In a heart-warming judgment, the court has come to the rescue of a Tamil novelist who was hounded for his book Madhorubhagan and said it was so absorbing that it couldn’t be put down
By R Ramasubramanian
“I may not agree with what you say, but will defend to the death, your right to say it, said the author Voltaire.” (Attributed to Voltaire by SG Tellyntyre in The Friends of Voltaire (1907)
With these words, a bench of the Madras High Court gave a historic judgment which “resurrected” Tamil writer Perumal Murgan who announced his own death in a Facebook post over a year ago.
The author was forced to make this announcement after caste and local groups at Namakkal district collectorate in Tamil Nadu on January 12, 2015 forcefully elicited an unconditional apology from him for the theme of his novel Madhorubhagan (One Part Woman). The meeting, organized by the district administration, was called as a “peace committee meeting”. Locals and caste groups were up in arms against the novel for “denigrating” women of their area and caste and for lowering the dignity of their famous “Arthanareeshwarar Temple”.
After being forced to tender an unconditional apology, the author was also pressured to withdraw all the remaining copies of Madhorubhagan from book stalls. It was after this humiliation that Murugan not only announced his own death but also withdrew all his other works from his publishers and appealed to all those in possession of his books to burn them.
The novel, set in 1940, was about a childless couple in Tiruchengode, the home town of the author. The plot revolves around Kongu Vellala Gounder Kula Gotras (an intermediary caste). The protagonists in the plot are Kali and Ponna. They failed to have a child despite being married for decades. Kali’s mother suggests to him that if he allows his wife, Ponna, to participate in a sexual orgy on the 14th day of the Vaikasi car festival at Arulmighu Arthanareeshwarar Temple in Tiruchengode, they could get a child.
Initially, Kali refuses but later gets convinced. Kali was pacified by his brother-in-law who tells him that the popular saying, “Sami Kodutha Pillai” (God-given child) used by the locals is nothing but a reference to children begotten by women having sexual intercourse with unknown persons during the 14th day of the Vaikasi car festival.
Challenging the January 12, 2015 peace committee meeting, a progressive Tamil writers association moved the Madras High Court. Interestingly, Murugan was not a party to the petition, but later impleaded himself after the Court issued notices to him to get his opinion on the issue.
Two other petitions—one from a local resident of Tiruchengodu and another from a devotees’ association of Arthanareeswarar Temple praying to the Court to initiate criminal proceedings against the author for wounding the sentiments of the people—were also moved. So in total, three petitions were moved.
On July 5, 2016, a bench headed by Chief Justice of the Madras High Court Sanjay Kishan Kaul and comprising Justice Pushpa Sathyanarayana allowed the Tamil writers’ association petition and quashed the January 12, 2015, Namakkal collectorate peace committee meeting proceedings. It also dismissed the other two writ petitions. The judges quoted extensively from newspaper reports, literary reviews and ancient and modern foreign literature to uphold their judgment.
For example, in page 89 of the 158-page judgment, the judges quoted from the edit page of The New York Times dated January 23, 2015. The edit—“Silencing authors in India”—refers to the petitions pending in the Madras High Court and the larger concern expressed by the Court over extra-judicial groups wielding power to decide what is right and what is not right, and asking authors what to write and what not to write.
While upholding the right of the writer to write the novel and lifting the undeclared ban, the judges quoted 19 Supreme Court judgments in their order. The judgments were classified in six categories—Freedom of Speech and Expression, Freedom of Expression and Obscenity, Obligation of state to protect rights of individual under Article 21, Katta Panchayats, Banning of Books under Section 95 & 96 of the CrPC and Precedence for guidelines relating to Prosecution.
One of the important judgments quoted was S Khushboo vs Kanniammal, 2010 (5), SCC 600. This case relates to the quashing of cases filed against Tamil film actress Khushboo for remarks made by her on premarital sex. “This court observed that a culture of responsible reading is to be inculcated amongst the prudent readers. Morality and criminality are far from being coextensive. An expression of opinion in favor of non-dogmatic and non-conventional morality has to be tolerated as the same cannot be a ground to penalize the author.”
JUDGING A BOOK
Then came the finest portion of the judgment, viz. the operative part of the order: “A book is the literary expression of the author. A painter paints his thoughts… A sculptor expresses his thoughts through his murals… an author writes… The first two are simple expressions of a mixed set of thoughts and have to be observed in that manner. The aspect of painting was dealt with by one of us (Sanjay Kishan Kaul J) in MF Hussain’s case, which also received the imprimatur of the Supreme Court by dismissal of SLP (Criminal) of No. 6287 on 8.9.2008. A book is definitely a more detailed and expressive method of setting forth one’s thoughts. It is not a single expression. It weaves a theme. Thus while judging a book on any parameter not necessarily restricted to obscenity, it has to be read, digested and examined as a whole. A book is not to be read like a statue to come to a conclusion. Sentences cannot be picked up here and there to give a conclusion.”
The judges had this to say about the quality of the novel: “On reading the novel, we felt that it could not be put down without going the whole hog. It was so absorbing. At the end of the story what comes to the mind? At least to our mind, it is a heart rending story of a husband and wife who are at peace with themselves, but at are constantly reminded by the society of their status—of being childless.”
The bench further added: “The novel shakes you, but not in the manner its opponents seeks to profess. It jolts you, because it succinctly sets forth the pain and sufferance depicted through the words of this childless couple. That is the takeaway from the novel.”
The judgment says, “As a society we seem to be more bogged down by this Victorian philosophy rather than draw inspiration from our own literature and scriptures. Sex per se was not treated as undesirable, but was an integral part right from the existence of civilization. The Indian scriptures, including the Mahabharata are set to be replete with obvious examples of sex outside marriage, also specifically for the purpose of having progenies and that too of the intellectual class.” The judges quoted a portion of Santi Parva (79:31) Mahabharata which says: “In response to the demands of time and place what is proper may become improper, and what is improper may become proper.”
The golden part of the judgment is its last paragraph: “The author Prof Perumal Murugan should not be under fear. He should be able to write and advance the canvas of his writings. Time is a great healer and we are sure, that would hold true for Perumal Murugan as well as his opponents; both would have learnt to get along with their lives, we hope by now in their own fields, and bury this issue in the hatchet as citizens of an advancing and vibrant democracy… We conclude by observing this… Let the author be resurrected to what he is best at. Write.”
The judgment strikes a perfect balance between literature and law. The judgment speaks about Lady Chatterley’s Lover to show how novels down the ages have run into opposition and how the concept of offence is also changing from time to time. The judges also quote Salman Rushdie on banning books—“It is very easy not to be offended by a book. You simply close it.”
On the evening of July 5, 2016, immediately after the judgment was pronounced, Murugan in a short statement said: “The judgment gives me much happiness. It comforts a heart that had shrunk itself and had wilted. I will get up and resume writing.”
The judgment had come at a time when the Tamil Nadu government was bitten by the “ban mania”.
In 2015, the state government had banned two books ostensibly under the logic that the books were insulting the sentiments of a few castes. The Jayalalithaa government also banned films like Dam 999 and Kamal Hassan’s Vishwaroopam in recent times.
Lead picture: Author Perumal Murugan and Madras High Court