Noted Tamil novelist Perumal Murugan’s Facebook page went blank on Tuesday in a virtual closure of his identity as a writer, in a shocking illustration of the growing intolerance of fringe groups constricting public discourse. It is ironic that the author was made to virtually recant to buy peace after the recent controversy over his novel Madhorubhagan , first published in December 2010, purportedly offended the sensibilities of some dominant sections of society in the western ‘Kongu’ belt of Tamil Nadu. This, ironically at a time when many parts of the world are uniting in solidarity to uphold freedom of expression in the wake of the terror attack on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo . At a ‘peace committee’ meeting in the Namakkal Collectorate on Monday, pro-Hindu caste outfits whose protests took the form of burning copies of the book and organising a hartal in Tiruchengode town, reportedly consented to call off their protests after the author “agreed to issue an unconditional apology, delete controversial portions in the book, withdraw unsold copies from the market and not to write on controversial subjects hurting sentiments of the people”. This pact, at the intervention of the local administration, is notwithstanding the fact that the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the State unit of the Bharatiya Janata Party had distanced themselves from the protests, saying they were localised popular stirs.
Set in the backdrop of a pre-Independence era belief system involving ‘consensual sex’ ritually associated with the annual car festival of the Sri Arthanareeshwarar Temple in Tiruchengode, Perumal Murugan’s fifth novel is by most accounts in Tamil literary circles “a very sensitive and poignant portrait” of the dilemmas of a poor childless couple. (Lord Siva in the Arthanareeshwarar form is in Hindu mythology and traditional philosophical understanding a reassuring symbol of the unity of purush, or self, and prakriti, or nature.) The Penguin-published English version, One Part Woman , is about “how far would you go to conceive a child?” Politics may have no patience for such conflicting values, but in Indian intellectual traditions from ancient times, the spirit of orthodoxy and heterodoxy have coexisted. Sectarian disputes are nothing new, while writers being able to reflect on socio-economic-cultural issues in the light of received knowledge is the key to an open society. The rights under the Constitution are designed to protect the freedom of expression of writers like Perumal Murugan who may seek to question uncomfortable truths from the past. It is a pity that a range of forces conspired to silence him.