God’s Own Child-8: Perumal Murugan’s cost of creativity and what it meant for artistic freedom

His case is not isolated. Authors have faced similar challenges throughout history when their works touched on sensitive societal issues.

BySaket Suman

Published May 31, 2024 | 2:00 PM Updated May 31, 2024 | 4:54 PM

Perumal_Murugan at KLF 2018 (Creative Commons)

Perumal Murugan’s One Part Woman transitioned from literary triumph to a focal point of intense backlash. Author-journalist Saket Suman explores the psychological and cultural ramifications of Murugan’s battle against censorship. This is the eighth of the ten-part series exclusively on thesouthfirst.com.

For four years following the publication of One Part Woman, Perumal Murugan basked in the glow of literary acclaim. The novel, lauded for its lyrical imagination, linguistic skill, and deep exploration of social issues, had garnered widespread literary praise.

This success led to a mainstream publisher releasing an English translation, further expanding its reach and impact. However, what began as a celebration of literary achievement soon descended into a harrowing ordeal, raising questions about creative freedom, the role of a novel, and the mental turmoil experienced by writers under siege.

In 2015, Murugan was honoured at the Indian Languages Festival Samanvay, receiving a prestigious award. The jury, chaired by noted poet and critic K Satchidanandan, praised “Madhorubhagan” for its “searing intensity and unsparing clarity” in narrating the story of a childless couple caught between social conventions and personal anxieties.

Novel as mirror of society

Satchidanandan highlighted Murugan’s profound exploration of caste and community pathology, describing the novel as a “rooted and passionate work of fiction.”

His commendation was unequivocal: “This historian of the Kongu region of Tamil Nadu has brought into play his lyrical imagination, linguistic skill, and lexical knowledge in this honest exploration of the tyranny of caste and the pathology of a community.

“Inspired by local folklore and history, this great work of fiction dreams of a secular future for communities in India that remain hostage to the ways of the past. It is an imaginative contribution by a versatile writer and scholar to the collective struggle for a new India free from the oppression of caste and enslaving conventions.”

Murugan’s acceptance speech reflected his gratitude and the significance of the award: “The Samanvay Award for ‘Madhorubhagan‘ is a modern recognition given to Tamil, a classical language with a long and unbroken literary tradition. This recognition, bestowed on my language at an unfortunate moment, will, I hope, be a shining gem rather than an unsightly wart.

“I wholeheartedly thank everyone who made this possible. Constrained by the force of circumstance to act as the shadow of Perumal Murugan, I feel honoured by this award. I dedicate the Samanvay Award to the lotus feet of the almighty lord Madhorubhagan.”

The English translation of “Madhorubhagan” also received acclaim. The Tamil Literary Guardian, based in Toronto, Canada, conferred a Lifetime Achievement Award on the translator, noting that the novel’s depiction of family and social relationships, written in a regional idiom, remained accessible to a wide readership. The translation retained the richness and beauty of the original Tamil text.

Creative freedom and novel’s role 

Despite the novel’s success, Murugan was unprepared for the erupted controversy. His previous works had been well-received, and the original Tamil version of “Madhorubhagan,” published in 2010, had not sparked any backlash. The novel focuses on the social difficulties a childless couple faces. However, in 2014, after the English version was published, a section of society decided to take issue with certain portions of the novel, ignoring its overall message and intent.

The controversy quickly escalated into a concerted effort by opposing groups to cause social unrest. Saddened by these developments, Murugan volunteered to make changes in future editions of the book and expressed regret for any hurt caused. Despite these conciliatory gestures, the pressure on him intensified.

The protesters focused on a few selected lines from the novel, underlining these portions and using them to fuel their campaign. Criminal complaints were filed based on these distorted excerpts, despite Murugan’s clarifications to various newspapers.

Murugan emphasised that his intent was to highlight the emotional trauma of a childless woman. To make the story authentic, he followed the customary style of using real identities, such as place and caste. He argued that a novel is often a blend of reality and fiction, and writers can create stories that reflect the life they know.

In a subsequent clarification, Murugan explained that the desire to produce children to perpetuate one’s lineage has historically been intense. This desire has led to practices, such as begetting a child through sexual union with a man other than one’s husband, which is evidenced in ancient texts like Mahabharata. He clarified that the Tiruchengode of his novel was a fictional and imagined town from a bygone era, not the Tiruchengode of today. Removing the name Tiruchengode would not change the essence of the story, which could happen anywhere.

Mental turmoil of Perumal Murugan

Murugan’s journey through this turmoil was marked by intense mental turmoil. He expressed distress over the disruption his writing caused in Tiruchengode. Drawing inspiration from Mahatma Gandhi, he stated that his novel was not more important than the daily life of Tiruchengode’s residents. Consequently, he promised to remove references to Tiruchengode in future editions and asked the public and protestors to refrain from actions that would disrupt normal life.

