‘When I write as a writer of literature, politics is already embedded in it’

Saturday, 30 March 2019

Tamil writer and professor, Perumal Murugan speaks about why he writes and the subtle political tone of his books

Every author, whether established or aspiring, fears the ‘writer’s block’ when one is staring blankly into the computer screen, waiting to string together appropriate words. But nothing could be more worse than being compelled to go on a hiatus, by prevailing societal and political scenario. How to emerge from it to write more pointed and poignant stuff is what one can learn from Tamil writer, Perumal Murugan.

In January 2015, Murugan announced on his FB page — ‘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.’

This statement came in the wake of a controversy surrounding his work — Madhorubhagan (translated as One Part Woman). The novel was published in 2010 and was well-received, but began to attract controversy in 2014 after local caste-based and religious groups objected to the fictional portrayal of traditions at the Ardhanareeswar temple in Tiruchengode. However, in July 2015, the Madras High Court dismissed the litigation.

And, that paved the way for Murugan to write again. He came out with another bestselling novel — Poonachi or the Story of a Black Goat. The novel, which has been translated into eight languages so far, with a Manipuri and Assamese translation on its way, describes the world as seen by a little, black, baby goat.

A while ago at a literary event, Murugan talked about his attempt to exercise his literary muscle after a hiatus. He said, “The reason why I chose to write the book was that for me, it was a way of getting back to writing, as a way of exercising my writing muscle after a period of idleness or a hiatus. In 2015, after a controversy rose over Madhorubhagan and the English translation, One Part Woman, I had gone away from writing. Once the High Court judgement came, after about six months, it opened the path for me to write again. When I started writing, I was kind of faced with blankness. The works that I had planned to write before the hiatus, never came back to me. So I thought I would write a short story about a goat. That’s how I began. The short story grew and grew and became a novel in the end.” 

Like his previous works, Seasons of the Palm, for instance, this one too has elements woven in it. In Poonachi, the goat is reared by an elderly farmer couple. They share gentle and loving relationship. After a massive drought, the relationship changes. 

N Kalyan Raman, who has translated Murugan’s works into English, said, “In urbanscape, there is no connection with nature. We are mostly bothered about what we do to one another, the hassles we have and so on. But people and animals who inhabit Perumal Murugan’s world are more directly in contact with the elements and the elements are also affected by them. This is the quality of his writing.”

The author considers writing akin to farming. In fact, he is quoted to have said that if he was not a writer, he would have taken up farming. “I come from a family of farmers. I have been teaching in a college for two decades or so, but my basic orientation remains that of a farmer. I believe that farming is akin to creative writing because unless you have a creative bent, you can’t do farming. All that is involved in farming, right from repairing the soil, to sowing the field and then watering, nurturing and harvesting it — all these processes are involved in creative writing too. Essentially it’s about creating a new life. This is the basis of my writing — the ability to create a new life,” explained Murugan. 

Murugan has written 10 novels, and five collections each of short stories and poems, as well as 10 books of non-fiction relating to language and literature. His Poonachi is gentle, but also has great rage inside it. His publisher, Kanan Sundaram of Kalachuvadu Publication, said, “Murugan told me that he had written a story of a goat. It’s a story of a goat, but I could also see a great political response in it to what is happening now in India and in many parts of the world. Also, Poonachi is a reflection of what happened to his mind during the Madhorubhagan controversy. I could sense in it traces of my favourite novel, Animal Farm. I thought Poonachi could be the novel that might break several glass ceilings for Tamil writing and so I decided to take this novel and let it travel to several Indian languages.” In English, the translation bid was picked by Westland.  

When asked why he writes and does he think that he is a political writer, Murguan said, “The question of why do you write is always difficult to answer. In Tamil, they say that even when you are in the womb, something is inherent in you. I am not a writer who writes overtly about politics. I look at politics through literary lens, as it were. Also, I don’t write essays dealing with political issues or creative works that are directly political. But nothing is free of politics and when I write as a writer of literature, politics is already embedded in it. Just like it is embedded in everything you do.”

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