Nothing can be more distressing for a writer than seeing copies of his/her books being burnt. Namakkal-based author Perumal Murugan knows it well. His novel Madhorubhagan has come under fire from Hindu outfits who have demanded the book be banned and the author arrested. The outfits allege that the book, translated into English by Penguin as One Part Woman, shows Lord Shiva and the Kailasanathar temple in poor light. The soft-spoken Tamil professor’s novel, on the other hand, is at its core a love story — of Kali and Ponna, a couple who are unable to conceive a child. The pressures of society cast a shadow on their relationship, which Perumal explores through the cultural and social norms of Tiruchengode of the past. Translated excerpts of an email interview in Tamil:
How is your mindset at present?
It has been four years since this work came out; it was well-received and got a lot of good reviews. Its English translation did well too. When its copies were burnt, I wondered if there was any point in writing for such a society; one that sets fire to a book without the slightest understanding of what litterateurs had to say about it. But the campaign for freedom of speech and the support from the media and readers that Madhorubhagan triggered altered my frame of mind.
Will the intolerance shown to the book affect your writing in any way?
I feel this incident will affect my writing. There are chances of my mind going into self-inspection even as I write. I wonder if I can think independently. This was perhaps the intention of the opposing forces. I hence have to start writing again only once I’m completely out of this mindset. I will have to fight hard to get back to writing with a free mind in order to defeat the purposes of those who oppose my writing.
Your comments on creative freedom in India.
The law provides for us to write and speak our mind — this is our right. But often religious and casteist forces tend to subvert this. We, at present, are in a situation to fight these forces at various levels.
Tell us about how Madhorubhagan came about. What was the inspiration behind titling it after the chief deity of Tiruchengode temple?
Infertility has been a problem in society since time immemorial. I’ve seen couples around me suffer due to the inability to have a child and decided to write on this. In the course of my research, I came across a societal practice that existed in the past to deal with childlessness. My mind began to weave these two themes. The more I delved into the minds of such couples, the more I got to understand them — their despair and fear, and the intimacy and the depth of the love they share. The fascinating form of Madhorubhagan of Lord Shiva tells of how man and woman should be given an equal stand in everything. This aspect was the inspiration behind naming my novel.
Madhorubhagan talks about consensual sex rituals that were in existence in the past. Do you think people of the time were liberal when it came to sex?
We shouldn’t label the ways of the past as forward or backward by the social boundaries of today. It’s important that we understand the societal norms of that time. We shouldn’t look down on the beliefs of the past nor look up to them with the eyes of the present. We must approach these stories bearing in mind that these practices were accepted by society then.
Tell us about your childhood in Tiruchengode. Was the temple and its history a constant presence in your life?
I know the Thiruchengode of the 1960s very well. My mother’s job was to draw water from a pond called ‘Malarkuttai’ at one side of the hill and supply it to various shops. Through her, I came to know the town well. I can vividly recall how she called a place ‘Anju lantern mukku’ — ‘The five lantern corner’. She shaped my understanding of the place. During holidays, I sold soda and cool drinks in a mandapam on the hill. This way, I made friends with the mendicants and the holy men; they were affectionate people. The temple formed an important part of my childhood.
Are you a teacher who likes to write or a writer who likes to teach?
I am a writer first. I started teaching since I couldn’t make a living out of writing. Writing is my jeevan (life). Teaching is my jeevanam (bread and butter).
What was the inspiration behind your dictionary of dialects of the Kongu region?
I’ve always been fascinated by words, especially dialects. I thus began compiling them. Words are wonders that were born out of human imagination and ways of life. The literature, grammar, and history of the language I learnt in college only increased my fascination for words and I gradually recorded those that captivated me. My dictionary is the result of this.
What are you working on at present?
The last four-five years have been very important for my writing career. It was a period when the urge to write took over me. I have so much to write about. I’ve been thinking that I have it in me to write another 10 novels. I may come up with something new that will reflect my current mindset. Or, perhaps I may not write anything for a while.