Interview: Perumal Murugan

The story of a mother

Print edition : January 03, 2020

Perumal Murugan. Photo: E. Lakshmi Narayanan

Interview with the Tamil writer Perumal Murugan.

THE Tamil author Perumal Murugan hit the national headlines in 2015 when he announced that he was giving up writing. Murugan posted a brief note on his Facebook page then—“Perumal Murugan the writer is dead. Please leave him alone”—after some caste-based groups in Tamil Nadu protested against his novel Madhorubagan and subjected him to fierce criticism. (The book was translated into English as One Part Woman by Aniruddhan Vasudevan.)

It took strong persuasion by his readers to make Murugan pick up the pen again. Not to forget the judgment of the Madras High Court, which protected his right to free speech.

The quality of his narrative style comes across in his latest work, Amma, which captures the life of his mother, who with limited means managed not only to meet the requirements of her family but defeated the stereotypes of gender, religion and poverty.

The book, his first non-fiction work to appear in English, has been translated by Nandini Murali and Kavitha Muralidharan. Murugan is happy that the essays capturing the simple story of his mother are finding takers on both sides of the Vindhyas.

Excerpts from a telephonic interview with the author:

What is the first impression of your mother that comes to your mind?

My first recollection of her is when I was about four years old. She used to hold me around her waist and balance a water pot on the other. She would walk a long distance to fetch water from the village well as the water in the well at my house was brackish.

Would it be fair to say that your mother was the soul of your life?

I believe so. She was the one who prepared me for fulfilling my life’s ambition. In my childhood, I did not mingle much with other children. As a result, my thinking, mindset and spirit have been formed on the basis of my interaction with my mother only.

On reading your latest book, “Amma”, one finds that your mother was a hardworking woman, a good cook and also adept at handling the responsibilities of a farmer. But you have not talked in detail about her parents, her lineage… from where did she draw her strength?

I have talked about my mother’s father in one chapter. Amma’s mother passed away at an early age. My mother did not have any visual remembrance of her mother. She was brought up by her maternal grandmother. My mother’s father used to drive a load vehicle. He used to be away from home most of the time on work. As a result, he could not pay much attention to my mother.

You mention “appa” (father) only occasionally.

Since the title of the book is Amma, I have recalled in detail my memories of my mother. My father used to run a soda shop in a theatre. I have deliberately mentioned him only on a few occasions in Amma. In my novel, Nizhal Mutram [translated into English by V. Geetha as Current Show], I have talked about him in detail. I have also written about my father’s profession in a series of stories for a film magazine. I have written about his growth in the profession in that series. This book is about amma, so I have not talked much about my father.

Was your mother a religious lady or a superstitious one?

We cannot imprison her in these demarcations of religious or superstitious. Like any other village woman, she used to worship God. Basically, she worshipped Mariamman, the village deity. She used to attend the annual temple festivities but she never used to practise religion on a regular basis or go to the temple daily. Many gods and goddesses were worshipped in the village in the form of the village’s caretaker, or protector.

She used to observe a fast on all the Saturdays of “Purattasi” [a month in the Tamil calendar that falls in September-October] and used to worship the sun god.

This was the general practice among all the farming women of the village. Even men worshipped deities but did not spend all their time in worship. They attended to regular chores as well.

Growing up, you did not have many books at home. How did you become a writer?

During my childhood, I did not have many books to read at home, but I used to read books at my mother’s elder sister’s house whenever I visited her. She used to keep magazines and comics for me. When I was studying in class IX, my father used to give me pocket money. I saved it to pay for books sent on [the Indian postal service’s] VPP [value payable post]. Then I got associated with the Tiruchengode district library. I used to read a lot of books there. The college where I did my bachelor’s and master’s degrees used to have a good library with a vast collection of Tamil literature and translations of literary works of other languages.

I got inspired by reading those books. Further, my professors fuelled my ambition. However, my writing was not inspired by my reading. I used to write on bits of paper. I had this innate habit, an inner calling to write.

Could your mother actually appreciate your success as a writer and your academic excellence?

I am not very sure if she was happy to know I had become a writer. She was proud of my degrees though she did not have much idea about them or even about my job responsibilities. She used to discuss these things with an air of pride with the people in the village. Her confidence in education was strengthened because of my profession and so she persuaded my brother to educate his children.

At one point of time you were a Left-leaning writer. Did it originate from your humble beginnings?

Initially, I was not a leftist. When I went for higher studies, I was introduced to Marxism. I started reading and understanding Marxism only after the age of 22. After that, my writing came to be influenced by Marxism.

Whose idea was it to get your wife to do the foreword for “Amma” ?

The decision was mine only. It emanated from an original foreword done by me, which was short and formal. Then I thought the foreword should be from somebody who knew my mother well [apart from me] and could give an insight into her life. My wife writes poems and essays. So, I thought the person best qualified to write the foreword would be my wife.

“Amma” is your first work of non-fiction in English. Can we expect more?

In English, it is my first non-fiction. I have done many in Tamil though. On the basis of the response to this book, I plan to do more. Talks are in process for translation of another book based on my writings as a cinema critic.

Do the translations retain the spirit of the original text?

I am not that familiar or comfortable with the English language to be able to compare the texts. But I am satisfied with whatever I have read of the book. It was done with care and that makes a difference.

How satisfied are you with the translation of your books into English?

Nandini Murali had spoken to me even before the controversy around Madhorubagan broke out. She reached out to express her appreciation for my writing and was eager to translate my work. I am happy that someone who was passionate about it took it on. Kavitha Muralidharan played an important role in getting the dialogues and the local dialect right. She contacted me over phone and email with questions to make sure everything was accurate. My editor, Janani Ganesan, clarified all the remaining doubts and ensured that the translation was as close to the original in spirit as possible. I am happy with how the book has turned out in English.

Can you name the favourite title among the translated books?

I can’t possibly pick a favourite translation, but The Seasons of the Palm as a book is close to my heart. It was translated by V. Geetha. Although all the translators who have worked on my books have been great, I especially enjoyed working with Aniruddhan Vasudevan—I liked his approach to translation and the conversations we had during the course of the project.

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