Controversy

Rage over a custom

Print edition : January 23, 2015

The now-fenced-off free-standing rock at the edge of the hill where the Ardhanariswara temple is situated, in Tiruchengode in Tamil Nadu's Namakkal district. The belief was that if a woman walked around the rock she would be blessed with a child. Photo: M. Govarthan

Perumal Murugan. Photo: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

A Tamil novel that dwells on a custom of 75 years ago relating to childless women incenses elements of the Sangh Parivar but the Tamil literary world rallies round the author.

WHEN Perumal Murugan brought out his Tamil novel Madhorubagan (One Part Woman) in 2010, the initial response from readers was measured. But soon perceptive reviews appeared and kindled an appreciation that led to its publisher, Penguin, bringing out in 2013 an English translation by Aniruddhan Vasudevan, a student at Austin, Texas, in the United States. For that work, Vasudevan won the Canada Literary Garden award for Translation in Toronto in July 2014.

There was no indication all these years that someone would see the seeds of a controversy in this story—that it was insulting to Hindu women. This is reminiscent of the campaign that arose against the pen-and-ink drawing of Saraswati done by M.F. Husain 20 years after it was created; in 1996, his art gallery in Ahmedabad was vandalised.

Reminiscent of the Ahmedabad incident, on December 19 there was a protest in Tiruchengode in Tamil Nadu, where activists of the Sangh Parivar burnt copies of the novel and demanded a ban on it. Perumal Murugan clarified that his intention was not to hurt the feelings of anyone, and the publisher, Kalachuvadu, stood its ground. Meanwhile, support began to swell for the writer. The Tamil Nadu Progressive Writers and Artists Association issued a statement supporting Murugan and the idea of freedom of expression. E.V.K.S. Ilangovan, speaking on behalf of the Tamil Nadu Congress Committee, took a stand in favour of the writer and the publisher.

Perumal Murugan’s novel is set in a village near Tiruchengode, now in Namakkal district, famous for its hill temple the main deity of which is Siva in the form of Ardhanariswara —half woman, half man. In most of the Saivite temples, whatever be the sthalapurana (local legend), the deity in the sanctum is in the form of a linga. But not in Tiruchengode, where it is in the form of the icon Madhorubagan , the Tamil name for Ardhanariswara. (The earliest sculptural form of this in Tamil Nadu can be seen in the Dharmaraja Ratha at Mamallapuram.)

The story revolves around a farming couple, Kali and Ponna, in the last decade of the British Raj, a period that the author establishes meticulously by referring to the prohibition experiment introduced in Salem district by C. Rajagopalachari when he was the Premier of Madras presidency. Reference is made by a character to the iconic Tamil film Sri Valli, in which T.R. Mahalingam and K.T. Rukmini featured. By such intricate devices, the author resurrects the period and recreates the cultural ethos that prevailed 75 years ago.

The practice of researching the historical and cultural backdrop of a literary work is not much in evidence in the Tamil literary world. Murugan, who was awarded a grant by the Bangalore-based India Art Foundation to do the background research for the novel, did extensive fieldwork and gathered material, a part of which he has used in this novel. He makes skilled use of data gained in the field. When a literary work is set in an authentic locale and in a specific historical period, its credibility, and whence its impact, increases and the novel acquires life. This is what one experiences reading Murugan’s work. It is not just historical time to which he has paid attention. His keen observation of the creatures of the dry and arid Kongu area adds a new dimension to the novel by recreating the external world. The monitor lizard that clings to rock, the shikra that preys on the garden lizard, the drongos and the wild jasmine that form part of the life of the people, all come alive. Not just creatures, but the terms for various seasons, Tamil months and folk entertainment, all form part of the narrative. The use of jargon so characteristic of the Kongu region adds authenticity to the story.

Perumal Murugan is a professor of Tamil and a well-known Tamil writer and scholar. He is one of those rare contemporary writers who has formally studied Tamil. However, in his writings, both fiction and non-fiction, he deftly avoids punditry. When he was doing his doctoral studies in Chennai, on the works of an earlier Tamil novelist, he came into contact with leftist writers and the influence has been a lasting one. He began focussing on marginalised people. One of his earlier novels, Koolamadhari, about a Dalit goatherd attracted a lot of attention and was published in English as The Seasons of the Palm, commendably translated by Va. Geetha. Another work of his, Nizhal Mutram, about a rural cinema house and the staff employed in it, was brought out in English as The Current Show.

He has, singlehandedly, produced a dictionary of the dialect of the region, Kongu Vattara Sollagarathi. in which he has documented the proverbs, terms and metaphors of the working-class people of the region. For instance, the word vangu, which is the exact equivalent of the term warren, in which foxes live.

Through his writings and research, Perumal Murugan has documented fast-disappearing customs and language usage, including proverbs, and his works act like social archives. It is one such custom, featured in Madhorubagan, that has turned out to be the centre of current controversy. Kali and Ponna have been married for 12 years and do not have a child. Perumal Murugan movingly describes the tender loving bond that exists between the couple. His ability to portray the varieties of human experience is remarkable. At the same time, he highlights the fragility of human relationships and marvels at the resilience of rural Tamil society. By astute choice of words, he intensifies life and its varied moments and this draws the reader close to him.

For small farming communities with tiny landholdings, having an heir is considered very important and for the woman, too, it is essential to have a child to escape the stigma of being barren. The couple goes through a series of rituals over the years. On top of the rocky hill in Tiruchengode, on which is built the Siva temple, is a rock that juts out from the edge and it is believed that if a woman can walk around the rock, a hazardous proposition, then she will be blessed with a child. Ponna fulfils even this risky ritual.

In some places in Tamil Nadu, there prevailed a custom in which at festivals a childless woman can pair with an unknown man she fancies and can have a child. Bear in mind that this was long before test tube babies and when most villages did not have electric lights. In the Ardhanariswara temple in Tiruchengode, this ritual formed a part of the annual chariot festival. Ponna’s family members persuade her to take advantage of this provision. She assumes that the plan has her husband’s endorsement and disappears into the darkness during the festival in search of a partner who could gift her with a child. It is this denouement which has provided material for Hindu fundamentalists to target Perumal Murugan and the publisher. The protesters seem to have conveniently ignored the fact that the story is set in the past, 75 years ago.

This controversy has been raised at a time when the Tamil literary world is going through a vibrant phase. Writers like Poomani (winner of the Sahitya Akademi award) and Imaiyam have been focussing on people living on the edge of society and are sensitising readers. A number of young writers articulating ideas of feminism, human rights, the environment and wildlife are enriching the literary scene and well-known English publishing companies have brought out a series of translated works. The Tamil diaspora around the world actively supports this. This is the season for book launches, a prelude to the annual book fair in Chennai. The social media is agog with the response. Contrary to the expectation of the fundamentalists, this dispute will only provide a fillip to Tamil writing and to writers.

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