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robertogreco : perumalmurugan   4

‘A Censor Is Seated Inside Me Now’: Hometown Wrath Tests a Novelist - The New York Times
“Perumal Murugan, who was celebrated here on Monday as a major Indian writer, looked a bit miserable in the big city.

The son of an illiterate soda-pop vendor from small-town South India, he had limited his visit to the capital to 48 hours, and this appeared to be 46 hours too long. He prefers to sleep on a rope cot, under the stars, the way they do in the village, and has never owned a pair of shoes that were not sandals. Leaving an interview with the talk show host Barkha Dutt, who is Oprah Winfrey-league famous in India, he turned to the man escorting him and asked, politely, who she was.

Mr. Murugan had come to declare his return as a writer following a long spell of darkness. After undergoing a vicious attack by caste leaders in his home state of Tamil Nadu, his novel “One Part Woman” last month was the subject of a landmark court decision defending the right of artists to critically depict their own communities. Recent interest in Mr. Murugan’s work has exploded, with five novels coming out, translated into English from the original Tamil.

But Mr. Murugan seems unsure of what kind of writer he will be now. He remains so horrified by the collective punishment meted out to him in his hometown over “One Part Woman” that he barely speaks about it, even to friends. He doubts he will ever again write about small towns with the same unblinking realism.

“A censor is seated inside me now,” he said on Monday, at a book-signing organized by Penguin India. “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.”

Mr. Murugan’s fictional villages are places full of quiet menace, where caste boundaries are protected with violence and social exclusion.

In “Pyre,” published in English by Penguin Books in April, a well-loved young man brings a wife of a different caste to live among his relatives, hoping they will eventually accept her. As the lovers, hopeful and distracted, overlook clues that the people around them are drifting into a consensus in favor of murder, Mr. Murugan slows the pace, meandering off into exact, detailed descriptions of village life. It’s so tense it leaves you gasping for air.

Equally dark currents run through “One Part Woman,” which Penguin published in English in 2013. Kali and Ponna, a couple who are erotically wrapped up in each other, withstand waves of derision because they have not conceived a child after a decade of marriage. But social pressure eats into them, first sporadically and then conspiratorially, as Ponna is pushed, as if by a hundred hands, into participating in a religious ritual in which childless women have sex with young strangers.

When describing the farming communities of South India, Mr. Murugan is neither sentimental nor harsh; he describes it the way an entomologist might describe an insect.

As a Ph.D. student, Mr. Murugan married a woman from a caste of potters, rather than his own higher landowning caste, the Gounders. His mother refused to attend the marriage, softening only when his wife bore her first child and moved to the village for six months. Two decades later, Mr. Murugan’s relatives still remind him, in subtle ways, that his wife will never be accepted.

It is notable that Mr. Murugan does not write with the expectation that his work will change anything.

“I never had such big hopes,” he said in an interview, glancing down and smiling. Collective punishment, he said, “is part of the narrative. My primary purpose is to explore the experience of the person who undergoes that humiliation.”

Mr. Murugan barely spoke as a child, which gave him time to observe. His older brother was withdrawn from school after the ninth grade so he could help his father with the soda business, and became addicted to bootleg liquor sold in the same bottles. He killed himself at 42.

Mr. Murugan became a writer, with a small but passionate following among Tamil intellectuals. At night he would go to sleep beside his young son at 8 p.m. and then rise at midnight and write for two to three hours during the quietest hours of the night. Many of his colleagues at the government college, where he taught Tamil, were unaware that he wrote fiction, he said on Monday.

In clean, clear prose, he had produced five novels in the space of three years – “almost flawless novels,” said R. Sivapriya, senior editor at the digital publishing house Juggernaut, which commissioned English translations of three of Mr. Murugan’s short stories this year. “He would train a microscope on one detail and tell that one story, and see the world through that one story,” she said. “There was a certain purity to him that won’t be there now, I think. I think it will be a different writer.”

