God’s Own Child-9: Legal and cultural battle over judging art in Perumal Murugan’s controversial novel

The judges lamented society's tolerance level seemed to be declining, leading to threats and violent behaviour in light of contrarian views.

BySaket Suman

Published Jun 07, 2024 | 2:00 PM Updated Jun 07, 2024 | 9:31 PM

Perumal Murugan at Jaipur Literature Festival.

The fierce backlash against Perumal Murugan’s novel raised questions about censorship, societal norms, and artistic freedom. Author-journalist Saket Suman thoroughly examines the legal and cultural challenges Murugan faces, the novel’s critical themes, and the broader impact on the creative community. This is the ninth of the ten-part series exclusively on thesouthfirst.com.

Those aware of India’s struggle for independence will be able to recall that Indians did not enjoy freedom under British rule, that their voices were suppressed, and their rights denied while their nation was robbed of its wealth and splendour.
The movement that brought down the mighty British Empire was vehement in its criticism of the Raj. Numerous newspapers and books published by Indian writers exposed the British’s exploitation, injustices, and constant draining of wealth. The Madras High Court noted that the social changes that have taken place over time were led by eminent persons who challenged the status quo.

“Thus, undesirable social practices like Sati, coupled with modifications in religious and social thinking, lay at the core of the Movement. On India attaining Independence, the makers of the Constitution gave a place of pride to the Fundamental Rights enshrined in Part-III of the Constitution, and the Freedom of Speech and Expression was fundamental to it and has been vigorously defended by the Courts,” the Madras High Court observed.

The context of freedom and expression

However, as is often argued, no freedom is absolute. Thus, even the right to freedom and expression is circumscribed by Article 19(2) of the Constitution of India.

As far as the practice of writing goes, the court observed that it emanates from ancient times, and the evolution of our society has made accepting what might have been unacceptable earlier.

“Surprisingly, on the issue of a liberal ethos towards the relationship of man and woman, sex, and religious mores, the ancient scriptures seemed to be more liberal than, at times, what appears to be the current norm. Beauty lies in the eye of the beholder, and a similar sense is the test for determining obscenity,” the court contended.

The first objection to Murugan’s masterpiece was based on vulgarity. Its opponents alleged that the author had sought to paint certain communities and persons visiting a well-known temple in a poor light.

The court was faced with the task of a vulgarity test and set out to weigh Murugan’s novel in the face of this allegation on two primary grounds for dubbing a literary work as vulgar: (i) a book, when read as a whole, appears lascivious or raises lustful thoughts or desire; and (ii) when the book contains no literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.

Artistic merit and freedom of expression

What would have been the fate of this novel had it been written with no artistic or literary merit but solely as an explicit exercise to appeal to the lustful aspects of our being? Should such books be banned and done away with? What would freedom even mean if it outrightly denied the right to be explicit?

Thanks to the coercive nature of the complaints against Murugan, compelling questions such as these that were raised by the observations of the court did not find deliberation as the judges maintained that the burden to prove the vulgarity was on the party seeking a ban while recognising that though there were several occasions when the State had sought to ban a book, it was not so in Murugan’s trial.

Maintaining that decency and obscenity were relative terms, the judges wondered whether the courts should have intervened or whether it should have been left to the readers to learn what they thought and felt. Very often, people express worry about explicit content in books with good intentions or perhaps as a cautionary measure to keep them away from the reach of children.

Films, for example, undergo an exhaustive censoring process whereby they are categorised by the age profile permitted to watch them. There is, however, no such procedure for books, though it is a different matter altogether that the Censor Board in India and elsewhere has attracted much criticism for curbing creative freedom.

Societal and cultural context

Murugan’s novel revolved around the lives of Kali and Ponna, who were economically and socially backward. The author was almost bound to use the language readers commonly use to make the narrative compelling and relatable.
The court observed that even characters in films use the language spoken in their milieu and maintained that there can be nothing wrong with a scenario depicted in a novel.

It referred to the widespread controversy arising from the Hindi film Udta Punjab. The film producers’ challenge to the cuts recommended by the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC), which predominantly aimed at the cuss words used by the characters in the movie, was sustained by a Division Bench of the Bombay High Court.

