The first story that I remember of Perumal Murugan’s Maadorubagan is this: My friend, a senior officer at UNICEF, was deeply moved when she read it. The office driver borrowed her copy of the novel, read it, and told her that he wept at the ending. Perumal Murugan’s story of Kali and Ponna could cut through gender, class and caste. It could be ‘recognised’ by any attentive reader. I pitched the novel to my colleagues with this story.
Maadorubagan then became One Part Woman in English. The first year of its publication was a time of peace and quiet: good reviews, some passionate fans, the possibility of a paperback edition. In stepped a right-wing group with it’s ill-read critique of the novel and threats against the author.
The situation rapidly spun out of control. There were marches, speeches, meetings. A town came to a standstill. An atrocious compromise was engineered. Perumal Murugan announced the death of the writer in him.
An extraordinary decision on his part—to effect a complete withdrawal; to truncate a remarkable artistic career. Because he could not trust his words if they were written in fear. He took back from the world complete control of his art, at a great cost.
But can a writer who seemed to be at the strongest and most creative phase of his career really achieve a total retreat?
When the Chennai High Court’s judgement was received with happy hope around the country, we approached Murugan to let us translate and publish some of his short stories in celebration. He agreed immediately and in a matter of days sent a selection of what he considers are his best stories.
Could a writer who had given up on his art be able to respond so quickly and decisively, given the critical thought that is necessary to make such a selection? Perhaps the writer in him had merely gone deep underground, despite the efforts to put an end to his existence. Let us hope that there will soon be a revival of Murugan’s writerly life.
Of the stories Murugan sent, the translator N. Kalyan Raman chose to begin with ‘Neer Vilayattu’ (‘The Well’, in English). A story that begins in light and laughter and play till an accretion of small actions results in a swift descent of darkness. An almost unbearable menace hangs over the later part of the story.
In its bare bones, ‘The Well’ follows an arc similar to that of his two recent novels in translation – One Part Woman and Pyre. To my pattern-seeing eyes, it is also the arc of Perumal Murugan’s own story. A flourishing career forced to an abrupt end by the threat of violence. Fortunately, redemption has been possible in his case (if not in those of his protagonists) thanks to the pronouncement of a just court.
Welcome back into the world, Murugan. We are so very glad to have you.