Someone has painted over my head/ a pair of horns everyone can see/ Someone has turned me/ into a strange beast.
This is how Perumal Murugan described himself in the 2015 poem, A Strange Beast. This is the same year the Tamil writer announced that he would no longer write, following demands by caste-based groups that his novel, Madhorubhagan (One Part Woman) be withdrawn from circulation. His return from this self-imposed exile is marked with the recently published novel, Poonachi or The Story of a Black Goat (Westland; Rs 499), that was launched at the India Habitat Centre last week.
Excerpts from Murugan’s conversation at the event:
The Censor Within
That he chose to write about a goat, he says, shows that there is an active ‘censor’ within him now. “I am fearful about writing about humans; even more fearful of writing about gods. I can write about demons, perhaps. I am even used to a bit of the demonic life. I could make it an accompaniment here. Yes, let me write about animals. There are only five species of animals with which I am deeply familiar. Of them, dogs and cats are meant for poetry. It is forbidden to write about cows or pigs. That leaves only goats and sheep. Goats are problem free, harmless and, above all, energetic. A story needs a narrative pace. Therefore, I have chosen to write about goats.” After reading out the excerpt, Murugan said that the ‘censor’ impacted his choice of content and all subsequent stages of writing the novel.
An Animal as Protagonist
When asked about the inspiration for Poonachi as a character, Murugan speculated that he may be telling parts of his mother’s story, though it wasn’t a conscious decision on his part. “Like Poonachi, my mother was alone in the world soon after her birth. Her mother died when she was six or seven months old and her father was rarely at home and she lived most of her life in one area, just as Poonachi did,” he says. But then, he laughs, “it could have just been the sight of a goat that sparked the idea for a protagonist” — his inspiration is difficult to pin down.
Murugan’s books have gained a much wider readership after their translation into several languages. While he “is happy about the development”, he takes issue with what originally put him under the national spotlight — a series of protests by local Hindu and caste-based groups over the depiction of certain rituals in Madhorubhagan. “Though I am happy that my writings have been translated into so many languages, I am unhappy about the fact that the translations were a result of that one incident. I can’t be happy about the fact that the incident caused the spike in readership and not the book itself, he says, “When my book was first translated in 2004, I was a little hesitant because I write in a dialect that is particular to one region in Tamil Nadu. I was worried about how that would carry over to other languages.
But, I found that quite a few things that I have written about are not only understood but also spoken about with enthusiasm by readers, who only know me through the translated work. I have come to realise that there are many more things that unify people than I had thought possible. Especially, when it is about emotions. Regardless of the language or the region they might be reading my book in, the emotions really well.”