Back to life: Perumal Murugan re-emerges days before award

An interaction with Perumal Murugan, days before the Sahitya Akademi award for the English translation of his controversial novel, Maadhorubaagan.

Jaideep Sen Published :  19th April 2017 06:28 PM   |   Published :   |  19th April 2017 06:28 PM
Perumal Murugan

Perumal Murugan

Perumal Murugan’s faith in rebirth might yet be revived. The Tamil novelist has been in the eye of a storm recently, with the Madras High Court vindicating his right to write, and quelling a controversy over his 2010 novel Mathorubhagan.

The English translation of the book, One Part Woman, by Aniruddhan Vasudevan, has now won the annual award for translation by the Sahitya Akademi, as selected by a three-member jury comprising K Satchidanandan, Dr Githa Hariharan and professor AR Venkatachalapathy. 

Last year, Murugan even said he would give up writing over protests that claimed Madhurobhagan was blasphemous in content. His message was clear in a Facebook post: “Perumal Murugan the writer is dead. As he is no God, he is not going to resurrect himself. He also has no faith in rebirth. An ordinary teacher, he will live as P Murugan. Leave him alone.”

Situations have changed since then, if not his personal beliefs. With the fresh release of translations of his books — Seasons of the Palm and Current Show — the professor of Tamil at the Government Arts College, Namakkal, is stepping out to reclaim his spot in the sun. This time, he’s better equipped to explain his views of existence and human life. 

Perumal Murugan
Perumal Murugan’s Seasons of the Palm

How are things changing for Indian language literature? Are new English translations a positive step for gaining readership for vernacular writing?
I’m extremely happy that my books are being translated into English. All other Indian languages have special qualities. It is important for good literature to reach as wide a readership as possible. But the amount of translation being done right now is not nearly enough. There also needs to be more translation between Indian languages, and not just from Indian languages to English.

How did you spend the year 2015, after the controversy over your writing?
I have declined to speak about this with everyone, and I would prefer to stay silent on this subject.

How does your teaching experience inform your writing? Are you wary of a strong instructive intent in your books?
Because I’m a teacher of literature, I get to meet a lot of students. I consider myself extremely fortunate because I get to hear so much about contemporary society through the lives of my students. I think it’s a gift that I have access to the youth, and I try to capture their concerns in my writing. My teaching informs my writing and my writing informs my teaching. 

Are you partial to profanity in writing? Though a lot of the local flavour tends to get lost in translation, how important to you is it to retain the swearing and utterances of a provincial nature — not just for impact, but for the characters?
I do use profanity in my writing, as I write about contemporary society. In dialogue, I use colloquial language, and people do use profanity in daily conversation. It’s unavoidable, and it does find its way into my writing. My writing is a mix of classical and contemporary language. I have received criticism for my use of profanity.

Are you still of the belief that urban society can be extremely thin-skinned, and tends to over-react to issues?
Since the advent of social media, people do tend to overreact to small issues, yes, but in fact I’ve seen very often that people don’t even care about the larger issues of our times, and are sadly unperturbed by dramatic changes in the world. 

Perumal Murugan’s Current Show

Where did you look for inspiration for the characters of Sathi, the young soda seller in Current Show, and Shorty, the farmhand in Seasons of the Palm?
These characters are very much inspired from my personal life, and the various people I met until I was 25 years old. I lived in the areas I describe in the book. I know a lot about goat-herding, and my father had a soda shop in the local cinema theater, where I used to meet interesting characters. It was through these encounters that I was inspired to create these characters.

The two books are in very different settings — one in a small town, and the other in an agricultural community. Yet, both the central characters seem unified. How personal is capturing that boyish feeling to you, as a writer?
I don’t know if I’ve captured myself in these stories, because I don’t know what I’m like. But as you say, even though the milieus are very different, they both come from oppressive backgrounds and their realities are not far-removed from each other. This is why one can spot similarities between the characters. At the same time, just because they come from unhappy situations, I don’t want my writing to indicate that they are unhappy all the time. There are several small joys in the lives of every character, and that’s what I’ve tried to showcase through their joy and innocence. A life without small joys is not a life well-lived.

Both stories seem to continue beyond the final chapters. And there’s an almost inescapable sense of insignificance that the reader is left engulfed in. Is it a writerly mandate of yours to make 
readers feel unimportant in a larger universal scheme of things?

I think I’ve said everything there is to say by the ends of these stories. If you’re wondering what happens to these characters beyond the culmination of the books, then I’ve achieved the purpose that I have set out to achieve. 

How committed are you to telling the stories of underprivileged and oppressed subjects? 
I come from a small village, where my family managed agricultural lands. I interacted with people from all communities, and in a small village, people tend to be closely knit. It is impossible to write about just one community while writing about a village in India, because everyone interacts with one another. This is why I know about communities other than my own. You will notice that in my writing, I never write about just one community.

For example, in Seasons of the Palm I write a lot about Shorty, but I also write about upper caste members like Selvan in the same village, because you cannot write about one without writing about the other. 

Please explain to us the implications of the Tamil expression, ‘nadaipinam’, or ‘walking corpse’. And how does one describe the re-emergence of life following such a phase?
Nadaipinam’ means that there is life in the body, but the person is no more than a corpse. They do not exhibit vitality in their actions. Just because one exhibits the qualities of being alive, it doesn’t mean that one is actually living.

There are people who breathe and walk and eat, but they are merely existing and not living. They go about life in a very mechanical way. One can re-emerge from such a state. The change can come from  inside you or outside you. If you realise that you have become a walking corpse and want to change yourself, it is possible to reach out to society. But sometimes, it is society that makes you a walking corpse and if society changes, you may re-emerge.

Perumal Murugan’s Current Show and Seasons of the Palm, Penguin India, Rs 299 each.