Tamil writer Perumal Murugan was not known as a prominent Indian writer till about three years ago. Thanks to the resentment of conservative religious groups, he has now gained national as well as international acclaim. And after a three-year hiatus, Murugan is back with a book of poems.
The poems in "Songs of a Coward" (Penguin/ Rs 299/ Pages 291) were written when Murugan was struggling "to find his bearings", trying to make sense of all that was happening in his life and how it might affect his existence as a person and a writer.
They transport you to a season of despair. The only hope that Murugan sees is to write, not for the reader, but for the satisfaction of the self. And to understand the depth of emotions in his verses, one must, first, be aware of the circumstances under which these poems were composed.
Murugan's life makes for a curious case study. On one hand, it underlines the fragility of freedom of expression in our country and, on the other, it shows the purpose of a writer -- to reflect social realities through his writings.
In January 2015, Murugan announced that he was giving up writing after he came under attack from Hindutva supporters, who claimed that his novel "Madhurobhagan", first published in 2010, was blasphemous. The novel explored the problems of caste divisions in the context of a childless marriage and alludes to real-life places and communities such that they were considered to be slurred.
The protests by Hindu and caste-based outfits focused on the portrayal of historical traditions related to Ardhanareeswarar Temple in Tiruchengode, where the eponymous presiding deity is part-Shiva and part-Parvati in one idol. The Tamil title of the book, "Madhurobhagan", is a translation of the name of the deity (Ardha-nareeswarar), just as the English title, "One Part Woman", is an allusion to the deity's form.
The protest was continued by local units even after they lost momentum at the state level. He was ultimately compelled to apologise and withdraw his book from the market.
"Perumal Murugan the writer is dead. As he is no 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," he announced. That was his way of voicing anguish at being hounded by some in his hometown of Tiruchengode for writing a novel deemed prurient and defamatory -- five years after its publication.
But then the Madras High Court, citing Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution of India, ruled that there was no binding force or obligation in the previous state intervention that forced him to apologise and withdraw the books. The court further directed the state to provide appropriate protection when artistic or literary people come under attack and to form an expert body to help guide the police and local administration to develop sensitivity to the issues involved.
In August 2016, Murugan broke his silence at Delhi's Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, saying he felt like "a walking corpse", and "a rat in a burrow", and that he did not want to "write one word" in the first three months after his "death".
A year later, his "Songs of a Coward" hauntingly portrays the turbulent emotions that he faced through his journey. In the introduction to the book, Murugan says that "in a way, this is a first book for me". Containing 210 poems, the collection has been translated by Aniruddhan Vasudevan.
"I am angry enough to curse/ that the hands that burnt my effigy/ shall char in the same fire/ That the words that flew at me/ like poison-soaked arrows/ shall turn back to go and wound and kill/ the stone hearts that sent them/ I am angry enough to sing/ Oh you guardians of morals/ May the screens part/ and expose your truths/ May the lord of cremation grounds/ dance, smearing the ashes/ from your powdered bones," Murugan writes in "The Divine Tongue", one of the most evocative poems from his "exile" days.
This collection of poetry is significant as it allows readers to better understand the mind of this writer. Remember, when the poems were composed, Murugan had announced his "death" as a writer.
"I don't know whether I had the ability to stem the flow of my thoughts and exert control over them. But I know I never felt a desire to rein them in," he says.
(Saket Suman can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)