dalit.

What is illuminating is the list of respondents and counter petitioners in the Madhorubagan case - all the people and organisations at the forefront of protests against the book in 2014 and 2015, such as the Federation of Kongu Vellalar Sangam, Morur Kannakula Kongu Nattu Vellalar Trust, Kongu Vellalar Sangangal Kootamaippu and Sengunthar Mahajana Sangam, are all affiliated with the Kongu Vellala Gounder caste. A small pro-Hindutva political outfit, the Hindu Munnani (Hindu Front) too is a respondent in the Madhorubagan case.

Another respondent is Yuvaraj, who heads the Dheeran Chinnamalai Peravai, a tiny political outfit based in Sankagiri near Tiruchengode, proclaiming to represent the Gounder community. Yuvaraj himself is currently out on bail, charged with the murder of Dalit engineer Gokulraj in 2015, an alleged honour killing. Yuvaraj is charged with murdering Gokulraj for the crime of speaking with a Gounder girl who was his classmate in a Tiruchengode college.

Political analyst N Sathiyamoorthy of the Observer Research Foundation points to another factor in the controversy. “The book became an issue in the long run-up to elections in the state,” he said. “Caste outfits and Hindutva outfits clearly vied with one another to make this into an issue. It is not enough if the courts pass an order, there should also be a mechanism to ensure that the court orders are enforced, as far as the freedom of expression is concerned.”

Writer Velusamy agreed that the community had indeed become more deeply invested in Hindu religious rituals and beliefs in the past three decades. “The Gounders and Naickers (another dominant caste group in the area) have historically never had the concept of thali (mangalsutra) or all these rituals involving priests,” he said. “All of these are recent traditions.”

While the verdict from the Madras High Court has exhorted Perumal Murugan to write again, the verdict from Tiruchengode is also clear. Murugan can certainly come back and live in his home again at Kongu Nagar in Namakkal. He may resume his life as a Tamil professor. He may even write again. But at his own peril.

(Published in arrangement with GRIST Media)

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