In December 2014, he returned from a writer’s retreat to his family’s home in Namakkal to discover that he was the target of a well-organized campaign. Strangers called repeatedly to accuse him of slandering the Gounder caste in “One Part Woman,” which had been released in an English translation, and he tried earnestly to explain his motivation. The aggression built, culminating in a book burning and a citywide strike.

When a local official, the district revenue officer, summoned the author to a “peace meeting” in January 2015, Mr. Murugan’s editor tried to dissuade him from attending. By the time Mr. Murugan emerged from the meeting, he had signed a document agreeing to withdraw all unsold copies of his books and delete the passages considered offensive. During the meeting, the lawyer wrote later in The Hindu, a daily newspaper, “I could see Perumal Murugan literally crumbling from within.”

Mr. Murugan retuned to his home under police escort and posted a message on Facebook: “Perumal Murugan the writer is dead. As he is not 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.”

On Monday here in New Delhi, Mr. Murugan described a deep depression that followed, during which he neither read nor wrote. It ended, he said, in 2015, when he found himself at a friend’s house, locked in a room stacked with books.

“With nothing to do I lay dazed night and day,” he said. “But as I ruminated over my existence, there came a certain instant when the sluice gates were breached. I began to write. I chronicled the moment when I felt like a rat, dazzled by the light, burrowing itself into its hole.” The result was a book of poetry that went on sale on Monday, titled “Kozhayin Paadalkal,” or “Songs of a Coward.””
perumalmurugan  2016  india  ellenbarry  literature  tamil  caste 
december 2019 by robertogreco
How Perumal Murugan Was Resurrected Through Writing
“The old couple who own Poonachi, in “The Story of a Goat,” are poor villagers living in a thatched shed. When Poonachi arrives in their lives, given as a gift by a stranger, night is falling, and the old woman needs an earthen lamp to look at the kid. The lamp doesn’t have a wick, so she uses a strip from her husband’s discarded loincloth. This is the sort of detail that gives Murugan’s work its heft. His fiction scrupulously documents South India’s trees, its seasons, the behavior not only of people but even of animals. Take the following description, in the book, about a young male goat named Kaduvayan, before he is castrated:
He would visit every herd in the pasture and sniff the vaginas of the mother goats as well as the female kids. Then, with his upper lip pushed back to bare his teeth and head held high, he would relish the smell. He would stick out his penis and piss noisily. Entranced by his touch, a couple of female kids would contract their bodies and start peeing. Kaduvayan would put his snout in the stream of piss and drink a little. A few mother goats would butt him and knock him down. The female kids would become frightened and run away, their tails firmly in place.

This intimacy with the pastoral, channelled in a frank, brutal tone, is something I’ve envied Murugan. But I was curious about him even before I read his books. In 2015, while checking the news online, I came across one of Murugan’s Facebook posts. It wasn’t an ordinary status update about an upcoming reading or a favorable review, the sort of self-promotional thing that writers routinely do. Instead, his post read “Perumal Murugan the writer is dead. As he is not 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.”

That note pierced me. A fireman leaving his job or a politician quitting politics or even a young athlete retiring would most likely not describe leaving their professions as a death. And this was no ordinary death. In a simple but subtle way, Murugan was accusing his society of wanting to murder him. Authors complain constantly—writer’s block, a feud with a rival, lack of critical attention—but none of these grievances require literary suicide. How had the situation turned so dire for Murugan?

Slowly, I gleaned the nature of his plight. Five years after his novel “Maadhorubaagan” (later published in English as “One Part Woman”) first appeared, in 2010, Murugan was threatened by conservatives from his own caste in the small town in South India where he lived. The novel is a portrait of a rural childless couple, Kali and Ponna, who are loving to each other but under tremendous social pressure to conceive a child. When the annual chariot festival draws near—a celebration of the half-male, half-female god Maadhorubaagan—Ponna is obliged to participate. This is especially true on the festival’s eighteenth night, when all men are considered gods and when childless women are permitted to have sex with young strangers. For Ponna, the night marks perhaps her last chance to become pregnant.

