Why Perumal Murugan's "One Part Woman" is Significant to the Debate on Freedom of Expression in India

Perumal Murugam, whose novel "Madhorubagan"came under attack from Hindutva outfits recently announced that he is withdrawing his entire body of work from publication and will not write again.
13 January, 2015

Yesterday, in an abrupt conclusion to the eighteen-day protests that had been waged in Tiruchengode in Tamil Nadu by Hindutva outfits against Perumal Murugan for his novel Madhorubagan (One Part Woman), the author announced his decision to give up writing entirely. In the backdrop of animated debates worldwide over the freedom of expression, this instance of a writer's voice being quashed comes as an uncomfortable reminder of where India stands. In our December 2013 issue, N Kalyan Raman profiled the literary chronicler and wrote about his nuanced understanding of the complex realities of rural India. In this excerpt from the report, Raman gives us the background and context to the current controversy. 

Perumal Murugan has been a professor of Tamil for the past 17 years, during which time he has developed considerable expertise in three different areas: building a lexicon of words, idioms and phrases special to Kongunadu; researching Kongu folklore, especially the ballads on Annamar Sami, a pair of folk deities; and publishing authoritative editions of classical Tamil texts. Murugan’s output in these areas over the past decade has been substantial. It was his continuing interest in Kongu folklore that prompted him to apply for and obtain a grant from the India Foundation of the Arts, Bangalore, to undertake research on folklore surrounding the temple town of Thiruchengodu, a town he knew very well from his childhood but, in another sense, did not know at all.

There are many idols on the Thiruchengodu hill, each one capable of giving a specific boon. One of them is the Ardhanareeswarar, an idol of Shiva who has given the left part of his body to his consort, Parvathi. It is said that this is the only place where Shiva is sacralised in this mythical form. Murugan was intrigued on encountering several men in the region past the age of 50 who were called Ardhanari (Half-woman) or Sami Pillai (God-given child). On digging further he found out that till as recently as 50 years ago, on a particular evening of the annual chariot festival in the temple of Ardhanareeswara, childless women would come alone to the area alive with festival revelries. Each woman was free to couple with a male stranger of her choice, who was considered an incarnation of god. If the woman got pregnant, the child was considered a gift from god and accepted as such by the family, including her husband.

As a farming community, the Gounders tend to be unsettled by childlessness, by the lack of male heirs for the family property. In the Gounders’ worldview, the hard work put in by a Gounder male in his adult life is meaningless if there is no son to inherit the fruit of his labours. As a result, childlessness is brutally stigmatised in the Gounder community. In Murugan’s One Part Woman, Kali and Ponna, a couple madly in love with each other, remain childless for more than 12 years after marriage. During those 12 years, in the period immediately preceding the country’s independence, they have run the gamut of prayers to various deities, vows and penances, but to no avail. Kali’s mother tells him that his family is cursed by Pavatha, a ferocious female deity in the jungle, for a past crime against a young girl, and that the males in his family are doomed to remain childless; if a child is born to them, it will be short-lived. Kali and Ponna offer votive sacrifice at the altar of Pavatha and climb the varadikkal, barren woman’s rock, on the hill of Thiruchengodu, but these efforts do not bear fruit. Meanwhile, both of them endure, in their own way, an endless stream of taunts and insinuations from everyone around them, including strangers hitching a ride with them to the temple. In this scenario, Ponna’s family—her mother and brother—as well as Kali’s old mother, conspire to send Ponna alone to the festival to receive the blessing of a child from an anonymous Sami. Mathorupagan is the harrowing account of how a community’s pathological obsession tears a loving couple apart and destroys their marriage.

Translated elegantly by Aniruddh Vasudevan, a professional bharatanatyam dancer attending graduate school in the United States, One Part Woman is a rooted and passionate novel that, as the blurb says, “lays bare with unsparing clarity a relationship caught between the dictates of social convention and the tug of personal anxieties.” The tradition of seeking impregnation by an anonymous male in the name of god seems to have died out decades ago. Kali and Ponna must have been among its last victims.

Versatile, sensitive to history and conscious of his responsibilities as a writer, Murugan is considered to be the most accomplished of his generation of Tamil writers. Apart from his profound engagement with Kongunadu and its people, he is also a writer of great linguistic skill, being one of very few contemporary Tamil writers who have formally studied the language up to the post-graduate level.

It is a curious paradox that even as progressive Indians would like to abolish the caste system, they have little or no understanding of the lived reality of specific caste groups in their traditional homelands. Even as these communities are stalked and often dispossessed by the forces of modernisation, they remain hostage to the ways of the past that have sustained them for centuries. Will they ever be able to enter a secular future? Perumal Murugan has at least shown us a glimpse of what our collective struggle may be about.

An extract from ‘Boats Against The Current’ published in The Caravan’s December 2013 issue. Read the story in full here.

N Kalyan Raman  is a Chennai-based writer and translator. His translation of CS Chellappa’s novel Vaadivaasal (Arena) has just been published by Oxford University Press.