A critically acclaimed novelist in India recently announced the death of his creative artistry after being witness to protests and receiving threats from right wing Hindu groups who were allegedly provoked by his book about a woman who attempts to get pregnant with a stranger via an ancient Hindu ritual. Perumal Murugan, whose subtle portrayal of rural life in India has won him applause from literary critics, announced on his Facebook page earlier this month that he would not write any further and ask his publishers to withdraw all of his seven fictions from sale.
“Writer Perumal Murugan is dead … He will continue to live as a teacher,” he wrote.
The author’s decision came after an 18-day campaign in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, when his novel titled “Madhorubagan” (One Part Woman) was first published in 2010 and then again in English in 2013. The campaign of protests was so traumatizing that Murugan had to seek police protection not only for himself but his entire family.
“It is a very, very sad story,” said AR Venkatachalapathy, a local historian and friend of the author. “He is a gentle soul who deeply loves his land and his people. He has succumbed to the pressure from a whole range of vested interests. The only way he could continue to write is to leave this place. But that he cannot do.”
Murugan is not the first creative artist to be targeted by Hindutva fanatics in India and this repetitive trend raises questions about the freedom of speech and expression that is guaranteed to citizens of the world’s largest democracy.
“One Part Woman” is the story of a happy but childless couple, living in the author’s hometown Thiruchengode more than a century ago. It explores the woman’s attempts to conceive a child through consensual sex with a stranger, as part of a carnivalesque ritual at a local temple and the growing tensions between the husband and herself.
After the book was published in English, members of the country’s ruling Bhartya Janata Party (BJP) and its Hindu offshoot Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) alleged that it disregards a revered Hindu deity and her devotees who have in fact participated in the ritual described by Murugan.
Before the author’s announcement, shops across Thiruchengode shut down in support of the book being withdrawn from sale. After his announcement, Murugan’s publisher, Kanan Sundaram, said even though he could continue to sell the book legally, he would not do so out of respect for the author, who also happens to be a long-time friend.
When asked if Murugan would want to reprint “One Part Woman” in the future, Sundaram said, “I will stand by him and I am prepared to take all legal consequences, but he has been deeply hurt and humiliated. He has said he wants all his books to go out of print. I have been his publisher for 20 years and he is my friend, so I respect that, but we will see what he decides.”
Describing it as a serious and shocking blow to the right to freedom of speech and expression, well-known academicians, historians, artists, intellectuals and writers came together, saying Murugan had been harassed and blackmailed by unidentified vested religious elements, who were headed by the Hindutva right. They alleged that the state administration as well as the police were involved in making sure Murugan is driven to a point where he would announce his retirement from writing.
“Perumal Murugan’s sensitive and distinctive novel, Madhorubagan, was published as far back as 2010 in Tamil and has run into many editions. An English translation of the book was published in 2013 under the title One Part Woman and also went into more than one edition. As if on cue to an orchestrated campaign initiated by the RSS and the BJP in the State, the work has, over the last few weeks, suddenly come under attack for allegedly being offensive to the local dominant caste of Tiruchengode (near Erode in Tamil Nadu), where the story is set some time in the early part of the 20th century,’’ the protestors’ statement said.
According to the protestors, Murugan had been asked by the police to attend a so-called peace meeting on January 12, where the officials went on to tell him that he should stay away from Thiruchengode if he wishes for his own safety.
“The author is now in effective exile from his home, where he and his wife lived and worked, and has been reduced to pleading with his publishers not to sell or reprint any of his books and promising to compensate the loss they incurred on account of this,’’ the statement said.
The coalition of academicians, historians, artists, intellectuals and writers also signed a petition to request the state government to protect Murugan and his constitutionally guaranteed right to freedom of speech and expression from such extra-constitutional cultural censors.
“Can we allow a set of unidentified rabid and fascistic forces to kill the soul of a writer thus? We call upon artists, writers, intellectuals, readers and the concerned public at large to rise to the defense of democracy imperilled by this unwarranted and vile abrogation of an author’s right to write,’’ they said.
Those who signed the petition, which was then sent to the state government, include MK Raina, Irfan Habib, Prabhat Patnaik, Ram Rahman, CP Chandrashekher, Saeed Mirza, Jayati Ghosh, Teesta Setalvad, Sohail Hashmi, Veer Munshi, Amar Farooqui, Anil Sadgopal, Rakhshanda Jalil and KM Shrimali.
Photo Credits: Niti Central