God’s Own Child-5 : Tracing Perumal Murugan’s evolution into a composed maestro

Murugan acknowledges experiences, challenges, and hardships played a pivotal role in shaping his character, fostering maturity and composure.

BySaket Suman

Published May 10, 2024 | 2:00 PMUpdatedMay 10, 2024 | 3:55 PM

Perumal Murugan

Perumal Murugan’s transformation into a composed maestro was guided by the gentleness of familial love and the commandments of his own inner voice, writes author-journalist Saket Suman. This is the fifth of the ten-part series exclusively on thesouthfirst.com.

Short stories possess a unique appeal for budding writers and readers alike. They offer complete narratives that can be consumed in one sitting. It makes them a convenient option for those with busy schedules or seeking entertainment on the go.

For Perumal Murugan, the short story served as an accessible medium for expressing his ideas in his early writing career. However, as he evolved as a writer, he began to feel constrained by the limitations of the genre. He realized that his themes and plots demanded more depth than short stories could provide.

With the changing landscape of his surroundings, Murugan found himself grappling with the disparity between the themes of his earlier works, predominantly centred around village life, and the urbanization encroaching upon his reality.

“Looking back at my short stories made me feel they were parts of a bigger novel, ultimately resulting in Eru Veyil, my first novel. This is not to say that the stories were incomplete in themselves, but as years passed, the entire scheme of things in village life had undergone a tremendous change. My first novel was perhaps a result of my negotiations with the stories of the past in an attempt to connect them to the transformation,” Murugan says.

Father’s struggles, son’s burdens

By that time, Murugan had witnessed his father’s struggles during his final days. Perumal had a persistent issue with alcohol consumption despite undergoing three surgeries. He couldn’t survive the last, but in reality, the family had lost hope well before his passing.

Murugan found himself deeply engaged in his own pursuits while also confronting the challenge of his father’s debilitating addiction, which had made life miserable for the entire family due to his inability to overcome it. Perumayi, his mother, exerted considerable effort to support and comfort him, but her attempts were futile against his destructive habit.

Each time Perumal showed signs of improvement, he relapsed into drinking. And this only worsened his health. These events were unfolding during Murugan’s college years. Naturally it was adding the responsibility of caring for himself on top of his academic pursuits.

Managing his father’s business while pursuing his Bachelor’s degree became Murugan’s harsh reality. With the movie theatre closing, he turned to supplying soda to kiosks and small shops to make ends meet during his college days.

Murugan reflects that if Perumal had lived another ten years, he wouldn’t have encountered the challenges he faced in completing his studies.

His college experiences, including supplying soda and managing his father’s business, were the backdrop for his second and third novels. Despite the relief he felt at his father’s release from physical suffering, Murugan couldn’t bear witnessing his prolonged agony.

He explains, “Though I didn’t consider him as a burden, I was relieved because he got redeemed of his poor health and bodily struggles with his death. I couldn’t bear to see him suffer.” These early life personal experiences greatly influenced Murugan’s writing, too.

Urban-rural dynamics

“The stories of my first three novels revolve around my life’s experiences. The reason is that I think only a deeper experience in writing can enable us to bring the experience of others into one’s writing. So, when one begins as a writer, he perhaps cannot write about somebody else as vividly as he would write about his own experiences. It takes some time to mature as a writer. So, all my initial works drew a lot of experience from my own life,” he says.

Though Eru Veyil was his initial creation, it was Koolamadhari that delved deeper into the earlier stages of his life. The latter novel essentially picked up where the former left off, portraying his life before the intrusion of the housing board into his simple village existence.

Conversely, Eru Veyil depicted his life post-housing board intervention. These narratives primarily revolve around the clash between urban and rural influences. They reflect the stability of pre-housing board life contrasted with the upheaval caused by its intrusion.

“I felt compelled to capture these experiences on paper as a means to transcend their impact and move forward,” he reflects. “Writing Eru Veyil served as a catharsis, whereas crafting Koolamadhari allowed me to relive cherished memories of my childhood surroundings and the subsequent changes they underwent.”

