God’s Own Child-10: Perumal Murugan, God and the struggle for understanding the eternal quest

Murugan’s writing ambition was never about glory or money. It was his own way of dealing with life, of coming to terms, of finding closure.

BySaket Suman

Published Jun 14, 2024 | 2:00 PM Updated Jun 14, 2024 | 2:00 PM

Cover of One Part Woman authored by Perumal Murugan.

Perumal Murugan’s journey from a devout upbringing to a celebrated yet controversial author throws light on the challenges of artistic expression. Author-journalist Saket Suman delves into his reflections on faith, literature and society in the last of the ten-part series exclusively on thesouthfirst.com.

The question of the creator, or the ultimate being, who runs this grand story called life and guides the universal forces to action so that things function in the manners we know, see, and feel has long attracted the curious attention of writers and philosophical thinkers.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that much as mankind has been fascinated by the idea of the creator or the Supreme Being, we have just as much confronted ourselves on the varying perceptions that shape our understanding of the entire concept. Science has taught us to uphold rational thinking and believe in facts instead of superstitions, prejudices, and mere beliefs.

“There is no God. No one directs the universe,” wrote the late Stephen Hawking in his last book, “Brief Answers to the Big Questions”. “For centuries, it was believed that disabled people like me were living under a curse that God inflicted… I prefer to think that everything can be explained another way, by the laws of nature,” he added.

But then there are questions that science has been unable to answer, creating a scope for believing in something greater than ourselves.

As we know, the idea of the Supreme Being has also been vigorously contested because there is no single God that all humans believe in, worship, and show their devotion to. Instead, we have many religions, each with one or several gods and goddesses.

While most people, including scientists and rationalists, believe in one religion or another and find their innermost selves devoted to a particular God, saint, or spiritual leader, some identify themselves as atheists and do not believe in the entire concept.

Most religions have their own interpretations of the beginning of life and how the universe was formed. As we know, these interpretations have been passed down from generation to generation through scriptures or religious texts such as the Bible, the Quran, or the Bhagavad Gita.

People are generally introduced to these at a young age, and over time, their faith and belief in God strengthen as they find answers to the most demanding questions of their lives in these holy texts. It is also seen quite frequently that people turn towards God in their hour of grief, and their devotion sometimes takes the shape of a strong belief, enabling them to scale glorious heights or rise from misfortune. On the other hand, God has also been the source of solace for the deprived and the underprivileged, giving them hope to cope with life’s adversities.

This has also come under the scanner of some atheists and rational thinkers, who argue that God is not liberating the deprived but is the very foundation on which the tower of their plight and deprivation is constructed.

Closer home, India is a land of gods, temples, saints, seers, soothsayers, and devotees. We have festivals that last for weeks, temples that blind the human eye with their wealth, and a rich mythological heritage deeply connected to the people’s religious beliefs. Grand religious architecture is common in most Indian villages, towns, and cities.

Although numerous religions have flourished in this region, Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Christianity, and Islam are the ones that find the most followers in India. However, while religion is generally seen as something that brings people together, it has also served as a source of conflict, with staunch divisions along religious lines erupting time and again in India. Communal riots and bloodshed have been witnessed in staggering proportions.

The reasons are mostly buried in the pages of history, but on a broader level, one finds a struggle between the natives and alien influences. In that regard, Hinduism and its offshoots are seen as religions that are Indian in spirit and have a historical connection to the geography of the region, whereas Islam and Christianity are said to have been fostered at the cost of Hinduism.

These divisions surfaced during India’s struggle for freedom. While Pakistan was ultimately formed as a free land for Muslims, the Republic of India was established as a nation where all religions were allowed to flourish. However, the establishment of modern India as a secular and democratic republic was not the end of religious tensions in the country, as our history is replete with instances of communal conflict.

A major point of contention has seemingly been carried on from the time of Independence, as voices calling for Hindu supremacy in the country have found a larger number of takers in recent years. Religion, it can also be argued, has often been used as a political tool to mobilise people and form public opinions.

