Zoe Gilbert’s debut collection of short stories Folkas the title suggests been inspired by folklore and oral tradition of storytelling. The stories are set in the fictional land of Neverness, a community of fishermen. The stories are not interlinked but stories revolve around the villagers and their rituals such as the gorse bush kissing game between the adolescents followed by the burning of the vegetation by the elders. Passing of time is measured by the ageing folk whose stories are told. It is a world where there is little difference between reality as most know it and that which exists within folklore. For instance the presence of Verlyn Webbe with his one human arm and one winged arm is unusual but not sufficiently enough to merit comment. When his son Marram is born with down on one hand his mother is agitated and keeps trimming it, otherwise no one else is particularly perturbed. This is life.
Folk is part of Zoe Gilbert’s Ph. D dissertation on the short story at the University of Chichester. Her guide is Alison MacLeod, a remarkable short story writer herself. Zoe Gilbert won the Costa Short Story Award 2014 for her story ‘Fishskin, Hareskin’ which is won when the public votes for the best story from a shortlist. It is about a deeply sad fishwife Ervet, newly married, who yearns for her former life. It is probably also about post-partum depression but what comes through is the intense repulsion Ervet feels for fisherfolk despite being one of them herself. Even her unborn child is constantly referred to as fish. It is a melancholic yet hypnotic story. Zoe Gilbert’s admiration for Angela Carter style of writing and her “adult interest in folktales and more-Grimm-less-Disney fairy tales” are brought together with elegance in Folk.
The fine magical beauty of folklore blossoms in Folk. Zoe Gilbert is a writer to watch out for in coming years.
Last July the Madras High Court made a landmark judgement about a book that was under threat of censorship. This had led to its author leaving his home and ceasing to write. At the judgement, Chief Justice Sanjay Kishen Kaul stated: “the choice to read is always with the reader. If you do not like a book, throw it away. There is no compulsion to read a book…the right to write is unhindered.” Using Biblical imagery he continued: “Let the author be resurrected for what he is best at, to write.”
It was the end of a two-year trial that was a sobering reminder of how easy it is to conduct a witch-hunt in modern times.
The author in question is the award-winning Perumal Murugan and the book is Madhorubhagan or One Part Woman, ( published by Kalachuvadu) set about a century ago in Tiruchengode, in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Murugan, a teacher at the local government college, has a doctorate in Tamil Literature and is a highly respected chronicler on the Kongu region. One Part Woman is the story about Kali and Ponna, a childless peasant couple. It is an open secret that families on both sides are encouraging Kali to marry a second time, an idea he is deeply unhappy about. Meanwhile Ponna is persuaded by her family to participate in the Vaikasi Visakam chariot festival misleading her into believing that Kali would approve.
When the English translation by Anirrudhan Vasudevan was published, a growing buzz ensued because the crux of the novel focuses on a local practice that allowed for childless couples to participate in a carnivalesque gathering and on the 14th night have consensual sex with anyone under the cover of darkness. Children conceived on this night were considered to besami kodutha pillai or God-given children. This ancient tradition apparently had social sanction.
Ironically, the backlash against the novel began four years after it had been published in Tamil, demonstrating the impact a translation can make. It was the publication of the English edition that concerned the petitioners more for “a foreigner or people from other places who read this novelized history get a wrong notion that Tamil culture is lascivious and that a sexual orgy festival as portrayed in fact takes place in Arthanareeswarar Temple. The novel is thus alleged to be offensive and scandalous, and unless curtailed, would lead future generations to think that the events narrated in the novel are true.”
In late 2014 Murugan had just returned from a literary retreat in Bangalore where he had gone to work on the sequels to One Part Woman. A nightmare was to begin for him: abusive anonymous callers harassed him over the phone, accusing him of being a Christian, anti-Hindu, and anti-Kongu Vellar. A few days later, copies of One Part Woman were burned. Despite lodging a complaint with the police on the night of the book-burning incident, no action was taken. Muragan even issued a long clarification the next day explaining his art and promising to revise his text in all future editions and to scrub out all references to Tiruchengode.
