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“When My Own Writing is My Enemy”: Notes on Perumal Murugan and an Interview

Laetitia Zecchini

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1Perumal Murugan was born in 1966 into a family of farmers near Tiruchengodu, a temple town in the Namakkal district of Tamil Nadu, which is part of the Kongu Nadu region. That is where much of his fiction is set, and where he continues to live today. Brought up on a farm where he looked after goats and cattle, and raised in a family from which he inherited a whole “legacy of illiteracy” (his words), nothing seemed to have predestined Murugan to become a writer.

  • 1 See N. Kalyan Raman’s illuminating essay, “Boats against the Current: The Kongunadu Novels of Perum (...)

2Yet it was in Chennai (erstwhile Madras) where he went to study Tamil literature, that he completed a PhD on the novels of the celebrated Kongu writer, R. Shanmugasundaram. As N. Kalyan Raman argues, Murugan’s writing has to be placed within the lineage of Shanmugasundaram who ushered in the tradition of (sub)regional and realistic literature, preoccupied with social issues.1 In Chennai, he also became close to a radical Marxist group, and decided that his fiction would be “primarily about the region and community of his origin, and the life he knew from direct experience” (Kalyan Raman). This was true for a long time, though Murugan has increasingly turned to subjects further away from his own experience of the world.

3He started publishing short stories in various Tamil periodicals and brought out his first novel Eru Veyil (Rising Heat) in 1991, to critical acclaim. His work today straddles different genres and is widely translated in Indian and other languages. He has penned 12 novels, 5 collections of short stories and several collections of poetry, but is also a prolific writer of non-fiction and essays (memoirs and essays on specific writers, on literary history, on Tamil literature, folklore and language, dictionaries, etc.)

4Murugan is one of the finest Indian writers today, and a storyteller extraordinaire, in whom the fabulist, the satirist or social critic, and the poet come together.

With a wealth of detail and nuances, he brings to life the particular landscape, language, ecology, and cultural and social milieu of Kongu Nadu which continues to represent, as he himself has acknowledged, an inexhaustible reservoir of stories and imagination. The beauty of his prose, which is both precise and imagistic, subtle and lyrical is as important to his writing as his craft as a storyteller. There is a sensuous, even amorous dimension to his texts, an acute sensitiveness to the natural and animal world, to the minutest sounds, smells and lights, to the slight, almost imperceptible manifestations and alterations of reality.

5But in Murugan’s world, the visible also converses with the invisible, and the occult is a force to contend with. It’s a world where ghosts roam around in the dark, gods and demons are endowed with agency, people are possessed with spirits, inanimate objects come to life; a world that hovers over the boundary lines between reality and fantasy, the mundane and the supernatural, the everyday and the oneiric, or the nightmarish. The quotidian often morphs into the unfamiliar, and sometimes the terrifying.

6This terror is both a measure of the brutality of the outside world, and a measure of the solitude to which many of the writer’s characters are condemned because of their transgressions, oddities, or anxieties. Often cast away from their communities, they retreat into themselves, and create their own private worlds. Never didactic or sensationalist, Perumal Murugan writes with extraordinary empathy and tenderness about unremarkable or “unworthy” lives, about all those who have been brutalized by everyday casteism and patriarchy.

  • 2 Short story published in one of his collections of stories translated into English The Goat-Thief ( (...)

7That is where his oeuvre is revelatory in the more etymological sense of making visible, or laying bare what’s hidden and concealed; the violence, hypocrisy and shamelessness that lie behind social or religious norms and hierarchies, the stench behind all the decorum and pretense. “Why make a fuss about the stink in our house? Isn’t society itself a warehouse of bad odours,” says a protagonist in one of Murugan’s most powerful short stories (“Shit”)2—which is also an unflinching, almost unbearable portrayal of caste prejudice.

  • 3 The gounder caste, P. Murugan’s own caste, is the dominant caste group in Kongu Nadu but part of th (...)

8This has caused trouble for the writer. In fact, Murugan rose to national and international fame following the controversy that erupted over one of his novels Madhorubagan, One Part-Woman (2010, translated into English in 2013), set in the colonial period, and which is also his first novel written from the point of view of a woman. In 2014, four years after the publication of the book, local caste-based Hindu groups objected to a ritual depicted in the novel which was said to defame a specific caste3 by raising questions about the morality of their women and the purity of its lineage.

