God’s Own Child-7: Why allegations of defamation and religious insensitivity were labelled against Perumal Murugan’s One Part Woman

The opponents claimed they were greatly troubled by the possibility of readers thinking that the region's women were immoral and promiscuous.

BySaket Suman

Published May 24, 2024 | 2:00 PMUpdatedMay 24, 2024 | 2:00 PM

Perumal Murugan

One Part Woman ignited a firestorm of controversy, with accusations of defamation, religious insensitivity, and cultural misrepresentation flying. The work, set in Tiruchengode, drew fierce criticism and sparked a nationwide debate on the limits of freedom of expression, writes author-journalist Saket Suman. This is the seventh of the ten-part series exclusively on thesouthfirst.com.

Resentment against “One Part Woman” emerged suddenly when voices of opposition arose in Perumal Murugan’s hometown, accusing him of defaming local women and tarnishing the community’s reputation. The author did not expect this reaction, as the novel had previously received critical acclaim and widespread appreciation.

Murugan saw photographs of people burning copies of his book, kicking and beating his pictures with slippers, and calling for the censorship of all his works.

There were also demands for his dismissal from government service. This sudden turn of events left Murugan in a state of dismay, causing considerable consternation and shock. He felt deeply saddened because he believed that, as a writer, he had aimed to bring glory to his hometown and recognition to its people.

He had received accolades for his works and participated in numerous intellectual and literary discussions. His objective contradicted the accusations; he sought to honour his community, express his creative talents, and not defame or hurt anyone.

The roots of uproar

Upon closer examination of the events unfolding around him and discussions with friends and family, Murugan realized that outsiders rather than locals likely instigated the sudden uproar. This situation quickly became the most challenging ordeal he had ever faced, bringing his life to a standstill. No writer, especially a novelist, should endure the mob’s wrath merely for exercising creative freedom.

As days passed, pamphlets with underlined and lithocopied pages from the novel were circulated throughout Tiruchengode. These pamphlets and WhatsApp messages were distributed, particularly among women and caste associations around Tiruchengode Hill Temple.
Faced with such widespread opposition, Murugan experienced tremendous stress, which starkly contrasted with the love and respect he had previously received from his students. Although he could cope with the trauma of suppression and coercion, he became increasingly concerned for his family’s safety.

Consequently, he issued a press statement, clarifying that he never intended to insult his hometown or its people, nor did he want to hurt anyone’s feelings. In his sequel novels, he also changed the references to Tiruchengode to prevent further hostility. He hoped this move would end the turmoil, as the protesters seemed particularly angered by his reference to the town and its revered local temple. However, this did not quell the opposition, as his detractors were determined to silence him and stop the stories he had yet to write.

Murugan was perplexed, as he had already explained his position, but he grew increasingly concerned about the potential danger to his family from a mob. In a press statement, he had already clarified that the novel was fictional. Murugan regretted offending people using Tiruchengode and proposed removing the name in future editions.

He requested that people refrain from protests that would disrupt normal life. A similar note went to the Tiruchengode Town Police Station, explaining that the fictional novel set 100 years ago had no intention of demeaning women, caste groups, or devotees.

Murugan’s dilemma: Confrontation or submission?

Murugan was willing to dialogue with his opponents, hoping to take conciliatory steps, but this proved impossible as his opponents remained faceless. He then received a notice from the District Police Office indicating that the Revenue Divisional Officer (RDO), Tiruchengode, would engage with the novel’s opponents. However, they requested that Murugan avoid attending the talks in person and provide his written clarification.

At this point, Murugan provided two letters addressed to the RDO, in which he apologized and volunteered to withdraw all copies of the novel, assuring that he would modify the portions that had allegedly hurt people’s sentiments in future editions. Murugan clearly stated that he no longer intended to write about Tiruchengode.

They called him to the office of the Superintendent of Police along with the bandh proponents reportedly invited to the talks. Murugan complied, but by 9:30 p.m., no one had turned up at the RDO’s office for the talks. Murugan then left but was advised that he and his family should leave Namakkal. Subsequently, a full-day bandh was held, during which the author and his family went to Chennai, where they stayed for three days.

A few days later, the District Revenue Officer and the Inspector of Police from the Superintendent of Police’s office informed him that a conciliatory meeting had been arranged and requested his presence. At this stage, Murugan consulted his friend GR Swaminathan, an advocate practising at the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court, who agreed to accompany him to the talks.

