It sounded like a song of dirge, the traditional Tamil oppaari that women sing when some one is dead. Tamil writer Perumal Murugan whose controversial novel Madhorubhagan (One Part Woman) which has been in the eye of the storm during the last 23 days wrote in his FB post - "Perumal Murugan is dead. He is no God and therefore he will no resurrection. Since he does not believe in rebirth he will live as just an ordinary teacher." He did not stop with that. He declared that all his previous writings, books will no longer be available to the public. His publishers were directed to withdraw all the copies they had, and readers please if you possess any of his books, consign them to flame.
Quite dramatic but one that conveyed fear and frustration.
The Tamil literary world has never seen such angst from a writer nor has there been such support from the media and the writers' clan to a writer caught in a controversy. Then what was it that prompted him to write such a note?
The Tamil novel that was published four years ago, running its third edition became controversial when it appeared in English translation recently. The novel traces an old custom among a community living in Tiruchengode that finds an ingenious way to solve the problem of childless couple. The novel revolves round the anguish of a childless couple and a myth relating to a temple car festival. Rules are relaxed on the night of the festival and consensual sex between any man and the woman is sanctioned. The chance union may solve the couple’s problem but it would be the ultimate test to the marriage itself.
The Hindutva groups there caught wind of the subject matter and found ground for creating a protest. The entire town of Thiruchengode, men and women, and also neighbouring Namakkal and Erode, the birthplace of Periyar, the leader of the anti-Brahmin/anti-caste rationalist movement, were mobilised; protests were held blaming Perumal Murugan for humiliating the women of Kongu Nadu and abusing their deity. Copies of Madhorubhagan were burnt and Perumal Murugan was asked to flee from his home town. (It is said that the police advised him to leave the town for security reasons.) They clamoured for a ban on the book and made life miserable with their threats. Perumal Murugan was called to take part in a peace meeting organised by the district authorities where he was forced to agree to issue an unconditional apology and delete controversial portions in the book. He is also said to have agreed to withdraw unsold copies of the book from the market and promised not to write on such "controversial subjects".
Nevertheless all the remaining copies sold like hot cakes at the Chennai book fair before the protesters could lay hands on them.
Though the BJP and the RSS said that they had nothing to do with the controversy some of the men in the Hindu organisations that protested were from the RSS. Neither the DMK nor the ruling party the AIADMK intervened or took sides. The Kongu community is a strong business community with a sizeable vote bank. The administration made it into a law and order situation and Perumal Murugan was forced to arrive at a compromise with the protesters.
One feels that Perumal Murugan’s announcement to retire totally from writing was an extreme step bordering on hysterics but the fact remains that his spirit crumbled before the totalitarian attitude that has crept into the system, corroding all sense of values that a creative mind cherishes.
It is indeed akin to the news of an unfortunate shocking death.