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Thursday, October 29, 2020

Perumal Murugan: I didn’t know who my enemy was, didn’t know whom to testify against

In his first interview since self-imposed break, the Tamil author shares his views on writing and freedom.

Written by Arun Janardhanan | Updated: August 22, 2016 7:15:46 am
perumal murugan, perumal murugan books, perumal murugan criminal case, author perumal murugan, tamil author perumal murugan, tamil author madras high court, india news Perumal Murugan at his new office in Arignar Anna Government Arts College, Attur. (Express Photo: Arun Janardhanan)

After the attacks on your writings, you were reluctant to file a petition. Now that Madras High Court has given an order [declaring illegal the Namakkal district administration’s ban on Murugan’s book Mathorubhagan] how do you feel about it?

The court order was like a personal note to me, especially the last portions [“let the author be resurrected to do what he is best at — write”]. As an author, it made me feel more responsible, that I should write again. Let the public discuss this court order and the value of justice in it. As an individual, I am still recovering from what I experienced. I am thinking of slowly writing again.

Can a writer throw his pen down for 19 months? Didn’t you find it suffocating at not being able to express yourself?

I did not write anything for almost three months. I was so numbed I couldn’t think about anything. The first urge to write came in February 2015, three months after the controversies broke. I wrote a poem that day, and 200 poems since then. I was the sole witness to these poems until I agreed to publish them as a poetry collection after the court order.

Many readers had criticised you for announcing the “death of the author”, for not fighting the groups that had turned against you.

Many expected me to fight back with statements and protests — in that typical manner. There were students who decided to launch protests for me, lawyers who advised me to approach police or move a petition in the court when I faced serious threats. But I didn’t want to handle things in that manner as I didn’t know who my enemy was. I didn’t know whom to testify against. If the role of the state were to be looked at, I would say it had to prioritise law and order over anything else, as they do elsewhere. I didn’t take offence at the caste-communal groups either as I seriously doubt their concerns about God and faith. When my students planned protests, I asked them whether we should use the same language as they had used against my works. Once Buddha was asked why he was not reacting to repeated insults hurled at him by someone. He replied he hadn’t received those insults, so they remained in the possession of those who had hurled them.

You are also known for turning down invitations to literary functions or stage events. Are you an introvert or do you consciously try to escape publicity?

Even I couldn’t believe that I managed to escape the limelight to such an extent. Even if I am an author caught in a controversy, many people continue to force me to narrate my story on stage. Hardly anyone discussed the Madras High Court order on the controversy. Had it not been a controversy, who would have been reading about me? I know all that. I am an author, I am done with my duty through my writings. Why do people expect me to speak like a politician on stage? I am a person who needs at least two months to prepare for a paper presentation. I am neither a switch nor does my creativity get fanned. I need to convince myself of things I should write and speak about. If I accept invitations for literary events, especially from Kerala, I wouldn’t be writing anymore but attending public meetings throughout the year. Right now, I haven’t thought of many things. All that comes to mind is poems, not prose, maybe a strategy devised by the mind to cure all my wounds, like we get boils on the body to discharge toxins, like a fever intoxicates us.

It was a group of caste outfits in Kongu region that turned against you. The region is known for its powerful OBC-Gounder population. In your view, what does caste stands for?

In fact, it is something I still haven’t figured out. It remains a mystery to me. What we see as caste may not be the same as what we are actually looking for. If the idea of caste makes sense, it fails to explain how we all breathe the same air. As I told you, when my book was in trouble, I had no clear answers on who were behind it. There was nobody to blame. Was it the state or caste forces that banned my book? I don’t know.

Your novel was attacked for allegedly tarnishing the image of Gounder women. It portrayed a wife convinced by her family to attend a temple ritual that allows a woman to beget a child through a sexual union with a stranger. Tell us about the women of Tiruchengode and their role in its social history

It is the women who brought prosperity to Kongu region. Even if Tiruchengode or Namakkal appears to have a masculine face with its hundreds of truck operators or drivers or even rig operators, it was women in our families who helped the land prosper when their husbands were away for months working in faraway places… It was the women who looked after their children, agriculture and household work. Bicycles were around since the time they were invented and used widely by women. One could see women riding the TVS-50 [two-seater moped] as early as in the 1980s.

We have started seeing changes in our social structure after the 1990s with the emergence of the rig business. That was the time when men from traditional families started thinking about formal education. But women were already into formal education, many finished school and a few even went to college. More importantly, every woman had her own savings. When Gounder men started travelling to north India for their rig business, it was the women who ruled the land. For instance, my mother was taking care of everything at my home when I grew up. Even after I got a job in the mid-1990s, she handled my savings for a long time. She was illiterate but was an expert in maths, something our men not always were. The transformation of Tiruchengode is also the story of our women.

