In the wee hours of Tuesday, a chunk of Tamil contemporary literature died. Writer Perumal Murugan, whose novel Madhorubhagan (One Part Woman)has been at the centre of a controversy over its representation of women and religion, returned from a meeting with his detractors, and announced that Perumal-Murugan-the-writer was dead, and he would only serve as a professor of Tamil in his college. His unwritten novels have died, and the published ones have been withdrawn from circulation.
In a post that will remain active only for another day, he wrote, referring to himself in the third person, that he was withdrawing from all social networks. He said in his note that he was sure that issues would be raked up over all his novels, and to avoid being hounded, he was putting an end to the sale of his entire body of work with immediate effect. He promised to compensate the publishers for their losses, and asked those readers who have bought his books already to feel free to burn them. He said he was willing to compensate those readers who feel they have made a poor investment. His poignant post ended with a plea to all organisations representing the interests of particular castes, religions, and political factions, to stop their protests and leave him be.
On Tuesday, as soon as the stall of his publishers, Kalachuvadu, opened at the ongoing Chennai Book Fair, its employees began stacking his books into cartons. When readers approached them to try and buy the books they had in stock, they refused. His publisher was wary when I asked if I could take photographs.
As I watched them packing his books into obscurity – the books of a writer whose work and personality and intelligence I greatly esteem – I felt angry, helpless, and frightened.
The protest genuinely baffled me at first. Now, it terrifies me.
It baffled me because Madhorubhagan was published three years ago, and its translation more than a year ago. In the intervening years, Murugan has written two sequels to Madhorubhagan.
Why were groups raking up the allegation that he portrayed women and religion poorly now?
First of all, Murugan cannot be accused of male chauvinism by any stretch of the imagination. His books often explore prejudice against women, from female infanticide to inheritance laws to childlessness. (My profile of this brilliant writer, in which I discuss his work in some detail is available here.)
Second, even if he were guilty of giving us a stilted view of a village and its women, it is irrelevant – to demand the arrest of a writer and a ban on his book, on the charge that he portrayed anyone or anything in a particular manner that is offensive to some readers, goes against the fundamental rights guaranteed to us in the Constitution.
Third, the timing of the protest makes no sense.
Fourth, why was Murugan so worried about this protest, when there has been a backlash over most novels he has written? These include a politically-motivated protest against his debut work, Eruveyil (Rising Heat), which necessitated that he sneak in and out of his hometown for two years.
Fifth, when the Tamil literary world and – more importantly – the state itself had stood by him, how did the protests against him persist?
And, sixth, despite his agreeing to change sections of the novel and satisfy the demands of his detractors for the next edition, why did the protesters continue to harass him?
But my confusion transformed into terror, as the face of the protests changed.
It appeared Madhorubhagan was not the only problem. Murugan had dedicated his 2014 release Pookkuzhi to “Ilavarasan of Dharmapuri”. Ilavarasan, a Dalit, was one half of the famous Divya-Ilavarasan couple, whose inter-caste marriage caused riots that lasted for several weeks and made national headlines. Divya, who belongs to the Vanniyar caste, eventually filed for divorce, after her father committed suicide – there were rumours that the suicide was forced. The case culminated in the suspicious death of Ilavarasan, whose body was found on the railway tracks. A suicide note was recovered, but the death remains murky.
And here was a writer, whose novel about an inter-caste marriage was dedicated to Ilavarasan.
When this issue was raised by the protesters, politicians who had voiced their support for Perumal Murugan began to demur.
In an email to me, Murugan said he was comforted by the support he had received from fellow-writers, but haunted by the idea that he must continue to live in an interior district of Tamil Nadu. In other words, people know where he lives, it is away from the city and the media, and he is worried about his family.
It appears that Murugan’s disregard for the unwritten rules that govern caste politics in Tamil Nadu has caught up with him. He wrote about the powerful Gounder community, to which he belongs. He wrote about the prejudice against Dalits. He has spoken out against forced land acquisition, and political malpractice.
Localised animosities have morphed into objections to his writing on the basis of religion and gender.
The protests have gained currency, and pulled law enforcers to the side that wants blood. The writer has been forced to choose between his safety and his calling.
I’m angry as a writer, because no one stands up to protect us when a crazed mob decides to target us. The idea that a writer could be in danger because he picked up a pen is chilling. The fact that we cannot rely on the authorities to protect us is scary.
I’m angry as a reader, because we have failed. We have failed again. We, as a country, failed Salman Rushdie when the land of his birth became the first country in the world to ban The Satanic Verses. Three decades later, we continue to fail.
I’m angry as a Tamilian, because in this state, which is run by Dravidian parties that boast of their atheist street-cred and anti-caste agenda, a writer has been silenced for making a reference to an extant religious practice, and for dedicating his book to a Dalit youth.
We need to ask ourselves what kind of country we live in, and what kind of times we live in. Can any of us recite our list of fundamental rights without laughing at the irony?
And as we sashay around the high-profile literary events that are doing their rounds of the country – JLF, The Times Literary Carnival, Hindu Lit for Life, Delhi Book Fair, Chennai Book Fair, you-name-it – let us remember that we cannot protect the writers whom we are celebrating.