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Between the word and the margins

Rihan Najib | Updated on February 15, 2019 Published on February 15, 2019

Way to go: Reflecting on his self-imposed exile and eventual return to writing, Perumal Murugan affirms that he still has faith in a life in literature   -  THULASI KAKKAT

Perumal Murugan discusses what it was like to write the two sequels to his acclaimed novel One Part Woman, and what uninterrupted freedom does for the writer

When it comes to talking to authors about their work, almost any place is preferable to a lit fest. Jaipur in January is no different. The literature festival there still takes pride of place in the increasingly cluttered book-fest circuit; the awareness of which manifests as a jittery self-importance in attendees. It is rare and refreshing, therefore, to find an author so utterly free of its grasp. Acclaimed Tamil scholar and author Perumal Murugan seems bemused by the glitzy chaos of loud voices and louder opinions, but remains politely — and perhaps wisely — outside the establishment.

Speaking to BLink in the lounge of The Lalit in Jaipur, Murugan (53) is warm, soft-spoken and attentive to the details of each query. As he responds in Tamil to this reporter’s questions in Malayalam, the conversation is a delightful testament to how language is a bridge, not a border.

Taking the story forward

Two sequels to his 2010 novel Madhorubagan (published in English as One Part Woman in 2013) have just been released. Dedicated readers of Murugan thought the arrival of Aalavaayan and Ardhanaari (A Lonely Harvest and Trial By Silence respectively in English) would bring to an end their anxious questions about the fate of the protagonists, Kali and Ponna — a couple passionately in love with each other but distressed by their childlessness. The sequels take the story in One Part Woman forward in two different directions. In true Murugan fashion, as evidenced by his previous novels such as Seasons of the Palm (Koolamadari in Tamil), One Part Woman also has an abrupt end right at the peak of a mounting dramatic tension, offering the reader no relief in the form of a resolution.

“Many Tamil readers who read One Part Woman wrote to me after that, asking, ‘What happened to Kali and Ponna? Does Kali kill himself?’ I wrote back saying I didn’t know either. And then I wrote the sequels to find out,” says Murugan.

Last word: Harassed and hounded into withdrawing copies of One Part Woman, Murugan announced in January 2015, “Perumal Murugan the writer is dead.” A file image of a demonstration in Madurai, in support of the author   -  S JAMES

 

The sequels have been translated into English by Aniruddhan Vasudevan, who had also translated One Part Woman in addition to several of Murugan’s other novels and poems. Though the translations of the novels were released late last year, the Tamil originals were written much earlier. “Aalavaayan and Ardhanaari were written in 2014. But in the time leading up to the printing and release of the books, the controversy around One Part Woman broke out,” he explains.

In 2014, Murugan found himself in the eye of a storm. Right-wing caste groups objected to the portrayal in One Part Woman of a custom in Tiruchengode in Tamil Nadu, wherein childless married women wishing to conceive a child could do so by any man during the night of the chariot festival in honour of the deity Ardhanareeshwara. Harassed and hounded into apologising and withdrawing copies of his novel, he announced in January 2015, “Perumal Murugan the writer is dead.”

The following year, the Madras High Court ruled in Murugan’s favour. Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul’s 158-page statement concluded, “Let the author be resurrected to what he is best at. Write.”

Murugan returned. In late 2016, an anthology of his poems — Mayanathil Nitkum Maram (A Tree That Stands In The Crematorium) was released. This was followed by Songs of A Coward: Poems of Exile (2017) and Poonachi, Or The Story Of A Black Goat (2018).

Divergent roads

Despite what detractors had said about One Part Woman, Murugan’s readers in Tamil — he receives lots of letters and calls after each novel — were delighted with the book. He recalls, “Some readers wrote in with their comments, saying they felt Ponna shouldn’t have gone with another man. They asked me, ‘Ponna did the mistake so why should Kali suffer?’ At the same time, many women who have suffered the pain of childlessness wrote to say how much they identified with the story, having gone through similar struggles.” None of his readers found the frank and natural tone with which he discussed sex and desire beyond the pale of tradition.

“I was writing about the feelings of understanding and commitment between two people deeply in love with each other. I was writing about their life, and this was a part of it,” he says.

