LITERARY TALK: Not talking caste is unrealistic, says Perumal Murugan

Perumal Murugan talks to South Asia Times (SAT) Editor in Melbourne. Photo- SAT/NN.

MELBOURNE: Perumal Murugan,57, Tamil writer famous and controversial for his bold books on caste, has often been in the news for social subjects weaved in traditional day to day life. He is a widely translated Tamil writer with a pan-India stamp. This short, down to earth  and shy literary giant was in Melbourne recently, where I met him over lunch at a friends home. He had just come from the Adelaide Writers’ Week (March 2-5, 2024), where he spoke about the times and topics of his numerous Tamil writings. It was no surprise the interaction with him was candid and revealing. The deep rooted spectrum of  Tamilnadu’s caste potpourri and caste itself,  lay bare in front of me.

In 2014, Perumal Murugan’s One Part Woman (“Mathorupagan” in Tamil) generated controversy when Hindu right-wing and caste groups objected to its theme. And, Perumal decided never to write again. The issue went to the Madras High Court and in its verdict the court said: “The choice to read is always with the reader. If you do not like a book, throw it away. All writings, unpalatable for one section of the society, cannot be labelled as obscene, vulgar, depraving, prurient and immoral. The author and artistes like him cannot be under a constant apprehension that if he deviates from the oft-treaded path, he will face adverse consequences. Let the author be resurrected to what he is best at. Write.” (5 July, 2016 and cited in the Wikipedia)

The novel’s sum up according to Goodreads: “All of Kali and Ponna’s efforts to conceive a child—from prayers to penance, potions to pilgrimages—have been in vain. Despite being in a loving and sexually satisfying relationship, they are relentlessly hounded by the taunts and insinuations of the people around them. Ultimately, all their hopes and apprehensions come to converge on the chariot festival in the temple of the half-female god Ardhanareeswara and the revelry surrounding it. Everything hinges on the one night when rules are relaxed and consensual union between any man and woman is sanctioned. This night could end the couple’s suffering and humiliation. But it will also put their marriage to the ultimate test. Acutely observed, One Part Woman lays bare with unsparing clarity a relationship caught between the dictates of social convention and the tug of personal anxieties, vividly conjuring an intimate and unsettling portrait of marriage, love and sex.”

The novel generated acclaim across the world. Post- verdict Perumal Murugan started writing again.

The writer of Fire Bird and One Part Woman, frankly says, in Tamilnadu society one cannot escape writing about caste. Each caste lives separately and their daily relations are separate. In village life caste cannot be left out. If we leave caste it won’t be realistic, he tells me.


Caste, he says, in the cities is in a scuttle way. It is not prominent like villages , he discloses. In the villages, there are three types of dalit castes namely those who work with leather, cleaners, and hired labour. And, within these groups one caste is higher than the other two, he explains.

I ask about their economic situation. Perumal says, because of education all have moved  up because of reservation, which has been a decisive handle in their upward social mobility. This positive discrimination (reservation in government jobs) has economically pushed them in a better situation, he says.

Tamilnadu has 69 per cent reservation for dalit castes in government jobs, the cap put in by the supreme Court being fifty per cent.

So, do these people know a writer is writing  their stories. Because of education and awareness, the dalit castes know their issues are being discussed and written by a writer like Perumal Murugan, he says. Some are influenced by leftist thought and politics. This has enhanced their political awareness, Perumal says.

Perumal tells me, he is proud to be well-known as a Tamil writer across India and the world. Translation into English has helped in this recognition and his books are available in Hindi, Marathi, including ‘One Part Woman’ (Madhorubagan in Tamil). In Malyalum all his books are available.  The slain Kannada writer and journalist Gauri Lankesh published some of his books in Kannada, he discloses.

About being branded anti-Hindu, Perumal says, he was said to be a Dalit Christian and anti-Hindu. Later my wife was branded Dalit-Christian. This was far from truth and his was a inter-caste marriage.

So, how are Dalit- Christians placed, I asked. They are more educated but lost caste reservation in government jobs because they ceased as Hindus after shifting to Christianity. But they were later adjusted under the backward communities reservation.

Perumal feels a writer cannot be an activist, because he/she expresses through writing. With new technology a bit of caste barrier can be cracked, but not completely.  Online and social media, he says, has pushed his literature to new heights. I am known all over India and the world because of the internet. Online magazines are a big resource. In breaking caste barriers, the social media is helpful, the writer says.

-The interview with Perumal Murugan was done with the help of Dr. Noel Nadesan, a Tamil/English writer, who also translated the answers given by Murugan in Tamil to English.

-The statements, views and opinions expressed in this article/report/video/viewpoint/opinion are solely those of  Perumal Murugan and do not necessarily represent the editorial policies of the South Asia Times (SAT) or its Editor.



By Neeraj Nanda

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