God’s Own Child-4: Perumal Murugan’s transition from solitude to family life and its impact on his writing

Murugan reflects familial obligations impose constraints that hinder creative freedom writers desire, steering them away from their passion.

BySaket Suman

Published May 03, 2024 | 2:00 PMUpdatedMay 03, 2024 | 2:00 PM

Perumal Murugan at a function.

From a young age, Perumal Murugan found solace in expressing himself through writing. He pursued reading and writing with equal dedication, constantly seeking inspiration for his compositions while devouring interesting books. This is the fourth of the ten-part series exclusively on thesouthfirst.com.

Perumal Murugan recalls that he wasn’t guided by anyone, nor was he given books; rather, he faced criticism for spending his money on them. Despite familial disapproval, he persisted, even working part-time at a movie theatre to fund his book purchases through VPP.

Explaining thus, Murugan regards his journey into writing during his school days as a personal endeavour that ran parallel to his conventional life.

Father’s silent lament

His father initially lacked enthusiasm for supporting his son’s education. He had established a prosperous soda distribution business, serving movie theatres and liquor stores.

It was sad for Murugan to realise that his own father harboured hopes that Murugan would falter in the Tenth standard, which would eventually force him to join the family business. However, Murugan consistently succeeded academically, defying his father’s misplaced expectations.

The pivotal moment arrived when Perumal, who supplied soda to one of the local movie halls, encountered a school teacher who worked part-time as a ticket issuer in the evenings.
The teacher lived adjacent to the theatre and issued tickets for the first and second shows each night.

A friendship grew between the school teacher and Murugan’s father, leading to numerous conversations night after night. Over time, Murugan’s father began to hold the teacher in high regard, recognising the teacher’s esteemed position in society. He lamented silently over his past wish for his son to fail in his examinations.

The teacher recommended to Perumal that he encourage his son to pursue education and provide him with as much support as possible. It was through his interactions with this teacher, which occurred entirely by chance, that Perumal nurtured a desire to see his son become a teacher someday.

The teacher advised Perumal to support his son’s education wholeheartedly. It was through their chance encounters that Perumal began to envision his son’s future as a teacher.

Before he departed for college, Perumal advised his son to persevere in his studies in the face of every difficulty. Despite Murugan’s determination to pursue higher education, his mother, Perumayi, expressed scepticism. She scoffed at the idea of Murugan’s education, suggesting that he should help his father with their family business instead.

Murugan remembers his mother as someone resistant to change, finding it difficult to adapt to evolving circumstances. Fate intervened when his usually supportive mother opposed his ambition for further education. Still, his father stepped in with considerable encouragement, now keen on his son pursuing a career as a teacher.

Literary mentors and influences

Upon enrolling in college in Erode to pursue a BA, he committed to memorising the entire Thirukkural, which consists of 1,330 couplets. He diligently studied them until he comprehended each word. The chapter on abstaining from meat (Pulaal Marutthal, chapter 26) profoundly impacted him, leading him to embrace vegetarianism.

This decision surprised his family, who had a long-standing tradition of meat consumption, which Murugan had also enjoyed during his childhood. Family gatherings and events were often marked by elaborate meat dishes, almost as a customary practice.

Throughout those years of abstention, Murugan’s grandmother would become emotional when they prepared meat because Murugan consistently declined to partake. Murugan maintained his vegetarian diet for five years, but eventually, his stance softened, and his beliefs shifted. He came to the conclusion that it was acceptable to consume meat and gradually reintroduced it into his diet.

The college library played a significant role in expanding Murugan’s literary horizons. He was also fortunate to have supportive professors who guided his reading journey. Murugan credits his professors’ encouragement and the diverse selection of books available in the library for his transition from poetry to fiction. Professor Rangarajan’s admiration for T Janakiraman sparked Murugan’s interest in prose, a departure from his poetry-focused school days.

Despite the library’s policy of allowing one book per 15 days, Murugan’s fervour for reading led him to consume a book every evening. Recognising his passion, the librarian granted him special privileges, enabling him to borrow multiple books simultaneously, further nurturing his reading habits.

Love’s labour lost

While pursuing his MA in literature in Coimbatore, Murugan published his first short story in Kanaiyazhi magazine. However, his joy was overshadowed by his father’s passing shortly afterwards.

To support his education, Murugan’s mother, Perumayi, took up milk delivery amidst familial challenges, including his brother’s alcohol addiction and responsibility for two children.
Murugan supplemented his income with part-time work, including writing for Perunchithiranar magazine and undertaking typing assignments whenever he could.

Murugan had not yet committed to becoming a full-time writer, knowing full well the challenges that lay ahead. He understood the difficulties of sustaining oneself solely through writing and aspired to be a writer who thrived on his craft rather than merely surviving by it.

He briefly worked at a radio station, contributing to an Ilaya Bharatam (Young India) program on All India Radio. There, he discussed books he had read and recited Tamil poems.

It earned him a modest sum of Rs 150 per session, which was significant. This arrangement suited him well because the radio station was near his university.

Subsequently, while pursuing his M.Phil in Tamil literature at Madras University in Chennai, he contributed to Mana Osai, a magazine published by Marxist Leninists, eventually joining its editorial board.

His early short stories centred on village life, drawing heavily from his childhood experiences. Additionally, he wrote for CPI’s Thamarai and similar publications. His academic focus on literature facilitated the ease with which he could produce stories.

Political awakening

Beyond these endeavours, Murugan immersed himself in the Marxist Leninist (ML) movement upon arriving in Chennai. He was drawn to their ideals and activities, and he served the party in two capacities: writing stories, producing and selling their magazines, and engaging in student political activities.