9This ritual associated with the temple in Murugan’s native town of Tiruchengode, dedicated to Madhorubagan (Tamil name for the dual male-female incarnation of Shiva), allowed childless married women, on one specific night of the year, to have extra-marital sexual relations with a stranger, who was seen as an incarnation of god. In the novel, this ritual represents a woman’s last resort to conceive. Twelve years into a loving marriage, Kala and Ponna are still childless, and ruthlessly abused because of it.

10Thousands of copies of an anonymous pamphlet with excerpts from several pages of Murugan’s novel, taken completely out of context, were circulated, and were followed by 18 days of violent protests, book burnings, and threats to the writer and his family. A bandh (general shutdown or strike) was declared, and calls for his arrest ensued. So-called “peace talks” attended by several caste and religious groups were finally summoned by the police, demanding that Murugan offer an unconditional apology, withdraw all unsold copies of his book, expurgate its contents, and thereafter refrain from writing on so-called sensitive subjects.

11Criminal charges were filed against the author on the grounds of obscenity, hurtful sentiments, blasphemy and incitement to violence. In January 2015, the writer announced his literary death on Facebook, also urging his publishers to stop selling his book, and his readers to burn the copies they possessed: “Writer Perumal Murugan 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 also had to resign from his teaching position, and flee his home town in Namakkal to relocate to the city of Chennai.

  • 4 The world’s oldest and most important organization of writers, founded in 1921, which has played a (...)
  • 5 The exile was both literal (since P. Murugan had to relocate to the city of Chennai) and metaphoric (...)
  • 6 See “Growing out of the Cocoon”, his afterword to his collection of poems Songs of a Coward, Poems (...)

12This “literary suicide” resonated across India and the world, also illustrating one of the paradoxes of censorship, which necessarily focuses attention on what it aims to silence or suppress. Yet, it’s perhaps just as much for his literary suicide as for his literary “resurrection” that Murugan rose to fame, and gained an international readership. Writers from around the world, including those in PEN International,4 voiced their support, and in July 2016, the Madras High Court dismissed all the petitions requesting Murugan’s prosecution, also asserting his—and other writers’—right to write. Murugan had in fact already been “resurrected,” but privately, silently, by turning to poetry. After spending months “in exile,”5 without being able to read or write a single line (months in which Murugan describes himself as a “walking corpse”), poetry had started to rise in him like an unstoppable spring, and had brought him back to life.6 This would become the poignant Songs of a Coward, Poems of Exile (in Tamil, Kozhaiying Paadalgal) which chronicles his tormented journey in and out of exile from January 2015 to July 2016.

13It is a book that we will return to during the conversation below. With subtle, and characteristic honesty, Murugan also discusses his decision to announce his “literary suicide;” the lasting impact of the controversy over his life and work; the support he received in 2015, and the mobilization of writers on his behalf. He reflects on censorship and self-censorship; on what activism means to him, and how it relates to writing (and to teaching); on the vulnerability of cultural practitioners and ordinary citizens in India today; on the specific nature, status and limitations of freedom and free speech in the Indian context.

14This interview was conducted in February 2022 during the “Opening the PEN Archive”7 conference organized as part of the AHRC-funded Writers and Free Expression Project, and in collaboration with TORCH, Oxford.8 Conducted in Tamil, it was transcribed orally into English by writer and translator Nandini Krishnan.9 Murugan also answered a few additional questions by email. I thank Nandini for her help here as well.


LZ: Perhaps we could start very simply, Perumal Murugan, with how you look back at the events from seven years ago…

PM: Although seven years have passed, I’m not able to see this as something that’s over, as a closed chapter of my life. This is not just happening in my mind. You see, I still can’t visit my native village with peace of mind, for instance, whether it’s for family functions or for other occasions. If I really have to visit or attend an event, I drive in by car and leave shortly afterwards, but I’m not able to spend time with my extended family as I used to. And although I’ve spoken about these events at various forums, the circumstances haven’t eased enough for me to be able to voice my personal perspectives and to talk clearly and publicly about what happened exactly during the controversy and the months that followed. I don’t have the strength to deal with the aftermath, with the ramifications of speaking up. We live in times when communal hatred and caste hatred compete with each other to make the biggest headlines, and zeal and bigotry are boiling over. One must either have the strength to take them on and fight against them, or the patience to wait for times to change. I choose the latter.

