Soutik Biswas at the BBC has more on Perumal Murugan and his silencing by protesters.
Madhorubhagan, first published in 2010, is set a century ago, It’s a gripping fictional account of a poor, childless couple, and how the wife, who wants to conceive, takes part in an ancient Hindu chariot festival where, on one night, consensual sex between any man and woman is allowed. Murugan explores the tyranny of caste and pathologies of a community in tearing the couple apart and destroying their marriage.
Well we can’t have that – no exploring of any tyrannies, or someone will get pissed off.
One critic said the novel “lays bare with unsparing clarity a relationship caught between the dictates of social conventions and the tug of personal anxieties”. Fellow writers lauded Murugan’s stark and shocking imagery and his “sensitive portrait” of the couple. “Childless couples, especially the women in these marriages, suffer untold humiliation even today. If anything deserves to be banned, it is this control over women’s sexuality,” says Murugan’s translator Aniruddhan Vasudevan.
India has a long and chequered history of banning books – usually for allegedly offending religious and community sentiments, misrepresenting the country or perceived obscenity – but such a drastic reaction by a writer who has been clearly intimidated is unprecedented.
Things reportedly came to a head at a so-called “peace meeting” on Monday between Murugan and the groups opposed to him. The author has not spoken about the meeting – the groups had demanded that he offer an unconditional apology, delete the controversial portions, take back unsold copies and stop writing on “controversial subjects that hurt the sentiments of the people”.
See? What did I say? No you may not explore any tyrannies, because we will give you tyranny if you try. Poor India, full of such horrible shouting meddling interfering demanding people with such easily “hurt sentiments.”
It is also not entirely clear why the groups got worked up over a novel published in Tamil four years ago. Murugan reckons the English translation One Part Woman, which was published last year by Penguin, is probably the reason, and that “somebody who read it could have instigated the local organisations“. He believes caste groups, incensed by some characters in his novel, and pro-Hindu organisations ganged up to force his hand.
“Caste groups” presumably meaning upper caste groups, because what do the lowest castes have to gain from silence?
In December, the right-wing Hindu nationalist group Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS, National Volunteers’ Organisation) burnt copies of the book, prompting his publishers and writers to issue a strong statement that cultural vigilantes “have all too often bullied writers and publishers, attacking our fundamental rights and freedoms of speech and expression”.
None of the political parties – regional or national – have spoken in support of Murugan. Many say this conspiracy of silence among India’s political parties when it comes to freedom of speech bodes ill for the world’s largest democracy.
“The silencing of Perumal Murugan,” says historian Ramachandra Guha, “is a sad day for Tamil Nadu and for India.” He and others believe that if Murugan does not return to writing in India’s disturbing climate of increasing intolerance of freedom of speech, it will be a tragedy.
One newspaper sharply reminded that the “spirit of orthodoxy and heterodoxy have coexisted” in the Indian intellectual traditions from ancient times. An online petition is already drumming up support for Murugan’s right to free speech. “Right now Murugan does not need a pep talk,” says Vasudevan his translator. “Perhaps he should be allowed to feel the exhaustion while we speak, write, march and read. Hopefully, after allowing himself to fully feel the sadness and exhaustion, he will emerge.”
Writers of the world unite.