On Tuesday, the Madras High Court upheld the right of Tamil author Perumal Murugan to publish while dismissing petitions that sought a directive from the court to the publisher to forfeit all the copies of his novel, ‘Mathorubagan’, and its English translation, ‘One Part Woman’. Excerpts from the judgment:
The Tamil version of the novel sold a fair amount of copies, as stated by the learned counsel for the publisher, keeping in mind it was a Tamil publication. People have read the novel and have found nothing wrong with it. Four long years elapsed since its initial release. It is nobody’s case that it had fallen into some hands where it could cause damage. In any case, there are different kinds of books available on the shelves of book stores to be read by different age groups from different strata. If you do not like a book, simply close it. The answer is not its ban.
A large part of ancient literature written at different periods of time where such sexual mores have been discussed liberally have been referred to by the learned counsel for the author, only to substantiate that something unknown had not been written by the author, but that a small group of people with a narrow vision and without any appreciation of ancient Indian literature, has gone up in arms against the novel. We have extracted extensively from the books referred before us, to the extent possible, to show how from Vedic times onwards has the subject of sex, erotic literature and ancient and medieval practices been dealt with.
We have discussed the materials in the earlier part of our judgment in extenso and are not reproducing them for our conclusion, but only say that they truly reflect the liberal ethos, uncorrupted by the Victorian English philosophy, which came to dominate post the British invasion of India. As a society, we seem to be more bogged down by this Victorian philosophy rather than draw inspiration from our own literature and scriptures. Or perhaps may be it is only a small sect of people who believe so, but are vociferous enough to create such a pandemonium. Sex, per se, was not treated as undesirable, but was an integral part right from the existence of civilisation.
The Indian scriptures, including the Mahabharata, are said to be replete with obvious examples of sex outside marriage, also specifically for the purpose of having progenies and that too, of the intellectual class. These practices have been followed by both the higher and lower social and economical strata of the society, only as an endeavour to have a future perfect king. Can we say the Mahabharata or the various other literatures, which we have quoted herein above, are part of our history, yet they say something that is unusually lascivious and therefore should be banned? We only say this –
In response to the demands of time and place what is proper/ may become improper, and what is improper may become proper (Shanti Parva)
A larger cause has emerged on account of the role played by the State in matters such as these. The State by itself did not find anything offensive in the novel. It got published and remained in the market to be read for more than four years. What seems to have triggered State action was a perceived threat to the peace in the town, resulting in interventions by the officials. We can thus perceive it only as an endeavour of peace initiative rather than there being any offence being committed. The administration wanted to possibly dilute the situation and that is what resulted in the “summons” being issued, calling upon the author to participate in the peace initiatives.
There is a dual consideration which arises for consideration. The first is whether such a peace initiative in the given situation was misplaced and the second is whether in subjects of this nature dealing with art and culture, where there are different points of view, there should be State intervention and if so, to what extent?
We had noticed the fact at the inception that we were troubled by the State interventions in such subject matters are not simply matters of brokering peace. There are different and variant thought processes on social mores and while each may be entitled to his own view, it cannot be forced down the gullet of another. It is not unusual to see now a campaign against a book, a film, a painting, a sculpture and other forms of artistic representations. Art is often provocative and is meant not for everyone, nor does it compel the whole society to see it. The choice is left with the viewer. Merely because a group of people feel agitated about it cannot give them a license to vent their views in a hostile manner, and the State cannot plead its inability to handle the problem of a hostile audience. A vague construction therefore, of a possible deplorable impact on a certain section is not reason enough to deprive an artist of his expression. Even more so in a democratic country like ours.
All writings, unpalatable for one section of the society, cannot be labelled as obscene, vulgar, depraving, prurient and immoral. There can hardly be any improper intent or motive assigned to the author in the present case, who even went backwards to ensure that the hurt feelings of all are assuaged. He (Perumal Murugan) is a writer who had imbibed education and grown from the same very town, holding it in high esteem. There cannot be a new puritanism imbibed in this civilisation of variant cultures. We are not stating that the creative freedom of an artiste is unhindered. We have referred to the fact that these are not matters concerned with security of the State or of denigration of any religion or a class of people. A section of people are just seeking to put themselves or their ancestors in the shoes of persons who are affected because of a reference to a location and a folklore, which description of location also stood withdrawn subsequently, since the author believed it was a work of fiction and could have been based anywhere else. There has to be an attitude of tolerance towards writings which have existed for ages and which come into being, which may not be “of our kind”.
The author and artistes like him cannot be under a constant apprehension that if he deviates from the oft-treaded path, he will face adverse consequences. The opponents of the novel may certainly be entitled to its critique, as the proponents of the novel are entitled to applaud it. But shutting down life of the town, holding it to ransom and effecting threats to the author is not the way. The state also performs an important role along with the judiciary in protecting these individual rights and freedoms.
The author Perumal Murugan should not be under fear. He should be able to write and advance the canvass of his writings. His writings would be a literary contribution, even if there were others who may differ with the material and style of his expression. The answer cannot be that it was his own decision to call himself dead as a writer. It was not a free decision, but a result of a situation which was created.
Time is a great healer and we are sure, that would hold true for Perumal Murugan as well as his opponents; both would have learnt to get along with their lives, we hope by now, in their own fields, and bury this issue in the hatchet as citizens of an advancing and vibrant democracy. We hope our judgment gives a quietus to the issue with introspection on all sides.
Time also teaches us to forget and forgive and see beyond the damage. If we give time its space to work itself out, it would take us to beautiful avenues. We conclude by observing this —
“Let the author be resurrected to what he is best at. Write.”