So, from the outside it may appear that I’ve come full circle: I was forced to leave for Madras, and then I came back to Namakkal (the capital of the district where I live). Yet my situation has changed permanently, and there is no escape from that. Let me give you another example. Last year we had elections in the state and the representative from the district stood on behalf of DMK (the Dravidian Progressive Federation), the current ruling party that came to power during that election. When he was campaigning, other parties accused him of having been “against Perumal Murugan” in the past, and of now being “supportive of Perumal Murugan.” Their point was: how can you trust or vote for somebody who is such a turncoat? You see, even when it comes to clashes between political parties, my name comes up. Madhorubagan is still very much a live issue in the district…

  • 10 See “Growing out of the Cocoon” (Murugan 2016:291).

LZ: I hope we can come back a little later in the conversation to the sudden publicity that came with the controversy, and how you handled the “spectacle” which, as you’ve often acknowledged, is so averse to your disposition… But let me move on to my next question. You’ve said that your writing would never be the same again, but that “spelling out the nature of that change will need quiet and reflection.”10 So, how would you, and can you, characterize today the nature of that change. How have both what and how you write changed since 2014?

PM: I think I’ll probably need a few more years before I’m able to step back and analyze exactly the way in which my writing has changed, and perhaps my readers as well will be able to help me understand the nature of that change. What I can say is that I don’t use specific place names anymore, and I’ve also erased all caste names both from my earlier books and from the ones that I’ve been writing since the controversy. So, in Estuary for instance, I create an allegorical world, asura lokam, the realm of demons, and I created specific characters adapted to that milieu. To a certain extent, I can say that there is some joy in having this challenge: the challenge to create a new world, but also to make sure that there are parallels between that imaginary world and ours. So this was also an exercise in creativity.

LZ: I also feel that erasing the names of specific places or castes, removing contextual information to dodge censorship or controversy, lends to your writing a fable-like quality and a universality that enhances its political power. Now you’ve talked about the “censor” inside you, testing every word you say, telling you what was safe to write and what wasn’t, which can explain, as you’ve just said, some of the revisions you’ve made to your earlier novels. And you write in “Growing out of the Cocoon”, the afterword to your collection Songs of a Coward: “If this is wrong, let the Indian intellectual world forgive me. The … judges have said that ‘I should not live under fear.’” And then you quote a great Tamil poet—“Folly meets fearful ills with fearless heart; To fear where cause of fear exists is wisdom's part” (2016:290–91). Now these are not easy admissions to make: acknowledging your fear, admitting to revising your texts. Would you perhaps like to reflect on this for us—and also on the cowardice in the title of your collection?

PM: Let me first go back to the aphorism itself, which is perhaps not as clear in English as it is in Tamil. Thiruvalluvar is a poet who offered very pragmatic advice at a time when everyone spoke about bravado. What he says here is that it is both foolish to be afraid of things that one shouldn’t be afraid of, and foolish not to be afraid of things that one should be afraid of. And this second part of the aphorism felt extremely relevant to me, extremely significant. It was the most appropriate piece of wisdom to which I could turn. You see, in Tamil culture, particularly in the literary tradition, there is this great bravado of being a war hero, of flashing swords, and so forth. And when you look at all this heroism, you forget or discount the very real circumstances and context within which or against which the person is fighting. So yes, the judges said that I should not be afraid, and there was indeed a lot of support from different people, but only my family and close friends knew what I was really going through. It’s this specific situation—about which I haven’t spoken to anyone outside my innermost circle—which informed my decision to announce my literary suicide. And I was entirely serious about that decision, which was made after a lot of thought.

Now, when I was talking about Indian intellectuals, I wasn’t being sarcastic or ironic. They may genuinely not understand my circumstances, or be aware of the situation that explains my decision. I ask their forgiveness for not being able to be the hero that they want me to be. On the other hand, my use of the word “coward” in the title was loaded with sarcasm, because there were people who did consider it cowardly to stop writing, and to make those changes to my earlier writings. But those changes were absolutely necessary for me: basically, it was a question of survival.

In a way, I’m saying: you see me as a coward, but listen to my songs, come into my world, see what this world is like. There used to be a place in traditional literature for heroism, for people flashing swords and holding shields. But times have changed, and perhaps we have to look at other forms of heroism and not so readily create a black and white divide between cowardice and bravado.

  • 11 See The Story of a Goat, A Novel (Murugan 2018).

