Perumal Murugan: the chronicler of big stories of small people
For Perumal Murugan, the arid, burnt landscape of southern Tamil Nadu is fertile with stories of legends, love and many yearnings.
And it is there that Murugan has set all his novels. Of his repertoire, One Part Woman and Pyre have been most recently translated into English.
And now, Murugan's novels have become the subject of a landmark judgement passed by the Madras High Court. The judgement affirms, once again, the overriding freedom of the artist to paint and the writer to write.
Murugan had declared last year that the novelist in him was dead and he would no longer write following protests against his One Part Woman (Madhorubhagan in Tamil).
Copies of the novel were burnt, protests erupted across the state and the RSS demanded a ban on the novel. The writer himself said that he would stop writing.
Why the protests?
The main force behind the uproar was the Gounder community.
The reason for the uproar by the Gounder community was the climax of the novel in which the infertile heroine went to the temple festival and where, according to legend and tradition, an infertile Gounder community wife could be impregnated by anyone.
With the high court ruling in favour of the freedom of the writer and the need for society to be tolerant, Murugan's novel has once again come into national focus.
"When its copies were burnt, I wondered if there was any point in writing for such a society; one that sets fire to a book without the slightest understanding of what litterateurs had to say about it," Murugan had rued to The Hindu.
"Let the author be resurrected to do what he is best at..." said the judgement, making way for modernity and liberalism in art.
Making a mark
With two of his latest novels, both searing, powerful and at the same time, intimate, Murugan has established himself as one among the foremost Indian novelists writing on realistic social issues.
Murugan grew up in Tiruchengode the temple town, dominated by the Arthanareeswarar temple. He grew up around the temples and soaked up its myths and legends.
As a boy, Murugan often sold soda near the temples and his mother's job was to draw water from a well and distribute it around the area.
As an author, Murugan is intimate, but detached, observer of a society steeped in superstition, temple stories and divided deeply by caste boundaries.
His novels are fascinating, taut pastoral romances wrapped in the innocence of the village and fears of people living on the brink of destitution. Their hopes always fading - rather like the arid landscape where, like the crops, lives bloom for a bit and then whither away in the heat.
The written word
The temple is central to One Part Woman and it is from there that the joy and sadness of the novel radiates. The romance and marriage between Kali and Ponna are beautifully penned.
But they had no children and Ponna is constantly scoffed at by the villagers. The temples and gods were of no help either.
"In the matter of offering prayers, Kali and Ponna left no stone unturned. They did not discriminate between small and big temples. They promised an offering to every god they encountered. For the forest gods, it was goat sacrifice, for the temple gods, it was pongal. For some gods the promises were even doubled. If a child were indeed born, the rest of their lives would be spent in fulfilling these promises...But no god seemed to pay heed."
In Murugan's landscape, superstition, ignorance and human follies intersect. He also throws a challenge at divinity and its imagined powers.
Innocence is often overrun by the weight of the many myths that surround lives in his villages. Love may be rustic in its simplicity but in its passion - it joins the universal - "When her touches progressed his body moved with the increasing intensity of a body responding to a drum's rise to a crescendo."
The climax of the novel is indeed a crescendo of drumbeats and a plunge into the abyss of so-called immorality.
In the joyous uproar of the festival when puranic tales are being staged and people are caught in a frenzy of dancing, a man nuzzles against Ponna. Finally, she walks, he walks and they are together.
"He is my god. My job is to go where he takes me," Ponna mumbles as if to console herself on the brink of a momentous decision.
It is all to have a child, but this sentence is the most shattering and searing prologue to infidelity that has ever been written.
If infertility is the crux around which One Part Woman revolves, it is caste and its poison that permeates Pyre (Pookkuzhi in Tamil original).
There too the setting is a village of no hope where smallness of mind and matter cloud the lives of the people.
Kumaresan, who like the author did as a boy, sells soda. He comes home to his house set near a mighty rock, signifying its aridness, with the beautiful Saroja.
She is a fairy from nowhere. No one knows her or her caste. She is immediately attacked by her mother-in-law and the villagers but through it all - the love of Kumaresan and Soraja thrives in all its innocence and with the subdued intensity of a pastoral romance.
Kumaresan is all set to open a soda factory near his house with hopes of unfolding a new chapter in their married lives. But, then they come for her.
Here love should ideally conquer hatred that caste imposes on people. But does love win?
In yet another blistering climax, or rather literally a burning climax when they come for Saroja.
An injured Saroja goes crawling into the high grass bleeding but wanting to live for Kumaresan. They set fire to the grass around to smoke her out.
"The fire was coming to embrace her and release her from some terrible freezing cold. She readied herself with outstretched arms. At that moment through the din of sticks cracking and twigs snapping in the fires she heard the distinct sound of Kumaresan's bicycle approaching."
But then all endings can't be so full of hope.
Edited by Jhinuk Sen