But Hindu fundamentalists remained furious, arguing that Tiruchengode is a historical temple town and that writing about real places “relating it with unreal sexual orgy” is disrespectful to women, suggesting they are prostitutes. A ban of the novel was thus sought on three primary grounds: obscenity, defamation, and that it was derogatory and hurtful to the religious sentiments of the Hindus. A court case was filed against the author. Murugan fled with his family to Madras from where he issued his now famous “obituary”.
The case was then fought for more than a year in the Madras High Court.
In AR Venkatachalapathy’s article “Who Killed Perumal Murugan?” included in Words Matter: Writings Against Silence, an anthology on censorship and free speech edited by renowned poet K Satchidanandan, he writes that from a modern perspective Muragan’s description in One Part Woman of conceiving children may be considered exotic or even immoral but “Such practices are by no means unique. Any anthropologist would attest to similar practices in many pre modern societies with no access to assisted conception. Classical Hindu traditions refer to this practice as niyoga—it’s even termed niyoga dharma, an indication of its religious sanction.”
The recent Madras High Court judgement also documents how the hate campaign against Murugan included circulating eight pages extracted from the novel without any context. Furthermore, it lists sufficient literary evidence to prove many elements of One Part Woman are based upon folklore and older.
After the case was ruled in his favour, Murugan applied for a transfer back to the college where he had been teaching. And within three weeks his short story, Neer Vilayattu (The Well), newly translated by N Kalyan Raman was released for free by Juggernaut Books on their app.
Of the outcome, journalist and Chair of Writers in Prison Committee, PEN International, Salil Tripathi concluded: “The judgment is terrific in stating clearly what common sense should have dictated all along. This isn’t surprising; after all Sanjay Kishen Kaul had written the wonderful judgment defending the late M.F. Husain’s right to paint. That judgment, and this, together are part of India’s jurisprudence defending the right of any creative person to imagine and create art. After all, art challenges our thinking and may even offend; the way to deal with it is to respond by countering it through argument, through expression (and not violence or intimidation), and even by choosing to avoid seeing it or reading that book. What Husain experienced in his last years was tragic; it is good that Perumal Murugan has received justice – it is now for the state to defend his right to express himself freely.”
Perumal Murugan’s large-hearted response to the judgement was “I will get up. It is just that my mind wishes to spend a little time in the joy of this moment. My thanks to friends who stood by me. My thanks also to friends who stood against me.”
Here are what some of the eminent academics, lawyers, historians and journalists I spoke to said. The following quotes could not be accommodated in the original article but I have reproduced them for their significance.
Emeritus Professor of History at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, a Fellow of the British Academy and a recipient of the prestigious Kluge Prize of the US Library of Congress, Romila Thapar said “It was a good judgement in support of the right to freedom of expression for writers. It can also be quoted as a precedent in future cases involving attempts to silence writers. As has been pointed out by others, we as citizens must also create public opinion in support of free speech and not leave its defence only to the judiciary.
Prof Venkatachalapathy wrote“… it’s also worrying how everything hinges on the judge. A reactionary judge could have, in the same legal language, upheld all the charges against Perumal Murugan.” He went on to caution that non-state actors who enforce censorship do not respect such judgement so “while such judgments strengthen democratic and liberal forces we need to keep vigil.”
Lawrence Liang adds:
So I see the judgment as belonging to a series of very good high court judgments (some of which are also cited in the PM judgment) including the Husain judgment by Sanjay Kaul, Justice Muralidhar’s judgment in the Kabir case (Srishti Design School)- all of which provide relief in the specific instance, while laying out a wider jurisprudence of free speech for future cases. The reason I point out to the fact that this is a high court decision is that we often rely only on Supreme court decisions (by nature of their binding value) and often in the terrain of free speech, a lot of the SC judgments were laid down in the fifties and sixties. Further they were large benches which makes them difficult to overrule, so lower courts have to maouevere their way around the thicket of bad precedents.
