Who 'killed' Indian author Perumal Murugan?

Book cover of Perumal Murugan's Madhorubagan Image copyright Facebook/Perumal Murugan
Image caption Tamil author Perumal Murugan was advised by local police to leave town after abusive and threatening phone calls

A novelist from south India announced the demise of his writing career in a Facebook post. The decision, prompted by protests against one of his works, understandably led to concerns about freedom of expression - but it's also a story about caste politics.

"Author Perumal Murugan has died," the Tamil writer and professor posted on Monday. "He is no god, so he is not going to resurrect himself. Nor does he believe in reincarnation. From now on, Perumal Murugan will survive merely as the teacher he has been."

This public letter followed recent outcry from caste-based and Hindu groups about a book Murugan wrote in 2010. "Madhorubagan" is set about a century ago near the author's native town of Tiruchengode in southern India. In the book, a childless couple from the land-owning Gounder caste contemplate participating in a local temple festival ritual - during which a childless woman has sex with a man other than her husband in order to conceive a child.

Last month, unexpectedly, local groups led protests about the book - they said the "fictitious" extramarital sex ritual at the centre of the plot insulted the town, its temple and its women. Copies of the novel were burnt, residents shut down shops, and a petition sought the arrest of the author.

Murugan declined an interview request from BBC Trending, but in an interview with BBC Tamil last week, he said the festival practice was part of the temple's "oral history." But he maintained, "The novel is not against God or religion. A novel is a work of imagination. When writing a novel, one needs a place, people and context to relate it to."

Online, the translation of the author's post announcing his retirement has been shared widely and there is a great deal of outrage over freedom of expression and the silence of prominent political parties.

"It is disturbing that a pattern of violent acts over differences in opinion has emerged in recent times," said one commenter on Facebook. The user was in part referring to an incident last year where Penguin India recalled a book on Hinduism. "There will come a time in this country when the only way to protest will be by reading a book," read one tweet.

Image copyright Twitter/Mlechchha
Image caption An online petition is now calling for people to stand up for the author and freedom of expression

Another Facebook user questioned the author's decision. "Let those praise, praise. Let those who criticize, criticize. But don't you know you should have stood by what you have written?" he asked. But Murugan's publisher Kannan Sundaram told BBC Trending, "There is lots of solidarity online, but one cannot expect an author to be a warrior. It is the responsibility of a secular government to ensure his freedom of expression."

The publisher sees the development as a result of "provocative caste and religious fundamentalism" and pointed the finger at the Hindu nationalist BJP party led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Those who oppose Murugan's book are largely unhappy with his portrayal of Gounder community - particularly for implying in the novel that women from that caste were open to sex with other men. "No person in their right mind will accept it when women are degraded," said one Facebook user.

A regional party leader says Murugan's negative writing about his own caste and its women is a result of his marriage to a woman from another caste. "He intentionally hurt the feelings of the community. One should not write bad things about one's own community or write about things that did not actually take place," says GK Nagaraj of the KJK Party.

But Nagaraj is not happy with Perumal Murugan's decision to quit writing. "We need good writers," but he adds a caveat, "Let him continue writing but he should only write about events that actually happened."

Murugan's defenders included Aniruddhan Vasudevan, who translated the novel into English as "One-part Woman" in 2013. Vasudevan also attacked the quality of the debate.

"Those who are protesting the book speak on behalf of women," he says. "While this is not new in our country where patriarchy gets very agitated over women's freedoms and rights over their own bodies, it is nevertheless shocking that this is often the quality of the discourse."

Blog by Samiha Nettikkara

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