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The controversy that has erupted in the wake of Tamil writer Perumal Murugan declaring himself dead, disowning all entire writing, and requesting readers to set fire to all his novels, not just Mathorubagan (One Part Woman) brings with it some very important questions about freedom of speech and expression in India. We must thank Murugan for two things. One, obviously for bringing this vital issue of freedom of speech and expression in India back in the public domain, and two, for unwittingly putting the spotlight on how Tamil Nadu’s particularly vicious brand of politics has made writing a mug’s game in the state.

Let’s step back a bit. Tamil Nadu’s media, the entire Left bandwagon that includes both political leaders and fellow travellers from the world of arts and books, as well as Thol. Thirumavalavan, the chief of Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK), a rabble rouser dalit politician, were in open solidarity with Murugan and his works.

Despite this kind of support, Murugan backed out and asked his publishers to pulp the book and added that he would personally bear the loss. He asked the readers who had bought his novel to set it on fire, and he would reimburse the money.

History is replete with examples of artistes and creative folk standing up to authority, bigots, bullies, status-quoists and conventional wisdom. But if you want to see creators cravenly surrendering at the first sight of a controversy, you don’t have to look beyond Tamil Nadu and Murugan.

The state offers the perfect stage for this farce to play out. The more cynical among us could, perhaps, find some of this comical.

Murugan was summoned by the District Revenue Officer (DRO) to sort out the dispute, thus setting an unhealthy example of dealing with such issues through unofficial channels. A bit like a traffic cop randomly catching hold of pedestrians and asking them to show a copy of their tax returns.

Murugan is not the first Tamil writer to be harassed. There are countless others who have been treated like mongrels.

H.G. Rasool, a Tamil writer from Nagarcoil, was banished from his community for his writings and no one opened his mouth.

When Joe D’Cruz (Sahitya Academy awardee) took a pro-Modi stance during the last parliamentary elections, his English publisher (Navayana) declared that Cruz is into Hindutva and withdrew the translation and publishing project of his novel, Korkai. Till now Cruz is branded as an outcast among his fellow literati. But no one had bothered as much to offer them a pitiful glance. Murugan therefore must count himself as extremely lucky to get such frenzied media attention and the unstinting support of extremely vocal Leftist organisations.

Let’s take a look at Mathorubagan, the controversial book in question. I picked it up out of sheer curiosity, and was gobsmacked by its amateurish script. It is no different from a masala potboiler that Kollywood churns out by the truckloads week after week. The story revolves around a woman mocked by the entire village for being “barren” who decides to have an affair out of wedlock for the express purpose of bearing a child, and how her decision led to the suicide of her husband. I know you’ll run out of fingers to count the number of Indian films this plot reminds you of.

The story is set a 100 years ago and Murugan says in that particular village in Tiruchengode, and among women of a particular caste, Gounder (Murugan has mentioned the village’s name and the caste that exists even now), the practice of choosing a male sexual partner out of wedlock in a temple festival to beget a child was pretty much a way of life.

Murugan, however, has not offered any anthropological evidence of this particular practice and, when asked to support his distorted imagination with documentary evidence, Murugan said his work is fictitious.

It is not uncommon to have fabricated stories like these in many parts of the country about women of particular castes in a particular area. Are these sexually perverted stories true? Extra-marital affairs are common all over the world. But the question here is, does freedom of expression give one the licence to single out women of a particular caste in a village that actually exists without historical proof? Murugan’s novel insinuates that virtually all members of that caste in Tiruchengode have illegitimate ancestry. I view this as targeted violence on that ethnic group.

This controversy also shows how mediocre writers, with the right political antecedents, are translated, promoted and exported abroad by literary channels that have global influence.

Jeyamohan, an A-list Tamil littérateur, pointed to this unholy nexus in his blog recently, but for some reason decided to take it off soon. This is what he wrote: “This year Madhorubagan might get many international awards. The reason being, the book’s ‘English promoters’ have already informed the media that it is a critically acclaimed novel. Those (outside Tamil Nadu) who read the book would nod their heads in agreement with the influential ‘critics’ and would think that Perumal Murugan represents the apogee of contemporary Tamil literature. This happens all the time.”

While writing this piece, I was invited to a question-answer session with the readers at the Chennai Book Fair.

One reader asked if I was right to criticise Murugan when all other writers were supporting him. I began by saying I have, for a long time, taken a stand that went against public opinion. “Madhorubagan is a mediocre novel which may have found less than average readership in a state where the appetite for literature is as it is pretty weak, but for this controversy. For example, Taslima Nasreen’s Lajja too is a mediocre book…” Before I could finish making my point on Madhorubagan, a representative of Tamil Nadu Progressive Writers and Artists Association stood up and screamed, “Shut up! It’s you who writes trash.” I asked, “Don’t I have the freedom to pass an opinion on a book? Is it some holy text?” Regardless, he continued with his barrage of expletives. Soon he arrived with a few other supporters and tried to assault me physically, threatening they would slit my throat. Pandemonium reigned at the venue till they were evicted with help from police.

The organisers of the book fair and the police asked me not to talk about Murugan because they feared further chaos and trouble. I wanted to spend some more time at the fair, interacting with readers and signing copies of my new novel, but was told to clear out immediately. I was escorted home by men in uniform.

What an irony that Communist supporters who fight for the freedom of Murugan’s speech should muzzle mine and try to assault me physically for questioning his work.

If this is the status of free speech and writers in a state governed by the so-called progressive and rational Dravidian parties, you can imagine the misery of writers in the former Soviet bloc. It’s scary to say the least.

Published in The Asian Age / Deccan Chronicle on January 22, 2015.