Setting free the writer’s block

The Perumal Murugan order is an exceptional act of citizenship. It must be a call for action for citizens — writers, artists and their collectives, along with other civil society organisations — to activate the public sphere to annihilate fear

July 10, 2016 12:42 am | Updated September 18, 2016 12:52 pm IST

Some writers are born with a block. Some attain a block. And some get a block thrust upon them. >Prof. Perumal Murugan had a major block thrust on him. The author of the sober and moving 2010 Tamil novel Madhorubagan (rendered into English by scholar and LGBT activist Aniruddhan Vasudevan in 2013 as One Part Woman ) landed in hot water for sharing his intimate knowledge of the esoteric sexual customs of the Kongu Nadu region in western Tamil Nadu. The circumstances were unique. Through an inebriated, drummed-up month-long campaign between early December 2014 and January 2015, he had been squarely blocked off like a hunted hare encircled by hounds. They were baying for his blood.

It was a well-orchestrated plan. A straightforward novel, with a folklorish angle about a couple taking recourse to an interesting and socially sanctioned device of free sexual intermingling by childless women on the 14th auspicious day of the Vaikasi Visakam festival of the Ardhanareeswarar temple festival, and offspring thereof being happily accepted as the deity’s blessing, was twisted and distorted into a mighty slur on caste, religion and women of the region. As writer Lavanya Manoharan pointed out in an article in Kalachuvadu magazine, why can’t this be considered an older system of assisted reproductive technology, which has now become a rage in India?

The hostile elements had waited five years for the appropriate political moment. The author was ostracised, abused, bullied and threatened. A pattern emerged in this cycle of intimidation. Virulent phone calls hectored him round-the-clock. As the local festival of Girivalam (perambulation of the holy hill of the Tiruchengode temple) approached, pamphlets, posters and WhatsApp instigations reached their peak. Threats to his life followed in quick succession and then to organised rioting and arson and a shutdown of Tiruchengode, a town of less than a million people. Leading the charge were a few select organisations of the Kongu Vellalar caste, elements of the RSS-affiliated Hindu Munnani and elements linked to their women’s and merchant’s wings from Namakkal, Salem and Erode districts.

Meanwhile, the man and his family had been harried and targeted and aggrandised enough for him to want to eat his own words. Literally. Made to run from pillar to post for any offer of protection or safeguard, he had already apologised publicly to anyone whose feelings he might have hurt. Further, he announced the removal of all references to actual geographic locations in his novel. He begged and pleaded with his aggressors — his own neighbours and community.

‘Reconciliation meeting’ And yet, in the midst of all this, he is tricked into participating in a ‘reconciliation meeting’ by local revenue officials, during which he is asked to withdraw his novel and its translation.

The writer has a sudden and painful realisation that the state is not going to protect him. No party, no local administration and no arm of the law is going to bail him out. His English publisher, Penguin, was already scooting for cover. The few standing by him are his wife, his Tamil publisher, Kannan (of Kalachuvadu), historian A.R. Venkatachalapathy and Dr. V. Suresh, national secretary, People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), who in his capacity as a lawyer for the publisher, also goes on to help fight his case in the Madras High Court.

There is little light at the end of the tunnel for this writer whose name is a combination of two of the most powerful deities worshipped in Tamil Nadu. Neither Perumal nor Murugan come to his aid during this dark hour. Dramatically, he proceeds to perform one of the most shocking hara-kiris in recent times. On his Facebook page he announces the death of Perumal Murugan, the writer.

It is a period in Indian social life which saw the daylight murder, by rabid right-wing assassins, of critical thinkers and writers like Govind Pansare and Malleshappa Kalburgi, following upon the earlier gunning down of Narendra Dabholkar in 2013. There was a social outcry against this sort of censorship from the street. But it was Perumal Murugan’s anguish, voluntarily passing into the realms of the ‘living dead’ and penning his own obituary, that stirred the conscience of writers across the country. A few months later, triggered by further ghastly instances of intolerance, this was to be the tripwire that erupted into the first open sign of rebellion against the Modi Sarkar, by well-known writers (with exemplary leadership provided by Nayantara Sahgal) publicly returning their awards to show up the atrocious state of governance.

A fitting reply At that time, Minister for Culture Mahesh Sharma had insolently proclaimed, if they say they can’t write in this atmosphere, let them first stop writing. The fitting reply to that bit of biliousness was provided, this month, by the First Division Bench of the Madras High Court, comprising Chief Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul and Justice Pushpa Sathyanarayana. They were pronouncing an order on a bunch of petitions filed against Perumal Murugan by caste and Hindutva organisations claiming that his novel was ‘blasphemous, outrageous, derogatory, offensive and morally unacceptable’ and seeking to impound and destroy all copies of the book in both its language versions. The last line in the Epilogue of the order passed by the Bench, on July 5, reads — and one hopes Minister Sharma has cleared the wax from his ears — “Let the author be resurrected to what he is best at. Write.”

The same Justice Kaul, as a puisne judge of the Delhi High Court had, in May 2008, thrown out a whole bundle of manufactured and capricious cases against artist M.F. Husain, foisted by a similar cabal from the Sangh Parivar, who seem to get splenetic at the idea of freedom in arts. In that classic 74-page judgement, he had concluded: “A painter at 90 deserves to be in his home — painting his canvas.”

That ruling had brought down the curtain on a particularly nauseating moment in contemporary Indian history where, once again, a cunningly planned pincer attack by ‘sleeper units’ of the Sangh Parivar had isolated Husain by foisting upon him illiterate, ignorant and inflammatory charges, with the intent of paralysing him and spreading division and fear in the artists’ community. Husain went into self-imposed exile (somewhat in the manner of Perumal Murugan now), until he passed away in London in 2011.

The 2008 judgement averred, “The aim has been to arrive at a decision that would protect the quality of life without making closed mind a principal feature of an open society.” The July 5 order takes a further logical step by quoting Salman Rushdie: “It’s very easy not to be offended by a book. You simply have to close it.”

The judges quote from the Supreme Court’s 51-page observation in the landmark 1970 case, K.A. Abbas v. Union of India : “Our standards must be so framed that we are not reduced to a level where the protection of the least capable and the most depraved amongst us determines what the morally healthy cannot view or read.” Abbas’s own inspiring political position on censorship being ultra vires has been elaborated in his 2015 centenary volume, Bread, Beauty, Revolution , edited by Iffat Fatima and Syeda Hameed.

In an extraordinary conclusion to the Husain judgment, Justice Kaul wrote, “There should be freedom for the thought we hate. Freedom of speech has no meaning if there is no freedom after speech”.

In the present order, there is a special bonus — on the question of ‘presumption’ — that in any controversy over a book, etc., the primary presumption should be in favour of fundamental rights under Article 19(1)(a), and not the other way around.

This order is an exceptional act of citizenship. But a free and democratic society cannot be sustained on court orders alone. It calls for action from citizens. This might be a time for writers, artists and their collectives, along with other civil society organisations, to take initiatives to celebrate the judicial order by activating the public sphere to annihilate the fear that has been corroding its soul in recent years.

Aung San Suu Kyi has said that more than anything else, “It is fear that corrupts.” Now that Perumal Murugan has stepped out from the shadows to say that he feels encouraged enough by this judicial intervention to ‘resurrect’ himself and return to writing, it is a call for writers across the board to free themselves of internal and external blocks. The threat to Murugan and individuals like him, from loose cannons, remains. But the threat to freedoms should no more be a spectre.

Sadanand Menon writes on the intersection between politics and culture.

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