From fragmented memories to cohesive narratives

Murugan’s introspective nature in his youth transformed over time as he discovered storytelling as a means of liberation from his past. Initially, these were fragmented recollections scattered throughout his mind.

However, as he matured, these disparate memories coalesced into a cohesive narrative, symbolizing his journey towards self-liberation. Writing a novel marked the culmination of this journey. Perhaps for the first time, this enabled Murugan to embrace his newfound freedom and unleash his imagination with all its might.

He typically started by envisioning a story with a clear beginning, middle, and end. He usually had the opening line and a basic plot outline based on his experiences.

Then, he focuses on crafting realistic characters by delving into their backgrounds and motivations. Sometimes, he rewrites endings if they don’t feel satisfactory. In his short stories, Murugan is adept at weaving together plot and background to immerse readers.

He maintains that his natural inclination is toward fiction rather than nonfiction. Although he occasionally writes nonfiction related to his fiction work, he firmly considers fiction his forte.

Fiction as reflection

It would be misguiding to suggest that fiction writers are detached from social issues or that socially conscious fiction lacks value. Fiction has long served as a vehicle for conveying societal tales across generations.

While truth may be easily forgotten, fiction endures, offering insights into human struggles and injustices. Thus, we turn to fiction writers to capture the essence of bygone eras, not necessarily in factual detail but certainly in essence and tone.

When Murugan decided to write about sensitive topics like abortion or female infanticide, he approached them as narratives rather than cold statistics. For him, these stories needed to be told with depth and emotion, not just as data points.

He felt that novels provided the best medium to capture the complexity of these issues. Some stories, he believed, couldn’t be conveyed through mere facts and figures.

While non-fiction adheres to certain rules, stories of pain, conflict, trauma, and chaos require a more personal engagement. Simply stating the numbers or methods of death wasn’t enough; conveying the emotions and sentiments behind them was essential for a true understanding.
Murugan fondly remembers the late eighties and early nineties in Tamil Nadu, when there was a growing awareness and discussion around women-centric issues. However, he found that many existing works on these topics had a one-sided view of reality and lacked a holistic approach.

He recognised the novel’s potential to address such complex issues during this time. “As I pondered over these issues,” he reflects, “I realised that many people might attribute female infanticide to poverty alone. But in my view, the truth was much more nuanced.”
Murugan noticed that female infanticide persisted despite witnessing societal changes over the years. It wasn’t until around 2000 that he saw a shift in public perception.

“The social evil of dowry also began to be seen differently. When you don’t have enough women in the society, why would you ask for dowry? Those thoughts were the motivations behind my writing. So, I decided to have a 35-year-old unmarried male as my protagonist. I did not speak directly of female infanticide. Non-fiction would speak about the issue directly. Fiction would not. Fiction is about holding a mirror to life,” he maintains.

Family, fiction, and insight

Many fiction writers use personal experiences and memories as their primary tools. Living in a country marked by disparities and festivities, Murugan cultivated the skill of depicting both in his writing.

For him, life encompasses struggles and celebrations, and capturing the spectrum of human experiences is the art that novelists relentlessly train themselves at.

Emotions, serene moments by the village pond, the vibrant forest mornings, and silent connections with nature define his narrative palette. As a writer, Murugan explored diverse worlds of imagination and brought them to light in his fiction.

But within him, a dormant battle constantly stirred. This reflected his rebellion against the world’s injustices. He observes society’s realities and strives to give voice to the struggles those around him face.

In modern society, family brings both blessings and responsibilities. While teaching in Attur, Murugan’s wife shouldered the burden of caring for their children alone. Working in a self-financing college, she resided with her mother in Tiruchengode, who assisted with childcare while working. Murugan visited home whenever his schedule allowed, but it wasn’t always feasible.

“I had a full-time college schedule from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. During this period, I cared for my own meals and dedicated myself to preparing for classes, especially since I was new to the profession. It was difficult for both my partner and me to leave our children when we went to work. However, we made up for our absence by spending as much time with them as possible, together and through phone calls. My thoughts were primarily centred around my family during this time,” he recalls.

