God’s Own Child-3: How Perumal Murugan’s odyssey of self-expression transformed him from introvert to wordsmith

Growing up in an isolated environment, a profound loneliness gnawed at Murugan, nudging him toward writing as an outlet for his emotions.

BySaket Suman

Published Apr 26, 2024 | 11:00 AMUpdatedApr 26, 2024 | 11:00 AM

Perumal Murugan

From the challenges of limited education to the consolidation of his creative spirit, relive Perumal Murugan’s journey of self-discovery and literary triumph as author-journalist Saket Suman unravels the hitherto unknown threads of his formative years. This is the third of the ten-part series exclusively on thesouthfirst.com.

It was customary for young children in their village to follow in their parents’ footsteps and either become farmers or operate small shops. This was the norm, the familiar world they knew, and they intended to pass it down to the next generation.

Perumal Murugan grew up in an agrarian family where agriculture was deeply ingrained in their way of life. However, they were unaware of alternative paths in life and the vast opportunities for learning and exploration beyond their immediate surroundings. Education wasn’t a priority in Murugan’s family.

There was no inclination towards formal education or pursuing careers that required it. The parents simply didn’t prioritise schooling for their children, perhaps because they hadn’t experienced its benefits firsthand. Except for one of Murugan’s uncles, who learned basic literacy from a “Vadhyar” or travelling teacher in an informal setting, the family didn’t have a tradition of sending children to school.

Murugan grew up during a period of significant school expansion in Tamil Nadu. The establishment of numerous schools coincided with introducing free lunches for children, which incentivized parents to send their children for education, if not solely for the learning opportunity, then at least for the meal provided.

This initiative rapidly increased school accessibility across Tamil Nadu villages, fostering an environment conducive to education. This accessibility and a cultural emphasis on learning prompted Murugan’s parents to enrol him in school. However, the education system had limitations; failing an exam often meant the abrupt end of schooling for children, who were then expected to assist with agricultural work or livestock care.

While an elementary school was conveniently located about four kilometres from Murugan’s home, the distance to the high school posed a challenge, particularly for girls whose safety concerns hindered their further education. Boys, though, managed to attend high school, often commuting by bicycle, propelled by the prospect of academic success.

Innocence intertwined with strife

One significant day, Perumayi guided young Murugan to school, entrusting his care to his elder brother, who was in the fifth standard. Murugan was led to his classroom, where his brother gently released his grip, allowing him to embark on this new educational journey—a fresh start in a new world.

Young Murugan, restricted and emotionally ridiculed, found himself in the midst of forging new friendships and acquiring knowledge. Each morning, he embarked on a four-kilometre walk to school, a journey that held more significance than the destination itself.

Along the way, his companions joined him, converging from various directions as they made their way to the village school. They indulged in the simple pleasures of plucking tamarind from trees, singing songs comprehensible only to them, and utilising the abundant ThanniThazhai herb to clean their slates.

Despite the distance, the walk never felt burdensome; rather, they embraced it with playfulness and returned home with equal vigour. The school boasted a considerable student body, and its teachers were adept at their craft, filling Murugan’s childhood with joy and camaraderie.

In this nurturing environment, Murugan finally found peers with whom he could connect, alleviating the burden of being mocked for his associations. Education became a source of enjoyment for him early on, igniting within him a passion for learning and self-improvement.

During his first year in standard one, in 1972, the news of Rajaji’s passing reached the school. As students were called to observe a moment of silence in his honour, Murugan found himself preoccupied with a pressing concern, inadvertently causing a disruption that led to his dismissal from class.

Left with no recourse but to seek assistance from his brother, fondly nicknamed “Mottaiyan,” Murugan called out for him from a distance, pleading to be taken home.

He shouldn’t have acted that way. Neither the teachers nor many students in his brother’s class knew his nickname, which led to Mottaiyaa being teased relentlessly by his friends. The teacher, upset by his behaviour, instructed his brother to accompany Murugan. Angered by his foolishness, Murugan was taken to a nearby temple behind their school and asked to wait.

However, his brother didn’t return, leaving Murugan waiting alone. When they finally returned home that evening, Murugan recounted the incident to his family, and from then on, his brother was known as Mottaiyaa even within their family circle.

Persistent spells of anger

Mottaiyaa and his friends would often rush four kilometres during the afternoons to take a quick dip in the well before hastily eating and returning to school. One day, the boys placed boulders on the road during lunch and fled. When the bus arrived, the conductor and driver had to remove the obstacles. Later that evening, some boys from the school falsely accused Murugan of blocking the bus with stones, claiming the police were on their way to arrest him.

Murugan, innocent of the accusation, tried to defend himself, but the children taunted him, claiming the police would soon arrive to take him away. Losing his temper once more, Murugan, armed only with his heavy steel-framed bag containing a slate, struck one of the boys on the head, causing a severe injury. Fleeing the scene, Murugan hid in a corner of his home as the injured boy’s mother confronted his family in a heated argument.

“Look what your son has done,” the woman shouted in rage. But Perumayi always found a way to protect her son, and she somehow managed to ward them off for the day. However, her two sons fought the most among themselves, and she often found it difficult to take sides. The village school was up to the fifth standard, and barely a year after Murugan joined the school, his brother was moved to the high school, located further away from the village. The distance between the two brothers began to grow from then on.

Ideals confronted, beliefs strengthened

Murugan gradually became aware of caste practices as he saw their existence in his day-to-day life from early on.  It was not difficult for him to grasp the hierarchies of caste that existed in the agrarian society where he lived. He belonged to the landed caste, and some landless labourers came to work for them in their fields. He knew how his family treated “those” people.

It was a casual nature of the society opening itself bit by bit to an individual. However, Murugan made sense of things and delved deeper. He says he had a firm belief right from his early days that the caste system was wrong and believed that it had to be eliminated from society.