Despite these efforts to satisfy his critics, the protests continued. The opposition seemed determined to silence Murugan. This compelled him to withdraw all his literary works. The news of his plight spread quickly and elicited widespread condemnation from the literary community. Prominent personalities and various groups issued statements and petitions in his support. They unequivocally denounced the intimidation of writers and the violation of freedom of expression.

A group of political leaders, academicians, retired judges, lawyers, writers, artists, and others issued a statement highlighting the harassment faced by Murugan. They condemned the actions of those who disrupted the lives of Tiruchengode’s residents and violated Murugan’s democratic right to free expression. They pointed out that the protests directly contravened Article 19, Section 1 of the Indian Constitution, which guarantees freedom of speech and expression.

Creative freedom under siege

The case of Perumal Murugan is not isolated. Several authors have faced similar challenges throughout history when their works touched on sensitive societal issues. Salman Rushdie’s “The Satanic Verses” and its aftermath provide a stark parallel. Rushdie’s novel, which reimagines parts of the Prophet Muhammad’s life, led to global protests, book burnings, and a fatwa calling for his assassination. Rushdie was forced into hiding for years, but the controversy underscored the dangerous intersection of religion, politics, and artistic expression.

Similarly, Taslima Nasreen’s novel “Lajja” (Shame), which critiques the treatment of Hindus in Bangladesh, resulted in threats to her life and eventual exile. Nasreen’s experience, much like Murugan’s, illustrates the severe repercussions writers can face when their work is perceived as a threat to societal norms or religious beliefs.

These cases, including Murugan’s, highlight a broader issue: the fragile nature of creative freedom in the face of societal and political pressures. As a form, the novel has always been a space for exploring and critiquing social norms. It reflects the human condition, challenges the status quo, and opens dialogues about uncomfortable truths. However, this role makes it a target for those threatened by its revelations.

More than just a story

Novels are more than mere stories; they are powerful tools for social commentary and change. They provide a lens through which readers can examine their own lives and societies. For instance, Murugan’s “Madhorubhagan” uses the plight of a childless couple to delve into the societal pressures surrounding fertility and the oppressive nature of caste systems. By weaving personal and societal narratives, Murugan opens a dialogue on deeply entrenched social issues.

In defending his work, Murugan emphasised the historical and cultural contexts he drew from. He pointed out that practices like begetting a child through extramarital union, as depicted in his novel, have historical precedents. By grounding his fiction in historical reality, Murugan underscored the importance of understanding the past to address contemporary issues.

Murugan’s detractors remained unmoved despite his efforts to clarify his intent and the novel’s context. Instead of seeing “Madhorubhagan” as an opportunity for reflection and discussion, they viewed it as an attack on their identity and beliefs.

Psychological impact on writers

The psychological toll on writers facing such backlash can be devastating. For Murugan, the relentless protests and threats led to a public declaration that he was “dead” as a writer. This dramatic statement was not merely a reaction to the controversy but a reflection of the immense pressure and emotional strain he endured.

In his memoir “Joseph Anton,” Salman Rushdie details the isolation and fear he experienced while in hiding. The constant threat to his life and the knowledge that his work had incited such extreme reactions weighed heavily on him. Similarly, Taslima Nasreen has spoken about the loneliness and anxiety of living in exile, separated from her homeland and constantly under threat.

These experiences highlight the impact that censorship and persecution can have on writers. The act of creation, which once brought joy and fulfilment, becomes a source of fear and anguish. As seen in Murugan’s declaration, the psychological burden can lead to a loss of identity and stifle the creative spirit.

Broader cultural struggle

The struggle for creative freedom is not just about individual writers but a broader cultural battle. The ability to freely express ideas, critique societal norms, and explore diverse perspectives is essential for a vibrant and progressive society. When this freedom is curtailed, society as a whole suffers.

Statements from various groups and individuals in support of Perumal Murugan underscored the need to protect artistic freedom and condemned the actions of those who sought to silence Murugan. The Federation of Indian Publishers, for example, emphasised the duty of the state to protect individuals from physical and emotional violence by intolerant factions.

Sangam Literary House’s statement highlighted the role of cultural vigilantes in undermining constitutional rights. They argued that the right to be offended does not trump the right to free expression and that preventing others from accessing a work of art directly attacks democratic principles.

Role of the State and society

The State’s role in protecting artistic freedom is crucial. In Murugan’s case, the perceived complicity of local authorities in the coercive “peace meeting” added to the outrage. The police and district administration’s failure to protect Murugan’s rights and facilitate his harassment drew widespread condemnation.

