Silence is very important to a writer,” said author Perumal Murugan at the inaugural session of The Indian Express readers’ club at the Oxford Bookstore in New Delhi. “Writers at the Express”, an intimate gathering to be held alternately in Delhi and Mumbai, uses a book or an author as the focus of a conversation between writers and readers.
Tamil writer and public intellectual Murugan, whose twin novels Trial by Silence and Lonely Harvest are making appearances in most award longlists in the subcontinent, was in conversation with The Indian Express Senior Associate Editor Amrith Lal, and was translated from Tamil into English by Senior Sub-editor Ram Sarangan.
Murugan, 53, had gone into self-imposed exile in 2015 following protests demanding the withdrawal and burning of his 2010 novel Madhorubhagan (One Part Woman) for being critical of the Kongu Vellala Gounder community, and declared his death as an author. In 2017, the Madras High Court judgement, which freed Murugan, stated: “Let the author be resurrected to what he is best at. Write.”
Gandhian concepts of silence and distancing came to the writer’s rescue in disengaging from the mobs. “Many forms of protest like carrying black flags or undertaking a hunger strike originated from Gandhian principles,” he said.
“Silence,” Murugan added, “in a literary work, helps readers to participate in the narrative… Some things should be omitted, some said in a veiled fashion, while others should be implied.” On its role outside of literary works, he said, “Silence renders the weapons of opponents useless… Had I said anything during the controversy around Madhorubhagan, it would have been like adding oil to a raging inferno.”
Another form of a “bloodless protest” are his collaborations with Carnatic singer TM Krishna to challenge social hierarchies in what is a very insular space. The first from his family and village to go to college, Murugan chose to write about the lives of marginalised people, among other things. In one such keerthanai (devotional song) he wrote on manual scavengers, Murugan asked Krishna to substitute a socially acceptable term for excrement, malam, with the coarser pee. “When people are still forced to lift and carry excrement by hand, why hesitate so much over the use of a word?” Krishna had asked.
The professor at the Government Arts’ College, Namakkal,Tamil Nadu, takes great pride in “showing students the opportunities they have, and about lifting their perspectives above what their social realities would allow”. He also holds monthly gatherings — koodu (nest) — on his house terrace for students to “explore things otherwise difficult to accomplish within the confines, and censorship, of a government college.”