It is with a sense of inevitable resignation, the gradual beginning of fatalism and with all the deep outrage that I can muster that I pick up this metaphorical pen and let bleed these words on the page. I feel a tad pretentious too, I force myself to admit that, though I would rather not have to, of course. I wish I had known the writings of Perumal Murugan before yesterday afternoon, beyond the extracts that magazines and websites, defiantly, have been republishing on their blogs. He has given up writing, he said, in a very poignant message posted on Facebook. His words hurt deeply, because as writers, as artists, as people who create things in reaction and recognition of what our many worlds feel like to touch, some of us understand the pain behind this declaration. Dissent is the default reaction in the face of oppression for the artist. It must have taken a lot for Murugan to say he would never write again, that the writer was dead and would not be reborn, for he was no God. It is hard to even repeat his words; how could I give up breathe? From saying that writing was his life and teaching was his livelihood to these words of desperation, it has been a swift volte face we, this 21st century globalized Indian society, have forced Murugan to make. A round of applause to us then.
I sat up late last night and read One Part Woman, the English translation of Madhorubhagan, the Tamil novel he wrote in 2010. For reasons that remain slightly mysterious, it was only recently that some organizations began to have problems with this book. At its centre, One Part Woman is a beautiful love story. Kali and Ponna can't keep their hands off each other, even after 12 years of being married. They remain childless though, despite endless rituals, prayers and penances to appease the gods. The pressures from society to procreate, for there must be a child to inherit the land, to lend support in old age, to ensure societal acceptance, threatens to rip the couple apart. The only solution left, that the families, his and hers, find is to send her on the fourteenth day to the temple festival at Thiruchengode where every male is a god, where norms are loosened to accommodate any consensual couple to have sex. A child, if it ensues, is a 'gift of god'. Kali refuses to even think of his Ponna's still firm sensual body being blemished by a fragrance other than his, for her body was his and his alone. Yet, fate and various degrees of deception and belief come together and Ponna finds herself at the festival on that night, with fresh flowers in her hair and new bangles on her wrists. What happens next destroys the fragile threads that had, for so long, helped Kali and Ponna keep their relationship fresh as new in an increasingly hostile environment. In doing so, it holds a mirror to a society that will not tolerate any veering from convention, even at the cost of individual lives. That was unfortunate collateral damage, inevitable then, a hundred years ago, and inevitable even today.
This tradition of consensual sex outside of marriage is what ruffled the feathers of the great custodians of Indian culture, those Hindutva organizations that banned and burnt his books. Apparently, the book insults Shiva, Hindu women, tradition, or some such. Of course, like in all such cases, it is a preposterous idea that a god, any god from any religion would fall down from a pedestal of faith established over thousands of years just because of a book. You would want to laugh at the absurdity of the limited minds these habitually offended must possess, if it weren't an entirely serious matter. You have to wonder why the RSS shakhas don't deliver discourses on sex in ancient India, along with their lessons in flying machines and long range missiles. If they did, they would know of the very Indian practice of niyoga, where the wife was allowed to be impregnated by a man other than her husband, with blessings from everyone and their uncle. A form of this ancient niyoga dharma is what Murugan writes about. But then, of course, the khaki-clad pracharaks wouldn't talk of the birds and bees. "Indians don't have sex." We just wrote a bloody explicit book on it, eons ago and then went into denial about something so natural and necessary.
It is of course not about One Part Woman alone. There will be many Wendy Donigers and Perumal Murugans, more so I imagine in the present political years of this country. There will be Ma.Mu.Kannan and Durai Guna, two other Tamil writers whose books were banned and families ostracized recently. A lot of them won't trend on Twitter. Slivers of hope for the freedom of expression in my country will spill from those that, I will include myself here, rush to buy these burning books, their motives behind doing so intellectual, pretensions or otherwise.
I want to think that we will all be Charlies and Murugans even after the hashtags lose their sex appeal. That their creations will be shared and read and laughed with, even if mostly by the pontificating thinkers and liberals. At least by them. I want to desperately hope that it will be ok for me, a woman writing in English in a large modern-ish country, to say that I like sex and write so.
I have sex. I like sex. I love sex. There, I said it. Will they burn me now? It isn't about my body anymore. It is about my words, my words that will talk about what I do with my mind and my body. If they cannot own my body, they will control my words, won't they?
In defiance, I beg you to read Perumal Murugan. Defy his own words, don't consign to flames your copies. There will certainly be more like him, like them. We will write variations of these words again, with tears, with some resignation but never in defeat. They cannot win.
But if the writer dies and will not be resurrected, do we use the writer's words to weave a shroud and bury him under? What if there are no more books that can be banned and burnt? What if no one gets offended anymore?
In fervent hope that Murugan allows us more of his words.
Suffixed with hashtags FOE, PerumalMurugan, JeSuis..., etc.