“There is a censor within me now”: Perumal Murugan on the motivations for his new book

Nathan G
26 January, 2020

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. 

MP: What was your writing process for this book? How has your perception of writing changed after your self-proclaimed “exile” for five years, and after you published Poonachi and Amma?
PM: There is a change. The ideas that I had prior to the controversy never translated into books. I lost that state of mind. The books I have written after the controversy are being written by a new and different person. I would not have written these words prior to 2015. 

MP: So who is this new Perumal Murugan? 
PM: I can’t really give a definite picture. I am just writing whatever comes to my mind. Maybe in the future I would be able to. But I am not sure. There is a hesitation to write about caste for the new Perumal Murugan. There is a change in what I write and how I write now after the 2015 controversy. Thoughts related to caste don’t materialise into words, and now the question arises if I must, as there are also other issues which I can write about. There is a censor within me now that tells me what is safe to write and what is not safe to write. It influences the choice of my themes and everything. It is very much a conscious choice. After the controversy, the very first book was Poonachi, which was about a goat. The current book I’m writing now in Tamil is called Kazhimugham. It chronicles a middle-class family, which for me is the first time chronicling this kind of family, since I am someone who has always written about rural or agrarian families. I’m writing about Asuras, not humans. It is a very conscious choice, and censorship plays a big role. I am more conscious now of what I write and how I write it. 

MP: In your essay titled “White Sari,” you mention certain regrets about how your mother was treated as a widow. In the essay, “White Sari” you describe how she was isolated after your father’s demise, stopped wearing jewellery and avoided social interactions on special occasions. Do you feel like this essay will be relevant for other people who have had similar experiences?
PM: Definitely, but practices have already started to change in my hometown. I was young when my father died and I didn’t have such thoughts then. It was only later, when I started reading and got exposed to new ideas, that I asked my mother that and she said that she didn’t see the point of changing after these many years. Then, after a few years, there were many changes. The practice changed by itself without any rule and widows started wearing kavi—saffron—sarees instead of white, especially the young widows. 

MP: You describe other social stigma as well, in these essays. For instance, you talk about being called a “pombalasatti” or a trans woman for having braided hair, and mention similar incidents where you were castigated for wearing a silk shirt or being considered feminine for being afraid of the dark. Could you elaborate on these incidents? 
PM: Now that I am conscious about male, female, trans people, gender/sex, I realise there was no need for me to have reacted that way. [In the book, Murugan recalls feeling humiliated and angry whenever he was teased in this manner.] Whenever anyone wanted to tease and provoke me, they would call me that and run away. Those words were considered abusive and derogatory then and even now in public opinion. There have been changes but the change is not complete. Now there’s more sensitivity about trans issues and it is comparatively better now than before. There definitely has to be a bigger change. First the family has to recognise and accept trans people. I recently read that not being accepted by their family has been their biggest challenge as they are forced to leave their house and form new relationships to achieve what they want from life. Recently in Thoothukudi, a trans woman became a nurse in a government hospital. She spoke of how supportive her family was when she came out to them which helped her in achieving her dream. But this is a rare instance and we need more changes so that people are not forced out of their house.

MP: You have said you were the first reader in an agrarian family that did not appreciate literature.  How did this aspect influence your journey with your own writing?
PM: My childhood memories of agriculture were important. When I started reading books, I realised there were more serious things in my life than what were dealt in those books, so I decided to write about them. My experiences give strength to my words. The novels that I write have a unique meaning, and are also told in a particular way. They involve a lot of folklore and I make use of oral narratives.

MP: How much did your mother contribute to your writing? Have you ever shown her your poems? 
PM: My mother was a person who sang folk songs and opparies—songs sung in funerals. Other than that, she didn’t know how to read and write. In fact, in the beginning, she had an aversion towards reading and books in general. As a family with a low income, buying books was seen as an unnecessary expenditure. She used to be against it. After I studied and got a government job, she started believing in education and books. When she got to know that I write, she asked my wife and my brother’s children to read them out to her. When she read my stories and would come across something based on real life, she would exclaim, “Oh! He has written about that too,” and would proceed to narrate the actual incident as it happened. 

This interview was translated from Tamil by Aazhi Arasi A. It has been edited and condensed. 


An earlier version of this story mispelled “Kongu Nadu” as “Kangu Nadu.” The Caravan regrets the error.