Gained in Translation: Life lessons for my students

Why is it so difficult for doors to open for students pursuing their education in Tamil?

Written by Perumal Murugan | Updated: April 17, 2017 1:50 pm
perumal murugan, Muthukrishnan, JNU student suicide, Muthukrishnan suicide, Muthukrishnan JNU, india news, indian express editorial Scholar Muthukrishnan (File Photo)

Beginning today, The Sunday Express starts a fortnightly column, Gained in Translation, a window to conversations around us in languages other than English. These will be translations of pieces written exclusively for The Sunday Express. We begin with one by Perumal Murugan, in Tamil, on the lessons his students need to learn — and unlearn.

I am a teacher in a government college, where 90 per cent of my students are first-generation learners. These are students, who during their school days, juggle classroom work with jobs that involve some form of physical labour. Even in college, they continue to work part-time, through which, they not only cater to their own financial needs but are also compelled to tend to their families. Many survive on single meals; a healthy sumptuous one a distant dream.

Most of these students opt for Economics, History and Literature — courses they feel will allow them the leeway to work while studying. They hardly ever study during their three-year undergraduate stints: 75 per cent of them end up taking full-time jobs even before completing their degrees, with only 25 per cent going on to pursue higher studies, that too only in courses offered by government colleges.

For government colleges, a student stepping up to do a masters degree is a momentous event. And if any one of them happens to make it to an institution such as the Jawarharlal Nehru University (JNU), it is a matter of great pride and celebration for teachers like us. We would cite such students as role models, in the hope it would inspire others for years to come. Do you think this is possible any more in light of what happened with Muthukrishnan?

Muthukrishnan, who pursued a PhD at JNU’s Centre for Historical Studies, was from our district, Salem. He completed his BA and MA in History from one of Tamil Nadu’s oldest institutions — the Government Arts College, Salem. He did his B Ed at the Ramakrishna College in Coimbatore, following which, he earned an M Phil from the University of Hyderabad. I had met him here, when I had gone to address a group of Tamil students, and had appreciated his grit in having made it to Hyderabad all the way from a government college in Salem.

He went on to pursue doctoral studies at JNU, after a lot of hard work and perseverance. He was suddenly found hanging from a ceiling fan inside his friend’s house and is alleged to have committed suicide. His motives are yet unknown.

Muthukrishnan’s family background mirrors that of 90 per cent of our government college students. His father was a watchman and mother, a daily wager. Of his three sisters, one is married and another engaged. They live in Swaminathapuram, Salem.

How did he manage to study? He did a lot of odd jobs, all of which involved physical labour. Muthukrishnan even sold tea, earning Re 1 per cup; he would sell up to 300-400 cups of tea a day. He also waited tables at restaurants.

Despite working, he was a regular at the college library, while the District Central library, beside the college, was a second home. There are professors who encourage students like him; there are also others who make fun of them. In fact, Muthukrishnan swore that he would study at JNU and return to this college as a professor, after one of the teachers had insulted him. It was his dream to become a history professor, but English was a barrier. So, he took English lessons from a private tutor. It seemed to have helped. His friends said he could hold his own in hour-long conversations in the language.

Muthukrishnan preferred to be addressed as ‘Rajini Krish’ by his friends. He also had a Facebook account by the same name. But why would a youngster of this generation relate to the yesteryear actor? It was probably because of the roles the actor essayed — mostly of hardworking men from poor backgrounds, achieving success through honest means.

Muthukrishnan had an appetite for books by renowned historians such as Romila Thapar, R S Sharma and Damodar Dharmananda Kosambi. He felt his entry into JNU was his ‘historic moment’, which he achieved after four years of repeated attempts at written exams and interviews, and had planned to write a book chronicling his journey to the university, under the title ‘A Junket to JNU’.

His death now evokes a hundred questions and fears in my mind. Can we ever cite Muthukrishnan as an example to encourage other passionate students? What if they retort: ‘Do you want what happened with him to happen to us?’.