The court cited the earlier order of the Bombay High Court regarding Udta Punjab to establish the context of the trial: “The human sensibilities are not offended by vulgarity, obscenity, or depravity. Such scenes and dialogues have to be viewed in totality. The story must be read and considered in its entirety. It is not safe to select a few words, sentences, dialogues, and scenes and then arrive at the conclusion reached by the Board.

“If the strata of the society, habituated to indulge freely in vulgar abuses, is shown as indulging in the same without in the slightest manner glorifying them or their language, then we do not see anything objectionable in the words. Thus, the Court believed that a blanket direction by the CBFC suggesting various cuts relating to the use of abusive words without reference to the theme and the subject of the film can be seen as infringing upon the artistic freedom and creativity of the filmmaker. The Court observed it is important to take note of the spoken words in their entirety and understand the method of conveyance of the intended message.”

The Court held that even though these observations were made regarding a cinematographic work, they fully applied to Murugan’s case, as all literary works, whether films, books, or paintings, most certainly fall within artistic creativity.

The judicial perspective

The judges read the novel in its totality; one even read its original Tamil version. They contended that the crucial test for the trial was the impression one carries after reading it. “Is the impression determined by human pathos of the painful life of a childless couple and their endeavours to come to terms with it in our societal setup? Is it written only to be provocative, using crass language, seeking to evoke prurient interests?” the court asked.

The publisher’s counsel made a significant distinction between a novelized history of the elite, which would have records backing it, and a novel based on folktales carried by word of mouth.

He argued that Murugan’s novel is not a history of the conquerors and the vanquished but instead about the everyday struggles in the lives of a rustic childless couple who left to themselves, would be resigned to their fate, owing to the affection they have towards each other, but are constantly pricked and reminded of their status as a childless couple because progeny is supposed to be of utmost importance.

The court also recognized that the novel had bagged several awards and had no controversy during its first four years on the stands. It was only after its English translation that it suddenly evoked a strong reaction from a section of society. But the court maintained that those angered at the alleged vulgarity in the novel would invariably be reading only its Tamil version.

“Thus, can it be said to be a spontaneous reaction by the locals against some writing which is allegedly related to them? We do believe that this does not appear to be the situation in the present case. The fact that the novel has received many awards by itself is not determinative, though it is strongly indicative of how society perceives the novel. The nature of the awards referred to aforesaid cannot be said to be of the kind which are self-built up. These awards are reflective of the ability of the writer…” the court observed.

Impression of the novel

So, what impression did the novel have on the judges after they read it? In the verdict, they unequivocally stated that, at least to their mind, it was a heart-rending story of a husband and wife who were at peace with themselves but constantly reminded by society of their status as childless.

In their view, the focus of the novel was hardly the existence of a practice of sexual intermingling on the 14th day of the festival, although that became an essential ingredient to show how, despite the refusal of the husband, who had not changed his view, the mothers of the couple and the brother of the wife hatched a plan in a manner as to ensure that this endeavour is made to enable the couple to beget a child.

But the emphasis was not on what transpired at the festival. Instead, the judges held, even those attempts are given legitimacy by calling any progeny thus begotten as “Children of God.”

The novel’s opponents argued that it could hardly be presumed that a mere passing incident like this would necessarily result in conception biologically. They cited various scientific reasons why a couple may not be able to conceive a child.

But to the judges, that was not significant as it was nobody’s case that every woman who goes to the 14th day of the festival and indulges in such a sexual act would necessarily have a child.

“That is shown only as a means to achieve the end. It can even be the woman, who may be incapable of conceiving for various biological reasons. The point of the issue is that people have faith in God and pray to Him for a child. The novel refers to a social practice, if at all it ever existed, to somehow solve the problem of a childless couple through this peculiar yet not very desirable practice. It reflects the desperation to which society drives the childless couple to make such a compromise.”

The judges stated that Murugan’s novel shakes the readers, but not in the manner its opponents sought to profess.

Evolution of the controversy

Tracing the controversial novel’s forays since it hit the stands, the court found that the Tamil version had sold a fair number of copies. Those who read the novel surely found nothing wrong with it for four long years.

