On January 12, 2015, the writer Perumal Murugan died. On July 5, 2016, the writer Perumal Murugan was resurrected.
This was no miracle, but a sad parable of Indian life today.
In January 2015, the writer died; but the teacher and citizen, Perumal Murugan of Tiruchengode, Tamil Nadu, was still alive. He announced his death himself. The cause of death was his novel, Madhorubhagan (2010), translated from Tamil to English as One Part Woman (2014), by Aniruddhan Vasudevan. A young woman in this fiction is desperate to have a child. She decides, as a last resort, to take part in a temple festival where for one night, consensual sex is permissible between any man and woman. The temple is dedicated to the one-part-woman god, Ardhanareeswara. Actually, this fiction was only an excuse. The cause of the writer’s death was intimidation, a form of censorship increasingly practised in India by individuals and groups. The real cause was the ideological agenda behind the intimidation.
Four years after Murugan’s novel was published, caste-based groups, slow readers all, claimed the book “hurt” their religious sentiments, and “defamed” women, the region and the community. The BJP-RSS, on the lookout for allies, pulled out its familiar script: Mob censorship can divide people; division can court vote banks. (It also destroys free speech and cultural well-being, but that can be passed off as nationalism.)
Used to conflating history and fiction, the self-appointed censors put on their police uniforms. Instead of ignoring the thought police as aberrant haters of idea, imagination and word, the real police took them seriously. The writer was summoned for “peace talks”. He was hounded into signing an apology and “withdrawing” his novel. He then took to Facebook to announce his death as a writer.
Between last January and this July, the writer floated, dead and alive, in a menacing purgatory. In October 2015, he got an award from the Samanvay Bhasha Samman. His “shadow”, the publisher, came to Delhi to receive the award. But there was a statement from the writer’s “ghost”. With heartbreaking logic, the ghost said, “The Samanvay Award for Madhorubhagan is a modern recognition given to Tamil, a classical language with a long and unbroken literary tradition. This recognition, bestowed on my language at an unfortunate moment, will, I hope, be a shining gem rather than an unsightly wart.”
In July 2016, the writer was resurrected. The Madras High Court told him he could come back to life, think and imagine again, pick up his pen. Murugan the writer has accepted this offer of a second life: “It comforts a heart that had shrunk and wilted. I am trying to prop myself up holding onto the light of the last lines of the judgment: ‘Let the author be resurrected to do what he is best at. Write.’. I will get up.”
Madhorubhagan has been described by Tamil critics as an imaginative effort to map the lore and ethos of the place Murugan comes from; to people it with characters who long for a reliable livelihood, marriage, children, and acceptance by the community. But the point is not whether the novel is award-winning, or even good. The point is not whether a temple festival sanctioned a permissive night, or whether women wanting to conceive took advantage of this night. The real point is that the BJP-RSS and its casteist allies unmake India by depriving Indians of their rights, not only to write, but to read what they will. They insult their intelligence when they look to authority — whether the state, its “cultural” cohorts, the court, Batra-clones, Nihalani-doubles, or caste- and community-obsessed groups — to decide what we will read, write, paint, sing, see, or how we will live in our homes, classrooms and streets.
The Madras High Court has bravely begun its judgement with Voltaire: “I may not agree with what you say, but will defend to the death, your right to say it.” The court has performed its new job of bringing writers back to life, and it has done it reasonably well. Quite rightly, there is gratitude and jubilation among readers, writers and citizens partial to reason and imagination. But the judgement also forces us to confront the times we live in; what is happening to our home with its myriad riches. Literature, art, or a scientific breakthrough by an Indian Galileo, may challenge communities to look at the world afresh. Do we now look to the court to tell us what is worthy in art or science? Do we need the court, or anyone else, to allow us to tell stories?
These questions lead to an embarrassingly obvious point. But the obvious needs to be spelt out today, not just by the court or the eminent, but by the Indian people, every single one of them. We need, from childhood, to tell stories about ourselves and others. This need to imagine and recount is so powerful that it is inextinguishable. No law, no hurt sentiment, no official or unofficial censor, can destroy this yearning for different kinds of truth. We know this from history and literature, and our essential knowledge of ourselves. History is replete with examples of resistance to the suppression of the imaginative idea, good, bad or indifferent.
We are besieged today by the BJP-RSS and its cynical gang who silence writers; prevent plays from being performed, films from being seen; art from pursuing what it must. Voices are muffled or silenced, whether they belong to women, the youth, or certain castes and communities. These voices need a second life like Perumal Murugan. But no government or court, no follower of identity politics is going to help. We have to resurrect the India we want to make with our own mass politics. We have to get this second life ourselves.