A novel, painting or film, there must be space for it, says poet writer Perumal Murugan

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Poet-writer Perumal Murugan reads out his poems in Tamil, talks about how 2014 changed him and his writing, says artistes should not be asked to justify their work, is hopeful of art finding a way around pressures, says he gets his creative ideas during travel, and talks about how his mother influenced him

Amrith Lal: Till December 2014, you had a very busy but quiet life. You interacted with students, literary crowds, your readers. But everything changed with the controversy around your book One Part Woman (Murugan was forced to sign an apology following protests and to withdraw the novel, after which he gave up writing for a while). When you look back, how did the episode change you as a person and as a writer?

If I had been the Perumal Murugan I was before 2014, I don’t know if I would have spoken in your midst today. I am very quiet and introverted by nature. Being in the limelight in such a manner is incompatible with my nature. After announcing my ‘death’ as a writer, I began writing after some time, but without intending to publish anything. I wrote more poems in the 2015-16 period than I had perhaps written in the times prior to the controversy… around 200 poems. In a way, writing those poems helped me return to normalcy. The experience felt like I was looking at myself in a whole new way.

Amrith Lal: You have done a lot of work with oral narratives. Madhorubagan (One Part Woman) is one such book. We are in a situation where any kind of representation that has to do with oral narratives or community memory seems to trigger a backlash from communities. People are questioning the right of a writer to interpret these things. How do you see this ‘hurt sentiment’ climate?

In my family, I was the first to study beyond Class 12. I was the first degree holder in my village. Because of this, the oral tradition is deeply embedded in my mind and nature. Even if I learned the written word, oral tradition is what is close to my heart. One of the reasons I became an academic is because it gave me the opportunity to record oral history. That is why I compiled a dialect dictionary as well as brought out collections of folklore. I have also used these in my creative works. Oral tradition can bestow many facets to a subject. Depending on who is saying it and the context, it can convey a range of meanings. What helped me capture a variety of perspectives on any subject is the mindset I gained from hearing and being immersed in oral narratives. In terms of recording oral lore in writing, there is a certain fear associated with the written word. Even in my house, when my family gets a postcard, there is a sense of fear — a strangeness that comes with it. I believe that when it comes to putting down oral lore on paper, there is perhaps a manifestation of this old fear.

Amrith Lal: It is believed that as a society progresses, politics evolves. From primordial identities such as caste, community or religion, we move to something more generic, like class identities. In a state like Tamil Nadu, which has seen a long history of anti-caste or social justice movements, we seem to be seeing a revival of the old identities. Rather than respecting individual rights, there seems to be a return to communitarian rights. How do you see this?

In Tamil Nadu, movements inspired by Periyar and Marxism have worked fervently through the 20th century. They have worked particularly towards abolition of caste. Even today, there is a sense of bravery that ‘this is Periyar’s Tamil Nadu, nothing will happen here’. I think that issues related to caste, which have continued for hundreds of years and become deeply embedded, cannot be completely abolished by one Periyar. That is what today’s atmosphere shows. We can say that Periyar created a scope for dialogue. He created a space where people could engage in dialogue irrespective of their background. There is a need to take forward what he started, but no one seems to be doing that.

SHOBHANA SUBRAMANIAN: Shouldn’t education itself achieve that in a state like Tamil Nadu, with high levels of literacy?

What I’ve noticed is that while education has brought literacy, it doesn’t go beyond that or provoke thought. I don’t think there are lessons in school syllabi which are meant to stimulate thought on caste and other issues. Those things are learnt outside the classroom at present. There is a Tamil proverb, ‘Yettu churaikkai karikku udhavaadhu (Images of vegetables won’t help make dishes)’.

MUZAMIL JALEEL: Most of the politics in this country is around caste. In the Padmavati controversy, we see Rajput groups, and groups associated with the ruling party, spearheading a huge campaign across India.

In terms of creative expression in general, be it a novel or cinema or a painting, there must be space for it. You can of course start discussions on the matter, but no form of artistic creation should be stopped or banned.

Shalini Nair: While ruling in favour of Madhorubagan, the Madras High Court had noted that the book was about a childless couple succumbing to social pressure, and not meant to titillate, and that this was why it was okay. But isn’t this slightly problematic? The writer should be at liberty to write whatever he wants, even if he wants to titillate, and not have to justify himself.