The party actively sought new members, tasking individuals like Murugan with spreading awareness, distributing literature, and organizing events at various colleges.

They advocated for student causes, using posters and pamphlets to articulate their demands. Murugan, deeply influenced by their philosophy, dedicated much of his time to the movement. The ML movement garnered support from farmers in the Erode district, prompting Murugan and fellow members to organize a significant conference in Erode.

They were tasked with touring the region to grasp the farmers’ challenges. This experience gave Murugan valuable insights, finding parallels between their lives and his upbringing. During this period, he strongly believed in forming a Communist government at the Centre within the next five years.

It’s worth mentioning that the Communist Party of India (CPI) preceded the formation of CPI(M), from which the ML movement emerged. In the late 1960s, Charu Majumdar propelled the Naxalbari movement, leading to a proliferation of ML-aligned groups across Tamil Nadu over the next two decades. The Tamil Nadu State Organising Committee of CPI(ML) published the magazine Mana Osai, to which Murugan contributed.

Unconventional courtship

During one of their editorial meetings, someone informed Murugan about a fellow comrade whose sister was also studying at the university. Murugan was tasked with involving her in their activities and inviting her to participate in their programs.

This led to his first encounter with P Ezhilarasi, whom he invited to help distribute magazines and join their events. Over time, she attended their programs and developed a keen interest in Murugan’s stories. With her brothers also engaged in the student movement, she possessed a solid understanding of their political background.

Her MPhil dissertation focused on a magazine called Sthree Dharmam, published by Dr Muthulakshmi Reddy of the Theosophical Society.

Murugan assisted her in gathering information from libraries, and the two developed a strong rapport. Their courtship over two years was far from conventional; Murugan, deeply involved in the ML movement, dedicated himself tirelessly to believing that a significant revolution was imminent within five years. Love was not a priority for him, though fate had other plans.

Murugan adamantly advocated against falling in love, marrying, or starting a family, a sentiment he shared with his comrades as an active student organisation member.

During his time in Chennai, he gained extensive knowledge about magazines, utilizing his spare moments to sell them on trains and buses, organize meetings, and oversee the magazine’s editorial board.

Often, he would work late into the night, sometimes dozing off in the office amidst his responsibilities. These were indeed busy but exhilarating days for Murugan.

Navigating inter-caste marriage

He had successfully obtained a Junior Research Fellowship (JRF) under the Universities Grants Commission (UGC) and received a monthly stipend. Determined to support his ageing mother if he couldn’t secure a job, he harboured plans of returning to his village. However, fate took a different turn.

His life took a new course when he fell in love with Ezhilarasi. They frequently met at party gatherings and spent long hours strolling along Marina Beach, observing the sunset without knowing what lay ahead. Occasionally, they attended serious films like Marupakkam, sharing a mutual appreciation for them.

Their relationship remained a closely guarded secret until Murugan proposed marriage in 1993.
Despite Ezhilarasi’s father’s acceptance, hurdles emerged from her family, particularly Perumayi. Concurrently, the Communist movement in Tamil Nadu underwent a transformation, focusing on regional autonomy rather than a national revolution.

Disillusioned, Murugan, who had dedicated himself to the cause, distanced himself from political activities and eventually relocated.

Perumayi objected to Murugan’s decision to marry outside his caste, so Murugan ended up marrying at his father-in-law’s place, where the marriage ceremony was conducted despite opposition.

Shortly before the wedding, Murugan’s brother wanted to attend and eventually travelled with a few relatives and friends.

However, Perumayi chose not to attend, instead selling most of her cattle and staying home out of fear of being ridiculed by villagers due to her son’s inter-caste marriage. While the newlyweds didn’t find it particularly significant, it challenged traditional agrarian norms within the village.

Murugan reflects that he may have married earlier than planned, but his wife was already 25 years old, and her father was eager to see her married. Murugan and his wife received modest stipends from the UGC, totalling around Rs 2,500, sufficient for them to live in Chennai during the early 1990s. Despite the limited income, they saved a considerable amount each month.

Birth brings change

Their daughter was born in 1994, which prompted a notable change in Perumayi’s demeanour. Her anger subsided and was replaced by joy, and she grew closer to the couple, caring for the newborn.

Securing a teaching position was challenging at the time, with government colleges and universities taking considerable time to fill vacancies. Due to his lack of a B.Ed degree, Murugan couldn’t teach at schools and pursued college for a teaching job.

In 1995, he took an examination to be selected to teach at government colleges, but his stipend had ceased by 15 August of the following year. Nevertheless, Murugan successfully qualified to teach at government colleges in 1996 and was assigned to Attur.

Murugan’s life took a significant turn as he embraced the responsibilities of family life. Marriage, two children, and a regular teaching job at a college reshaped his priorities for the next five years. During this period, his writing pursuits took a backseat as he grappled with his time and mental energy demands.

Murugan reflects that familial obligations impose constraints that hinder the creative freedom writers desire, often steering them away from their passion. He further underscores the arduous nature of writing, describing it as a solitary endeavour fraught with struggle.

Murugan acknowledges the allure of family commitments during that phase of his life, though he speculates that he might have responded differently to such circumstances at another stage. For him, it was a challenging phase to navigate as a writer.

(Saket Suman is an independent journalist and the author of The Psychology of a Patriot. Next Week: Perumal Murugan’s Gradual Evolution into a Composed Maestro. Access the third part here.)

(Edited by VVP Sharma)