God’s own child-1: The trials and tribulations of Perumal Murugan

Through his stories, he breathed life into energetic narratives about his community, his homeland, and their customs.

BySaket Suman

Published Apr 12, 2024 | 1:05 PMUpdatedApr 20, 2024 | 12:43 AM

Perumal Murugan Booker prize

In a world where the pen often transforms from a tool of artistic expression to a weapon of societal outrage, author-journalist Saket Suman unveils the gripping narrative of Perumal Murugan’s turbulent life and literary journey in this ten-part series exclusively on thesouthfirst.com. This is the first part.

“Author Perumal Murugan has died. He is no god, so he is not going to resurrect himself. Nor does he believe in reincarnation. From now on, Pe. Murugan will survive merely as a teacher, as he has been.”

The concise obituary, penned by a Tamil writer and shared on Facebook by the writer himself, resembled more of a sombre reflection than a typical eulogy.

It hinted at deep sorrow, fear, and hopelessness. The spotlight abruptly shifted onto the writer after the English translation of his novel “Madhorubagan” as “One Part Woman” sparked sudden outrage within his community.

The ensuing events in the writer’s life drew the attention of prominent civil rights organisations and individuals, who spoke proudly of liberty and, at considerable costs to themselves, stood as pillars of support in his struggle.

The incident sparked a legal battle concerning freedom of expression in India, uniting writers, critics, and publishers nationwide in protest against the novelist’s treatment.

However, in his local community, an intense atmosphere of hostility emerged, unsettling him like nothing before. The more support his fraternity extended to him, the more belligerent his opponents became.

They were hell-bent on silencing him, but he took everybody by surprise when he announced his own death as a writer.

Also read: ‘I can only write, not an activist, Murugan says

From humble beginnings

To the surprise of this chronicler, Perumal Murugan did not always aspire to be a writer. It wasn’t a lifelong dream or ambition but rather a product of his life experiences.

Writing became a habit, a passion, and a form of catharsis for him, weaving its way through every aspect of his life.

Courtesy: Hyderabad Literary Festival website

While friendships and emotions were transient, writing remained a constant amidst the highs and lows, commanding a steadfast presence that allowed him to confront both pride and less pleasant realities of life.

When he started writing, it was merely a form of engagement. However, with time, his dedication transformed it into a compelling force that required expression.

Through his stories, he breathed life into energetic narratives about his community, his homeland, and their customs.

It became integral to his identity, a need akin to the air we breathe, unseen but essential to keeping our flames burning.

It all began unexpectedly, perhaps triggered by a voice, a memory, a dream, or even a fleeting fantasy. Yet, as the writer put pen to paper, a world of possibilities unfolded.

Gradually, he became aware of his remarkable talent for conjuring magic within those pages, crafting something truly unique that bore his signature alone: A universe that felt intimately his own yet yearned to be shared with others.

He weaved his tales with meticulous care, layering them with memories and scenes tucked away in the deepest recesses of his heart.

Related: ‘Universality of narratives’ goal of Murugan’s work

Morally ‘unacceptable’

It all had happened so quickly that Murugan could not even comprehend what could irk the people to this extent.

It was only a work of fiction after all, he thought to himself, but he soon learnt that an official police complaint was going to be lodged against him.

Social media was flooded with photographs that captured several groups of people burning his novel.

He also learnt that people were beating his photographs with slippers and burning his effigies. Some were even demanding that he be removed from government service.

The threats were real even though he had worked to bring honour to his town all his life and earned praise for his literary merits.

He began to sense a conspiracy at play after finding booklets with select passages from his novel underlined and circulated across the region.

Pamphlets and WhatsApp messages against him widely circulated.

As it turned out, the anger was orchestrated against the backdrop of his novel, and those protesting against it demanded he forfeit all copies of the novel.

Courtesy: Penguin India

They claimed to have read the novel and alleged it was blasphemous and morally unacceptable.

Outraged at the portrayal of women in his work of fiction, people in large groups assembled to demand the withdrawal of the “dubious and offensive novel” since, according to them, it contained false and vicious claims.

The protests gained further momentum in the coming days. The writer had suddenly become the villain in his own town, and the people who had seen him bring laurels home now seemed to want to hurt him.

Related: Murugan’s books made it to literature festivals

A slow death

Public protests increased, and his books burnt several times. He was also receiving frequent calls of threats and intimidation.

Perumal Murugan was dying a slow death.

Nobody could have ever thought that the ink running through his pen would drain out like blood from his veins and compel him to symbolically end his glorious saga as a celebrated writer of many literary works.

He had dropped his pen and drawn himself into a cocoon, and it did not matter anymore what the world thought of him; he had decided that it was the death of the writer in him.

Would he have done things differently had he known what destiny had in store for him?

Would he, or any writer for that matter, spend a lifetime wielding his pen if he were to know that his most potent weapon would turn out to be his most dreaded enemy?

Can the very essence of one’s existence become the catalyst for their demise?

(The writer is an independent journalist and the author of The Psychology of a Patriot. In the coming weeks, he will reveal the depths of Perumal Murugan’s struggle for literary freedom as creativity battled against persecution. Next Week: Perumal Murugan’s quest for identity in the shadow of Palani Hills.)

(Edited by VVP Sharma)