Tamil author Perumal Murugan announces his ‘death’ on Facebook over lack of freedom of speech

Perumal Murugan faced protests from his Gounder community.

Written by Amrith Lal | Amitabh Sinha & Geeta Guptanew Delhi | Updated: January 15, 2015 1:52 pm
Perumal Murugan, Tamil author, Tamil author Murugan Author Perumal Murugan; his book (left)

On his Facebook wall, Perumal Murugan, 48, has a post which reads like a suicide note. It is by P Murugan on behalf of Perumal Murugan. “Author Perumal Murugan is dead. He is no God. Hence, he will not resurrect. Hereafter, only P Murugan, a teacher, will live,” it reads.

The note thanks everyone who supported the author and upheld the freedom of expression, and announces the withdrawal of all his novels, short stories and poems. It calls on his publishers not to sell his books and promises to compensate their losses. The readers have been advised to burn their copies of his books. The note ends with an appeal to caste, religious, political and other groups to end their protests and leave the writer alone since he has withdrawn all his books.

Murugan, a much-admired Tamil writer, posted the note on Monday night soon after he agreed at a meeting convened by the Namakkal district administration to withdraw his 2010-Tamil novel, Mathorubhagan, following street protests called by caste-based groups. The protesters, mainly drawn from the Kongu Vellala Gounder community, an influential intermediate caste dominant in western Tamil Nadu, have been on the warpath since December, alleging that Murugan’s novel has insulted the women of the community and degraded a Hindu deity.

The protests, originally launched by leaders linked to local Hindutva groups, took a turn for the worse after a bandh was called in Namakkal, Murugan’s hometown, last Friday, forcing the author to issue a clarification that he would remove all references to the place where events in the novel take place. When that didn’t cool frayed tempers, he attended a meeting presided over by Namakkal district revenue officer V R Subbulakshmi on Monday evening and agreed to withdraw the book itself.

Mathorubhagan (Other Part Woman, the English translation, came out last year) is a sensitive portrait of the disappointment of a childless peasant couple set in Thiruchengode, a town near Namakkal and close to Erode — the home of the ideologue of Dravidian movement Periyar E V Ramasamy, who spoke and wrote against caste and social dogmas in harsh language. Set in the early years of the 20th century, the novel discusses how the wife is cajoled and convinced by her family to attend a temple ritual that allows a woman to beget a child by entering into sexual union with a stranger. The child born of this union is called sami pillai or God’s child, since the stranger is perceived as a representative of God.

A few people from the Gounder community — to which Murugan too belongs — have claimed that the reference to the ritual has demeaned the women in their community.

Subbulakshmi, the official who chaired the “peace” meeting on Monday, says the administration was forced to get the author to meet the protesters since they wanted to put “a full stop to the protests”. “We tried our best to convince the protesters to end their opposition. It was not just a few people from some groups who were protesting, a large cross-section of the local population was demanding that the book be banned,” she says.

She adds that nearly 10,000 copies of the controversial portions of the novel were distributed by the protesters in houses and among women to mobilise people against the book. She says Murugan’s statement on quitting writing hurt her deeply and that she couldn’t sleep after reading his Facebook post.

Murugan’s supporters too were taken by surprise. His publisher, Kannan Sundaram of Kalachuvadu, had refused to back down when demands to withdraw the book were raised and mobilised public opinion against the protesters. On Monday, a statement was issued defending Murugan, which was signed by politicians including former CPI state secretary R Nallakkanu and VCK leader Thol Thirumavalavan and writers like Su Venkatesan, Baama, K Satchidanandan, Paul Zacharia, Gopalakrishna Gandhi and Ramachandra Guha.

Sundaram points out that the people who wanted to ban Murugan’s novel have declared this is not the end but the beginning. “They have said no writer who dares to touch the so-called Hindu sentiment will be able to live in Tamil Nadu. I see it as a sign of the danger facing the freedom of expression. Like Gujarat, Thiruchengode is emerging as a laboratory of casteist and religious fundamentalists,” he says. “Writers, artists and publishers must get together now and send out a clear message that we will not take this lying down,” he says.

“I would take the state to task for letting this happen and facilitating the mobilisation of people against freedoms guaranteed by Articles 14-17 of the Constitution,” says V Geetha, activist-writer, who has also translated two of Murugan’s novels into English.

Murugan, who was born in Thiruchengode in a peasant family, grew up working in the small soda shop his father ran outside a cinema hall. This experience provided him the material to write his second novel, Nizhal Mutram (Current Show in English). After studying in a local school, he did his PhD from Madras University in Tamil and started teaching in a college. He was influenced by Marxism in his formative years, which made him write about his land and people with a sense of history and deep empathy.

His six novels, numerous short stories and other writings, classified as regional fiction, evoke the senses and sounds of peasant life in Kongu Nadu (western Tamil Nadu).

“Murugan has contributed a lot to the region, language and his own community,” says D Ravikumar, writer and a former MLA of VCK. Ravikumar points out that the protests were initiated by politically motivated groups — state leaders of the BJP had disassociated with the protests — and wants the state government to act. “These are people coming together in the name of caste and community and turning democracy into mobocracy,” says Ravikumar.

Caste-centric mobilisations have been a feature of western Tamil Nadu and the Gounder community had in the last decade formed its own political groups to assert their demands. M Vijayabaskar of Madras Institute of Development Studies says right-wing groups have been working among the Gounders for a while.

“The Hindu Munnani has been organising people in Tirupur and other parts (close to Namakkal). Campaigns have been organised to fight cases filed against Gounders and other intermediate castes under the SC/ST Atrocities Act. Hindu Munnani is using this opportunity to gain further foothold in the region and in the community,” he says.

