HOW AU­THOR PERUMAL MURUGAN DE­CLARED HIM­SELF DEAD, AND IS NOW BACK TO LIFE

This au­thor de­clared him­self dead after a ma­jor con­tro­versy two years ago. But now, Perumal Murugan is back in al­most fren­zied ac­tion

Hindustan Times - Brunch - - NEWS - By Priya Bala

What are you work­ing on at present? “This,” says the writer, with a wry smile, re­fer­ring to our in­ter­ac­tion. “Giv­ing in­ter­views, at­tend­ing lit­er­ary fes­ti­vals.”

The low-pro­file and unas­sum­ing Perumal Murugan has seen his quiet life as a writer and pro­fes­sor of Tamil be­come a tu­mult since 2014, when his novel, Madho

ruba­gan, be­came the sub­ject of con­tro­versy when var­i­ous groups protested against its por­trayal of tra­di­tions prac­tised at the Ard­hana­reeswarar Tem­ple in Tiruchen- gode, Murugan’s home town.

Em­bit­tered and pos­si­bly de­feated by the vit­ri­olic na­ture of the ob­jec­tions, Murugan de­clared in a Face­book post in early 2015 that ‘Perumal Murugan the writer is dead…’ even as the mat­ter was in court. In July last year, the Madras High Court said in its rul­ing that ‘The au­thor Perumal Murugan should not be un­der fear. He should be able to write and ad­vance the can­vas of his writ­ings.’

Murugan had once de­scribed his state dur­ing his non-writ­ing phase as that of a ‘walk­ing corpse’. But now he wishes not to look back at that painful episode. “I pre­fer not to think about it or speak of it,” he says.

WRIT­ING’S RE­TURN

He is happy, though, to dis­cuss the first writ­ing that sig­naled his re­turn to his metier. It was a poem ti­tled

“Lit­er­a­ture serves two pur­poses: it al­lows us to live other lives and break free of the ev­ery­day ex­is­tence”

Aayi­ra­maayi­ram, that later be­came part of a col­lec­tion called Kozhayin

Paadal­gal or A Cow­ard’s Songs. As poet and nov­el­ist, Murugan rel­ishes both the spon­tane­ity of the for­mer and the dis­ci­pline that the lat­ter de­mands. “A poem is sparked off by a word, an im­age or a sin­gle thought,” he says, “And must be penned down

im­me­di­ately or you could lose the mo­ment, it can­not be planned. A novel, in con­trast, re­quires a def­i­nite plan and struc­ture, be­sides time and phys­i­cal ef­fort.”

Other than six nov­els, in­clud­ing the con­tro­ver­sial Mad­ho­ruba

gan (trans­lated into English as the award-win­ning One Part Woman), Nizhal Mu­tram ( Cur­rent Show) and

Koola­madari ( Sea­sons of the Palm), Murugan has also writ­ten four col­lec­tions of short stories. A col­lec­tion of 10 stories, trans­lated by N Kalyan Ra­man, is be­ing pub­lished by Jug­ger­naut.

“It be­gan as an ini­tia­tive to have my stories avail­able on an app. I guess the re­sponse was en­cour­ag­ing enough for them to be brought out as a book,” says the writer. He works closely with his trans­la­tors, help­ing them un­der­stand the nu­ances con­tained in his stories that are rooted in his beloved Thiruchen­gode and which con­tain the smell of the earth, the flavour of Kongu­nad cook­ing and the fig­ures of speech that make re­gional lit­er­a­ture so cap­ti­vat­ing for the reader.

CASTE NO BAR

Murugan is look­ing for­ward also to the pub­li­ca­tion of the English trans­la­tion of a col­lec­tion of es­says he com­piled. Well-known writer and re­searcher Am­bai is trans­lat­ing the an­thol­ogy to be called Caste and I. The works sprang from an in­for­mal monthly lit­er­ary fo­rum, Koodu, which Murugan hosted on the ter­race of his Na­makkal home. Par­tic­i­pate in the #BrunchBookChal­lenge Visit on­line: read.ht/yrz

“My stu­dents, vis­it­ing writ­ers, any­one who was in­ter­ested in read­ing and writ­ing could at­tend. We re­viewed books, shared new writ­ing and had lively dis­cus­sions about all things lit­er­ary,” Murugan says. After 50 meet­ings of Koodu, it was de­cided to mark the mile­stone with a pub­li­ca­tion. The theme they chose was caste.