LZ: Yes, and one of the poems in the collection is actually entitled “Cowardice.” In it, the “coward” is both unarmed and harmless, a bit like the black goat, Poonachi, which is the subject of the wonderful first novel you wrote after the controversy.11 The “coward” in the poem is the one who does not have a sword, does not provoke riots, does not “make war,” and causes no one to fear. He himself fears darkness, yet “songs come forth from him.”

But let’s perhaps return to your “mixed feelings” at the launch of Songs of a Coward. You write that you would never have imagined that one of your books, written in Tamil, would be launched in the capital of India. The circumstances behind this launch were nightmarish, but at the same time writers from across the country and the world stood by you. And I was wondering if it was also because of all the support you received at the time that you accepted to be one of the vice-presidents of PEN? What does this function mean for you today?

PM: Yes, PEN offered me a lot of support, and I was really taken aback by the level of involvement and encouragement. To actually see the organization stand up for me, with international writers who had never heard of me before voice their support, this really has meant a lot. Through the organization, I also came to know of the ways in which writers across the world were suffering, how their voices were silenced—something that I hadn’t been aware of, I mean, to that extent. And I believe it was a great honor to be offered to become one of the vice-presidents of the PEN, and I was really delighted to accept it. I also felt that, as a writer, I had a role to play in furthering this crucial mission, of bringing visibility to the problems faced by various writers, making this apparent to the outside world.

LZ: The “mixed feelings” were also due to the fact that you suddenly found yourself thrown into the limelight, if I’m not mistaken? Going back again to Songs of a Coward, there are haunting images of brutality and vulnerability (a lab rat nailed to a table; a goat being butchered; a snail crushed underfoot, etc.) But the violence is also the one that comes with public exposure and scrutiny. The poetic persona becomes “an exhibition piece” for the curiosity and the experiments of others; someone who is also assigned to a certain position, assigned to write, to protest or to speak out. Do you still feel the pressure of these assignations, and were you able to recover some of the anonymity or quiet that writing requires?

PM: Though I wouldn’t say that I was forced to take up these positions, and did not really feel pressure from outside, once the court verdict was announced in 2016, I didn’t refuse a single event… The reason for this is that in the two previous years, I felt that a lot of writers, and the media as well, had really stood up for me, and I had a sense that it was this whole issue of freedom of expression being under threat that was at stake. As I said before, I was extremely grateful for this support, and I felt the need to express my gratitude by accepting every invitation to events or to interviews—anything I could do to make my voice heard and to thank all those who had been there for me. I don’t regret it as such, although for three years, from 2017 to 2019, I didn’t have the peace and quiet, or the space to write because of how active I was. Now, I considered this, and still do, to be my duty as a writer, and as someone who has been through all this. Since 2019, because of Covid, and because travel was impossible, nature, in a way, has provided me with some respite…

LZ: Would you say that you see yourself as an activist?

  • 12 Native Tamil name for Sri Lanka.

PM: I was very politically active as a student, and I was involved in many protests and demonstrations. This was the time when I was member of the student wing of a Marxist-Leninist party. I also participated in protests for Eezham,12 against the oppression of Tamils in Sri Lanka, and have been active in various anti-fascist struggles. I joined demonstrations for the welfare of students, distributed party literature and sold our magazine on buses and trains, also taking those opportunities to make impassioned speeches. Once upon a time…

Since I’ve been a teacher in a state college, things have changed a bit. Most of my students come from financially deprived backgrounds. Many are first-generation learners who really had to struggle to get where they are today, and to afford a higher education, even if it’s free, by which I mean that they chose to educate themselves, rather than work eight hours a day. So, I would say that my activism has shifted focus to helping my students. Today I have a little gathering of students who largely meet in my house on my terrace, and as they have grown older and started earning money, they have helped other generations of students, financially or in other ways. In that sense, my socio-political activism is not what it used to be in my student days, though there have been a couple of times when I did step into the arena. I would say that my activism is now largely restricted to my writing, and even in my writing on social and political issues, I’ve drawn limits. That may also explain the mixed feelings that you were referring to because I always wonder if I am doing enough…

I don’t see myself as an activist anymore. You see, one must enter the battlefield and fight full time in order to be considered an activist. I’m a government employee, and I’m bound by rules and regulations and codes of conduct. Moreover, I barely have the time to write, let alone “put on armor” and enter the battlefield. At one point, I made the decision that my activism would be restricted to writing, and I have stuck to this decision. This is the sort of activism that I find most fulfilling.