However, as they left for Namakkal in the afternoon, the police informed him over the phone that the atmosphere was tense and advised him to stay at home until he received the signal to come to the Collectorate under escort. Swaminathan, however, suggested they go straight to the Collectorate, arguing that it wouldn’t be safe elsewhere if it weren’t safe there. As they proceeded, a police party intercepted them at the toll plaza and asked them to follow the police escort.

It seemed to Murugan that the District Revenue Officer (DRO) was engaged in talks with the opposing group and emphasized that the District Administration was obligated to maintain law and order. Along with the DRO, the Deputy Superintendent of Police, Tiruchengode, the Inspector of Police, and the local Tahsildar were also in the room. They asked Murugan to make a decision considering the charged conditions.

The escalating frustration

Murugan informed the DRO that he was ready to express his sincere regret. However, they told him the opposing groups wanted an open and unconditional apology from him. The DRO claimed that she could placate the opposing group if this were provided in writing. Swaminathan advised the DRO to consider the issue from a law-and-order perspective and the standpoint of freedom of speech and expression.

The DRO reportedly responded, “Today you will speak and go, but Perumal Murugan and his family will have to survive in Namakkal.”

The DRO’s raised voice led to a heated exchange with Swaminathan; the former subsequently asked him to leave the room. Murugan, feeling distressed, left the room as well, stating they would write a statement and submit it later. Swaminathan then prepared a statement in English, using the phrase “sincere regret.” The DRO insisted that Murugan change “sincere regret” to “unconditional apology,” explaining that she could only placate the opposing group. A conflicted Murugan stated he would think about it and left, deeply confused. He observed a large, aggressive gathering in the verandah, surrounded by police, while the media took photographs.

Swaminathan assured Murugan of his support regardless of the decision and suggested he consult his wife. Murugan called his wife, and under immense mental strain, they discussed the situation. His wife, recognizing their virtual exile and the ongoing anguish, advised him that an unconditional apology might defuse the situation and prevent further suffering. She urged him not to endure an inner breakdown. Consequently, Murugan decided to apologize, and Swaminathan replaced “sincere regret” with “unconditional apology.”

The DRO then mentioned she might add a few more demands from the agitators. Swaminathan noted that Murugan had agreed to comply to avoid the bandh. However, since the bandh had already occurred, Murugan saw no point in resisting further and told the DRO to write whatever she needed, agreeing to sign it. Murugan waited in another room before they called him to sign the prepared minutes. The DRO then asked him to wait 30 minutes so the agitators could disperse.
All this totally frustrated Murugan. Swaminathan left for Madurai. The police escorted Murugan from the Collectorate to his house. He found his students and friends waiting for him and felt ashamed to face them. He justified his actions to himself, thinking that regardless of who was behind the scenes, he had apologized to his own town folk. However, the uncertainty about his literary future began to haunt him.

Murugan’s perspective amid furore

According to Murugan, the function of a writer is to question social values and subject them to critical examination, not to accept them mechanically. Society, which frames the rules, also provides for exceptions, and it is natural for a writer to focus on these exceptions.

When society insists on the rules, the writer highlights the exceptions, thus giving a voice to the victims and marginalized. Murugan felt that this perspective had guided his writing for years, but now he doubted his ability to write with the same understanding in the future.

The people who opposed him remained nameless and faceless, compounding his frustration. After much introspection, he decided that whatever he wrote should no longer remain in print, leading him to publish his own obituary as a writer on Facebook. Whether others believed it or not, Murugan considered it the death of Perumal Murugan as an author, as he could not write under threat or fear.

On the other hand, Murugan’s opponents labelled the novel as blasphemous, outrageous, defamatory, offensive, and morally unacceptable. Thousands of people arose in protest, calling his work dubious and perverted and accusing it of containing false and vicious claims. Since the novel centred on Tiruchengode and its religious life, the protesters argued that  the temple town of Tiruchengode got its name from the historic Arulmighu Arthanareeswarar Temple.

The temple, located on a hill whose red gives the town its name, has a storied past. Various kings, including Parantaka Chola, Vijayanagar emperors, Mysore, and Nayakar kings, developed the temple, as evidenced by inscriptions on its walls. The temple also finds mention in one of the five epics of Tamil literature, “Silapathigaram”.

The protesters highlighted that the temple is revered in the Thevaram hymns and that Muthuswami Dikshitar, one of the trinities of Carnatic Music, composed songs about this historic temple. Millions of devotees visit the temple because the presiding deity is one of the 64 manifestations of Lord Shiva.