In this regard, the court made a crucial observation, “There are different kinds of books available on the shelves of bookstores to be read by different age groups from different strata. If you do not like a book, simply close it. The answer is not its ban.”

The author’s counsel presented a compelling argument by stating that the author had written nothing unknown and that “a small group of people with a narrow vision and without any appreciation of ancient Indian literature” had gone up in arms against the novel.

A large part of ancient literature written at different periods of time, where such sexual mores have been discussed liberally, was cited in the author’s defence. In the view of the judges, from Vedic times onwards, the subject of sex, erotic literature, and ancient and mediaeval practices have reflected the liberal ethos, which was corrupted by Victorian English philosophy after the British invasion of India.

“As a society, we seem to be more bogged down by this Victorian philosophy rather than draw inspiration from our own literature and scriptures. Or perhaps it is only a small sect of people who believe so, but are vociferous enough to create such pandemonium. Sex, per se, was not treated as undesirable but was an integral part of the existence of civilization.

The Indian scriptures, including the Mahabharata, are said to be replete with apparent examples of sex outside marriage, specifically to have progenies and that too, of the intellectual class. These practices have been followed by society’s higher and lower social and economic strata only as an endeavour to have a future perfect king.”

The judges observed that reading the novel did not create an appeal to prurient interests. In their view, One Part Woman could hardly be said to be offensive even by contemporary mores. “It is not to be judged by the eyes of the insensitive, which sees only obscenity in everything.”

To arrive at a dispassionate conclusion, the judges endeavoured to put themselves in Murugan’s shoes. After doing so, they attempted to put themselves in the shoes of readers of various age groups who may be potential readers of the offering.

They maintained that the book should be tested by the “standard of a reasonable, strong, and firm-minded person” instead of somebody who “smells a danger” in every contrarian view. The judges lamented that our society’s tolerance level seemed to be declining, leading to threats and violent behaviour in light of contrarian views.

They said that upon examining the entire fiasco, taking into account the dates and events, the outrage appeared to be manufactured and “stage-managed” by a small group. “India is not endangered by someone writing about social practices, real or unreal, more so qua a childless couple, as is the case here. Thus, certainly, greater tolerance is expected.”

Judicial verdict and implications

They also held that it was almost unthinkable that the original Tamil version of the novel had not attracted any opposition for four long years if they were so aggrieved. They held that there appeared to be “a concerted effort by a select group of people to drag the author into a controversy, rather than there being angst of any real substance, be it by the residents of the town or by the community said to have been affected by the author’s writing.”

On the heckling of Murugan for casting aspersions on the women of the area, the judges, without mincing words, stated clearly that the book in question was a novel and that it did not claim to be history, adding that the author had even affirmed his willingness to delete the reference to any known place to end the protests.

The publisher’s counsel argued that Murugan had not claimed to have referred to “any written text” to arrive at any conclusion in the novel. As per the argument, these were based on folklore, which is undocumented history and carried by word of mouth.

“No one reading the novel would be persuaded to draw a definite conclusion as sought to be canvassed by the opponents of the novel that the author endeavoured to portray all women coming to the car festival as prostitutes. This is a complete misreading of the novel and its theme,” they held.

The judges referred to Murugan’s stellar career as an author who had been conferred with various awards.

“If the literary world does not find anything offensive in the novel, nor did the Government find anything offensive in it, can a small group of people, who may have a more conservative view of the writings, create such a ruckus, while the simple solution was not to read the book? If we may say so, such antics have only given hype to the novel and possibly garnered more publicity and readers than it had earlier.”

To their understanding, the opponents of One Part Woman did not need to consider themselves or their ancestors as the characters portrayed in Murugan’s novel.

“To do so would be an endeavour as a self-inflicted wound by the more sensitive section of society since childlessness was being labelled as God’s will, though the story spins around to show how in desperation a solution is sought to get a God’s Child.”

The judges reviewed the synopsis filed by the novel’s opponents and found that it sought “to give a different colour” and “raise the flag of the religion being in danger in the hands of persons with different political and social ideologies.”

They stated in their verdict that this belief appeared at the core of the entire fiasco, which had dragged Murugan into this controversy. They said the novel must be understood in its “true perspective and storyline”, and the mere use of a more crass or earthy language to convey the dialogues cannot be the basis to take on the author and make it into a more significant social issue only because a particular temple or site has been referred to in the novel.

