The inner world of Perumal Murugan - Hindustan Times
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The inner world of Perumal Murugan

Dec 09, 2023 09:54 PM IST

This reflective Tamil writer gives his every word value, ensuring that none of his writings even accidentally float into the realm of falsity

A confession. I am Perumal Murugan’s friend, collaborator and admirer. You cannot expect detached objectivity from me. But I hope that, through this column, you will get to see another side of this superstar. The Indian English literary world is filled with self-aggrandisement and projection. The English language and anglicised accents in a post-colonial country like ours give Indian English writers and speakers a larger than life stature. Vocabulary and expression, rather than content, become yardsticks by which the intellect is judged. In contrast, exceptions aside, there are writers in Indian languages. For a Tamil writer who only writes and speaks in his language to have penetrated this snooty English fortress, shaken it up and yet remained true to himself is an achievement. This is Perumal Murugan. I am happy that his novel, Fire Bird, translated into English by Janani Kannan, has been chosen for the 2023 JCB Prize for Literature.

Author Perumal Murugan.(Samir Jana/HT Photo) PREMIUM
Author Perumal Murugan.(Samir Jana/HT Photo)

No, Murugan is not an egoless sanyasi! He is aware of his stardom, loves the attention, celebrates his achievements, but knows how to laugh it off! Murugan silently keeps watch on his inner workings. This reflective nature gives his every word value, ensuring that none of his writings even accidentally float into the realm of falsity.

I have read many reviews and columns that applaud Murugan’s stories for their rootedness in the rural and his style for its simplicity. While both observations are accurate, they seem to ignore the complexity of the two words — rural and simple. The rural is presumed to be emotionally less congested than the urban. A raw, earthy natural reality. Perceived lesser or slower action does not mean there is less of a mess. This feeling comes from Murugan’s craft. Reading Murugan is like watching a movie in slow motion. You notice every nook and corner of the place and experience the slightest emotional response. Murugan does not always articulate each reality. He presents the scene and situates us, the readers, in a place from where we can imagine.

As a musician, I probably understand this better than many. Slowing down is not a process of speed retardation or minimal activity. To slow down is to create pause. In music, this is constructed by the musician and experienced by the audience. This translates first to a greater insight into every note and rhythmic component. But, beyond musical facets, it draws the audience deep into the truth that the musicality represents. Murugan does the same thing to us.

We first notice and feel everything and, once we become engrossed and vulnerable, the world manifests in his village; our life is present in that moment. Murugan’s literary simplicity lies in the way he lets us access the deepest reaches of our being without us knowing that we have done so and provides us insight into social realities that are often hidden behind invisible multi-layered curtains.

Murugan’s father ran a soda shop and a cycle stand at a cinema theatre in Tiruchengode, Tamil Nadu. He has seen all the films of past stars including MK Thyagaraja Bhagavathar, PU Chinnappa and Ranjan. Read his books carefully and you will notice that movies play the role of time stamps. We know Madhorubagan (One Part Woman) is situated in the 1940s through the mention of the film Sri Valli that featured TR Mahalingam and Kumari Rukmini. Similarly, Sivaji Ganesan and M G Ramachandran mark the 1960s in his writings. His second novel Nizhal Mutram — which was translated into English by V Geetha as Current Show — is written in the style of film editing! Maybe this is why his writing is so visual and visceral.

Many know that Murugan and I work on creating musical compositions for Karnatik music. Though he had listened to Karnatik music, Murugan was not sure about my proposal, when I first suggested it. I travelled to Namakkal, Murugan’s hometown, and spent a day discussing the form and its literary requirements.

Soon enough, he had written five compositions on the five elements (earth, water, fire, wind, space). For the first time, Karnatik music was gifted with non-religious compositions on these natural elements. Compositions on Ambedkar, Periyar, manual scavenging, birds, love and many other themes followed. Over the years, he has written close to 50 compositions, the latest being reinterpretations of Sangam poetry. I am still playing catch-up with his speed!

Murugan and I come from very different cultural milieus. Our lives and associations are poles apart. Hence our relationship has not only been about understanding one another, but also the worlds we occupy. When Murugan narrates incidents from his life, I can only understand them intellectually because I have never had those experiences. I am certain that he finds many things I tell him unreal, even amusing.

It is probably the coming together of these two independent worlds that make our artistic relationship rich. Somebody asked if we have ever strongly disagreed. The truth is we have not but, for myself, I can say that listening to Murugan’s thoughts has helped me navigate many questions.

Perumal Murugan will often remain quiet while a group of us discuss a subject. After a few rounds of arguments, the master will pass an insightful comment! Or, after a few months of intellection, Murugan will express himself in the way he knows best – with the word.

Murugan served as the principal of the Government College in Namakkal and did all he could to change the institution’s hierarchical nature. When he shared some events, it was obvious that he knew how to manoeuvre change within a crusty establishment. Rare are people of the arts who can also function as able and caring administrators.

Murugan may be loved by us, but it is his students whose love for him is unconditional. I always joke that we will find at least one student of Murugan in every major city in the world. Irrespective of the direction their life may have taken, Perumal Murugan remains a mentor and he always has time for his students, past and present. He edited a collection of essays by his students and friends on their caste-related experiences. This was translated into English by award-winning writer Ambai and published as Black Coffee in a Coconut Shell.

Today, Perumal Murugan is an icon, a literary giant and a public intellectual who has transcended boundaries. But, beyond all these external positionings, what matters most is that he is a wonderful human being who truly cares!

TM Krishna is a singer, writer and activist. The views expressed are personal

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