The idol has a unique form representing both Shiva and Parvati, with the right half portraying Lord Shiva and the left half depicting Goddess Parvati. This duality makes the temple known as Artha-Nari, meaning half lady, with Eswara being another name for Lord Shiva. The faith in the deity is so strong that people believe drinking water from the spring at the deity’s feet cures fatal diseases.

Claims of religious denigration

Similarly, childless couples pray at the temple for children. The festival forming the backdrop of Murugan’s novel is celebrated grandly, with participation from all sections of society. The opponents argued that it is believed childless couples who circumambulate the Varadi Kal are blessed with children. They claimed Murugan’s novel denigrated the temple and its associated festivities, alleging the absence of substantial research into the temple or its rituals.

The protesters’ grievance was that Murugan named real places in Tiruchengode, including the revered Arthanareeswarar Temple and its festivities, while depicting an unreal sexual orgy. It outraged them that the novel suggested that almost all married women in Tiruchengode engaged in sexual activities outside their marriages and that childless women became pregnant through such encounters. This, they claimed, misrepresented and insulted their community and traditions.

They complained the author had referred to the women by their caste name, Kongu Vellala Gounder, which is predominant in the area. Consequently, they accused him of slandering that caste by portraying them as prostitutes. The protesters ignored the fact that Murugan belonged to that caste, and if his intention were as they suggested, he would be slandering himself and his family. In their opinion, Murugan had depicted the festival of Tiruchengode Arthanareeswarar Temple as a free-for-all sex gala, denigrating it and offending the people’s religious sentiments.

The author’s portrayal of what is believed to be God’s blessings as the progeny of sexual orgy rituals further fuelled their anger. By doing so, Murugan allegedly gave a completely different interpretation to the pious expression of religious belief. This portrayal, they claimed, led to social ridicule of the faith around childless parents begetting a child through the blessings of the Almighty. They suggested that Murugan depicted extra-marital sexual relationships as customary, where women considered their sexual partners as God himself.

Confronting critique

The opponents denied the existence of any such social sexual ritual as depicted in Murugan’s novel. They alleged that Murugan had labelled the women of the region as prostitutes and depicted the devotees attending the festival as sexual addicts. The critics also claimed that he had disparaged Lord Arthanareeswarar in foul language, thus insulting the deity and his devotees. Murugan’s motive behind the novel came up for criticism that it aimed to revolutionize existing social norms, stripping them of morality to create a different social order.

They asserted that Murugan failed to do so despite multiple entreaties to provide evidence for his claims in the novel. He had merely attributed the alleged rituals to the hearsay of Sami Pillai and Ardhanari of Tiruchengode. The opponents argued that there was no research behind depicting the supposed ritual.

By portraying the temple and its rituals negatively, the author had, according to them, discredited the temple and offended its devotees. They believed it was a deliberate attempt to diminish the Arthanareeswarar Temple and hurt the religious sentiments of the devotees.

The opponents claimed the possibility greatly troubled them that readers of the novel would form the impression that the women of the region were immoral and promiscuous. Considering the time period in the novel, they feared it would lead to the conclusion that even eminent individuals born around 1940 were illegitimate, causing moral crises among the town’s children.

They argued that Murugan’s depiction of the temple festival lacked scientific basis. According to the novel, a barren woman conceives immediately by participating in a sexual orgy on the 14th day of the festival. They contended that conception couldn’t be reduced to mere copulation, as infertility could stem from either partner.

Ban on reprint

Thus, they deemed the author’s claim against scientific fact, and called it absurd. They labelled the novel scandalous, alleging it discredited the honour of Tiruchengode’s women, constituting intellectual fraud. They expressed concern that the English version of the novel was available on platforms like Kindle, generating wrong opinions about Tamil culture as lascivious and prurient.

Furthermore, they asserted that the novel cast aspersions on Tiruchengode’s women to such an extent that women visiting the temple faced lewd comments from strangers, causing them to fear participating in the festival. In light of these concerns, they sought a ban on the novel’s reprinting, publication, circulation, marketing, and sale, along with the forfeiture of all copies, both in Tamil and English translations.

The opponents argued that while the Constitution of India guarantees freedom of speech, it should not become a platform for gross defamation or scurrilous attacks on religions.

They pointed out that the novel “Madhorubagan,” initially released in late 2010, received little attention until 2014 when the author, during a literary event in Singapore, allegedly boasted to the audience about depicting free consensual sex outside marriage as a ritual during temple festivals in Tamil Nadu. This statement quickly gained attention and sparked widespread interest in the novel.

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

(Edited by VVP Sharma)