One Part Woman Posts

Tamil author Perumal Murugan stands tall, Bookwitty

(My article on Perumal Murugan and the magnificent judgement delivered by Madras High Court Chief Justice Sanjay Kishen Kaul on 5 July 2016. It was published on the wonderful European literary website Bookwitty.com on 2 August 2016. Here is the original url: https://bookwitty.com/text/tamil-author-perumal-murugan-stands-tall/579a0b24acd0d01df04c6447 . As an addendum to the published article I am adding three very significant quotes provided by eminent historian Romila Thapar, lawyer Lawrence Liang and Prof. Venkatachalapathy. Unfortunately due to lack of space these could not accommodated in the original article. Read on.)

 

 

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.
3 August 2016

 

 

Freedom of Expression: Perumal Murugan, 5 July 2016

13606815_10154242058030279_2274827106389531026_nOn 5 July 2016 a landmark judgment was passed by the Madras High Court quashing the criminal case against Tamil writer Perumal Muruganor for allegedly offending religious sentiments with his writings on caste. According to Scroll (http://bit.ly/29hWGdC) :

The author, who is known for his sharp commentary on caste, was 13592615_1294572783886991_324027490996198510_nfacing an onslaught from religious and caste groups who said he had hurt their sentiments.

The Madras High Court on Tuesday quashed a criminal case against Tamil writer Perumal Murugan. …They also dismissed a plea moved by residents of his native town, Thiruchengode, to initiate criminal 13612276_1294572820553654_2532322020494602524_nproceedings against him.

The case was filed shortly after Murugan published Mathorubagan, a story about a childless couple in rural Tamil Nadu being pushed by their families to fall back on an ancient chariot festival in the temple of the half-female god Ardhanareeswara. Here, on the night of the festival, the union between any man and woman is permitted.

The book, which was translated into English as One Part Woman, published by Penguin India.
In response, the local administration organised a peace meet presided over by a district revenue official, where he had to agree to withdraw all copies of his book. However, on Tuesday, the Bench of Chief Justice SK Kaul and Justice Puspha Sathyanarayana held that the settlement arrived at during the peace-keeping meet would not be binding on the author.

Shortly after this meeting with the district authorities, Murugan announced on Facebook would stop writing. “Author Perumal Murugan is dead. He is no God. Hence, he will not resurrect. Hereafter, only P Murugan, a teacher, will live,” he had posted.

His books were then quietly removed from bookshops. Only the English translations of two of his more recent books – Pyre (published in Tamil as Pookkuzhi in 2013) and One Part Woman – are available. Two older books, Current Show and Seasons Of The Palm, are out of print and almost impossible to find. His Tamil books are entirely unavailable.

13590270_1294572853886984_5463788870472689861_nAn excerpt from the Madras high court judgement on Perumal Murugan :

The author Prof. Perumal Murugan should not be under fear. He should be able to write and advance the canvass of his writings. His writings would be a literary contribution, even if there were others who may differ with the material and style of his expression. The answer cannot be that it was his own decision to call himself dead as a writer. It was not a free decision, but a result of a situation which was created. …..”

“Let the author be resurrected for what he is best at, to write”.

Here is the complete judgment:

http://www.thehindu.com/multimedia/archive/02921/Perumal_Murugan_ca_2921087a.pdf13600254_1294572803886989_5785590099380635754_n

English translation of the new statement issued by Perumal Murugan, posted on Facebook by Kannan Sundaram, Publisher, Kalachuvadu Publications ( 6 July 2016). This statement has been translated by Aniruddhan Vasudevan and the poem by Perundevi Srinivasan:

The judgment gives me much happiness. It comforts a heart that was in a fuming withdrawal. I am trying to prop myself up holding on to the light of the last lines of the judgment: “Let the author be resurrected to what he is best at. Write.” 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.
The Flower
A flower blooms
after the big bang
Sharp fragrance
Sweet countenance
Shining Splendor
The flower would
take up and establish
everything.

6 July 2016

Perumal Murugan “Pyre”

“…if we start this festival here with this impurity in our midst, we might incur the wrath of Goddess Mariyatha.”

Kumaresan, who had stayed quiet until then, suddenly lost his patience. ‘ I have married her,’ he snapped, barely concealing his irritation in his voice. ‘What is it that you want me to do now?’

‘Look here, Mapillai. Until we know which caste the girl is from, we are going to excommunicate your family. We won’t take donations for the temple from you, and you will not be welcome at the temple during the festival.’

( p. 132- 34)

Award-winning writer Perumal Murugan shot to fame with his novel, One Part Woman, translated from Tamil into English. Unfortunately it was the sort of fame he could have done without since he was unnecessarily persecuted by lumpen elements that took offence at his novel. He was forced to publicly announce that he would no longer be writing. Yet there was one more novel – Pyre. A slim one revisiting his pet themes — male protagonists, social structures, caste, rituals and ordinary and believable people. Pyre is about Kumaresan who leaves his village in search of work where he falls in love and elopes to marry his beautiful neighbour. Alas this marriage is not welcomed in his village instead they are ostracised. Curiously enough Perumal Murugan never mentions the castes explicitly. There are enough indications in the book that the bride, Saroja, is a Dalit or the caste formerly referred to as “untouchables”. A sad practice that continues to be prevalent in India.

