Murugan is nothing if not a chronicler of the ordinary. Schoolchildren in India—and here I’m speaking from what I remember of my own experience—are taught that Mahatma Gandhi believed that the soul of India lived in its villages. While that is arguable, it cannot be doubted that most of India’s population is rural. But you wouldn’t know this from reading Indian fiction written in English. Indian writers who work in English are mostly from the middle or upper classes, educated in English-medium schools, and, if not residing in one of India’s busy metropolises, then living in the West. Their characters tend to be well-heeled urban citizens of a mobile republic. In contrast, Murugan lives in a small, agricultural town in southern India, and he writes in Tamil. His characters are overwhelmingly villagers or people in remote, small towns.
The old couple who own Poonachi, in “The Story of a Goat,” are poor villagers living in a thatched shed. When Poonachi arrives in their lives, given as a gift by a stranger, night is falling, and the old woman needs an earthen lamp to look at the kid. The lamp doesn’t have a wick, so she uses a strip from her husband’s discarded loincloth. This is the sort of detail that gives Murugan’s work its heft. His fiction scrupulously documents South India’s trees, its seasons, the behavior not only of people but even of animals. Take the following description, in the book, about a young male goat named Kaduvayan, before he is castrated:
He would visit every herd in the pasture and sniff the vaginas of the mother goats as well as the female kids. Then, with his upper lip pushed back to bare his teeth and head held high, he would relish the smell. He would stick out his penis and piss noisily. Entranced by his touch, a couple of female kids would contract their bodies and start peeing. Kaduvayan would put his snout in the stream of piss and drink a little. A few mother goats would butt him and knock him down. The female kids would become frightened and run away, their tails firmly in place.
This intimacy with the pastoral, channelled in a frank, brutal tone, is something I’ve envied Murugan. But I was curious about him even before I read his books. In 2015, while checking the news online, I came across one of Murugan’s Facebook posts. It wasn’t an ordinary status update about an upcoming reading or a favorable review, the sort of self-promotional thing that writers routinely do. Instead, his post read “Perumal Murugan the writer is dead. As he is not 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.”
That note pierced me. A fireman leaving his job or a politician quitting politics or even a young athlete retiring would most likely not describe leaving their professions as a death. And this was no ordinary death. In a simple but subtle way, Murugan was accusing his society of wanting to murder him. Authors complain constantly—writer’s block, a feud with a rival, lack of critical attention—but none of these grievances require literary suicide. How had the situation turned so dire for Murugan?
Slowly, I gleaned the nature of his plight. Five years after his novel “Maadhorubaagan” (later published in English as “One Part Woman”) first appeared, in 2010, Murugan was threatened by conservatives from his own caste in the small town in South India where he lived. The novel is a portrait of a rural childless couple, Kali and Ponna, who are loving to each other but under tremendous social pressure to conceive a child. When the annual chariot festival draws near—a celebration of the half-male, half-female god Maadhorubaagan—Ponna is obliged to participate. This is especially true on the festival’s eighteenth night, when all men are considered gods and when childless women are permitted to have sex with young strangers. For Ponna, the night marks perhaps her last chance to become pregnant.
This depiction of what Murugan claimed was a traditional ritual outraged a class of his readers. In 2015, he was forced to sign an unconditional apology and to withdraw unsold copies of his book. The previous year, India had elected to power the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (B.J.P.), led by the controversial ideologue Narendra Modi. Modi himself had been a lifelong pracharak, or propagandist, for the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (R.S.S.), a militant ultranationalist organization whose founders had a fondness for Hitler. Nathuram Godse, the man who murdered Mahatma Gandhi, was a former member of the R.S.S. A mob that assembled in the town where “One Part Woman” is set to burn copies of the book was egged on by the B.J.P. and the R.S.S.
The attack on Murugan was perhaps the first major assault on freedom of expression after Modi’s ascent to power. For a while, Murugan was forced into silence. What rescued him was the judgment delivered by the Madras High Court, in Chennai, in the summer of 2016. The judge had a piece of advice for those who disliked Murugan and wanted his book censored: “All writings, unpalatable for one section of the society, cannot be labeled as obscene, vulgar, depraving, prurient and immoral. . . . If you do not like a book, throw it away.” Particularly meaningful was the judge’s closing injunction: “Let the author be resurrected to what he is best at. Write.” For Murugan, the statement was both “a command and a benediction.”
During the first few months of his exile, Murugan hadn’t been able to write anything. Then he began to write brief poems. When he finally published them, in 2016—the English translation was titled “Songs of a Coward: Poems of Exile”—he gave a speech in Delhi to mark the occasion. “I chronicled the moment when I felt like a rat, dazzled by the light, burrowing itself into his hole,” he said. “A censor is seated inside me now. He is testing every word that is born within me.” Once we know this history, we are able to understand Murugan’s preface to the Tamil edition of “Poonachi”: “I am fearful of writing about humans; even more fearful of writing about gods. . . . All right then, let me write about animals. There are only five species of animals with which I am deeply familiar. Of them, dogs and cats are meant for poetry. It is forbidden to write about cows or pigs. That leaves only goats and sheep. Goats are problem-free, harmless and, what’s more, energetic. A story needs narrative pace. Therefore, I’ve chosen to write about goats.”
When I started reading the book that first got Murugan into trouble, “One Part Woman,” I immediately recognized the novel as belonging to a genre that we might call “rooted literature.” What Murugan was producing was locally grown, not a canned object sold on a supermarket bookshelf. It is rare to come across a writer who enjoys such intimacy with not just the land but also the customs that govern the lives of the people who live on it. Culture, as a particular mix of religion, superstition, and the calculations of power, and with caste as a crucial determinant, is central to the story that Murugan is telling. The book is so rooted in the soil of tradition that its rebellion against it is all the more unexpected and moving.
It struck me, when I finished the novel, that long before the protests that exiled him Murugan was already a dead writer. I have in my notebooks a remark by Christopher Hitchens: “One should try to write as if posthumously.” What Hitchens meant was that to be dead is to be relieved of all concerns about how your writing is viewed. “You’re free,” he wrote. Murugan’s willingness to look into the dark well of prejudice and see his society’s face reflected there suggested that he was writing posthumously. This lack of fear, or radical honesty, gave his writing its power.