These years saw a significant decrease in Murugan’s writing output due to the demands of family life. However, this period also provided its own advantages.

As he sees it, writing is a genuine expression of one’s imagination, not a trivial pursuit. His experience as a family man enriched his understanding of various familial roles and dynamics, prompting him to pay closer attention to aspects he had previously overlooked.

“Though I had always been comfortable around women and had grown up surrounded by them, marriage deepened my understanding of women’s experiences, struggles, and life paths. Living within a family structure allowed me to witness women’s challenges firsthand. When I began crafting female characters in my novels, these insights informed my portrayal with a newfound depth of maturity,” he explains.

Murugan’s advocacy for independence

It’s worth noting that Murugan’s childhood was marked by obstinacy and a tendency towards impulsiveness, often resulting in regrettable actions. However, as he embraced family life and became responsible for his own children, he gradually cultivated patience and gained a fresh perspective on various issues.

Looking back, he believes that experiencing family life earlier would have significantly influenced the themes and characters in his works, including ‘Eru Veyil,’ in a different manner.”
“Despite previously viewing family life as a hindrance to a writer’s solitude and creative focus, I’ve come to understand the value of marriage in broadening one’s perspective and fostering empathy,” he reflects.

Reflecting on personal experiences, Murugan recounts his father’s neglect and alcohol addiction, which brought hardship to their family. This is an inspiration for him to work to provide a better life for his own children.

This is in line with his ambition to fulfil his parental duties diligently. Rather than dwelling on the past with bitterness, he sees his relationship with his father as a lesson in bringing up his own children.

He emphasizes, “I am committed to fulfilling my familial responsibilities and striving to ensure my children’s well-being.”

Murugan expresses disappointment in societal norms inhibiting children’s independence, lamenting parents’ prevalent control over their education, career, and marriage choices.
Contrasting this with Western practices where young adults pursue part-time jobs and self-sufficiency after turning eighteen, he advocates for a balance where parents support education without burdening their children financially, thus enabling them to enjoy a fulfilling childhood.

Reflections on personal growth

It’s easy to be drawn to the warmth of family life, but it’s also essential to recognise that teaching has been an equally significant part of Murugan’s life. His students have penned a book called “Engal Ayya,” detailing his teaching approach and shedding light on his methods.

Murugan finds teaching to be a source of joy. He sees it as a way to share his experiences and learning with eager students, which he finds deeply rewarding. Murugan consciously avoids portraying young people as prone to crime, a perspective he feels society often imposes.

In his belief, older individuals are likelier to commit immoral acts and that students are like blank slates. This viewpoint has earned him the respect and affection of his students.

Teaching has also brought other benefits. Murugan remains open-minded about changing trends because he learns about them from his students. He sees this constant exposure to evolving trends as a unique teacher advantage.

Rather than admonishing students for new fashion choices, he engages them in conversation to better understand their perspectives. For instance, when a student wore revealing clothing, claiming it was fashionable, Murugan laughed and accepted the trend.

Despite his role as a teacher, Murugan stays grounded by seeing the world through his students’ eyes. This perspective smoothly refreshes his worldview. It has also instilled in him a penchant for organization and a tendency to correct what he perceives as wrong.

However, he tries not to impose this “teacherly behaviour” on his children, allowing them to reject his excessive tendencies.

He reflects on the evolution of his emotional expression over the years, noting a shift from raw intensity in his youth to a more measured approach in adulthood.

Murugan acknowledges that experiences, challenges, and hardships have played a pivotal role in shaping his character, fostering maturity and composure.

He values the lessons learned, cherishes familial bonds, and finds solace in writing. Murugan contrasts his past brashness with his present inclination towards considering others’ perspectives. He says he demonstrates patience in listening and softness in expression, especially with loved ones.
And even in the face of this transformational growth, he maintains an acceptance of his past self, viewing it neither as inherently harmful nor regrettable.

(Saket Suman is an independent journalist and the author of The Psychology of a Patriot. Next Week: Revisiting Perumal Murugan’s magnum opus that sparked outrage. Access the fourth part here.)

(Edited by VVP Sharma)