I didn’t write for two years. There was a case in the Madras High Court filed by the Tamil Nadu Progressive Writers’ and Artists’ Association in my support.
Two years ago, critically acclaimed Tamil author Perumal Murugan stunned the literary world by announcing his decision to stop writing. The decision followed protests against his 2010 novel, One Part Woman, about a temple ritual in Tamil Nadu by childless couples for conception. A criminal case was slapped on him for hurting religious sentiments in the book. Murugan, who has returned to writing with a new novel, Poonachi: Or the Story of a Black Goat, after the Madras High Court dismissed the case, talks with Faizal Khan about the protests and freedom of expression. Edited excerpts:
How did you face the protests against One Part Woman?
It was difficult for me and my family. My wife and I were teaching Tamil literature in a college in Namakkal district when the protests started in January 2015. We were forced to shift to Chennai. I joined Presidency College and my wife joined Queen’s Mary College. We remained in Chennai for a year. We have now moved back to Namakkal and resumed work at Attur Government Arts College. I am head of the Tamil department and also the principal in-charge.
When did you decide to write again?
I didn’t write for two years. There was a case in the Madras High Court filed by the Tamil Nadu Progressive Writers’ and Artists’ Association in my support. The case went on for one-and-a-half years. Finally, the High Court ruled in July 2016 that a writer should be able to write and not be under fear. After the verdict came out, I decided that I would start writing again. Poonachi: Or the Story of a Black Goat is the first book I began writing after the protests. I completed the book in five months and it was published in Tamil in 2016 as Poonachi.
After the protests began, you said the writer in you was dead. What was the journey back to life as an author?
I wanted to write something new this time. So I thought of writing about an animal I am familiar with. That was the goat, because I used to herd goats in my village in Tiruchengode until I was 25. I know the goat very well. When I started writing the novel, all the memories came rushing back. I was surprised by the sudden spurt in creativity. All those things I knew and experienced decades ago were suddenly alive in me. And I started
writing everything. It was like I was rediscovering myself.
There are several passages in the new novel that convey the pain and anger against the system and the greed of society. Are they your own pain and anger?
Several people who read the novel told me that. That is how they see it. It is a reader’s interpretation and they have the freedom to think so. But I am only a writer and my job is to write. My book is the story of a goat. One of my earlier novels, Seasons of the Palm, published in English in 2004, is also about a young boy who herds goats.
The various customs and traditions of our society and the caste system play a big part in your works. How do they influence you as a writer?
When you write about people, all of these become part of what you write. Human relations are linked to caste. If you do not agree, you are lying. In the rural parts of our country, customs are very important even today, unlike in the urban areas. Even if you are writing a historical novel, you are writing about contemporary history. For instance, the story of One Part Woman came to me much after I had heard about the temple ritual surrounding conception in my state.
Poonachi is your 10th novel in Tamil. In nearly three decades of your literary career, how do you see yourself in contemporary Indian literature?
When I was a student, my research was focused on the regional novel. My PhD was on the life and works of R Shanmughasundaram, who wrote 21 novels in Tamil. He wrote his first novel in 1942. Critics have called him a trendsetter in the regional novel. He was a writer immersed in the Gandhian thought and there was no glorification of caste in his works. A Dalit, his works were in the sphere of postmodernism. I believe my writing is the continuation of his body of works.
What is next?
I am writing a novel. It is about the middle class and is set in a small city. I have always written about rural life and never about urban life. I will complete the novel in two-three months.
Faizal Khan is a freelancer