This depiction of what Murugan claimed was a traditional ritual outraged a class of his readers. In 2015, he was forced to sign an unconditional apology and to withdraw unsold copies of his book. The previous year, India had elected to power the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (B.J.P.), led by the controversial ideologue Narendra Modi. Modi himself had been a lifelong pracharak, or propagandist, for the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (R.S.S.), a militant ultranationalist organization whose founders had a fondness for Hitler. Nathuram Godse, the man who murdered Mahatma Gandhi, was a former member of the R.S.S. A mob that assembled in the town where “One Part Woman” is set to burn copies of the book was egged on by the B.J.P. and the R.S.S.

The attack on Murugan was perhaps the first major assault on freedom of expression after Modi’s ascent to power. For a while, Murugan was forced into silence. What rescued him was the judgment delivered by the Madras High Court, in Chennai, in the summer of 2016. The judge had a piece of advice for those who disliked Murugan and wanted his book censored: “All writings, unpalatable for one section of the society, cannot be labeled as obscene, vulgar, depraving, prurient and immoral. . . . If you do not like a book, throw it away.” Particularly meaningful was the judge’s closing injunction: “Let the author be resurrected to what he is best at. Write.” For Murugan, the statement was both “a command and a benediction.”

During the first few months of his exile, Murugan hadn’t been able to write anything. Then he began to write brief poems. When he finally published them, in 2016—the English translation was titled “Songs of a Coward: Poems of Exile”—he gave a speech in Delhi to mark the occasion. “I chronicled the moment when I felt like a rat, dazzled by the light, burrowing itself into his hole,” he said. “A censor is seated inside me now. He is testing every word that is born within me.” Once we know this history, we are able to understand Murugan’s preface to the Tamil edition of “Poonachi”: “I am fearful of writing about humans; even more fearful of writing about gods. . . . All right then, let me write about animals. There are only five species of animals with which I am deeply familiar. Of them, dogs and cats are meant for poetry. It is forbidden to write about cows or pigs. That leaves only goats and sheep. Goats are problem-free, harmless and, what’s more, energetic. A story needs narrative pace. Therefore, I’ve chosen to write about goats.”

When I started reading the book that first got Murugan into trouble, “One Part Woman,” I immediately recognized the novel as belonging to a genre that we might call “rooted literature.” What Murugan was producing was locally grown, not a canned object sold on a supermarket bookshelf. It is rare to come across a writer who enjoys such intimacy with not just the land but also the customs that govern the lives of the people who live on it. Culture, as a particular mix of religion, superstition, and the calculations of power, and with caste as a crucial determinant, is central to the story that Murugan is telling. The book is so rooted in the soil of tradition that its rebellion against it is all the more unexpected and moving.

It struck me, when I finished the novel, that long before the protests that exiled him Murugan was already a dead writer. I have in my notebooks a remark by Christopher Hitchens: “One should try to write as if posthumously.” What Hitchens meant was that to be dead is to be relieved of all concerns about how your writing is viewed. “You’re free,” he wrote. Murugan’s willingness to look into the dark well of prejudice and see his society’s face reflected there suggested that he was writing posthumously. This lack of fear, or radical honesty, gave his writing its power.

During our conversation in Jaipur, Murugan told me that his father was an illiterate farmer who also ran a soda shop. Murugan was the first in his family to receive an education. At one point, I asked him about the happiest day of his life. He responded immediately: January 5, 1988. That was the day when, in college, in Coimbatore, he gave his teacher one of his short stories. The teacher deemed it worthy and asked Murugan to send it to a Tamil literary magazine. After that, Murugan rarely stopped writing. In the early nineties, while in his twenties, he published stories, poetry, and nonfiction, and read Shakespeare and several Russian novels in Tamil translation. He also read Orwell’s “Animal Farm,” which seemed fitting. “The Story of a Goat,” despite its close attention to land and livestock, is above all a political allegory. The novel is an attempt to chart the ways in which what is ordinary or obscure survives in a society that’s at the mercy of nature and the market. It is a slim book, but Murugan has given it an epic form. Though we are technically reading the story of a goat, we could just as well be reading about a female laborer caught in a reproductive economy in which her experience of love is real and yet fleeting, her voice never silent and yet unheard.

