I am not Perumal Murugan, but I very well could be. So could you or anyone else, who run afoul of a tiny, vocal, rabid fringe that thinks nothing about hounding people who go against their view of what is right. These are people who are an antithesis to the idea of a plural, diverse, multicultural nation and want this country to embody their narrow view of religion, culture and nationhood. It is important that we pay heed to this now, and stand against it, because this is not just a vague concept of ‘freedom of expression’. If we, the people, let this fester and grow, we will end up with the same kind of restrictions that we see across our borders.
Who is Perumal Murugan and what is Mathorubhagan or One Part Woman about?
Perumal Murugan is a Tamil author, poet and Professor and the author of six books.
Photo posted on the author’s Facebook page
Penguin’s author description of him is:
PERUMAL MURUGAN is a well-known contemporary Tamil writer and poet. He has written six novels, four collections of short stories and four anthologies of poetry. Two of his novels have been translated into English to wide acclaim: Seasons of the Palm, which was shortlisted for the prestigious Kiriyama Award in 2005, and Current Show. He has received awards from the Tamil Nadu government as well as from Katha Books.
The book in question Mathorubhagan, whose English translation is called One Part Woman, narrates the story of a childless couple.
Kali and Ponna’s efforts to conceive a child have been in vain. Hounded by the taunts and insinuations of others, all their hopes come to converge on the chariot festival in the temple of Ardhanareeswara, the half-female god. Everything hinges on the one night when rules are relaxed and consensual union between any man and woman is sanctioned. This night could end the couple’s suffering and humiliation. But it will also put their marriage to the ultimate test. (blurb from the Kindle edition of the book)
(I purchased the Kindle version of the book yesterday, and read it till late at night and am awestruck by the author’s characterisations, his narrative and his empathy towards humanity).
Who wants the book banned?
Lots of groups. According to the author :
I think, for the first time, caste organisations and Hindu organisations have come together on the same platform. The Hindu Munnani and three other caste organisations are running the campaign. Their objective has nothing to do with the book, since they are not ready to relent even after I promised to change the name of the village in the next edition of the book.
The book has ran afoul of the right wing Hindu organisations including the RSS and the Hindu Munani. They believe that Mathorubhagan offends their religious, cultural and caste sensibilities, in addition to insulting their hometown, women in their hometown, and the temple. In December, the Hindu had reported on this issue :
Alleging that Tamil writer Perumal Murugan’s novel, Madhorubhagan, has portrayed the Kailasanathar temple in Tiruchengode and women devotees in bad light, the BJP, RSS and other Hindu outfits have demanded its ban and the arrest of the author. They burnt copies of the book on Friday at Tiruchengode.
What was the impact?
On January 13, after almost a month of protests, which has led the author and his family to flee their home, Perumal Murugan put out a statement on his Facebook page. This is the translation :
Author Perumal Murugan has died. He is no god, so he is not going to resurrect himself. Nor does he believe in reincarnation. From now on, Perumal Murugan will survive merely as a teacher, as he has been.
He thanks all magazines, media, readers, friends, writers, organisations, political parties, leaders, students and anyone else who supported Perumal Murugan and upheld the freedom of expression.
The issue is not going to end with Madhorubagan. Different groups and individuals might pick up any of his books and make it a problem. Therefore, these are the final decisions that Perumal Murugan has taken:
1. Other than those books that Perumal Murugan has compiled and published on his own, he withdraws all the novels, short stories, essays and poetry he has written so far. He says with certainty that none of these books will be on sale again.
2. He requests his publishers – Kalachavadu, Natrinai, Adaiyalam, Malaigal, Kayalkavin not to sell his books. He will compensate them for their loss.
3. All those who have bought his books so far are free to burn them. If anyone feels they have incurred a waste or loss in buying his books, he will offer them a compensation.
4. He requests that he be not invited to any events from now on.
5. Since he is withdrawing all his books, he requests caste, religious, political and other groups not to engage in protests or create problems.
Please leave him alone. Thanks to everyone.
Books by Perumal Murugan posted on his Facebook page
Historically, there is precedence for this kind of recanting under the threat of violence. Galileo, ran afoul of a corrupt, centralised and dogmatic Catholic Church of his era. They objected to his scientific theories that repudiated the scientific vision of the universe laid down in their scriptures.The Church believed that the Earth was the centre of the universe. Galileo showed that the Earth moved around the sun. For this, the Church ordered him to be placed under arrest and face the inquisition. A 70-year-old Galileo recanted.
After an injunction had been judicially intimated to me by this Holy Office, to the effect that I must altogether abandon the false opinion that the sun is the center of the world and immovable, and that the earth is not the center of the world, and moves, and that I must not hold, defend, or teach in any way whatsoever, verbally or in writing, the said false doctrine, and after it had been notified to me that the said doctrine was contrary to Holy Scripture — I wrote and printed a book in which I discuss this new doctrine already condemned, and adduce arguments of great cogency in its favor, without presenting any solution of these, and for this reason I have been pronounced by the Holy Office to be vehemently suspected of heresy, that is to say, of having held and believed that the Sun is the center of the world and immovable, and that the earth is not the center and moves:
Protesting against a book, a painting, a cartoon, a caricature is par for the course, in a vibrant, diverse democratic republic. But, what is not acceptable, is hounding of artists, writers, and those who dissent against a unified view of a religion or culture. People have the right to profess their faith and follow their cultural norms. What is dictatorial and intolerant is not just to expect that everyone else does the same, but also threaten to cause a law and order issue until such time that the offending piece of expression is banned.
History tells us that Galileo was right. The Church finally apologised to him in 1992.
What is the role of the State ?
The state has one very important role – to protect the rights of the individual citizen and ensure that politically motivated groups do not impinge on our constitutional rights. The Tamil Nadu state administration has failed miserably in protecting the rights of Perumal Murugan. They have allowed fringe elements to bully, harass and finally exile a writer from his mode of expression. They need to collectively hang their heads in shame.
Do people have the right to protest against books, films and other forms of expression?
Yes, unambiguously so. They have the right to show their ire and objection, it is part of their right to free expression. But, and this is an important caveat, this stops short of violence, threats of violence, threats to life, livelihood and hounding of people till they flee the country or stop writing. Freedoms are not just for people and causes that you like and support, they better be present for everyone. Every time the State fails to protect the right of expression, the right of the individual and allows fringe groups to gain victory, each individual in India loses a little bit of their freedom. This is not about Perumal Murugan alone, it is about all of us and our right to express without fear.
Finally – what is this about?
An author hounded till he gives up writing. This is not what my religion or culture or nation is supposed to stand for – this is not in my name. As a culture, dissent is a part of our civilisational ethos, as is questioning everything around us. Offence or even blasphemy is not a good enough reason to stifle and strangle expression of ideas and views. We have always been a culture that respected dissent. When Tulsidas wrote the Ramayan in a language people could understand, he ran afoul of the orthodoxy who bayed for his blood; when Dnyaneshwar wrote the Dnyaneshwari (a commentary on the Bhagwad Gita in Marathi) that every one could understand, he faced the same problems. Today, no one remembers the names of those who opposed these great men. All we do, is imbibe from the Ramcharitramanas and the Dnyaneshwari.
Today, we are facing one more push back from the orthodox and those who wish to interfere in our right to religion and free expression (which is both a constitutional right and a civilizational one), it is time we took a stand and asked our government to be steadfast in protecting our rights.