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Saturday, March 25, 2023

Perumal Murugan | Born-again writer

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In a move characteristic of the times we live in, the living author Perumal Murugan announced his death on Facebook on January 2015: “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.”

He had been hounded with protests by local caste-based groups who had belatedly discovered a novel four years after it was published in 2010, forced to write an apology and publishers threatened to withdraw all his books from the shelves. The controversy centred on his novel  Madhorubagan, a raw and poignant but fictional record that pointed to certain customs aligned to the Ardhanareeswarar Temple in Tiruchengode, a small dusty town in western Tamil Nadu. The caste outrage slowly grew State-wide, orchestrated by a powerful intermediate community, and pushed a sensitive writer to declaring the death of the writer in him.

Thankfully, Murugan was indeed reborn. Instead of his words, the regnal proclamation of many countries came true instead: ‘The King is dead, long live the King’. Perumal Murugan indeed had a resurrection, not in a cave, but in the corridors of the Madras High Court that struck out strongly in favour of freedom of expression. The court also called for his books to be restored for sale, and a committee to be constituted to protect the right of creative artistes to express themselves.

The International Booker Prize jury recorded this intense struggle when it put his novel  Pyre ( Pookuzhi), translated by Aniruddhan Vasudevan, on its long list.

As the red dust of the Kongu (western) soil settled down slowly, Murugan grew, in front of our eyes, as a colossus of modern Tamil literature. In his resurrection, the womb from where the writer emerged: Tiruchengode and its surroundings, its dialect, its flavours, myths, folklore and landscape, its rhythms that also beat in him, only became more vibrant. This true son of the soil who had launched firmly into a central position in modern Tamil writing was nurtured by Kalachuvadu Publications, an equally avant garde force in Tamil publishing.

Tales of conflicts

His experiences are rooted in the geography of his homeland, but are universal in the portrayal of the human predicament. In the agricultural landscape, palms rising tall on bunds alongside rain-fed farms, and the rising heat is nearly palpable in summer, there are conflicts, between the farmer and the land, man and wife, father and son, farm worker and landowner, earth and rain, faith and convenience, goodness and evil, traditions versus modernity. No wonder then, that his work is not the easiest to translate. Multiple translators have worked on his novels and anthologies, and some have confessed to being foxed at times, and yet, this Tamil professor’s translated works have gone on to win awards. Apart from multiple awards for the author himself, in 2005, Murugan’s novel  Seasons of the Palm was shortlisted for the Kiriyama Prize, and in 2017, the English translation of  Madhorubhagan, or  One Part Woman, won the Sahitya Akademi’s Translation Prize.

Murugan’s oeuvre now stretches over several genres: poetry, essays, analyses, novels, collections of short stories. In his day job as a professor of Tamil literature, he is acknowledged to have made significant contributions to the study of the literature of the Kongunadu region, crafting a lexicon of words, idioms and phrases unique to the region. His research on Kongu folklore has now been well documented, making him a veritable encyclopaedia of the culture and traditions of the land.

His recent acquaintance with the Booker has his fans thrilled. But they chime in to say that this is merely the beginning, it is merely indicative of the distance that this Perumal Murugan will be traversing in the future — taking his dusty, small Tamil towns, with their own quaint customs and lingo, on to the global stage.

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