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Perumal Murugan: Escape the Questions, Skip to Outrage

Author: Dr. P. Kanagasabapathi
Publication: Swarajyamag.com
Date: February 5, 2015
URL: http://swarajyamag.com/culture/perumal-murugan-escape-the-questions-skip-to-outrage/

Even while sections of elite might argue that the contents in the book should be tolerated in the name of liberalism, the factual misrepresentations relating to the temple festival and the casting of aspersion on the character of the local women supported by no evidence cannot be passed off as history

Tiruchengode is a municipal town in the Namakkal district situated in western Tamil Nadu. The western districts of the state are collectively called the Kongu region. According to the 2011 census, its population was slightly more than 95,000. Located in what was predominantly an agricultural region, Tiruchengode presently witnesses different industrial activities in and around the town connected to rigs, power looms, textiles, bus and truck body building, besides a few others.

During the last few decades, the Namakkal district has emerged as a major centre for educational institutions in the state, with Tiruchengode having some of them. The literacy rate of the town is 75.87 per cent, slightly higher than the national average.

This district is a comparatively drier part of the state, with less water facilities for farming. While the people of Namakkal and adjoining villages have taken to transports and poultry farming for their livelihood, Tiruchengode went in for bore wells. When it became difficult to get water from their wells for farming activities during the 1960s, they started hiring rigs from outside to dig their wells. Within a few decades, the entrepreneurs from this area made Tiruchengode emerge as the “bore well capital of India” by expanding their operations across the length and breadth of the country. The people of this region are one of the most entrepreneurial sections in our country and their contribution to the economy of the state and the nation is very impressive.

Tiruchengode, known all along for its Ardhanareeswara temple — that the predominant Gounder and all the other jaatis in the region closely identify with -— and bore wells, has been in the news during the past two months for wrong reasons in the national and even international media.

One Tamil writer from the area Perumal Murugan wrote a novel titled Madhorubagan (another name for Lord Ardhanareeswara) about four years ago.

One of the most ancient temples in this part of the state, Ardhanareeswara finds mention in the classical Sangam literature and is closely identified with the foremost of Tamil epics, Silappathikaram. There have been several literary works on the temple over the centuries beginning with the earlier periods. Its annual car festival running around 15 days is important in the lives of several thousands of people living in the nearby districts over generations.

The book Madhorubagan is, however, a very mediocre novel from an academic with leftist leanings. Author Murugan notes that the work was undertaken through financial support from a foundation. The writer claimed that his book was based on evidence collected though his studies and field work.

The story revolves around a childless couple from the Gounder community, who lived in the nearby village about 70 years ago. When they do not get a child, they go to the hill temple and pray for a progeny as per the custom observed by those who do not have a child. There is a spot in the hill where childless women go around and pray for the child.

Murugan writes that on the 14th day of the car festival, women who do not have children are permitted by the family to have sex with anyone waiting there in the dark of the night. He notes that there would be a number of young men waiting for the purpose. Further he mentions that the children born out of such relationships are called “children of God” so that the elders in the family compel her to go in for such relationship as there was nothing wrong!

Even while sections of the elite might argue that the contents in the book should be tolerated in the name of liberalism, the factual misrepresentations relating to the temple festival and women that are not supported by evidence cannot be passed off as history. Furthermore, it is downright denigrating for the people of the region.

Does creative licence permit the author to cast aspersions on the character of women who go to the temple and beget children after a few months or years of delay?

The local people came to know about the contents of the book when one of the persons from the area happened to read the English version of it  foreign country. After he informed one of his close associates in Tiruchengode, the local got hold of the original Tamil version . It was then that they came to know about the book towards the end of last year.

Two people from Tiruchengode, whom this writer met during the last week of January, said that they contacted the writer to know why he had written such horrendous things about them. One of them is the author’s neighbour from his village and related to him. They informed me that his reply over the phone was arrogant and that he hung up after a few minutes.

As certain contents of the novel severely hurt the sanctity of the local deity, the car festival and the dignity of their women, the people of the town and the surrounding areas wanted the writer to produce evidence or else remove the specific paragraphs that have no basis. The people approached the police to lodge an FIR. When the police took no action, the complainants called for a bandh to draw the attention of the authorities to the novel.

The bandh was total but without any violence. All the shops and business establishments were closed and even courts did not function that day. People from all walks of life participated in the protest. All the jaatis, including Dalits, have specific responsibilities assigned to them on the designated days in the proceedings of the annual car festival since the time of their forefathers. All of them have special facilities established for that purpose. Functionaries of all political parties identified themselves with the movement, with even leftists extendinga tacit support to the strike.

