Literary Review

Water spilling on every side

Perumal Murugan  

With the launch of Kozhayin Paadalkal (Songs of a Coward ), a collection of 200 poems, in New Delhi on August 22, Perumal Murugan has allowed himself to be resurrected as a writer. In the book’s preface, he talks of poetry as the potion that can bring the dead to life.

I am familiar with dryland farming. I can graze cattle. I have some experience in running a soda shop. I have done a bit of journalism too. I’ve been a full-time college teacher for 20 years now. Even so, writing remains my only vocation. I discovered a passion for writing when I was still quite young. It is a companion with whom I can share myself; it has helped me look at myself from a distance. Through my writing, I’ve savoured the joys of travelling back and forth in time. Like a cuckoo bird in summer I’ve been able to align my voice with the present by singing through the day and the night. There has never been a time when I was not active as a writer.

There were periods when I abstained from writing due to the exigencies of survival. Even then, thoughts would always gallop through my mind. I might or might not have had the ability to control the trajectory of my thoughts, but I’ve never actively wanted to control it. There was plenty that kept running, and then ran away forever. There were also ideas that had apparently got away but, in truth, lay buried in the depths of my mind, only to rise later. For me, writing is a habit of mind. And in writing, poetry is my ideal form. Poetry is closest to my heart. Rightly or wrongly, I have chosen poetry as the outlet for immediate feelings and emotions.

Poetry is my vehicle for recovery from any setback. I can ride through any crisis by clutching at the tail of a single word that might occur to me. At times, without my realising it, my habit of talking to myself would occasionally spill over into my lips also moving. It has frequently landed me in trouble with the outside world. Many are the lone words that were never put down on paper, and many the phrases into which they were often expanded. Although I am not savvy enough to embrace and safeguard all that comes to life in this manner, I consider this habit a great boon.

The moment I felt that boon to be a curse, I strangled the throat of that habit. I said to myself: This is the end, it’s over; let me lay it in the grave, ritually pour some milk on it to appease the departed and move on to the next task. But I found that I couldn’t function anymore. I felt like a walking corpse. But what could I do? I had strangled my gift. I had thought that the grief of that loss would be covered up with mud in a few days, but that did not happen. My strangling hand wasn’t quite strong enough, perhaps. After lying barely alive for a few months, my mental habit pushed back up through the mud, rose with a loud wail, and came back to me. Like in a wellspring that kept filling up even as the water was bailed out constantly, there was water spilling over on every side.

Since I had a lot of free time, I kept putting those poems down on paper: more poems than ever before. Poetry is the great potion, the sanjeevi herb that can bring the dead to life. It was indeed poetry that restored me to life. The painter Srinivasan Natarajan was a great friend I made in the 18 months of my exile in Chennai. During this period, he wrote a novel, Vidambanam, especially for me. The day after I wrote Judgment Day, a poem in this collection, happened to be the remembrance day of the late poet Atmanaam (July 6, 2016). There was a meeting of friends at Marina Beach that evening. The poem I wrote on that occasion at Srinivasan’s request was my first poem after Judgment Day. It appears in Srinivasan’s novel. He has also created an excellent cover design for this collection. I had taught my father, who wasn’t lettered, just to sign his name. I don’t have a single photograph of my father. A lone signature has survived in my Class X attendance register. Whenever I see that signature, I feel as though I am seeing my father again. Srinivasan has recreated that signature and made wonderful use of it on the cover of this collection. I owe immense gratitude for his creative ability.

The poet Sukumaran has read and commented on these poems, as well as written the blurb on the back cover. He is like a touchstone for me, a touchstone that speaks tactfully without bruising the heart. I offer my loving thanks to him and also to Kalachuvadu Kannan, who invested special attention and care in the publication of this book.

In a sense, this is my first book. So the list of individuals I must thank is indeed very long. Dedication is the appropriate section of a book where a deeper emotion that surpasses gratitude may be expressed. I fulfil that need in myself by dedicating this book to all those who stood by me in solidarity and support during those harsh and difficult times.

Translated from Tamil by the Chennai-based N. Kalyan Raman.

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Printable version | Nov 24, 2020 4:23:59 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/Water-spilling-on-every-side/article14593255.ece

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