I don’t think a writer should have to provide justification. The justification for what they create will be within the creation itself. When delivering the verdict, the court must have considered a number of perspectives. I too have some thoughts on certain aspects of the judgment, but on the whole, I believe it was a very good verdict.

LIZ MATHEW: Tamil Nadu has seen Dalit movements for long, and groups such as the VCK (Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi) were formed in the early 1990s. But still, Tamil Nadu politics continues to be very bipolar. What do you think are the options before Dalit movements in the state to get a share of the power?

After the ’90s, Dalit movements entered Tamil Nadu in a big way, and have accomplished a lot. The positive effects can be seen. There are many movements, among which the VCK is an important one. These movements are making efforts to forge a common identity at present. I believe that is a good thing.

RAVISH TIWARI: Tamil Nadu has seen hundred years of a structured social justice movement. In this period, we should have seen a more republican or egalitarian outlook. But the kind of caste divisions we see — in the selection of a chief minister after Jayalalithaa, or the kind of atrocities against Dalits… Why do you think these prejudices are still prevalent?

Hundred years is a very small period. You can’t completely erase prejudices accumulated over the course of hundreds of years within this span. What Periyar did was create a movement, and gave voice to the marginalised. It will perhaps take another three or four centuries to completely eradicate such prejudices.

Sowmiya Ashok: For the last year, there has been a severe drought in Tamil Nadu. Climate change is a real problem. Does that reflect in your novels?

A creative writer cannot immediately respond to current issues; they can take a certain amount of time to do so. But droughts are not a new problem. If we look at the last two centuries, there have been many such instances. I have myself experienced this, as the region I lived in is particularly susceptible to droughts. In my book Poonachi Alladhu Oru Vellattin Kathai (Poonachi or the Story of a Goat), I wrote about what people do when faced with droughts, how their lives change.

VANDITA MISHRA: In times of majoritarianism and majoritarian intolerance, what is the role of the writer?

There is a quote by Bertolt Brecht: ‘In dark times/Will there also be singing? Yes, there will be singing. About the dark times’. No matter what the times, artistes will respond to the issues of that time. Poetry in particular will react swiftly. What that response will be — whether it will be direct or indirect — is difficult to say. It will perhaps include an element of artistic value.

Muzamil Jaleel: Each writer has his own anxiety and process of writing. What is your anxiety as a writer? What is your process? Do you write by hand or use a screen? Are you also scared while you write now? The controversy that happened, is it now at the back of your mind when you write?

Shailaja Bajpai: Adding to that, do you feel braver after the controversy and think you have to write even more openly, or is there now some kind of
self-censorship?

In terms of process, I have been using a computer since 2005. An advantage of using a computer, I feel, is that when my thoughts flow fast, I can nearly match that speed when typing. Doing so while writing by hand is not possible for me.

I get many of my creative ideas during travel. A poem takes shape in the moment and must be recorded in the moment. But with a short story or novel, I think for a while and wait for it to take shape in my mind. Only then do I sit down to write it. Once I frame the full picture mentally, depending on the size of the work, it doesn’t take more than a month or two to finish… Midnight is my favourite time to write… from 1 am to 4 am, when there is no disturbance.

Prior to the events of 2014, I truly believed that I could write, express myself freely — that I had the space to do so. Especially after the ’90s, with the advent of postmodernism, Dalit writing and feminist writing in Tamil literature, I thought I was a writer in a very conducive environment. Because of this, I said a lot in my writing that my predecessors were not able to. I even wrote a collection of stories called Pee Kathaigal (Shit Tales)… I no longer have that mindset. I think twice about everything, word and line, before and after I write.

…It’s very difficult to explain what prompts me to write. In a sense, my passion for the written word stems from the fact that no one in my family was educated. I began writing from the time I was eight or nine years old. By nature, I don’t speak to people very easily, I tend to avoid crowds. Writing became a way for me to express myself. I would write down whatever I felt was important in a day. I kept many diaries this way. I feel as if writing is simply a part of my nature.