Presumably after coming to understand the seriousness of the issue, the district authorities swung into action and organized separate meetings with the public as well as the writer. Subsequently, the district administration announced that the writer had agreed to withdraw copies of the said book and the citizens of the town, in turn, would stop their protests. Next day Murugan wrote on Facebook that the writer in him was dead and he would not continue his writings, but would only remain a college teacher!

From then onwards, the ‘progressive’ writers, left-leaning intellectuals and activists from Chennai picked up the matter, arguing that the writer’s freedom has been curtailed. Soon, sections of the media and the elite based in metropolitan cities followed it up. In the process, they called the local people “casteist” without knowing that people of all castes had participated in the protest. Some of them called the protesters “fundamentalists”; a television channel anchor went to the extent of calling them “lumpen”. A left-leaning intellectual was reported to have mentioned the citizens of the town who took part in the protests as “private Fascist mafia”.

This irresponsible branding of the local people silently protesting for a cause that they consider noble is wholly unacceptable. When the aggrieved silently protest after they fail to get justice in spite of repeated attempts, they are given all sorts of names by the ‘progressive forces’. Don’t the local people have a right to voice their opinions in democratic ways?

The protesters are not politically organized groups, with usually the DMK and AIADMK winning the elections during the recent decades. But all sections of the society, including Dalits, joined together only for the purpose of getting justice. The ‘progressive’ lot mention that a small group of men burnt a few copies of the relevant pages of the book during the procession, but it was an aberration in a huge crowd.

Over the last few weeks, there have been many articles supporting the freedom of the said writer; meetings are being organized by the ‘progressive’ writers in different places across the state and even in the campuses of prestigious institutions such as the Jawaharlal Nehru University. There have been debates on the issue on television channels too. The issue was reported in the UK and Pakistan media also, describing the local society as “fundamentalist” and “casteist”.

Is the freedom of expression limited only to a few selected writers of a particular variety who abuse the traditional customs and beliefs without any shred of evidence?

Pulavar Raasu, the well-known historian of Kongu region, is from Erode town adjacent to Tiruchengode. He retired as the professor and head of the department of epigraphy and archeology at the Tamil University, Thanjavur, after a distinguished career. Over the years, he has published more than 100 books and 250 articles/papers. With his long years of experience in studying Kongu history, he says that there is no evidence of childless women opting for free sex in the region. As for the people of this region, the honour of their women takes precedence over everything else, including their own lives.

The elderly people in their 90s corroborate what the learned historian says. Many of the local citizens point out other inconsistencies in the book. A Gopalakrishnan, one of the local persons with a deep understanding of the history related to the town and the temple belonging to the Devaradiar community, states categorically that there was no prostitutes’ street as mentioned in the book in the town and it is an attack on the reputation of their community. In fact one of the prominent houses in the street belongs to the most famous political family of this town, namely the late Dr P Subbarayan. There have been many political leaders from his family over three generations, occupying high positions at national level.

Certain critical historical facts relating to the town and the car festival seems vastly different from what is portrayed by the writer in the novel. There is little evidence of fundamentalism, casteism, Fascism or lumpenism as alleged by the city-based literary critics and activists.

A young lady professional from the town probably in her early 30s asked me, “Sir, I have been praying to Ardhanareeswara for the last six years after my marriage for a child. When I get a child, how do they want the world to look at me?” One finds it difficult to understand why these ‘progressive’ forces and their intellectual supporters want to denigrate innocent women like her. Have any of these vocal forces tried to visit the place and reach out to the women to understand their beliefs and emotions? How can they impose their views sitting in far off places, simply because they have the connections and the capacity to speak and write, while these powerless innocent citizens living in a distant town cannot reach out to the people from the rest of the country to make their case?

The sociologist Francis Fukuyama notes that societies can easily be destroyed, but it is very difficult to build them. It is unfortunate that a peace-loving and enterprising society that believes in its age-old culture is being abused. And the target of abuse is the honour of their women and the sanctity of their temple.

Individualistic approaches have resulted in slow destruction of the family and social systems in many Western countries. As a result, they are facing serious crisis at different levels, such as family, society and the economy. The greatness of India lies in its ancient culture, respect for women and the strong family-based fundamentals.

Why do these writers target the silent societies unnecessarily in the name of freedom of expression and then allow a whole group of their supporters to go and denigrate the public on a daily basis? How do they want to present the cultural traditions of the country to those residing in foreign soils? Do writers have no responsibility to the society which they claim to represent?

Most importantly, can anyone present fiction as history and expect no questions in return?

Madhorubagan, thus, is a serious issue for the right thinking people who care about the future of our societies.
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