LZ: But you have teamed up, in recent years, with Carnatic classical vocalist T.M. Krishna, composing songs and poems set to music (with and for him) that have a strong activist or political agenda. I’m thinking of a song in solidarity with the farmers’ protest last year, for instance, or a “song of praise” in honor of Ambedkar, which is also the first Carnatic song to be written about him, and starts with Ambedkar’s revolutionary slogan: “Educate, Organise, Agitate.”13 Could you tell us a bit more about this collaboration, and how you see this kind of activism, for want of another word, as related to or different from your literary work?

PM: My collaboration with T.M. Krishna was a happy accident. I had asked him if he would consider setting to music some of the viruttams—verses, typically devotional, that lend themselves to various tunes—I had written, and singing them for me. He sang them on stage. He said most Carnatic music compositions are devotional, and it might be interesting to explore other themes. This kind of broadmindedness is rare in a musician who has grown up within the Carnatic tradition, an ethos steeped in antiquity. When he was ready to sing, what was there to stop me from writing those songs? In Tamil, we have an idiom—karumbu thinna kooli veynumaa does one need to be paid to eat sugarcane? I wrote a few keerthanais (songs). He liked them, and sang them on stage. They were so well-received that the audience requested him to sing my songs at his Carnatic concerts.

With T.M. Krishna, we saw eye to eye on various issues. So it was with great mutual understanding that we got into this. Yes, I see my work with him as a form of literary activism. I’ve always wanted to explore various aspects and genres and forms of literature. I’ve studied Tamil literature and its evolution through history; I’ve studied yaappilakkanam, which is the grammar or a study of the structure of poetry. I’ve had the habit of writing poems since I was a child. And so I found keerthanais lent themselves to my pen. I haven’t studied music and don’t know its nuances, but I do understand rhythm and cadence. When we present these songs to the public, Krishna’s involvement provides them with a reach they would not otherwise have had.

I’m delighted that these two artistic forms are able to come together to highlight societal problems. It’s my little contribution, rather like the squirrel in The Ramayana who helped the Vanara Army build a bridge by chipping in with what he could carry in his little hands…

  • 14 See, for instance Karthika Naïr’s interview in SAMAJ (Zecchini 2020).

LZ: It is also important to realize that your ordeal in 2015 was and is shared by other writers, artists, journalists, students, activists in India. Your vulnerability mirrors the vulnerability of other segments of society today.14 Now, the situation is all the more complex in India because, on the one hand, there are a lot of non-state actors who can become the censorious forces and, on the other hand, the state is a guarantor of free expression, although it seems to be particularly weak in certain circumstances…

PM: In India, it’s not just every writer but every individual who has to censor what he or she has to say. There really isn’t much scope to voice one’s opinion without repercussions. To give an example, if I were to speak to my boss and to voice an opinion which contradicts what he thinks or feels, he would necessarily see this as a form of insubordination, or as an intentional attempt to put him down. So, if I do have an opinion that goes against what somebody else feels or says, I have to find very delicate or subtle ways to voice it. When it comes to language, one can’t really use all the words that are available because that would cause huge problems. There was an important debate in the 1990s about “purism” which had essentially to do with which words one could use in literature, and which words one couldn't. That has perhaps also spilled over into the opinions one could voice in literature, into the topics one could broach.

You know, in the Hindu pantheon, there is a goddess of learning called Saraswati, and if you accidentally step on a book—now remember this is still happening today—then you have to put your hand to your forehead to ask Saraswati for forgiveness because it is seen as desecration. So, under those circumstances, how can one avoid the censor? I’m sure that even before the controversy, there were lots of things that I didn’t voice because there was an unconscious censor inside me. Since the controversy that censor in me has become a lot more visible, manifest, or aware… That’s also why I would say that I do not feel like a free human being. There are extreme limits to my freedom. And as a writer, I constantly have to work around these obstacles.

As for the question of the legal apparatus, freedom of speech is guaranteed by the Constitution but only on condition that you do not wound or harm anyone. The difficulty is that there is no real definition of what “harm” really means. So there have been a lot of cases recently where someone has been accused of inciting communal or religious violence, and the incitement could just be a joke. Under these circumstances, everything is open to interpretation and to contestation. There are general guarantees, but we need specificity, and nuances and revisions to the laws before one can say that one has freedom, or one has recourse to the law to protect these freedoms.