His father didn’t hold much caste differences and was fluid in his social interactions. He moved closely with people from all castes. And since he was an alcoholic, it opened up avenues to interact with a lot of people who came from different social backgrounds. So, according to Murugan’s recollection, he wasn’t keen on seeing caste differences, and even when he set up a shop near a movie theatre, he never discriminated among the workers based on caste. Eventually, his egalitarian nature was the reason why his business succeeded.

During his early adolescence, Murugan’s deep immersion in the works of Bharati and Bharatidasan sparked his awareness of caste as a significant social issue. Perumayi, on the other hand, held firmly to traditional village values, initially struggling to treat all labourers equally due to her ingrained awareness of caste distinctions.

Witnessing his mother’s reluctance to extend hospitality to lower-caste friends deeply troubled Murugan, prompting him to confront her behaviour sternly. Over time, Perumayi underwent a transformation, gradually shedding her caste-conscious attitudes, eventually ceasing to inquire about visitors’ caste backgrounds. Murugan’s engagement with Marxist literature further refined his comprehension of caste dynamics and societal structures.

Solace in words

Growing up in a somewhat isolated environment with limited companionship, Murugan spent much of his time indoors, occasionally interacting with cattle or aimlessly wandering. Yet, despite these distractions, a profound sense of loneliness gnawed at him, perhaps nudging him toward writing as an outlet for his emotions. Encouraged by the children’s programs he heard on his father’s old transistor radio, Murugan began expressing his thoughts in writing, finding solace in this creative pursuit. His affinity for Tamil literature blossomed during his school years as he diligently memorised verses and compositions from textbooks, eventually venturing into composing his own poems at a tender age.

Perumayi’s sister, who lived in a nearby town, regularly purchased magazines and comics like IrumbukkaiMayavi (an adaptation of The Steel Claw). When Murugan visited her, he would spend hours engrossed in reading them. It became his refuge during vacations. Soon, he expanded his reading to include Rani, Kumudam, and other magazines, nurturing his literary interests.

Recognizing his passion, his aunt would gather old magazines for him to read. No magazine in her house was discarded until Murugan had perused it, marking the beginning of his reading journey. Her home became his sanctuary for many years, where his imagination thrived. Immersed in comics for hours, he found himself losing track of time as the characters came alive in his mind.

By the time Murugan reached the Seventh or Eighth standard, he started buying his own magazines. His father had established a shop in a movie theatre by then, providing him with sufficient funds. Magazines like Kumudam and Ananda Vikatan became his constant companions, occupying his leisure time.

With few bookstores in his village, Murugan’s father’s monthly visits to the Palani temple became crucial. Initially reluctant due to motion sickness on the bus, Murugan’s perspective changed upon discovering the affordable books sold at the temple. To cope with the journey, he stayed awake the night before and refrained from eating.

Near the temple, he found low-cost books containing song lyrics by renowned poets like Kannadasan. Murugan purchased around five books on each visit, devouring Kannadasan’s works during his school days. What sets Murugan’s writing journey apart is his constant quest for inspiration from his readings, allowing him to articulate his emotions.

At his school, there arose a recognition of Murugan’s talent for composing lyrics. By the time he reached the Eighth standard, his school had begun nominating him for out-of-town poetry competitions. In 1981, during the centenary celebrations of Mahakavi Bharati, Murugan secured the second prize at the district level. Despite his school teachers advising him to pursue engineering, he opted for Tamil literature in college, driven by his passion for reading.

Poetic identity emerges

Murugan attributes his gravitation towards writing to his sense of isolation. His avid interest in reading became integral to his identity. His family members and villagers regarded him as studious, a rarity given the prevalent trend of dropping out by the Fifth or Sixth standard. Murugan’s academic achievements brought him immense joy as he aimed to break the familial cycle. Given his passion for reading and writing, he refused envisioning a life devoid of books, finding the prospect utterly dismal.

The consumption of toddy, a local alcoholic beverage made from coconut or palm, was common in his village. Despite Perumayi’s persistent efforts, Murugan’s father remained addicted, eventually influencing Murugan’s brother to follow suit. Though Murugan occasionally sampled toddy, he never allowed it to develop into a habit. Perumayi’s encouragement to abstain from alcohol played a significant role in shaping Murugan’s character over time.

Whenever Murugan read a poem, he tried to express his feelings through poetry, sometimes echoing what he had just read. His classmates noticed this unique talent and would commend him whenever he recited a poem for them. Despite being mostly introverted, Murugan found confidence in his identity as a poet, which enabled him to engage with others. He had earned this reputation as a poet through his efforts in his school, which motivated him to hone his skills further.

However, Murugan hadn’t planned his career path. Instead, he simply recognised his deep passion for reading and literature, which gradually guided his career choices. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when Murugan decided to pursue academics and writing simultaneously.

His desire to read was a significant driving force. As he discovered his knack for writing, it propelled him toward that direction. Unlike many writers, Murugan didn’t have a specific role model. He absorbed insights from various authors and attempted to incorporate their virtues into his own work.

Murugan largely self-directed his journey as a writer. He delved into the grammar and structure of classical Tamil poetry by composing verses in that style, all through self-teaching. Excelling in Tamil at school, he repeatedly revisited his literature textbooks. He also crafted his own stories, drawing inspiration from the tales he encountered in his readings without seeking external guidance.

Evidently, Perumal Murugan’s passion for writing was nurtured during his childhood. And as he grew, he continued to train himself in the art of writing.

(Saket Suman is an independent journalist and the author of The Psychology of a Patriot. In the coming weeks, he will reveal the depths of Perumal Murugan’s struggle for literary freedom as creativity battled against persecution. Access the second part here.)

(Edited by VVP Sharma)