Why is it so difficult for doors to open for students pursuing their education in Tamil? North Indian students have an option to write the entrance examinations in either Hindi or English. Our students, in spite of learning English for 10 years in school, still approach it with a sense of fear. We do not learn Hindi at school. Even if we do, it is still alien to us, just like English, because ‘Tamizh’ belongs to a different language family — the Dravidian family.

We are compelled to take entrance tests in an unfamiliar language. Why such discrimination against people of the same country? Why do we not have the option to learn in our mother tongue? If all our energy and drive must be invested in mastering an alien language, how do we focus on knowledge?

Should it also be so difficult for an Indian to get to the Capital of his country? Is this how a Capital should welcome him? By taking his life? It is said that Muthukrishnan was asked to tear away a poster of Dr Ambedkar that he had stuck in his room. If Jawaharlal Nehru University does not have place for Ambedkar, isn’t that a matter of shame?

I consider it part of my responsibility as a teacher to push my students towards studying and away from jobs that demand physical labour. Muthukrishnan has now made me contemplate on that responsibility. We are probably meant to take up what jobs we get, eat what is available and continue doing the same kind of work for generations without aspiring for education, research, or anything bigger.

Many of our students enter the police and the military force. Some may rise a little, appear for and clear Group IV examinations, eventually being placed as office clerks. That, it seems, is our limit. These are jobs meant for sacrificial lambs. Why should Muthukrishnans aspire for more? How can we deem ourselves deserving of research and crap?

This will be my message to my students henceforth. And this is my ‘historic moment’.


The writer, a Tamil novelist and poet, is best known for his novel Mathorubhagan (One Part Woman). This article is translated from Tamil by S Sindhu. E P Unny’s Rough Cut now becomes fortnightly, will appear next week