This situation was not unique to India. In many countries, state authorities directly or indirectly support actions that curtail artistic freedom. The broader societal implication sets a dangerous precedent when the state fails to uphold constitutional rights. It emboldens extremist groups and creates an environment that stifles dissent and critical thought.

The legal battles that ensued in Murugan’s case, with petitions filed to protect his rights and challenge the coercive settlement, underscored the importance of a robust legal framework to defend freedom of expression. The Madras High Court’s involvement highlighted the judiciary’s role in upholding constitutional principles and protecting individual rights against mob justice.

Historical context of censorship

Throughout history, those in power used censorship to maintain control and suppress dissent. The persecution of writers and artists is a recurring theme, often reflecting broader societal conflicts. From the burning of books in Nazi Germany to the suppression of dissident voices in Soviet Russia, the struggle for creative freedom has been a constant battle.

Colonial rule and post-independence governance intertwine with the history of censorship in India. The British colonial authorities employed strict censorship to quell nationalist sentiments and suppress any form of resistance. Post-independence, the Indian state has grappled with balancing freedom of expression with maintaining public order, often erring on caution and suppression.

Murugan’s experience is a continuation of this historical struggle. His novel sought to explore and critique societal norms and became a flashpoint for broader cultural and political battles. The reaction to his work highlighted the ongoing tension between progressive thought and conservative forces resistant to change.

Global perspective on creative freedom

Around the world, writers and artists continue to face censorship and persecution. In China, the government employs stringent censorship to control information and suppress dissenting voices. The detention and harassment of writers, journalists, and activists are commonplace. It reflects the Chinese state’s desire to maintain a tight grip on narrative and public opinion.

In the Middle East, writers like Nawal El Saadawi have faced threats for their works that critique societal norms and authoritarian governance. The fatwas issued against Salman Rushdie and the threats against Taslima Nasreen illustrate the global nature of this struggle. In each case, the writer’s work catalyzes broader societal debates and has attracted the ire of those in power.

These global parallels underscore the universality of the battle for creative freedom. They highlight the need for international solidarity and support for writers and artists who challenge the status quo. The defence of artistic expression is not just a local or national issue but a global imperative.

Importance of protecting creative freedom

The defence of creative freedom is essential for a thriving, progressive society. Novels, plays, films and other forms of artistic expression provide a unique lens through which we can examine and understand our world. They challenge us to think critically, question established norms, and explore new ideas.

The suppression of creative freedom stifles innovation and progress. It creates an environment where fear and conformity replace curiosity and exploration. By silencing writers like Murugan, we lose their voices and the opportunity to engage with the ideas and questions they raise.

Protecting creative freedom requires a multifaceted approach. Legal frameworks must be robust and enforceable, ensuring individuals can express themselves without fear of retribution.

Educational systems should promote critical thinking and encourage students to engage with diverse perspectives. Society must also cultivate a culture of tolerance and respect for differing viewpoints.

Future of creative freedom in India

The future of creative freedom in India hinges on the ability of the state, civil society, and stakeholders to navigate the delicate balance between free expression and social harmony. The controversy surrounding Murugan’s “Madhorubhagan” is a critical case study in this ongoing debate.

The response to Murugan’s plight, both supportive and oppositional, reflected the complex dynamics of contemporary Indian society. On one hand, the solidarity shown by the literary community and the legal challenges mounted in his defence demonstrated a robust commitment to protecting creative freedom. Conversely, the persistence of conservative forces seeking to suppress dissent underscored the ongoing challenges.

To ensure a future where creative freedom thrives, India must continue strengthening its democratic institutions and uphold the principles enshrined in its Constitution. The judiciary plays a crucial role in this process, acting as a bulwark against the overreach of both State and non-state actors. Civil society organizations, advocacy groups, and the media must remain vigilant. They must continue to hold authorities accountable and defend the rights of individuals.

Call to action

The story of Perumal Murugan underscores the essential role that novels and other forms of art play in challenging societal norms, sparking dialogue, and driving social change. Murugan’s mental turmoil and dramatic declaration of being “dead” as an author reveal the personal cost of such battles.

However, the solidarity shown by the literary community and the widespread condemnation of the actions against Murugan offer hope. They demonstrate that while the battle for creative freedom is filled with challenges, it is a fight worth engaging in. As Indian society continues to evolve rapidly, we must protect the spaces where diverse voices can be heard and critical thought can flourish.

In Salman Rushdie’s words, “What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist.” This sentiment exhibits the essence of the struggle Murugan and countless other writers faced. It is a call to action for all of us to defend the right to free expression and ensure that the voices of artists and writers are not silenced by intolerance and fear.

Ultimately, defending creative freedom is about more than just protecting individual writers; it is about safeguarding the very foundation of our free and democratic society. It is about ensuring we continue progressing, innovating, and growing as a culture and society.

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

(Edited by VVP Sharma)