Amid such wide-ranging turmoil and conflicts, God’s face is shadowed by the presence of his preachers, and things are often said and done in God’s name that should not have been. But life goes on, and with the birth of every new child begins another process of discovering God, the quest to find the eternal being.

Murugan’s early life and influence of religion

As we discovered, Murugan was born in a classical Tamil setting. The village carried the bliss of yesteryear charm, while his upbringing among many close relatives helped shape his understanding of the world around him. That’s where our first introduction to God takes place, in our homes or immediate surroundings.

When we are young and vulnerable, our minds are overwhelmed by legends told to us by our elders as they were told to them by their elders. We begin to reason things with God in our perspective. Whenever we cannot reason out certain things, we habitually hold the Gods responsible for those things.

As we believe in our lives, we learn from our elders that God is the Supreme Being; he protects us, guides us, and saves us from demons and devils. This helps shape a moral view of life: that one should not be evil, that being just and fair is rewarded, that injustice is punished, and that wrongdoers are held accountable.

As we now know, Murugan’s father would devotedly visit the Palani temple and pray for Murugan’s birth. He would undertake a long journey regularly because he firmly believed the Lord would bless him with another son. But what Murugan’s father believed was also a common faith among most other people in his region, as are all such legends, widely believed and popular among our folks.

Unsurprisingly, the Lord was given all credit for Murugan’s birth. We can imagine young Murugan being told about his father’s pilgrimage to the temple to pray for his birth and how God answered his prayers. What else could young Murugan do but believe in them, like most of us do at that age?

“When I was young, I was a firm believer in God. I used to pray every day and smeared holy ash (vibhooti) on my forehead daily. Later, when I saw that my father and my brother never stopped their drunken excesses, which never changed even after my folks prayed to God, my faith gradually weakened. However, when I kept reading about God, castes, temples, and related ideas, my opinions and hold kept changing. My understanding of God as a human creation took shape when I was around 35, which continues today. More than whether God exists, I consider whether God is needed or not as most important. In that perspective, I think God is needed. I don’t think human life can live without the concept of God during any era. That’s my opinion,” he says.

Influence of personal experience on artistic creation

One wonders if there was some other story to his birth that he may have discovered, which led him to explore the concept of God-given children in “One Part Woman”.

After all, the story of Ponna and Kali is very similar to that of his parents, Perumal and Perumayi, and whereas the ritual on the fourteenth day of the festival is seen as a means to conceive in the novel, visiting the Palani temple on Krithigai days was seen as the reason behind his birth by his own parents. Did the story of “One Part Woman” originate from his own life?

For the first time, he lost his cool.

“Now, I want to clearly tell you that the ritual, as mentioned in the story, is completely imaginative. Otherwise, I do not want to delve into the process of conceptualising and whether that ritual happened in the temple. The novel is a completely fictitious story,” he contended firmly.

Murugan had a stubborn nature right from his childhood, but when such a troublesome situation arose because of what he had written in his novel, he could have dealt with it in two ways. One was to apologise, and the other was to stand by what he had written and take full ownership of it. But he had chosen a different path. He wrote his own obituary as a writer.

“I could have stood for what I wrote as fiction and stood by it. That could have happened if I was a single man and was alone without attachments. There were threats to my family’s lives. It was an important reason behind my decision. Had I been a single man, I would have faced it differently. I had to think from the perspective of my family. I faced it on that basis. In a society that could not even understand the nature and motive of fiction as a literary form, I had no choice but to angrily proclaim that the writer in me was dead. Had I not had a family, there are chances that I could have stood by what I wrote and faced it through,” he replied.

Role of writers in society

Murugan says writers think ahead and take our society forward through their thoughts. “The vast majority of all societies would readily act to pull everyone back. With their progressive thinking, writers lead humanity forward to the next stage. On that basis, writers should constantly raise doubts and questions about the values society holds today. That is the purpose of writers. The lofty position of writers is based only on this progressive nature in various societies. There are very few avenues for writers who hold progressive thoughts in our society. They are just not given their due importance,” he maintains.