LZ:. There’s one question I’d really like to ask you because it’s seldom talked about, at least in international venues, concerning the particular nature and status of freedom and free speech in India. You start a very powerful essay published in Nilanjana Roy’s volume, Our Freedoms, with the line: “In Indian society, freedom is hostage to the caste system.” (Murugan 2021b:40). Caste prejudice, and the unimaginable violence to which those who transgress caste barriers are subjected in fact underlies a lot of your work. In that essay you write that, because of the prevalence of caste, the limits of freedom are as they were in the past… I wonder if you could unpack this for us a little, that is the link you make between the limits to free speech in India and everyday caste mentality?

PM: When we look at the Indian context, no lack of freedom can be dissociated from caste. There is a caste hierarchy, and there are dominant castes which are the voices of authority, and there are the oppressed castes that embody enslavement in every possible way. I wouldn’t say that things haven’t changed at all though. There are people from oppressed castes who have been fighting for freedom to voice their opinion, and other freedoms, and thanks to support from the media as well, there are voices today that are heard that weren’t heard in the past.

The problem is that dominant castes represent very powerful voices of authority. They seek to reinforce that their word is Law, their word is Scripture, their word is Right, and we are wrong. When it comes to oppressed castes, they are not only told that they have no right to speak, they are also told that they have no right to an opinion. So, the question is not even about them being right or wrong, because people from oppressed classes are told that they don’t actually have the intellect, the capacity, the knowledge, and the intelligence to have an opinion. This is the real difference between India and other oppressive countries. The caste system is so endemic to the country itself, and to Indian society. Even the controversy over Madhorubagan was rooted in caste in a way that cannot be understood from the outside. The insidious ways in which it came about are things that I do not yet have the possibility or the freedom to express—though I plan to. So the sense of caste being the basis of all oppression in India is something about which I feel very strongly.

However, there will be changes. Societal changes cannot be stopped. What has motivated me throughout my life and career has been to observe those changes. While things might not change as fast as we hope, and while there may be anger and frustration at all those who do not see the urgency with which things must change, I strongly believe that every struggle will bear fruit.

  • 15 On the first day of the “Opening the PEN Archive” Conference, on Friday 4 February 2022, T. Dangare (...)

LZ: I was struck by the continuities between your life and your work, which is woven around all those you call “exceptions”—those who have broken the rules, and are both destined to being victims of violence, but also condemned to a world of their own. That’s also, it seems to me, what Songs of a Coward is about. I’m not making the point that your writing before 2014 was prescient about what you would undergo yourself, but your empathy for the odd ones or “castaways” seems to be a recognition of a shared vulnerability, and in a way a common destiny. Have you thought about this shared vulnerability? I was also thinking about what the Zimbabwean writer Tsitsi Dangarambga was saying yesterday15—that she raises her voice first and foremost as a citizen, and not primarily as a writer, because at the end of the day, as she was suggesting, “we are all suffering in the same way.”

PM: You see, there are many marginalized sections in our society. I grew up with them and continue to live with them. I am essentially one of them. So how could I, having the ability to write and read, not feature them in my work? Irrespective of caste and of where you are placed in the hierarchy, people in the countryside (also because of the vagaries of the weather, and other hardships) suffer in the same way. Therefore, I don’t see myself as sharing suffering as much as participating in suffering. I may have a career as a teacher and a writer now, but I cannot ever dissociate myself from the farming and agricultural background that my family comes from and which I’m still involved in.

I’ve also always been drawn to people who are viewed as transgressive, people who break the rules that society tries to impose, who question its values and morals, and defy norms and boundaries—castaways, as you call them. I look at their lives fondly. At times, I even strive to emulate their principles. They say exceptions inform the written word, and so I write about these characters. I have no grand illusions about my writing raising its voice against evil, or rallying together a group of like-minded warriors. If at all, it will raise its voice against me, and mobilize a mob against me—a strange situation when my own writing is my enemy.