Role of the state

During the trial, a larger cause demanded attention on the role played by the State. Apparently, the State did not find anything offensive in the novel. One Part Woman was published and remained in the market to be read for more than four years without any intervention or objection by any government body. The administration intervened following “a perceived threat to the peace in the town.”

The judges perceived it only as an endeavour of peace initiative rather than any offence being committed. In their view, the administration wanted to subdue the controversy, so the author was asked to participate in the peace initiatives.

But notwithstanding the reasons for the summons being issued to Murugan, the judges held that the state’s action demanded thorough scrutiny and asked whether the peace initiative was misplaced and whether in subjects dealing with art and culture, where there are different points of view, there should be State intervention.

The judges contended that they were troubled by the State interventions as there are different thought processes on social mores, and while each may be entitled to one’s own view, it cannot be forced down the gullet of another.

“It is not unusual to see now a campaign against a book, a film, a painting, a sculpture, and other forms of artistic representations. Art is often provocative and is not meant for everyone, nor does it compel the whole society to see it. The choice is left to the viewer. Merely because a group of people feel agitated about it cannot give them licence to vent their views in a hostile manner, and the State cannot plead its inability to handle the problem of a hostile audience. A vague construction, therefore, of a possible deplorable impact on a certain section is not reason enough to deprive an artist of his expression. Even more so in a democratic country like ours.”

The judges recognized that the author faced a challenge from the mob, and there were also pressures of a bandh and a strike in the town, called by the novel’s opponents. In that context, they felt that it was the duty of the State Government to ensure that law and order were maintained. The judges, however, stressed that it should not be achieved by placating anyone who seeks to take law and order into his own hands at the cost of the person who has peacefully expressed his view.

Role of publishers

To them, the authorities’ approach appeared not neutral; instead, they were more concerned with the law-and-order scenario than with the freedom of expression of a single individual. “We may also say that the State and the police authorities would not be the best ones to judge such literary and cultural issues, which are best left to the wisdom of the specialists in the field and, if need be, the courts.”

The judges agreed that a controversial book often generates publicity, which boosts its sales, but they maintained that a book has to first be published to become popular or even controversial. In this regard, they said publishers are supporters and facilitators of knowledge who are key promoters of supporting research and connecting authors.

“Publishing a book is not just a commercial activity, but is sometimes aimed at the education and welfare of society. The mission of the publishing industry must be to promote professional standards among its members so that they may, in turn, generate and encourage the development of knowledge, serve society through the publication of various types of books and make ours a book-loving nation. An ideal publisher is one, who studies the needs of society and publishes such books which would enhance the social and cultural standards. A publisher must respect its authors and act as the custodian of their interests. The creativity of the authors has to be respected if the publisher wants to get the best out of them.”

After considering all the facts presented by all sides, the court held that action against any publication of Murugan’s work, as sought by the novel’s opponents, was unnecessary. They refused to issue any possible direction for police action against the author or the publisher.

They held that writings are vehicles of personal expression and must be understood and appreciated, even if provocative, considering India’s rich cultural heritage.

Let the author write

In recognizing the right of the proponents of the novel to applaud it, the court held that its opponents may certainly be entitled to critique it in the same breath. “But shutting down the town’s life, holding it to ransom and effecting threats to the author is not the way. The State also performs an important role along with the judiciary in protecting these individual rights and freedoms.”

In their final words, the judges said the author should not be in fear.

“He should be able to write and advance the canvas of his writings. His writings would be a literary contribution, even if others may differ with the material and style of his expression. The answer cannot be that he decided to call himself dead as a writer. It was not a free decision but a result of a created situation. Time is a great healer, and we are sure that would hold for Perumal Murugan as well as his opponents; both would have learned to get along with their lives, we hope by now, in their own fields and bury this issue in the hatchet as citizens of an advancing and vibrant democracy.

“We hope our judgement gives a quietus to the issue with introspection on all sides. Time also teaches us to forget and forgive and see beyond the damage. If we give time and space to work itself out, it would take us to beautiful avenues. We conclude by observing this: Let the author be resurrected to what he is best at. Write.”

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