He stresses that the personal lives of writers are hardly seen or known to their readers. Many writers fail to shine when there is no convergence between personal life and writer’s life. In today’s context, victory in personal life, he says, is attached to earning money because most people in our society struggle to make ends meet. A vast majority of writers also struggle. According to him, writers will naturally shine if there is an environment where basic needs are easily met.

“What would victory mean to me? Is it the successful struggle to educate myself? Or in finding a suitable job? Or that I am earning? What I wish for from this world is for every human to get all his basic needs naturally. Many consider such a pursuit itself as their victory. Isn’t it so? For most people, life is nothing less than a life-or-death struggle. This applies to writers, too. I have written ten novels. I could have written ten more. Instead, I spent all my energies and potential going after making ends meet—and trying to lead a normal life. Only some writers with good family backing and financial status have succeeded. Many have failed to grab such opportunities to succeed in life.”

The controversy and its aftermath

The controversy surrounding One Part Woman ended with Murugan’s victory, as the Madras High Court upheld his freedom of expression. This was not just a personal success for Murugan; the publishing fraternity was elated at the verdict. Many felt a sense of relief rushes through their veins upon hearing the pronouncements. It seemed extremely personal as if a lurking fear had been overcome.

It would take the writer of our subject a couple of months before he made his first public appearance, where he announced the publication of a poetry collection that captured the trauma he underwent during those tumultuous days. He spoke softly, pausing intermittently for his translator to grasp every word he spoke and convey it to the audience in English.

Photographers were snapping continuously while reporters hurriedly noted every word he spoke, anticipating some controversial statement that would translate into a front-page headline the following day. But Murugan seemed cautious even though he was more than happy to welcome the spirit of the verdict.

Within a matter of weeks, his books were back on the stands. Murugan had been a little-known writer outside the Tamil world, and even though some of his works had been translated into English, they were competing against heavyweight writers or authors of popular fiction at the bookstores.

Hundreds of books are launched in India annually, but only a handful make a mark and attract their rightful readership. An unknown writer has far less chance of success in the highly competitive publishing industry than somebody known in the reading circles. In this regard, Murugan’s turmoil during those tumultuous days proved to be a blessing in disguise, as he had now become a household name in the reading circles.

Transformation of Murugan’s literary career

It had a resounding impact on his literary career, and several of his previous works that may have been limited to a regional audience suddenly found a global attraction. Readers and publishers awoke to his literary talents not because the writer had emerged into a more refined form of himself but precisely because the controversy had thrust him into the limelight, making him a well-known name and somebody easy to market.

Thus, his novels acquired greater significance and occupied a permanent place on the bookstands while newspapers and magazines were hungry to tell his story to the world. It may not have been easy to find a publisher earlier, but now, almost every leading publisher has expressed interest in his work.

Just as Murugan had not expected the vitriol against his novel, he hadn’t anticipated such a drastic makeover of his literary profile either. To him, these are not relevant as he did not crave them: the fame, the recognition, the awards, or the royalty checks.

He is aware that some people may misconstrue his rise to acclaim as a well-crafted strategy by announcing his own death as a writer, but he humbly looks back to remind us that during those unbearable days, when vitriol and hate against him had acquired menacing proportions, all he wished for was the safety of his family.

If we are to rewind the clock further, Murugan’s writing ambition was never about glory or money. It was his own way of dealing with life, of coming to terms, of finding closure with things he hadn’t quite understood when he was young, and of attaining a state of catharsis. He kept on writing during his good and bad days. The circumstances were usually unfavourable, but he went ahead with the same passion.

Had there been no controversy, he would have kept on with his work, regardless of what fate had in store for him. And when he did finally announce his death as a writer, the thoughts uppermost in his mind were the safety of his loved ones. He did not think he would ever be able to overcome it, let alone write again or become famous as a writer. So, the question of using literary suicide as a ploy does not arise because, at the moment when the writer took that decision, it

The events that followed were beyond his control. Nobody could say that the court would resurrect Murugan before it delivered its verdict. He maintains that there are two sides to the story of literary success. “I have always questioned how only a particular section of society always has it easy to get chances to shine and keep writing while to most others, even small opportunities do not come easily. They have to struggle with their lives to make the slightest of progress. I have lost about 50 years of my life to reach this state,” he says, pointing out that writing has become a marketable commodity.

