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an appeal to caste, religious, political and other groups to end their protests and leave the writer alone since he has withdrawn all his books.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.
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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.