Later, I asked Murugan to describe another day—the day that protests forced him to flee his town. “I’m very sorry. I can’t speak about that situation. I think this is not a good time. . . . After five years I will speak about that,” he said. A few months later, in the summer, India reëlected Narendra Modi. Among the other elected officials was a man I had known in my high school, who, as a minister, had garlanded a group of men accused of lynching a Muslim man. Another winner was a B.J.P. candidate from Bhopal who was accused in a terrorism case (she has denied all charges) and who called Gandhi’s assassin a deshbhakt, or patriot. In July, forty-nine writers, filmmakers, and artists wrote a public letter to Modi protesting mob lynchings; in October, they were threatened with a court case. Today, what I feel, much more than envy, is a real fear for Perumal Murugan.”
perumalmurugan  amitavakumar  writing  india  literature  2019  tamil  multispecies  fables  slow  small  goats  animals  rural  narendramodi 
december 2019 by robertogreco
Opinion | Silencing Authors in India - The New York Times
“The story of the latest victim of censorship by intimidation in India, the Tamil-language author Perumal Murugan, was taken up by the Madras High Court on Tuesday. Earlier this month, Mr. Murugan posted a poignant statement on his Facebook page: “Perumal Murugan, the writer is dead.” This was after he had been hounded by right-wing Hindu groups, had met with local authorities and had agreed to withdraw copies of his novel from sale. The author’s plight has provoked an outpouring of support from readers and writers in India.

Activists affiliated with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and the Hindu right-wing group Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh had called for the book to be banned because it offended them. Weeks of threatening phone calls to Mr. Murugan culminated in late December with a mob burning copies of the novel in the town where it is set.

The main source of the mob’s ire were passages that evoke an ancient temple ritual that Mr. Murugan, who grew up in the area, does believe occurred in the past. It involves consensual sex between anonymous men and married women who had failed to conceive.

This is hardly the first time in India that groups expressing their outrage have acted as cultural vigilantes by trying to silence authors with threats. In 2012, an organizer of the Jaipur Literature Festival, William Dalrymple, was forced to cancel a planned program by video with the author Salman Rushdie — who had already canceled a personal appearance — after outraged Muslim activists threatened violence.

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The Madras High Court has wisely asked the group that filed the Murugan case, the Tamil Nadu Progressive Writers and Artists Association, to broaden its petition to the larger issue of violent threats to freedom of expression. The court said: “Our largest concern is extrajudicial groups wielding power to decide what is right and what is not right, and asking authors what to write and what not to write.”

This is refreshing language from an Indian court on the issue of free speech.”
perumalmurugan  2015  india 
december 2019 by robertogreco
One of India’s Most Original and Controversial Novelists Returns With a Powerful Parable - The New York Times
“In her Nobel lecture, delivered in Stockholm earlier this month, the Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk surveyed the world of letters with dismay. What happened to its power and promise? she asked. What happened to its mandate to yank us out of our lives and into confrontation with the universal, to bind us to history and one another? Instead, we are deafened by a cacophony of memoirs and first-person narratives — “a choir made up of soloists.” Tokarczuk lamented the decline of the fable as a form, and the loss of literature as a site for radical tenderness that might militate against self-obsession and refresh our sensitivity to the world.

I confess I had no idea things were quite so bad. But don’t despair, Olga Tokarczuk. I have an antidote at hand.

