Subhashini Ali is former MP, former Member of the National Commission for Women and Vice President of the All India Democratic Women’s Association.
Kali is brought up by his widowed mother in a small village near the temple town of Tiruchengode. She tills her fields, sows them and then harvests her crops which are never second to any in the village despite superstitious beliefs that deny such work to widows. Later, Kali joins her in caring for the land and for their animals, whom he takes out to pasture in the forests and thickets with his friend Muthu from a neighbouring village.
Muthu’s sister Ponnu grows to womanhood before Kali’s eyes. He falls deeply in love with her and they marry. Sheshares every part of his life, also his youthful ardour and passion. In their closeness, they mirror the presiding deity of their area, the Ardhanareesvara aspect of Lord Shiva, who is worshipped in the temple at the top of the mountain.
But for 12 long years, their childlessness is mocked by the fecundity that surrounds them in the fields, in the forests, in the trees they plant, in their own cowsheds and in the homes of all their neighbours and relatives. Kali and Ponna’s mothers decide that it is now time for Ponna to go to the temple town of Tiruchengode on the night of the fourteenth day of Lord Ardhanareesvara’s annual visit, before He departs for the mountain-top in His chariot. It is on this night that women who have not conceived come here and meet men who have been transformed into gods and, without sinning, they can have relations with any of them.
Ponna and Kali go to her mother’s house for the festival. On the 14th day, Mutthu stays with Kali all day and then takes him away from the house after telling Ponnu that Kali has agreed to her going to Tiruchengode that evening.
At night, the festive atmosphere in the town is heady and erotic. A young man takes Ponna by the hand and leads her away from the crowd. Kali wakes from his toddy-induced sleep and rushes to his in-laws’ house only to discover that he has been ‘betrayed’. He can do nothing but lie under the tree he has planted and curse Ponna.
This tale, told lyrically by Perumal Murugan in “One Part Woman”, a story written in Tamil four years ago and published in English in 2013 refers to the practice of ‘niyog’ which, according to Indian tradition, Gods, commoners and saints have practised for centuries. Published in Tamil four years ago, it was widely acclaimed. Not surprisingly, it evoked no protest or criticism. Tamil Nadu has a long tradition of strident polemical and literary writing that criticizes traditions, superstitions, strongly-held Hindu beliefs and the behaviour of Hindu gods themselves as depicted in various scriptures. The State has been ruled for decades now by Dravidian parties that are united in their admiration for EV Ramaswamy Naiker or “Periyar”, the most trenchant critic of Hindu tradition.
And yet, in December 2014, members of the Sangh Parivar began their vociferous protests against Murugan. They burnt copies of the book publicly, demanded a ban on it, organized a ‘hartal’ in his home-town of Namakkal where both he and his wife live and work, and subjected him to the worst kind of abuse and invective, forcing him to leave his home.
On January 12, he was called by the District Magistrate for ‘peace talks’ which he attended with a lawyer. Many students wanted to accompany him, but were dissuaded from doing so. In the Collectorate, an administrative officer forced him to sign an abject letter of ‘unconditional apology’. The administration also forced him to agree to make serious changes in his book. He broke down saying that he ‘would write anything, do anything. I accept’. His lawyer says “The police did not support Perumal Murugan even a wee bit. The District Administration totally let him down. According to them, it was a pure law and order issue. Literary freedom and Article 19(1) (a) of the Constitution were remote concerns…Perumal Murugan was simply thrown to the wolves.” After this, on Facebook, Perumal posted, “Writer Perumal Murugan is dead … He will continue to live as a teacher.”
The AIADMK (which is in power) and the DMK, both of whom owe their political successes to the legacy of Periyar, have maintained a shameless silence and have done nothing to punish the administration for its unconstitutional behaviour. Only Shri Stalin of the DMK has at least criticized the pilloring of Murugan.
The CPI(M) and the CPI have not only condemned the State administration and the Sangh Parivar but have organised and been part of big mobilisations and protests along with writers, activists and journalists and their organisations. The Tamil Nadu High Court has also refused to ‘ban’ the book.
It is being said that Perumal Murugan, a teacher, often spoke out against the corruption in private educational institutions. It could be that we are now witnessing the fact that vested interests can hire hoodlums to fight their enemies in the name of religion? To stand by Murugan becomes even more imperative because more than literary freedom and freedom of expression are at stake.