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Who Killed Perumal?

N Kalyan Raman

The brutal harassment and silencing of Perumal Murugan, a leading Tamil writer, on the basis of certain passages in his 2010 novel, Mathorupaagan, must count as one of the saddest events in the history of Tamil literature. While we can and must look at the incident as an assault on Freedom of Expression (FoE), it is even more important to develop a closer understanding of certain aspects of the wider social reality that makes such incidents sustainable in spite of constitutional guarantees and, apparently, public will. Any sustained opposition to such assaults on FoE is critically dependent on such an understanding.

In Mathorupaagan, Perumal Murugan makes reference to a custom that was reportedly in vogue at the annual festival of the Shiva temple in Thiruchengode until the first half of the last century. As per the custom, childless women from the villages around Thiruchengode sought union with faceless strangers, who were taken as representatives of God, for the boon of progeny. Four years after the original Tamil novel was published, and one year after an English translation (One Part Woman, Penguin India, 2013) was published to critical acclaim, certain caste organisations in the Kongu region of Tamilnadu launched a public and administrative campaign against Perumal Murugan and his works, leading to the tragic denouement of the author declaring his own demise as a writer.

In Tamilnadu, the incident is said to have been instigated by Hindu religious organisations, carefully omitting any reference to the part played by caste organisations that are by all accounts the prime movers behind the campaign against the writer. The umbrage taken against the aforesaid reference to traditional custom is on behalf of the local communities, and not on behalf of all Hindu women. However, this narrative is being thrust on the public for two reasons. First, the non-Brahmin Dravidian movement, and the parties thereof, have never acknowledged, leave alone addressed, caste oppression perpetrated by the dominant non-Brahmin castes. It is not in their interest to deal directly with material reality when rhetoric based on vague abstractions has served them very well in the past. Second: since RSS and BJP have been trying in recent times to gain a foothold in the state, Hindu fundamentalism is a handy decoy for actually existing casteism. That explains why some intellectuals have written op-ed columns and articles about the incident without a single mention of the caste factor, although Perumal Murugan and his associates have spoken about it quite openly. Four days after Perumal Murugan’s withdrawal, DMK treasurer MK Stalin issued a statement of support for Perumal Murugan, who, according to Stalin, “is being targeted by fundamentalists whose aim is to create a rift among the peace and freedom loving people of Tamilnadu.” Clearly, he seems unwilling to deal with the situation in concrete terms.

We may legitimately ask: how is it that local caste groups, in this case belonging to the Kongu Vellalar caste, have gathered such clout that they can launch direct action, virtually amounting to intimidation, against individuals? The answer is not far to seek. Over the last three decades, a handful of numerically strong caste groups, loosely referred to as “intermediate castes”, have acquired sufficient political clout to capture state power at all levels and exercise control over most state agencies and institutions, including educational institutions. This is very similar to the post-Mandal rise of numerically strong Other Backward Castes (OBCs) in North Indian states. With such high stakes in the formation of group identities in a competitive environment, myth-making and muscle-flexing in the cause of caste pride is all too frequent in the public sphere, including in the domain of literature and cinema.

Tamilnadu has witnessed several such incidents in the recent past. Few of us can forget the time when an incumbent chief minister was forced to back down in the face of prolonged caste riots over his naming a state road corporation after a Dalit leader. A (Brahmin) author was forced to discontinue a serialized novel in a weekly magazine at the insistence of a caste group which felt slighted by its contents. In 2012, a Dalit hamlet was vandalized by a rioting mob after a Dalit boy from that hamlet had married a girl from their caste. The boy was later found dead under suspicious circumstances. The assault on Perumal Murugan is also part of the same pattern of resentment and injured caste pride.

Associated with Left organisations in his early youth, Perumal Murugan has always focussed on the social reality of Kongu Nadu, his native region, in all his fictional works. In a series of novels, he has dealt with several aspects of social reality, such as the disenfranchisement of communities that accompanies modernity, exploitation and cruel treatment of children from the depressed castes and the complexity of man-woman relationships in working class environments. Pookkuzhi (2013), his seventh novel, is about an inter-caste marriage that ends in tragedy precipitated by a hostile world. It is dedicated to Ilavarasan, the boy who died in Dharmapuri. In late 2013 he edited and published a non-fiction anthology of first-person accounts by people from various backgrounds about their exposure to caste discrimination – as perpetrators, victims and onlookers. In this way, Perumal Murugan has helped a generation of Tamil readers to learn about the actual lives of individuals and communities across the caste spectrum in the Kongu region His work will go a long way in lifting the anti-caste discourse in Tamilnadu from empty rhetoric and abstract polemic to a more nuanced awareness through representations of social reality.

However, Perumal Murugan is an artist, not a sociologist or historian. The predicaments and frailties of the people around him are at the true core of his fiction. That these predicaments and frailties exist, in a real way, beyond artificial constructs like caste is his most important assertion, rendered poignantly in Mathorupaagan. It is because of this outlook which exposes the basic inhumanity of the caste system that Perumal Murugan has invited the wrath and displeasure of the dominant caste groups of his region.

Thus the battle on behalf of Perumal Murugan cannot be limited to restoring Freedom of Expression in this particular case. Given the structure of power in the state and the country, such violations are bound to increase. The real battle is to win back the space for the assertion of non-sectarian, secular human values, untainted by religion or caste. It promises to be a long and hard battle.

Article published in The Times of India on January 18, 2015


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