Can you describe the hurt you felt when people turned against you in Namakkal, your homeland?

I am neither an orator nor a loud thinker to describe my plight. All I have to tell, you may find in my poems. [The first poem he wrote during the period, Aayiramayiram, reads: “I am entering the body of a poisoned dead mouse. It wakes up with a jolt as if from a bad dream, fears filled within. Scared of its surroundings, it runs helter-skelter and finds a hole alongside a gushing river. When it pushes the dirt out, it feels a shiver as the sun and breeze touch it. There are a thousand blocks and a thousand such burrows, am I now holed up in one such undiscoverable burrow?”]

In Neeru Vilayaattu, you wrote: “His hands went limp and his grip came loose. With his mouth agape and limbs splayed wide, he fell on his back into the water, like a frog.” You come from a parched region. Does that explain your fascination for water in your stories?

We didn’t have many water-bodies or rivers or even ponds. Probably this has made me so close to wells, I held them close to my writing as these wells were the only sources of water in my childhood. And like that frog, I too had fallen on my back into a well. I had a very bad accident and hurt my back during my schooldays. Even now, I need to lie down when I read as I cannot sit for too long due to backache. Kallanai Dam in Trichy or streams in Kalavarayan hills are all part of my adventures with water. When I was a teenager, I visited artist K M Adimoolam near the beach in Cholamandalam along with a writer friend, Uma Vasuki. My fascination for water almost killed me that day. I would have drowned had Vasuki not rescued me. But this had never dimmed my fascination for water.

So water has always been a symbol of excitement in the land of drought.

Yes. During my childhood days, much before the Cauvery or Mettur schemes brought water, it was part of our routine to collect water from faraway wells, mostly on a cycle with two pots tied on either side. There were times in the 1980s when three or four years went without rain… These parched terrains are also linked to certain belief systems… I don’t know the science behind it but I have seen it working. There were people who could locate spots for digging a well by holding a coconut and walking slowly until it started moving in an arc. And we dug huge, deep wells there… Wells or water scarcity were always in the background of all changes, which I tried to portray in Yeruveyil (1991), a story that discusses the conflicts and challenges of urbanisation in a village.

Your novel was also attacked for parts that allegedly degraded the local deity at Ardhanareeswara temple, Tiruchengode. How deep are your beliefs?

My father, Perumal, who died when I was 20, was a devotee of Murugan [the main deity at Palani Murugan temple]. He used to tell me I wouldn’t have been born without the blessings of Murugan. He would recall his visit to Palani temple before my mother got pregnant. I am not an atheist. Before joining this college [Arignar Anna Government Arts College, Attur] I visited Murugan Koil in the Vadasenni hills. My family’s devotion for Murugan is something I still cherish. But I should tell you I am least interested in a debate on the existence of God. Instead, a discussion on whether a God is needed or not may be more sensible. If you look around, you can see many lives are thriving only because they believe in God, something that fills the vacuum in our routine life. It happens when people fail to share their pains and happiness with fellow beings, when others disrespect or ridicule their stories. This is where God plays a role as we could tell him anything.

My mother was also a believer. I myself have learnt Tevaram [Sangam literature] and Thiruvasagam of Manikkavasagar [ninth century Shaivite Bhakti poet]. Whenever I visit Namakkal Anjaneyar temple, I sing verses from Kamba Ramayanam [Tamil epic]. I am not reluctant to participate in a prayer session or puja when my family demands that.

Erode, the birthplace of Periyar [social reformist and pioneer of the Dravidian movement], lies next to your region. Why did his ideology against caste and social evils not influence Tiruchengode?

Just as water is scarce in this drought-hit region, Brahmins too were few in number. We had very few temples unlike other places in Tamil Nadu. Periyar’s self-respect movement, which was essentially built on anti-Brahmin sentiments, had little to do with a region populated mostly by Gounder and intermediary castes.

The country is celebrating the 70th year of Independence at a time when there are larger political questions on independence and freedom — freedom of women, Dalits, students, writers. What is your view on Independence?

I am not a politician to speak about Independence. Independence is nothing but a freedom to do things without affecting others’ freedom. Before we talk about independence and freedom [of the underprivileged, women, Dalits, minorities, students, writers], the question should be whether we have the freedom to discuss all these.

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