Shalini Langer: Cowardice isn’t a word anyone would apply to you. So how much courage did it take for you to put the word ‘coward’ on the title of your book Songs of a Coward?

I don’t think I should explain the train of thought behind poetry. One should read it and find out the experience that led to it. I’ll speak on one angle of it — the word ‘coward’ was uttered by others with their gaze on me. You can see my act of putting this word on the cover as a response to those people.

KRISHN KAUSHIK: Immediately after the controversy, you said Murugan the writer is dead. Since then, you have produced 200 poems at least. So what led to the resurrection of the writer?

I will answer this in terms of the fact that writing is in my nature. But I didn’t write any of these poems with the intention of publishing them. Actually, I had no zeal for writing for some time following my announcement… However, because I had been writing for the last 30 to 40 years, the poems began to flow by themselves. This is the only way I can explain it. Without editing anything, I kept writing whatever came to my mind. In a way, this process was a huge relief for me mentally.

KRISHN KAUSHIK: Does what is happening at the national level also play on your mind while writing? Like right-wing forces imposing a certain idea of what a Hindu is or what an Indian is?

Every writer, when faced with this kind of challenge, discovers new forms to subvert it.
Muzamil Jaleel: In one of your older interviews, you talked about your relationship with your mother. That when you were younger, your dad had a soda store, and people from all castes would come. And that when you got married to someone from outside your caste, or when a Dalit attendant was kept to look after your mother when she was unwell with Parkinson’s disease, your mother reacted in a manner you didn’t expect her to. Have these issues become themes for your stories and poems?

Amrith Lal: Your novel Nizhal Mutram (Current Shows), in fact, talks about how, while you were growing up, there were many fan clubs for actors. And yet, when you chose to write about cinema, you wrote about people who sell groundnuts and peanuts and soda in a cinema hall. So, further to Muzamil’s question, how much of your writing has autobiographical elements?

My experiences with my mother have affected me to a great extent. I would probably describe myself as a ‘mother’s boy’. What shocked me greatly was that I thought my mother did not have any such prejudices. In case of my marriage, she had this fear of what others in the village and our relatives might think. Later on, when she had Parkinson’s, she could not bear being looked after by the Dalit attendant.

I think my mother was a very intelligent woman. Even though she did not know how to write or read, she would handle all the finances of our household. She had the ability to pick things up extremely quickly, once she got past her initial hesitance. A good example of this is when I tried to teach her how to use a mobile phone. Though she didn’t want it at first, she was soon calling me frequently and handling it with proficiency. I regret that she was not able to grow beyond the space of my village. Even today, I use my mother’s phone number in memory of her. To answer the second question, I would say my first three novels were heavily influenced by my personal experiences. After 2000, I felt I had to try and write on things outside my sphere of experience. The novels I wrote after that reflect this thought. But I do believe that whatever one writes will have at least a small place set aside for personal experiences.

Amrith Lal: You said writers invent new forms to face new challenges. Now you have started something very interesting in the context of Tamil literature and Carnatic music. You have started writing kirthanas. Does this mean we might soon hear about Perumal Murugan the vaggeyakara? Another very radical artiste, TM Krishna, has been singing your kirthanas in his concerts. How did this come about?

I never learned the technical aspects of the field, but I listen to Carnatic music voraciously. I also love listening to old Tamil movie songs of the 1940s and 1960s. The collaboration with TM Krishna came about by coincidence. Around the time I was writing the poems that were published as Songs of the Coward, I also wrote some verses using certain metres. I happened to meet TM Krishna once after that, and I requested him to select one or two of those verses and sing them for me. He told me he really liked the verses and would sing them at his concerts. He then sang four such compositions at some of his concerts.

In addition, he told me that Carnatic music tends to lean heavily on the devotional side, and that he wanted to try singing with other themes as well. Many Carnatic artistes tend to be steeped in tradition, and often the notion of trying new things doesn’t cross their mind. So when TM Krishna asked me to write new verses and told me he would perform them, I jumped at the opportunity. I wrote 10 kirthanaigal called Panchabhoota Kirthanaigal, which he liked very much. He held concerts just for those kirthanaigal, and even now, includes them in many of his performances.

Translated by Ram Sarangan