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.