15Perumal Murugan is still as uncompromising or political a writer today as he used to be. He only camouflages himself a little more. The two exceptional novels he published after the controversy, Poonachi and Estuary, can be read in myriad ways, but they are undeniably also powerful political fables and savage dystopian satires on an increasingly authoritarian society. If, as the writer and activist Githa Hariharan (2016) says, Murugan is a “parable of our times” it’s also because he is a parable of the increasing vulnerability of storytellers, chroniclers and artists in many parts of the world. In a poem from Songs of a Coward, “A Full-body Shave,” haunting images of torture are summoned up, following an absurd decree that all humans shall be skinned alive, starting with “the soft-skinned ones: the children and artists.” But the writer may represent a parable of our times and a parable of literature in other ways as well. If poetry, as Murugan has acknowledged, is the vehicle to recover from almost anything, then his work exemplifies the resilience, the power, and perhaps the victory of literature. Yet it is the victory of the weak, the vulnerable and harmless over the strong and the loud, a victory of the quiet voice of poetry. The Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish used to say that the more noise there is outside, the quieter he should speak, and he likened poetry to the response of small creatures when threatened by the storm, hiding between stones, in the cracks, the holes, the bark of a tree, waving the weapon of its own fragility to stand up to the storms of history. Murugan’s work has consistently kept trace of all the smallest, most vulnerable or unremarkable forms of life. He has also very literally, like he does in Songs of a Coward, (where, for instance, a snail’s only “armor” is his soft body with hollow horns, and a defenseless shell) waved the weapon of his own fragility, his own fragile words, to stand up to terror.

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Murugan, Perumal. [2010] 2013. One-part Woman, translated by A. Vasudevan. Gurgaon: Penguin Random House.

Perumal Murugan. 2016. Songs of a Coward, Poems of Exile, transl. A. R. Venkatachalapathy. Gurgaon: Penguin.

Perumal Murugan. 2018 (2016). The Story of a Goat, A Novel. transl. Kalyan Raman. Chennai: Context/Westland Books.

Perumal Murugan. 2020 (2018). Estuary, transl. Nandini Krishnan. Chennai: Elka/Westland Books.

Perumal Murugan. 2017. The Goat-Thief, transl. Kalyan Raman. New Delhi: Juggernaut.

Perumal Murugan. 2021a. Four Strokes of Luck, transl. Nandini Krishnan. New Delhi: Juggernaut.

Perumal Murugan. 2021b. “Crossing Over,” transl. K. Raman. Pp.  40–49 in Our Freedoms: Essays and Stories from India’s Best Writers, edited by N. Roy. New Delhi: Juggernaut/Harper Collins India.

Zecchini, Laetitia. 2020. “India’s Season of Dissent: An Interview with Karthika Nair.” SAMAJ 24/25:

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1 See N. Kalyan Raman’s illuminating essay, “Boats against the Current: The Kongunadu Novels of Perumal Murugan” (2013).

2 Short story published in one of his collections of stories translated into English The Goat-Thief (2017).

3 The gounder caste, P. Murugan’s own caste, is the dominant caste group in Kongu Nadu but part of the Other Backward Castes.

4 The world’s oldest and most important organization of writers, founded in 1921, which has played a prominent role in the history of literary activism, internationalism and human rights. For a comprehensive and illustrated history of PEN, see Avalle et al. (2021).

5 The exile was both literal (since P. Murugan had to relocate to the city of Chennai) and metaphorical.

6 See “Growing out of the Cocoon”, his afterword to his collection of poems Songs of a Coward, Poems of Exile (Murugan 2016: 287–91).


8 The Writers and Free Expression project explored the role played by writers and a writers’ organization like International PEN in defending free expression. It was funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) between 2017 and 2021, and was coinvestigated by Rachel Potter, Peter D. McDonald and Laetitia Zecchini.

9 Among other works, N. Krishnan translated two recent books by P. Murugan, the fascinating novel Estuary (Murugan 2020), and the collection of short stories Four Strokes of Luck (Murugan 2021a).

10 See “Growing out of the Cocoon” (Murugan 2016:291).

11 See The Story of a Goat, A Novel (Murugan 2018).

12 Native Tamil name for Sri Lanka.

13 Kavadi Chindu, usually sung by devotees of Lord Murugan:

14 See, for instance Karthika Naïr’s interview in SAMAJ (Zecchini 2020).

15 On the first day of the “Opening the PEN Archive” Conference, on Friday 4 February 2022, T. Dangarembga was in conversation with E. Boehmer.

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Electronic reference

Laetitia Zecchini, “When My Own Writing is My Enemy”: Notes on Perumal Murugan and an InterviewSouth Asia Multidisciplinary Academic Journal [Online], 31 | 2023, Online since 31 December 2023, connection on 19 July 2024. URL:; DOI:

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Laetitia Zecchini


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