‘A Censor Is Seated Inside Me Now’: Hometown Wrath Tests a Novelist
New Delhi: Perumal Murugan, who was celebrated here on Monday as a major Indian writer, looked a bit miserable in the big city.
The son of an illiterate soda-pop vendor from small-town South India, he had limited his visit to the capital to 48 hours, and this appeared to be 46 hours too long. He prefers to sleep on a rope cot, under the stars, the way they do in the village, and has never owned a pair of shoes that were not sandals. Leaving an interview with the talk show host Barkha Dutt, who is Oprah Winfrey-league famous in India, he turned to the man escorting him and asked, politely, who she was.
Mr. Murugan had come to declare his return as a writer following a long spell of darkness. After undergoing a vicious attack by caste leaders in his home state of Tamil Nadu, his novel “One Part Woman” last month was the subject of a landmark court decision defending the right of artists to critically depict their own communities. Recent interest in Mr. Murugan’s work has exploded, with five novels coming out, translated into English from the original Tamil.
But Mr. Murugan seems unsure of what kind of writer he will be now. He remains so horrified by the collective punishment meted out to him in his hometown over “One Part Woman” that he barely speaks about it, even to friends. He doubts he will ever again write about small towns with the same unblinking realism.
“A censor is seated inside me now,” he said on Monday, at a book-signing organized by Penguin India. “He is testing every word that is born within me. His constant caution that a word may be misunderstood so, or it may be interpreted thus, is a real bother. But I’m unable to shake him off.”
Mr. Murugan’s fictional villages are places full of quiet menace, where caste boundaries are protected with violence and social exclusion.
In “Pyre,” published in English by Penguin Books in April, a well-loved young man brings a wife of a different caste to live among his relatives, hoping they will eventually accept her. As the lovers, hopeful and distracted, overlook clues that the people around them are drifting into a consensus in favor of murder, Mr. Murugan slows the pace, meandering off into exact, detailed descriptions of village life. It’s so tense it leaves you gasping for air.
Equally dark currents run through “One Part Woman,” which Penguin published in English in 2013. Kali and Ponna, a couple who are erotically wrapped up in each other, withstand waves of derision because they have not conceived a child after a decade of marriage. But social pressure eats into them, first sporadically and then conspiratorially, as Ponna is pushed, as if by a hundred hands, into participating in a religious ritual in which childless women have sex with young strangers.
When describing the farming communities of South India, Mr. Murugan is neither sentimental nor harsh; he describes it the way an entomologist might describe an insect.
As a Ph.D. student, Mr. Murugan married a woman from a caste of potters, rather than his own higher landowning caste, the Gounders. His mother refused to attend the marriage, softening only when his wife bore her first child and moved to the village for six months. Two decades later, Mr. Murugan’s relatives still remind him, in subtle ways, that his wife will never be accepted.
It is notable that Mr. Murugan does not write with the expectation that his work will change anything.
“I never had such big hopes,” he said in an interview, glancing down and smiling. Collective punishment, he said, “is part of the narrative. My primary purpose is to explore the experience of the person who undergoes that humiliation.”
Mr. Murugan barely spoke as a child, which gave him time to observe. His older brother was withdrawn from school after the ninth grade so he could help his father with the soda business, and became addicted to bootleg liquor sold in the same bottles. He killed himself at 42.
Mr. Murugan became a writer, with a small but passionate following among Tamil intellectuals. At night he would go to sleep beside his young son at 8 p.m. and then rise at midnight and write for two to three hours during the quietest hours of the night. Many of his colleagues at the government college, where he taught Tamil, were unaware that he wrote fiction, he said on Monday.
In clean, clear prose, he had produced five novels in the space of three years – “almost flawless novels,” said R. Sivapriya, senior editor at the digital publishing house Juggernaut, which commissioned English translations of three of Mr. Murugan’s short stories this year. “He would train a microscope on one detail and tell that one story, and see the world through that one story,” she said. “There was a certain purity to him that won’t be there now, I think. I think it will be a different writer.”
In December 2014, he returned from a writer’s retreat to his family’s home in Namakkal to discover that he was the target of a well-organized campaign. Strangers called repeatedly to accuse him of slandering the Gounder caste in “One Part Woman,” which had been released in an English translation, and he tried earnestly to explain his motivation. The aggression built, culminating in a book burning and a citywide strike.
When a local official, the district revenue officer, summoned the author to a “peace meeting” in January 2015, Mr. Murugan’s editor tried to dissuade him from attending. By the time Mr. Murugan emerged from the meeting, he had signed a document agreeing to withdraw all unsold copies of his books and delete the passages considered offensive. During the meeting, the lawyer wrote later in The Hindu, a daily newspaper, “I could see Perumal Murugan literally crumbling from within.”
Mr. Murugan retuned to his home under police escort and posted a message on Facebook: “Perumal Murugan the writer is dead. As he is not god, he is not going to resurrect himself. He also has no faith in rebirth. An ordinary teacher, he will live as P. Murugan. Leave him alone.”
On Monday here in New Delhi, Mr. Murugan described a deep depression that followed, during which he neither read nor wrote. It ended, he said, in 2015, when he found himself at a friend’s house, locked in a room stacked with books.
“With nothing to do I lay dazed night and day,” he said. “But as I ruminated over my existence, there came a certain instant when the sluice gates were breached. I began to write. I chronicled the moment when I felt like a rat, dazzled by the light, burrowing itself into its hole.” The result was a book of poetry that went on sale on Monday, titled “Kozhayin Paadalkal,” or “Songs of a Coward.”