In the specific case of the PM judgment
1. The court dismisses the argument of causing offensive to communities and explicitly states that any kind of contrarian opinion is met with the accusation that it offends
2. The court recognises the chilling effects principle (laid down in Shreya Singhal) by acknowledging harassment of writers as a threat to free speech
3. The court uses the idea contemporary community standards in concluding that the work is not obscene
For all the reasons cited above, it is a very welcome addition to free speech jurisprudence, and had there not been relief in a case like Perumal’s where an author was driven to the point of relinquishing writing, it would have been both a legal as well as grave literary injustice if the courts did not respond in adequate measure.
I have spent a good deal of the past fifty years of my life with these ‘first millennium Romans’. I have learnt their languages as well as I can. I have read a good deal of the literature they have left us ( no one has read it all), and I have studied some of the hundreds of thousands of books and papers written over the centuries about them, from Machiavelli and Gibbon to Gore Vidal and beyond. I have tried to decipher the words they carved into stone, and I have dug them up, quite literally, on wet, windy and unglamourous archaeological sites in Roman Britain. And I have wondered for a long time about how best to tell Rome’s story and to explain why I think it matters. … .
I no longer think, as I once naively did, that we have much to learn directly from the Romans — or, for that matter, from the ancient Greeks, or from any other ancient civilisation. We do not need to read of the difficulties of the Roman legions in Mesopotamia or against the Parthians to understand why modern military interventions in western Asia might be ill advised. … .
But I am more and more convinced that we have an enormous amount to learn — as much about ourselves as about the past — by engaging with the history of the Romans, their poetry and prose, their controversies and arguments. Western culture has a varied inheritance. Happily, we are not the heirs of the classical past alone. Nevertheless, since the Renaissance at least, many of our fundamental assumptions about power, citizenship, responsibility, political violence, empire, luxury and beauty have been formed, and tested, in dialogue with the Romans and their writing.
We do not want to follow Cicero’s example, but this clash with the bankrupt aristocrat, or popular revolutionary, with which I started this book still underlies our views of the rights of the citizen and still provides a language for political dissent: “Quo usque tandem abutere, Catilina, patientia nostra?’ The idea of ‘desolation’ masquerading as ‘peace’, as Tacitus put into the mouths of Rome’s British enemies, still echoes in modern critiques of imperialism. And the lurid voices that are attributed to the most memorable Roman emperors have always raised the question of where autocratic excess ends and a reign of terror begins.
(Mary Beard, SPQR, p. 534-6)
SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard takes its title from a famous Roman catchphrase, Senatus PopulusQue Romanus, ‘The Senate and People of Rome’. For a scholar who has lived with her subject for nearly half a century to produce a clean narrative and create a thoroughly readable book, not packing it with jargon is indeed very commendable. As she says in the opening pages of the book her intention is to write a story that “has to be a bold work of reconstruction, which must squeeze individual pieces of evidence — a single fragment of pottery, or a few letters inscribed on stone”. What is truly incredible with crystal clear clarity she make innumerable connections with the literature (written material, myths and oral legends) left by the Romans to the evidence found at archaeological sites and linking it to contemporary politics. Not for a moment does it become dull. One of my favourite examples is how she analyses the founding myth or legend of Rome to the legend of Romulus and Remus, linking it to Cicero, and interestingly enough to Benito Mussolini. Apparently the nurturing wolf was an addition made in the fifteenth century explicitly to capture the founding myth and baby twins. But copies of the famous image are found all over the world thanks to Mussolini who distributed them far and wide as a symbol of Romanita. Later she adds that Livy was one of the Roman sceptics who tried to rationalise this particularly implausible aspect of the tale. “The Latin word for ‘wolf’ ( lupa) was also used as a colloquial term for ‘prostitute’ ( lupanare was one standard term for ‘brothel’). Could it be that a local whore rather than a local wild beast had found and tended the twins?” ( p.59) Similarly throughout the book there are many more examples of such absorbing detail. Whether it be about marriage, politics, elections, citizenship, status of women, adoption, warfare, military, trade, migration etc.
For those in Italy and Britain who live surrounded by Roman ruins and have constant engagement with Roman history this book must be utterly fascinating. Mary Beard has a wonderful agreeable style of writing that makes the history of ancient Rome accessible to everyone. It is not a prerequisite that a fair understanding of the history is required. And yet she has packed SPQR with a detailed bibliography, a timeline, an index and plenty of illustrations/photographs that it can work for the lay reader or the scholar.
