Perumal Murugan case: Why the judgment troubles me

Last Updated: Mon, Jul 11, 2016 11:27 hrs
perumal murugan

“If you do not like a book, throw it away” could be the most significant words uttered by a judge in an era of censorship and intolerance, a climate in which anyone can complain of having been offended, and place the onus on the purportedly offensive artist to prove himself innocent of such intentions.

Perumal Murugan is the second writer to have been at the receiving end of ire from groups with vested interests, after Wendy Doniger, since 2014.

But bans on books and attempts to silence an artist are not unique to the BJP’s rule. Indeed, in the case of Perumal Murugan, the offended parties went straight to court; and it was the Congress which gave India the dubious distinction of having become the first country to ban Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses – even before Iran, where the controversy originated.

It was also under the Congress’ rule that an arrest warrant was issued against a then-90-year-old M F Husain, for painting the Bharat Mata in the Nude. He was perhaps lucky. Today, he may have been lynched for it.

It so happens that M F Husain and Perumal Murugan had another thing in common – their cases were heard by Sanjay Kishan Kaul, current Chief Justice of the Madras High Court. Justice Kaul happens to be a gentleman who quotes Picasso and Voltaire in his judgments; who believes “A painter at 90 deserves to be in his home — painting his canvass! [sic.]” and who declares, “Let the author be resurrected to what he is best at. Write.”

But what troubles me is that our laws and the provisions enshrined in our Constitution make it very difficult for even a judge of Justice Kaul’s discretion, erudition, and sensibility to art to write a groundbreaking judgment, one that will set a precedent and bring relief to all writers living and yet to be born.

In his affidavit, Perumal Murugan wrote:

“The function of a writer is to question the social values and subject them to critical examination. He must not mechanically accept anything. The society which frames the rules also provides for exceptions. It is natural for a writer to focus his writing on the exceptions. When the society insists on the rules, the writer will highlight the exceptions. That is how it is possible to perceive things from the side of the victim. Otherwise, the voice of the victim and marginalised will go unheard.”

But the laws of our land do not allow for the defence to support this stance.

Before I speak further on the case, a rather lengthy ‘full disclosure’ has to be made.

I cannot call myself an objective observer. I have known Perumal Murugan personally for more than two years, and have been reading his novels for much longer; to say that his translator, Aniruddhan Vasudevan, is a dear friend would be an understatement. I often run into his publisher, Kannan Sundaram, at book launches and literature festivals.

When One Part Woman was released, I was approached by a magazine to do a review-profile of Perumal Murugan. Although I was initially hesitant because his translator is a close friend, I trusted myself to read with neutrality; and I was too keen a reader of Perumal Murugan’s work to forego the chance to interview him.

What struck me about the writer was what struck me about his writing – the unexpected bursts of humour in the middle of a rather serious point; the intricate knowledge he had of the milieu in which his novels are based; and the nuanced observations he made about the society people have forged and vice versa.

We have stayed in touch since, and I knew about his fears for his family’s safety, the gratitude that he conveyed in graciously worded emails to everyone who stood by him, and his devastation at having been forced to write a letter of apology in the presence of the District Revenue Officer and other government officials, all of which culminated in an emotional announcement of his literary death.

I was stunned, though, when a friend who had read the judgment the day it was published sent me the link and told me my article on Perumal Murugan had been quoted. I was initially thrilled at the idea that I had somehow contributed to the outcome of the case. But once I read the judgment in its entirety, I was dismayed – not by the outcome, but by the ways in which a case must be argued in order to protect an artist against causing offence.

The judgment opens with a paragraph that ends, “Yet, the right to write is unhindered.” But towards the end, it acknowledges, “We are not stating that the creative freedom of an artiste is unhindered.”