Pyre or Pookkuzhi was first published in Tamil by Kalachuvadu Publications. On my behalf Kannan Sundaram, publisher, Kalachuvadu asked Perumal Murugan if in the original text he had ever mentioned the castes. He confirmed he had never done it. The English translation by Aniruddhan Vasudevan by a brief introduction that dwells upon the novel being about caste and the resilient force it is, the unusual reliance of Perumal Murugan on direct speech, the difficulties of translating Tamil dialects used extensively in the story such as Kongu and  Aniruddhan Vasudevan’s own habit as a translator to first draft a “very idiomatic translation”. But once again there are no references to this being a story involving a Dalit girl. So I posed a few questions to the translator.

  1. How true is the English translation of Pyre to the original Tamil? The English translation of ‘Pookkuzhi’ is very true to the original — nothing has been changed or consciously re-interpreted.
  2. How did you work on the translation? Only with the text or did you keep asking Perumal Murugan for assistance? I worked on the translation over several months. It took a lot of time mainly because my graduate school work grew more demanding. I did a first draft, in which I tried to keep the translation as close to the Tamil syntax as possible. So, necessarily, that would read quite a bit awkward in English. Perumal Murugan was, at the time of translating Pookkuzhi, caught in the middle of the tyranny whipped up around Madhorubagan. So I wanted to give him his space and approached Thoedore Bhaskaran for help with questions about Kongu Tamil. He was most kind. But at the later stage, I was able to consult Perumal Murugan.
  3. Did the author “tweak” the text for the English translation? In the Tamil edition does Murugan mention any of the castes? The English translation does not mention any but it is obvious that the caste angle is the basis of the anger in the story. PM didn’t tweak the text for English translation. ‘Pookkuzhi,’ in the Tamil original, does not have explicit caste names or place names. There are some recognizable markers and cues, but it does not take names. The caste angle gets foregrounded without explicitly naming castes. Through conversations, through references to people’s faith in caste hierarchy and practices, the novel manages to put caste and the difficulties of inter-caste marriage at the center.
  4. Is the “Tholur” mentioned in the novel in Kerala or Tamil Nadu? ‘Tholur’ mentioned in Pyre is, according to the plot of the novel, in Tamil Nadu. I don’t think it is an actual place, but a middle-sized town Perumal Murugan creates as a setting for Saroja and Kumaresan’s meeting and romance.
  5. Is Saroja a Dalit? Again, it is never explicitly mentioned, but the story itself and how she is perceived and treated point us in that direction.
  6. Why did you not include a more detailed introduction to the translation? I didn’t include a more detailed introduction, because I think there is an immediacy and accessibility to the narrative, and I didn’t want to stand in the way of it. I didn’t want to assume that the readers needed such a mediation besides the translation itself, which is, in itself, an act of mediation. I do hope I will soon be able to write about the process of translation itself and how it works for me. So far, despite the labour and the time involved, translating has been sort of a zen place for me.

Pyre is a novel that is not easy to provide a gist of except to say it is one of those books that will forever haunt one especially the dramatically chilling end. It is seminal reading. It is stories that like this that bring out the rich diversity of Indian literature.

Perumal Murugan Pyre ( Translated by Aniruddhan Vasudevan ) Hamish Hamilton, Penguin Books India 2016. Hb. pp. 200 Rs 399.

6 June 2016

 

Perumal Murugan’s statement on being awarded the Samanvay Literature Prize

Perumal Murugan by Kannan SundaramKannan Sundaram, Publisher, Kalachuvadu posted the following message from writer Perumal Murugan this morning ( 6 Oct 2015) on his Facebook page. This is regarding the Samanvay Literature Prize conferred upon Perumal Murugan for his novel Madhorubhagan One Part Woman) .

சமன்வய் விருது : பெருமாள் முருகன் அறிக்கை :Samanvay Festival

மாதொருபாகன் நாவலுக்கு வழங்கப்பட்டுள்ள இவ்விருது நெடும்
இலக்கியப் பாரம்பரியம் கொண்ட செம்மொழி ஆகிய தமிழுக்குக் கிடைத்திருக்கும்
நவீன அங்கீகாரம் ஆகும். துரதிர்ஷ்டம் நிறைந்திருக்கும் இச்சூழலில் என்
தாய்மொழி அடைந்திருக்கும் இப்பேறு அதன் வரலாற்றில் துருத்தும் மருவாக
அல்ல, ஒளிரும் மணியாக அமையும் என்று நம்புகிறேன். இவ்விருதுக்குக்
காரணமான அனைவருக்கும் மனமார்ந்த நன்றிகள். இயற்கையின் இயல்புக்கு மாறாகப்
பெருமாள்முருகனின் நிழலாக மட்டுமே தங்கி உலவும் நான் பெருமைமிகு தருணமாக
இதை உணர்கிறேன். இவ்விருதை எல்லாம் வல்ல இறையாகிய மாதொருபாகனின் பாதக்
கமலங்களுக்குச் சமர்ப்பணம் செய்கிறேன்.
அன்புடன்,
பெ.முருகன்

A.R.Venkatachalapthy has translated the statement into English. This is what it says:

“The Samanvay Award for Madhorubhagan is a modern recognition given to Tamil, a classical language with a long and unbroken literary tradition. This recognition, bestowed on my language at an unfortunate moment, will, I hope, be a shining gem rather than an unsightly wart. I wholeheartedly thank everyone who made this possible. Constrained by force of circumstance to act as the shadow of Perumal Murugan, I feel honoured by this award. I dedicate the Samanvay Award to the lotus feet of the almighty lord Madhorubhagan.”

– P. Murugan, 27 Sep. 2015

6 Oct 2015