The sequels begin exactly at the point where One Part Woman ends, and shows two divergent futures for Kali and Ponna following the fateful night at the chariot festival. A Lonely Harvest deals with the scenario where Kali commits suicide, unable to bear the pain and humiliation at what he perceives as Ponna’s betrayal. In Trial By Silence, Kali survives his suicide attempt, but retreats into a darkness, refusing to speak to Ponna or even be in the same space as her.

In the preface to Trial By Silence, Murugan writes, “When I wrote this novel, I experienced a great freedom of mind. My mind and hands worked together with much ease.”

Recalling what it was like to write the sequels, he smiles wistfully as he says, “I felt like I was travelling on two roads simultaneously. I would write one chapter in one book and write a chapter in the other book. It gave me great joy to write them. Everything felt exciting and everything was a surprise.”

The man behind the words

Writing came early to Murugan, who was part of the first generation in his family to be formally educated. Growing up in Tiruchengode, he recalls being a lonely child who would read whatever he could get his hands on — newspapers, magazines, books. An avid listener of the radio, he began writing little songs and poems, many of which were also broadcast on All India Radio. “Writing was how I expressed myself to the world,” he says.

The landscapes, people, customs, dialects and preoccupations of Kongunadu, the wider region in which Tiruchengode falls, is an atmosphere Murugan keeps returning to in his work. “I don’t go in search of places in which I can situate my characters. I just keep going to the places that are familiar to me — the village where I grew up — it is a part of my manasu (being), a place I continue to inhabit,” he says.

Discussing how Kongunadu is an unending source of inspiration for him, he adds, “My wife often asks me jokingly, ‘How many more stories are you going to turn out from this place?’ And just when she thinks I have exhausted my reserve of stories from there, I keep surprising her by coming up with another one.”

Murugan likes to write at night, typing away even as late as 3am. “Though I don’t have any writing rituals as such, I try to begin with what is known in Tamil as Mangalachurkkal — which is all about ensuring an auspicious start to any work by beginning with specific letters of the Tamil alphabet,” he says.

For instance, the Tamil epic Kamba Ramayanam begins with the word Ulagam, where the Tamil letter ‘u’ is a representation of the deity Vinayagar (Lord Ganesha), the ‘Remover of Obstacles’. “Some start with Poo Malar (flowers, blossoms). I started One Part Woman with the word Poovarasan. Though it started with Poo, it didn’t prove to be that auspicious, after all,” he says with an infectious laugh.

Irrespective of auspicious beginnings, the evocative force of Murugan’s writing places him beyond the vagaries of divine intervention. With equal versatility, he chronicles the daily beast of caste-based violence, while bringing home the visceral pleasure of eating brinjals cooked in a paste of tamarind and coconut. The latter, however, has to do with his expertise in the kitchen. “I cook very well, actually,” he says. “There were no girls in my family, just my elder brother and I. My parents would set out to work in the fields early in the morning, so my brother and I would do all the cooking, eat and leave for school. So I can prepare all kinds of dishes. I learned it all from my mother.”

States of mind

Though the sequels are stand-alone books, reading them the way Murugan wrote it — as though one was travelling two roads simultaneously — is an immersive experience into the detailed life-worlds he has conjured. It would certainly take an unbridled freedom of imagination and energy to draw out convincingly distinct plots in both books — a freedom that was interrupted in 2014. In the preface to Trial By Silence, where he had talked about how free he felt when writing the books, he also writes, “But now I wonder if so much freedom is appropriate for these times. I don’t think I will ever again experience that state of mind.”

Reflecting on his self-imposed exile and eventual return, he affirms that he still has faith in a life in literature. “Literature has given me so much; it has shaped the world as I know it,” he says. “But during the flare-up over the book, I did wonder why I ever wrote to begin with — since it was the writing that had brought me so many difficulties. But the act of writing holds in it so much power — to create strife, to shake up things.”

Then, in his uncomplicated, straightforward way, Murugan renews his bond with the simple yet monumental task writers have of being observers, interpreters, and truth-tellers.

He says, “I’ll continue to write.”

Published on February 15, 2019
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