The arguments in favour of Perumal Murugan include the following points:
  • He had said he would remove the name of the town of Tiruchengode in future editions, which proved his willingness to “modify the allegedly controversial portions in a way they does not hurt anyone [sic.]”
  • The book has won several prestigious literary awards and has been acclaimed by critics
  • The state of Tamil Nadu has not seen fit to ban the book
  • The novel (like all novels) is fictitious
  • The crux of the novel is the strain put on a happy marriage by childlessness, and not the temple festival
  • The protests were not spontaneous, and therefore their legitimacy must be interrogated
  • The novel is not obscene; the language used is not “sophisticated” only because the characters’ identity calls for “earthy” idiom
My review has been used to argue that “The focus is thus said to be on the travails of the childless couple and the taunts of the society, which put pressure on the couple”, a point that is emphasised multiple times.

But if the right to write is truly unhindered, why is the focus of the book and context of the festival in the story so important?

Why is a writer not at liberty to choose a real geographical setting for a fictional story? Why is he not at liberty to make us question the ways in which religion can be used to manipulate lives?

Why must a writer’s intentions be validated by awards, rave reviews, and a formidable body of work? What if this had been Perumal Murugan’s debut novel? What if it had been panned at first and canonised a hundred years later, as so many works of literature have been? What if it were yet to win an award?

Why does the state’s opinion on the book matter, when it is the government’s duty to ensure that law and order prevail, irrespective of whether a book or movie or painting goes against the tastes of its populace? Would Perumal Murugan’s case have been rendered weaker if the government had banned the book, quite like the success of a batsman’s review depends on the umpire’s call in the UDRS in cricket?

What if Perumal Murugan had written a non-fiction book based on the oral history he had heard, instead of a novel? His opponents’ contentions are a jumble of protests, claiming historical and scientific inaccuracy on the one hand and objecting to the author’s defence that his work is one of fiction on the other. The practice of which Perumal Murugan speaks has been documented in other works by other authors, and some of these books are works of non-fiction. If someone were to call for a ban on one of those, would he be more likely to succeed?

Was it only the timing of the protests, and not their nature – the burning of the book, the lynching of the author in effigy – that rendered them suspicious?

Why is Perumal Murugan not within his rights in employing his choice of words and idiom? What if he were writing a memoir in the voice of his younger self, a self that acquired the language first through people who spoke like his characters do, and later through literature? Would he be accused of obscenity because the lack of “sophistication” in the writing cannot be justified? A precedent states that “Obscenity without a preponderating social purpose or profit cannot have the Constitutional protection of free speech or expression.”

Everything from Vicky Donor to The Mahabharata to IVF treatment has been referenced to prove that there are accepted precedents to the purported “focus” of Perumal Murugan’s novel. What if he had written about a practice with no literary precedent?

I am dismayed because this was a victory for freedom of expression only because of the discretion of the judge, and not because of Constitutional or legal guarantees.

The judgment acknowledges that a book could be in trouble if it were to “seek to challenge or go against the very Constitutional values, raise racial issues, denigrate castes, contain blasphemous dialogues, carry unacceptable sexual contents or start a war against the very existence of our country.”

Can we really pin the origin of a war on a book?

As for everything else that a book must not challenge or go against, are they not things we come across in our daily lives?

The function of literature cannot simply be didactic. Literature must be allowed to upset people, to make them question what they do, to tell them that they don’t live in a perfect world with perfect families. Literature must be allowed to broaden minds by chipping away at the limits of our consciousness, from inside our heads.

There are no safeguards for this kind of literature in our laws. It would be very hard to challenge these laws in the Supreme Court because of the precedents. And it would be seditious to challenge the Constitution.

And so we must accept that there is scope for many, many books to be banned in future, either by the government or the courts.

As I was starting work on this article, I received a reply to an email I had sent Perumal Murugan. I had written that I was delighted with the verdict and that I hoped, as a reader, that the writer would be reborn soon. In his reply, he thanked me for the review which was quoted in the judgment.

I wish it had not been used to prove what it did. Perumal Murugan is not simply one of the most searing writers of our time, in any language, but also one of the most interesting thinkers of our time. To have to reduce his nuanced novels to their “focus” in order to legitimise them is a slight to the man, to his writing, and to all literature.

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Nandini is a journalist and humour writer based in Madras. She is the author of Hitched: The Modern Woman and Arranged Marriage.