What happened to Perumal Murugan’s Madhorubagan is not the first incident of its kind in Tamil. I can recall a number of incidents from the 1950s and 1960s; T Janakiraman’s Amma Vanthal - which was condemned by his Brahmin community as defamatory, Salma’s novels, Joe D’ Cruz’s novels, Bama’s novels and Dilip Kumar’s short story; several such authors have been either condemned by their own communities or for political reasons.
Today, almost every community appears to be ashamed of its tradition. What happened in the past need not necessarily fit in with the middle class values of today. Our ancestors lived according to their values; to expect those to be acceptable to contemporary times would be absurd, just as the ideals we live by may not be suitable for our future generations. But much of our middle class is ashamed of its past, wants to cleanse and purify it, and make it suitable and scientific for the present times.
When a writer writes about his community in fiction, there are several unspoken and hidden elements that come into the story and fall open to debate. These communities feel betrayed, as if a secret has been revealed to the public and brought them shame. This results in a lot of anger.
But then, writers can only stay faithful to their work, not to their caste, religion, communities or even families. As artists, it would be their duty to do justice to the fiction and be honest to their readership. There is at least one major writer I can think of in Tamil whose family has simply refused to allow his works to be published, because he’s written about them and used their names.
A writer has complete freedom to create what he wants in his work. If you don’t agree with him you can criticise his work, issue text that counters it, ask people not to read it and even burn copies of it - as a mark of protest. I don’t believe books are sacred objects that can’t be slippered or burnt. Hindus consider books to be sacred objects, and yet they burn and slipper books with images of Ardhanareeshwar on the cover.
|Perumal Murugan's novel Madhorubagan|
However, it is not okay to destroy our libraries, documents and history. It is not okay to threaten the writer, cause him/her harm, ask for a ban on his/her book, ask for his/her arrest and harass him/her with a legal process. A writer is not above the law but many times, legal action is taken in a way that the process of fighting for justice itself becomes a punishment for him/her. A case is filed a thousand miles away, in ten different courts and he/she is made to run around exhaustingly.
When he’s being creative and writing fiction, I don’t believe a writer can act in a way that’s socially irresponsible, by his own ethical standards. He’s looking for a larger, deeper truth, trying to present it to the community and be honest with his readers. Sometimes, it may not be acceptable to our personal norms but become successful in the future, because he’s expressing the truth.
When people find a writer socially irresponsible, why would they take 50,000 copies of his book’s pages and distribute them around town? By doing this, they’re only bringing the book to further attention, spreading the material – instead of curbing it, and creating a controversy that leads to it selling more, going online and getting shared on social media. How does this make sense?
Yes, there are times when people are in spite of someone, which they may express by writing a short story with changed names. But when a writer is dishonest, his work will give that away, be rejected by the readers, go out of print and die. There is no need for a protest in such a case.
I don’t expect writers to be warriors. There was no way Perumal Murugan could write freely and live at home. He had two choices – either give in or live in exile. He was not prepared to live in exile; he had responsibilities towards his family and students. He felt the need to stay in the community. He is one of the most important writers of his generation of Kongunadu, putting it on the literary map of Tamil Nadu, India and even the world. But his community hasn’t valued him. His decision to stop writing is in fact, a form of revenge against the community that turned against him.
I don’t think Perumal Murugan’s Madhorubagan, has vilified Tiruchengode in any way. But the way this town has reacted to the novel, defamed the writer, chased him out of the community and finally forced him to quit writing, has made it notorious in eyes of the world. I wish Perumal Murugan the writer had stayed alive and P Murugan, the teacher, had probably gone underground for sometime instead.