Vijayabaskar says the resurgence of the caste identity has a lot to do with the changing political economy in the region. Distress among peasants is acute in the region, which has led to a social crisis. Intermediate castes, he says, are deeply fragmented and those people who have failed to advance economically have been forced to depend on caste and kinship alliances to survive. Caste groups, he adds, have been building histories of their “glorious past”, essentially to strengthen community pride and survive the social churn.

Ironically, Namakkal, the centre of the controversy, is home to a large number of boarding schools that churn out rank holders in the state board exams. The small built and soft-spoken Murugan, who has written critically about the rote learning promoted in Namakkal schools and even edited a volume of his students’ experiences of caste in schools, may have angered quite a few in this arid town.

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  1. S
    Jan 14, 2015 at 12:57 pm
    People, before coming to some rapid conclusion, please do consider these facts:1. This person claims there was a practice in some village a hundred years ago where married women slept with other men for begetting a child.2. He also claims that it was the norm back then for a father in law to impregnate daughter in laws. So according to him all men born in those times were bast**ds literally.3. Then he claims that married women had with numerous men out of wedlock, and this was completely accepted.And for all these claims he has absolutely no evidence. He claims he heard these as hearsay. But, he uses these matter-of-factly. Now please tell me if someone were to read this drivel a hundred years from now, and if there was no criticisms of it registered now, would it not look like as if this was a recorded history? This sort of thing is something that is genuinely hurting people's sentiments. This person has written a cheap novel and nothing else. If you read this book, and you believe it, it will make you ashamed of your past (which is want some people would like us to do). If you do not believe it, it will make you fume.And yeah, please do replace the Hindu community with any other non-Hindu one, then your liberal conscience will be able to understand why people are against this book.Just because something is opposed by Hindu organisations, don't keep supporting it.
    1. M
      Apr 23, 2015 at 6:21 pm
      Ordered the only 2 of his books available in January on Amazon. told immediately that his latest not available but only heard today that Seasons of the palm cannot be supplied.
      1. J
        Jan 14, 2015 at 2:23 pm
        All you BJP supporters out there, know and realize that the BJP is more than just Modi.The Tamil Nadu BJP chief, H Raja, strongly supports the ban. It's state leaders like him that make up most of BJP.
        1. R
          Jan 15, 2015 at 1:57 am
          would you be happy if I wrote a book about how your mother gave birth to you
          1. A
            Alok Asthana
            Jan 15, 2015 at 2:17 pm
            Why read about Charlie Hebdo? We have worse intolerance in mother India. Where are we heading? Doom. Wake up, guys.
            1. A
              Jan 14, 2015 at 1:08 pm
              you stupid guy! your name shows who you are! you are full of venum.
              1. R
                Jan 19, 2015 at 7:19 am
                You dont have the talent or the vocabulary to write one page, let alone an entire book.
                1. K
                  Jan 17, 2015 at 8:49 pm
                  This is quite natural in theocracy!
                  1. D
                    Jan 14, 2015 at 3:58 pm
                    "influenced by Marxism in his formative years" this says all about this author. Marxism has brought more violence than any other ideology on this earth.
                    1. D
                      Devadoss Nayagam
                      Jan 15, 2015 at 12:29 am
                      Dear author. Stop acting like some injustice has been done to you. You had "heard" that such a practice existed a 100 years back. No real proof it ever existed. There is no such thing that exists today or for that matter for at least 3 generations. None alive today who could have potentially been a witness to such a controversial practice. Under these cirstances, to write about such a controversial practice referring to a particular community, their women and a famous temple is wanton provocation. The community that was denigrated protested, accepted the author's apology and the matter was closed. I wonder what would have happened to you if you had written such things about another community, the likes of which you saw in the French attacks.
                      1. R
                        Ram Singh Sachan
                        Jan 14, 2015 at 1:46 pm
                        The written idea should be neutralized by writing alone and not by bullying protests and administrative authority.
                        1. G
                          Jan 14, 2015 at 1:10 pm
                          Are we following the path of Talibans and their Jehadism in a different way?
                          1. V
                            Jan 14, 2015 at 11:07 am
                            I will read the book. My faith is too strong to be threatened by one person's book.
                            1. J
                              Jan 18, 2015 at 1:07 pm
                              real shame on this autour who insulted total womens this not about community or realigion
                              1. J
                                Jawahar Nehru
                                Jan 14, 2015 at 3:23 am
                                Another converted Christian fraud from Tamil Nadu hiding in a Hindu name.
                                1. J
                                  Jawahar Nehru
                                  Jan 14, 2015 at 3:55 am
                                  Every Tom, D*ck & overnight Charlie's are barking about Freedom of Expression these days
                                  1. H
                                    Jan 14, 2015 at 3:49 pm
                                    Marxist or Maoist attack is against indian culture and nation.
                                    1. R
                                      Jan 15, 2015 at 10:42 am
                                      People calling for freedom of speech, condemed the cartoons by Charlie Hebdo. Murugan is alive because is violating/insulting a religion which is moderate and strong enough that fantasy fiction writers like Murugan cannot hurt its integrity.
                                      1. R
                                        Jan 16, 2015 at 8:08 am
                                        This is a fiction. It is a novel - treat it as what it is and we shouldnt read too much into it. We do have (still do.. I presume) right to the freedom of opinion and expression.
                                        1. O
                                          Jan 14, 2015 at 1:24 pm
                                          These Marxists have the habit of denigrating the hindus and hindu deities.
                                          1. D
                                            Dr Sufi
                                            Jan 14, 2015 at 12:00 pm
                                            इस नाजुक मसले को पूरी तरह जाने समझे बिना कुछ भी कहना उचित नहीं होगा । परन्तु नेट पर बैठे तमिल बन्धुओं का मौन चौंकाने वाला है।
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