“The Story of a Goat” is the newly translated novel by Perumal Murugan, his first work since he famously committed literary suicide in 2015. Right-wing Hindu groups had attacked him for his book “One Part Woman,” which depicted an ancient temple ritual that permitted childless women to sleep with strangers in the hope of getting pregnant. Murugan was driven from his village and coerced into an apology. He renounced writing. “Perumal Murugan the writer is dead,” he posted on Facebook. “Leave him alone.”

A court ruling defended his right to free expression, and Murugan returned to work, albeit badly shaken. He was reluctant to write about humans, he said (“a censor is seated inside me now”), never mind his favorite incendiary themes: caste politics and the blunt, brutal power of the mob.

Perumal Murugan the writer lives, fearless as ever. He has returned with another parable about village life, written with breathtaking and deceptive simplicity, translated from the Tamil by N. Kalyan Raman. The novel examines the oppressions of caste and colorism, government surveillance, the abuse of women — all cunningly folded into the biography of an unhappy little goat.

There might be no more benighted animal in all of literature than Poonachi, the seventh and smallest of her litter. She slides out of her mother’s body, soot-black and frail as a flower.

An old farmer and his wife assume her care. To their surprise, their quiet home is filled with new warmth and purpose. “It had been a long time since there was such pleasant chit-chat between the couple. Because of the kid’s sudden entry into their lives, they ended up talking about the old days.” They fatten her up and introduce her to their herd. She grows into an observant creature, slow to anger and bashful about her belly, still bloated from early hunger, and her matted hair. She clings to the old couple like a child.

However venerable, the tradition of encoding critiques of power in animal stories has always left me feeling leery. The very words “baby goat” act on my brain in ways I intensely resent. But Murugan, who tended his family’s goats until he was in his 20s, writes about animal life (and death, lust, resentment) without a whiff of sentimentality. He grew up with these animals. He knows that the jaws of baby goats ache the first time they nurse. He knows the smell of a cobra in the dark.

There’s a certain kind of reader who has made it this far into the review but who remains distracted, a little uneasy, wondering: How badly will this little goat be made to suffer? If very badly, why bother with such a story? Why go to literature to encounter suffering? “The Story of a Goat” answers this question with more grace, wit and feeling than any book I’ve encountered in recent memory. We go to such stories for the relief of honesty; to see what is hidden brought to light; to acknowledge, if here alone, the pain routinely inflicted on lives normally considered too insignificant to be the subject of great literature.

And how the little goat suffers. She watches her playmates get castrated when they reach sexual maturity. She falls in love. (Murugan writes a disconcertingly effective goat sex scene.) The old woman refuses to be parted from her little pet, however, and Poonachi is separated from her beloved. She burns with rage at her human mother. She is bred, violently. Famine stalks the land.

The peculiarities of this society creep into the story. Each new baby — human or animal — must be tallied, and their ears pierced. Farmers and herders face a harsh interrogation about the parentage of their creatures — particularly those in possession of black goats, which are regarded with hostility. Originally published in 2016, the novel feels prophetic, anticipating the new law in India that grants citizenship to migrants on the basis of religion, transforming it, in effect, into a Hindu nationalist state.

Murugan traces the entire life of his little goat — her despair, her small acts of heroism, her longing — with Chekhovian clarity. Each sentence in Raman’s supple translation is modest, sculpted and clean, but behind each you sense a fund of deep wisdom about the vagaries of the rains, politics, behavior — human and animal. It was Chekhov who once said that anyone could write a biography of Socrates, but it takes skill to tell the stories of all the smaller, anonymous lives.

“Once, in a village, there was a goat,” the book begins. “The birth of an ordinary creature never leaves a trace, does it?” We are all such ordinary creatures, Murugan reveals; if any of our fugitive traces remain, we leave them in one another’s hands.”
parulsehgal  2019  perumalmurugan  olgatokarczuk  literature  fables  goats  animals  small  india  nkalyanraman  translation  toread  surveillance  caste  colorism  gender  mobviolence  chekhov  fugitivity 
december 2019 by robertogreco

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