Perumal Murugan, a defiant voice in Tamil literature, is the author of 11 novels, four collections of short stories and five anthologies of poetry. Born in Thiruchengode, the versatile 53-year-old writer from the Kangu Nadu region of Tamil Nadu is currently a professor of Tamil at the Government Arts College in Attur, Salem.
Murugan became the centre of a controversy at the end of 2014, following the publication of One Part Woman, an English translation of his book Maadhorubaagan (2010). The novel revolves around a couple who cannot conceive, and explores a religious ritual that Murugan found used to be practised in Thiruchengodu—it permitted childless women to have sex outside of marriage for one night during an annual chariot festival in the temple of Ardhanareeswara. Murugan was heavily condemned for publishing this story, and was threatened by protestors from Hindu outfits, who also demanded that the book be banned. In a Facebook post Murugan put up in early 2015, he announced that he was going into a self-imposed exile from literature: “Perumal Murugan the writer is dead. As he is not god, he is not going to resurrect himself. He also has no faith in rebirth. An ordinary teacher, he will live as P. Murugan. Leave him alone.”
His recently published book, Amma, is a deeply personal and contemplative memoir, and also, his first work of non-fiction. Over a phone interview, Murugan discussed the motivation for writing this book and why his outlook towards writing has shifted since the controversy.
Meghna Prakash: Amma is a deeply personal read, very different from your other books, such as Poonachi, which was embedded in questions surrounding caste and identity politics. What compelled you to write this book? Do you feel like it does justice to your mother’s story?
Perumal Murugan: My mother passed away in 2012. I wrote two essays [on her] at the time. One was published in the literary magazine Kalachuvadu, while the other in Uyirezhuthu. Both were well received in Tamil. Both were translated into English by Ambai [the pen name of the author CS Lakshmi], and got a good deal of attention. After 2017, when I started attending various literary festivals with Kannan, my publisher, I was apparently talking about my mother a lot. Kannan suggested writing a book on her, and it was only then that I contemplated writing it. Whenever we met, he kept insisting that I do it. I was unsure about writing my mother’s life history, since it requires a lot of work and also because I didn’t know whether I would be able to gather information about her, because we are not a society that pays much attention to family history. I never even knew my mother’s exact year of birth. So I was really doubtful. Then I decided not to go for a life history but rather draw a picture of my mother with the impressions I had of her in my heart. The book has recorded the various impressions that I had of her at different stages in my life as a son. These are just a few chosen incidents, but I have skipped a lot, it’s not a complete portrayal. I am thinking of writing a novel about her later.
MP: The essays in this book are chronologically ordered, beginning with childhood memories of your mother, and moving onto her diagnosis with Parkinson’s. Did you want your reader to experience your relationship with your mother in a specific way?
PM: Although I have arranged the essays chronologically, it was not written that way. The last two essays in the book were actually the first two I wrote when my mother died. As and when I remembered an incident, I wrote about it. I did not have the readers in mind while deciding this, it was only a matter of convenience.