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First Published on: April 16, 2017 12:26 am
  1. தாமரை செல்வன்
    Apr 18, 2017 at 4:10 am
    This discrimination is because of the flaw in Article 15 & 16 of our Cons ution. Pls go through the following write-up. s: www.facebook /notes/தாமரை-செல்வன்/article-15-16/1855558308051540/
    1. S
      Sreenivasa Rao Ketepalle
      Apr 18, 2017 at 3:33 am
      Very well articulated and exceptionally great translation.
      1. T
        Apr 17, 2017 at 6:45 pm
        Muthukrishnan and Perumal murugan are by products of 50 years of Dravidian Govt of TN which thrives on inferiority complex that is the reason they even find fault Navodaya Schools and now with NEET
        1. T
          Thrinethran T
          Apr 17, 2017 at 12:50 am
          The options are, that educators of the State including Perumal Murugan drop their chauvinistic at ude, and demand a better curriculum for the students including Hindi, and better ins utions in the State that impart knowledge only in Tamizh. Meanwhile, the disjointed narrative sheds no light on the tragic ending of the scholar at JNU.
          1. G
            Apr 16, 2017 at 10:47 pm
            People are not fools who can not see eyewash behind PM's praise for Ambedkar. RSS has always criticized and ridiculed Ambedkar. This sudden eruption of affection on part of right wing for Ambedkar and Dalits is just for votes. Just by falling at the feat of Yogi Umesh, Bhagwat thought dalits are in his pocket.
            1. Y
              Apr 16, 2017 at 10:10 pm
              Get out of this habit of using the dalit badge on your shoulder as a solution to everything. It is only managing to hide Dalit students having genuine mental health problems. Start using psychiatric help for those who need it. In your entire write up, there is no injustice done to him, no social cause for suicide. Society has given him its reservations and scholarships and he has used that to advance. Only explanation for suicide is then in domain of psychiatry. And stop using with every Dalit death for Politics. It is a shame and it hurts his family deeply after its already serious loss.
              1. L
                Lakshmi Bandlamudi
                Apr 16, 2017 at 9:17 pm
                A writer that I admire is raising some very important issues and as an educator I share his concerns. We only boast about being a multi-lingual nation and yet important works are not translated and Indian languages are not accommodated even within India. This is a shame. I hope policy makers and educators consider this problem with the seriousness it deserves.
                1. U
                  Apr 16, 2017 at 5:59 pm
                  I am saddened by the loss of young Muthukrishnan's life. He could have gone on to achieve so much and touch future lives. Dr. Perumal, please don't lose heart - you have started a dialog on breaking the cycle of physical labor and incremental success for those of us who seemingly should not dare to aspire for anything more. Muthukrishnan's death is no doubt a great personal loss, but it also a reminder of the loss of the potential of millions like him. India simply cannot let so many of its underprivileged youngsters fall through the cracks and magically expect to find itself an educated and upwardly mobile nation. Would it be possible for meritorious students from non-Hindi speaking states to be nominated to study at JNU instead to taking an entrance exam? Since English language proficiency appears to be critical to future success, we need English language immersion programs to help overcome the language barrier. Finally, these students need a support network.
                  1. P
                    Apr 16, 2017 at 11:35 am
                    a young boy of 5 year old can ask these questions, does anyone has answers 1. Why some people work as house servants or house maids????? 2. Why some people do not have enough money (and this "some" is more than 2 billions) 3. why some do not have enough to even eat food? 4. Why people need to work to live? 5. Why so many rich people keep buying expensive cars when there are so many poor people ................................................................................ there are so many more..... ....................... one line answer is because we are not truthful..... does anybody know whom the greed, deception and lies hurt most... the poor people and their next generations.. .................. you have time to save future generations... 1. control po tion, no more than 2 kids 2. no conversion of religions, no proselytization.. live with your numbers for next 5 decades.. 3. give free education upto 12th grade 4. no sick mentality higher education in history etc
                    1. P
                      Apr 16, 2017 at 11:36 am
                      5. free health insurance upto 18 years... and later after 50 years... only if you have at most two kids... penalty on those who have more than 2..
                      1. P
                        Apr 16, 2017 at 11:36 am
                        Jail to those who entice people for conversion from one religion to another..
                    2. S
                      Apr 16, 2017 at 10:29 am
                      Why most people send their children to English medium schools if they love their mother tongue so much?
                      1. M
                        Apr 16, 2017 at 9:34 am
                        Leftists like this author suffer from a constant "siege mentality" - see dark forces of 'injustice' if their "Left Utopia" cannot materialise. They do not see that their Utopia was tried in Russia, China and in many other countries. All of those countries never produced anything close to an Utopia, in fact, ordinary people were starved or actively killed by their secret police.
                        1. M
                          Apr 16, 2017 at 9:28 am
                          Geography and history determine the language medium in which each of us complete our education. Chinese, German, Czech and anese students coming to Western Universities to do post-graduate M.Phil or Ph.D. learn English. They struggle but do not commit suicide if they are unable to p their M.Phil etc,. Yes, Tamil is available as a medium for doing M.Phil / Ph.D. Do not know why Muthukrishnan went to Hyderabad University. There is no Tamil medium there. If Tamil Nadu was as developed as an or Shanhai province of China, then all the Tamils can study in Tamil medium. It is NOT. If Tamils want jobs elsewhere outside Tamil Nadu, study Hindi or English. Studying new languages, we all do, even the Hindi speakers making a living in TamilNadu. All the Pawn Brokers from Rajasthan speak and many write in Tamil. To make a living you do work hard, including learning new languages. My ancestors were as poor as Muthukrishnan. They learnt English, Bengali and Hindi, to survive.
                          1. A
                            Apr 16, 2017 at 9:03 am
                            Who has given you the right add dalit word to any name? Do you even understand , just pick the news and add dalit word to make the seen. So that the story looks good.
                            1. U
                              Uday Bhaskar
                              Apr 16, 2017 at 6:29 am
                              If this fellow was any good, he should have sta away from JNU. Probably, he realized how shameful his life was.
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