Once again an author becomes the target of right-wing protest groups. Perumal Murugan has been a prolific writer, having written a number of books and short stories. He has also been a professor of Tamil for 17 years and is well known for his proficiency in Kongunadu idioms and phrases. It was his interest in Kongunadhu folklore that inspired him to undertake research of the folk traditions in Tiruchongedu, his native town. Murugan’s latest book- One Part Woman– is set in this small hilly town of his childhood, in which the author examines a peculiar ritual practice that he had witnessed in his childhood. The ritual involves an annual evening chariot festival in the temple of “Ardhanareeshawara”, where childless women choose a sexual partner amongst strangers. If a child is born out of such a union, it is considered to be “a blessing from God”.
Ardhanareeshwara or the myth of Goddesss Amba, who was granted the wish to become half of Lord Shiva, is worshipped as the mother of the universe. According to the myth, Goddess Parvati, had once, in a playful act shut all the three eyes of Shiva. This led darkness to descend on earth since the three eyes representing the moon, sun and fire were shut. Due to the prolonged darkness, worldly activities came to a halt and generations were destroyed as the cycle of procreation had also perished.
Muruguan uses this mythical background to a more relevant and contemporary experience of childlessness in a particular farming community-the Gounders. Childlessness in the community is a reason for tremendous anxiety among the Gounders. The novel revolves around a couple who are childless even after 12 years of marriage. Despite repeated efforts, prayers and rituals, both Kali and Ponna remain childless, and are thus subjected to scorn by all others.. Consequently, Ponna and Kali’s family jointly conspire to send Ponna to the annual festival, hoping she would be impregnated by an anonymous Sami. The novel presents a moving tale of how the community’s obsession with children separates a loving couple and ends their marriage.
It is this story that is being touted as being misrepresentative and denigrating the native culture of Tamil Nadu. The 18-day protests have disturbed the author so much that he has announced his death as a writer, and has requested the publishers to withdraw the books already out for purchase. What is being completely ignored, however, is that the plot centres on the couple and the stigma they face because of childlessness, and not the customs and traditions of a particular community per se. The Indian preoccupation with the child is a rather pervasive social reality that operates way beyond the famer community that Murugan has focused on in the novel. Arrangements with kith and kins for childless couples are common in India. Adoption of children by infertile couples from their relatives, for instance, is hardly unheard of. Neither is it untrue that in the absence of a close knit family, close friends are requested to establish a sexual relationship with the wife to impregnate her.
Of course, freedom of expression has its own boundaries and should be exercised responsibly, but so should protestations and criticisms.. Reasonable arguments are as much the responsibility of the reader and the general public as they are of the artist. Murugan’s novel throws light on a reality that pervades way beyond the ritualistic sphere that the protestors are obsessing with. It is indeed tragic that in a country as rich in mythologies and folklores as India, a storyteller seeking to narrate a story that reflects the social reality has been compelled to abandon his pen and declare his death as a writer.
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