He maintains that the quality of one’s writing or one’s own journey as a writer should not be judged by the marketing hype or events that happen around it. In this context, he says his readers, too, should free themselves from the prism of the controversy and look at his novels for what they are worth.

“A good novel will somehow sustain its life even after considerable time passes. In some essential way, it will live on. If not today, then tomorrow, but someday, it will find its reader. On the other hand, there are high chances that novels, which gain limelight because of some controversy or marketing endeavours, will ultimately lose their prominence when the reasons that sustained them disappear. In our literary history, a religion often upholds a book and makes it lively, but when that religion falls from grace and its strength diminishes, so does the value of the book. That makes such works unsuitable to carry beyond certain time frames.”

Murugan hopes his novels will eventually rise above such ephemeral forces and stand on their own. He does not want his readers to buy them only because they might have heard about the controversy; he says discerning readers should be able to look beyond the hysteria to make wise decisions while picking books from the stands.

“In these times, when books have become a consumable product, we cannot judge those that gain prominence as good literature. When I write something, I consider the valuable feedback from people I respect as the apt accreditation for my work. Thousands of readers flocking to the store to buy my book is not what I am looking for. Writing is a deeply spiritual journey for me. It is my attempt to present my life’s perspectives and my thoughts in a form that I can present it in. So, I think expecting instant praise and appreciation is short-lived as a mushroom’s life. Very short!

“Some works may get money, or temporary glory. But that does not mean it can be held as good literature. When a writer presents his life’s views, due recognition may be given even long years after he is dead. It happens. Writers may live with a constant yearning and frustration that his thoughts have not been accepted by people. What I believe is that if those works had some literary value in them, someday, they will get their recognition. Even if they disappear into dust, that’s alright, I will keep writing.”

Lingering sense of anger

Perumal Murugan’s journey, marked by controversy and psychological trauma, is a reminder of the continued struggle for artistic and creative freedom. From a young boy deeply rooted in his cultural and religious heritage to a writer challenging societal norms and confronting the limitations imposed by traditional beliefs, Murugan’s life story is a case study on faith, literature, and the quest for understanding.

His works, shaped by personal experiences and the broader societal context, reflect the complexity of human existence and the ongoing battle between tradition and progress.

As he continues to write, Murugan’s voice remains a vital part of the literary world, urging us to look beyond superficial judgments and appreciate the deeper truths that literature seeks to reveal.

Notwithstanding the verdict in his favour, he still feels anger towards our society. People sometimes ask what the judgement would have been had the judge been “someone else.”

“So, I can’t say that a major part of the society was in favour of freedom of speech. I can never say that way. Only the intelligentsia, who had a rich academic background came in support of me. Those sections of the society are most vocal, who issue statements in the media, come out in public and stage demonstrations, and follow such democratic ways to express dissent. That section is also one that lacks adequate opportunities to congregate as a mass. At the same time, the silent majority of our society have all been against my fiction in every city or town that I have been to. Even in Chennai, just a few hundred people were in support of me.

“However, thousands of people were against my novel. I also thought about situations like me going on a hunt for a house on rent in Chennai. It would have been quite natural for people to avoid letting out their houses to me had they known of my involvement in the novel’s controversy. I always had such a fear. Later, a professor I knew lent his house to me. But the apprehension and anxiety continue. What would people think of me through the prism of my work? A majority of people we face in real life, the apparently silent folk, are those who are in direct opposition to my work. They are the ones I have to face, every single day. So, how would my anger towards such a society vanish? Not that easy.”

(Acknowledgements: Mita Kapur and her team at Siyahi (Jaipur) for their valuable insights and reviews of the manuscript; Neeta Gupta of Yatra Books for spearheading the cause of translations in India and providing the necessary tools to everybody in need; Asha Ramachandran, my former editor at The Statesman, who spent countless hours listening to the recordings and ensuring that the depth and essence of Murugan’s words were not lost in translation.)

(Saket Suman is an independent journalist and the author of The Psychology of a Patriot. Access the ninth part here.)

(Edited by VVP Sharma)

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