It’s difficult to say when I started writing. I was probably eight or nine years then. A little ditty about my favourite cat, ‘Poonai nalla poonai’, is the first writing that I can recollect. Some years later it was broadcast in the children’s programme of All India Radio’s Tiruchirapalli station. Since then poetry has been my primary vehicle of expression,” said Perumal Murugan, dressed impeccably in white, at New Delhi’s Nehru Memorial Museum and Library (NMML). The author was here to mark his return to the literary sphere by releasing a collection of 200 poems titled  Oru Kozhaiyin Paadalkal (A Coward’s Song) published by Penguin Books and translated from the Tamil by A.R. Venkatachalapathy.

Murugan even went on to recite his Tamil poems like “Hometown” from his recent collection, the  translated version of which was read out  in English by the renowned poet Ashok Vajpeyi, who later addressed the audience saying, “It is of great moment that a writer of his [Murugan’s] stature has come back to life once again. And in times such as this, he is writing poetry instead of prose. Such an inspiration for poets like us.”

While English readers primarily recognise him as an eminent contemporary Tamil novelist, Murugan is also an accomplished poet and has been hailed as a scholar with a rich sense of history, given his extensive non-fiction writings that explore the history, ethnography and culture of the Kongu region in Tamil Nadu, which covers the districts of Coimbatore, Erode, Tiruppur, Salem and Karur. Murugan’s abiding fascination with this region has produced a rich corpus of literature that has significantly contributed to the growing understanding of the peasant communities that inhabit the region — their language, folklore, ethnography, and social dynamics. It is no surprise that the Kongu region, with its hostile agricultural environment and hardy peasants, also forms the basis of Murugan’s fiction. In his novels and short stories, Murugan gives the people of the Kongu region a voice, evoking their hopes and struggles with deep compassion and sustained humanity.

In December 2014, fierce protests had broken out and Murugan had been hounded by a group of vigilantes for the publication of an English translation of his 2010 novel Madhorubhagan (One Part Woman). Murugan’s detractors claimed to be offended by his story of a childless couple taking recourse to a temple fertility ritual, involving consensual sex outside of matrimony. Amid the controversy, Murugan was transferred from a government college in Nammakal, where he had been teaching Tamil for the past 15 years and forced to leave home too. It was then that he had decided to give up writing altogether, declaring in a Facebook post, “Perumal Murugan the writer is dead.”

The unfair treatment meted out to Murugan won him many ardent supporters all over the country. The matter became one of free speech being under threat. Things seemed to worsen when charges were also brought against him in the Madras High Court, demanding a ban on the novel.  Last month, in a judgment by the Madras High Court, it was observed that there was nothing obscene in his novel and that he should be able to write in the interests of free speech  and advance the canvas of his writings, with the verdict, “Write”.

Murugan was transferred from a government college in Nammakal, where he had been teaching Tamil for the past 15 years and forced to leave home too. It was then that he had decided to give up writing altogether, declaring in a statement, “Perumal Murugan the writer is dead.”

In his keynote address to a hall packed with high-ranking journalists like Ellen Barry of The New York Times and publishing house editors like R. Sivapriya of Juggernaut Books, Murugan said, “The question of whether a word or a sentence in a judicial verdict should determine if I write or not remains in my mind. If a faceless force can put a full stop to writing, can’t a line in a judicial verdict bolster writing? Moreover, the imperative ‘write’ suits my present state of mind and is a cause for happiness.”

 The author added: “I am also mulling over the reissue of my earlier writings. I will soon begin the weary task of reviewing my books. If required I shall revisit the text.  I’m not sure if this is right. However, when so many things that are not quite right are happening all over, why not this? What am I to do? A censor is seated inside me now. He is testing every word that is born within me. His constant caution that a word may be misunderstood so, or it may be interpreted thus, is a real bother. But I’m unable to shake him off. If this is wrong let the Indian intellectual world forgive me. The learned judges have said that, ‘I should not live under fear.’ But my old teacher, the great Thiruvalluvar has said, ‘Folly meets fearful ills with fearless heart/ To fear where cause of fear exists is wisdom’s part.”

That conflict was deep-seated in the writer’s pscyche since 2014 was evident from Murugan’s statement addressed in the national capital’s high literary circle. But Murugan, who couldn’t write a word in the last 19 months, also expressed, during a conversation with critic Nilanjana Roy at the Delhi event, a sense of conviction in refusing to be bogged down from writing about love and caste, a recurring theme in his novels and short stories. “I don’t think that a writer cannot write about caste…My belief is that no writer can write a single word in defence of caste,” said Murugan.

On being questioned by Roy about whether he would go back to writing prose, Murugan said, “Most of my writing is in the realist mode. I doubt I can continue to do that. Only time will tell me what I will write. My writing will do little to change this world. Let me write what I can.”  

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