In India most Indians go about their daily lives doing exactly what this book is spelling out — talking about the huge impact mythology and ancient literature has had through the ages and in modern times. Indians do it all the time with their oral traditions, myths, folklore and ancient texts. A testimony to this is the immensely successful commercial fiction. It is a fine art by contemporary storytellers to create fantastical stories that blend the modern with the ancient and myth with history. Since these writers are not historians like Mary Beard they take full advantage of their creative license to spin imaginative yarns. Whereas Mary Beard points out in the utterly fascinating SPQR that there is sufficient empirical evidence at ancient Roman archaeological sites whether in Italy or abroad to prove much of the written records inherited over two millennia is more or less authentic.
SPQR has been on the list for many literary prizes including the inaugural British Book Industry Awards, in the adult category for the 10th IBW Book Award and a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle — deservedly so!
Mary Beard SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome Profile Books, London, 2015. Hb. pp. 600 Rs 2250 ( Distributed in India by Hachette India)
The Revenant ( 2001) written by Michael Punke is tipped to win a few Oscars tonight ( 2016). It has been nominated for 12 Academy Award nominations across all categories including the Best Actor for Leonardo DiCaprio — probably his first in twenty years of being in the movie business. ( http://www.theguardian.com/film/2016/feb/26/leonardo-dicaprio-the-revenant-oscars-academy-award ). I have not seen the film but the book is brutally magnificent and mesmerising with its focus on one man’s quest for revenge. It is powerful. Set in the American wilderness in the early 1800s, frontiersman Hugh Glass is badly mauled by a grizzly and abandoned by his fellow trappers ( intensely described in the stomach churning opening pages of the novel). Barely surviving his wounds, Glass is driven by thoughts of his family and a desire for revenge as he endures the frigid winter and pursues the men who left him for dead.
The author, Michael Punke, is a serving international trade expert and diplomat. He serves as the US Ambassador to the World Trade Organisation in Geneva, Switzerland. The Quartz profiled him: http://qz.com/626726/the-author-behind-the-revenant-is-an-international-trade-expert-and-diplomat/. This is what they say, “Despite the press frenzy ahead of Sunday’s Academy awards, Michael Punke can’t give interviews about his book or make promotional appearances due to his government position. He skipped the film’s December premiere to negotiate a $1.3 trillion trade deal in Nairobi. He can’t even sign copies of his 2002 novel.”
According to Wikipedia, the word revenant is derived from the Latin word reveniens, “returning” (see also the related French verb revenir, meaning “to come back”). A revenant is a visible ghost or animated corpse that is believed to have returned from the grave to terrorize the living. Revenants share some similarities with zombies in modern fiction. This is a result of contemporary depictions of zombies having evolved from vampire fiction. The original folklore about zombies had less in common with revenant legends. Similarities are also obvious with the aptrgangr (literally ‘again-walker’, meaning one who walks after death) of Norse mythology, although the aptrgangr, or draugr, is usually far more powerful, possessing magical abilities and most notably is not confined to a deathlike sleep during the day – although it does usually stay in its burial mound during the daylight hours – and will resist intruders, which renders the destruction of its body a dangerous affair to be undertaken by individual heroes. Consequently, stories involving the aptrgangr often involve direct confrontations with the creature, in which it often reveals to be immune to conventional weapons. Such elements are absent from the revenant lore, where the body is engaged in its inert state in daylight, and rendered harmless. Also references of revenant-like beings come from the Caribbean and are often referred to as ‘The soucouyant’ or ‘soucriant’ in Dominica, Trinidadian and Guadeloupean folklore (also known as Ole-Higue or Loogaroo elsewhere in the Caribbean).
The last time a film based on a book written by a serving diplomat won many Oscars was Slumdog Millionaire (2008), based on Vikas Swarup’s Q&A ( 2005). He is now the official spokesperson of the Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India (2016).
Michael Punke, The Revenant HarperCollins India, 2016. Pb.