“Con­trib­u­tors had to share in an hon­est, no-holds-barred fash­ion their ex­pe­ri­ences of caste dy­nam­ics, as vic­tims, per­pe­tra­tors or mere ob­servers. It is a phe­nom­e­non

that per­me­ates the most im­por­tant realms of our lives, from birth and death to love and mar­riage, and even the seem­ingly less sig­nif­i­cant as­pects like where we can rent a home, for in­stance.”

Com­ing from the small vil­lage of Koota­palli in Tiruchen­gode, Murugan has been a keen ob­server of the so­cial sys­tem in this re­gion as also the in­di­vid­ual’s re­sponse to these dy­nam­ics. Re­view­ers praised his etch­ing of Ponna, the cen­tral char­ac­ter in Mad­ho­ruba­gan. She is a woman stig­ma­tised for be­ing un­able to bear a child who at­tends a tem­ple fes­ti­val where child­less women could pair with a stranger and get preg­nant. His em­pa­thy and un­der­stand­ing of Ponna’s po­si­tion in so­ci­ety and in her mar­riage was much lauded, stem­ming as it did from a male per­spec­tive.

“Isn’t all writ­ing a trans­mi­gra­tion of sorts, a process of in­hab­it­ing an­other body and mind?” asks Murugan, us­ing the Tamil term ‘ koodu vittu koodu paaid­hal’. “I have been see­ing what a bur­den child­less- ness places on cou­ples, par­tic­u­larly women, in our so­ci­ety. So much so, it’s now be­come big busi­ness. That is where Mad­ho­ruba­gan emerged from. The tem­ple rit­ual sim­ply served as a key for me to take the story of Ponna and her hus­band Kali for­ward.”

Through the tra­vails of this cou­ple, Murugan also ex­plores the con­di­tion of mar­riage. “It is not a demo­cratic in­sti­tu­tion,” he says. “The man al­ways has and con­tin­ues to have a wider space in which to func­tion, the woman is con­stantly con­strained. As a writer I feel the com­pul­sion to dwell on these is­sues with the op­ti­mism that some­thing will give, slowly, but even­tu­ally.”

BE­YOND THE EV­ERY­DAY

Perumal Murugan has been writ­ing for 30-plus years now. His first lit­er­ary ef­fort was as a lit­tle boy when he sent a poem ti­tled

Poonam Nalla Poonai to the Tiruch- irap­palli ra­dio sta­tion and it was ac­cepted for broad­cast.

“Ra­dio was the only win­dow to the lit­er­ary world then,” he says. His first pub­lished work as a ma­ture writer was a short story that ap­peared in the highly re­spected

Kanayaazhi magazine in 1988. He has been writ­ing his po­ems, short stories and nov­els steadily since then. He reads con­stantly, too: Tamil writ­ers and the Tamil trans­la­tions of writ­ing in other Indian lan­guages.

“Lit­er­a­ture serves two pur­poses,” he says. “It al­lows us to live other lives and break free of the ev­ery­day ex­is­tence. I think even travel doesn’t quite al­low us that. The other rea­son why we read is to gain other per­spec­tives, to ap­pre­ci­ate other ways of liv­ing, of think­ing, other cre­dos. With­out that we are nar­row-minded, see­ing things in black and white.”

It is the ex­pe­ri­ence of those on the fringes, those who dare to break con­ven­tion that be­comes a good story, he be­lieves. “There is al­ways room for the un­con­ven­tional and it’s

“I have seen what a bur­den child­less­ness can be… And [mar­riage] is not a demo­cratic in­sti­tu­tion. As a writer, I feel the com­pul­sion to dwell on these is­sues with op­ti­mism that some­thing will give, slowly, but even­tu­ally.”

some­thing we must ac­cept,” he says.

With the bit­ter con­tro­versy be­hind him Murugan has many more stories to tell. To bring them to fruition, he has to find time in-be­tween his full-time ca­reer as a pro­fes­sor at the Govern­ment Arts Col­lege in Aathur.

“I of­ten dream of quit­ting teach­ing to de­vote all my time to writ­ing,” he says, wist­fully. “But the re­al­ity is that it’s nearly im­pos­si­ble to meet your com­mit­ments be­ing a full-time writer.” If his dream ma­te­ri­alises, Indian lit­er­a­ture will be richer.

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