Indian novel about caste becomes first Tamil work longlisted for International Booker prize
An Indian author who declared eight years ago that he was “dead” as a writer after protests against his work has returned not only to life but to literary success with one of his novels selected for the International Booker prize longlist.
Perumal Murugan, who writes in Tamil, a south Indian language spoken in Tamil Nadu state, has made it to the list for his 2013 novel Pyre, translated into English by Aniruddhan Vasudevan.
Set in a Tamil Nadu village in the 1980s, Pyre tells the story of a rural couple belonging to different castes who fall in love and elope, and the violence that this act sets in motion.
“Perumal Murugan is a great anatomist of power and, in particular, of the deep, deforming rot of caste hatred and violence,” the Booker judges said.
Related: Indian author gives up writing after Hindu nationalist protests
Pyre is the first Tamil work ever to be longlisted for the prize. For a writer such as Murugan, the selection is not just a recognition of literary merit, but of a language to which he is deeply attached.
While Hindi and English are called “Indian languages” in the country, Tamil, along with others, is referred to as a “regional language”, a classification that denotes an inferior status.
Murugan calls this “language oppression” which ignores the fact that Tamil is one of the oldest languages in the world with a rich classical heritage. It is spoken by about 100 million people in India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Singapore.
“I am delighted. It is historic that a Tamil novel has reached this place. It is an acknowledgment of Tamil literature. I am incredibly happy that the novel is mine,” he told the Guardian by email.
Murugan, 56, tackles subjects such as poverty, caste and the subordinate status of females, which are lightning rods for anger in Hindu nationalist circles.
He got a taste of this after his novel One Part Woman was published in 2010. It told the story of a childless woman who is desperate to conceive. Murugan describes a festival at which, for one night a year, the usual taboos around sex are thrown aside and women who seek to conceive can have sex with strangers.
Initially, no one reacted negatively. But four years after its publication, local rightwing Hindu groups started reacting to Murugan’s “insult” to the temple, tradition and local women. Angry crowds turned up outside his home, demanding punishment.
In the intervening years, under the Narendra Modi government, such protests over anything deemed to be critical of Hindu culture have become commonplace. But at the time, having acquired a certain literary standing after publishing 10 novels, five collections of short stories and four anthologies of poetry, Murugan found himself suddenly being hounded.
After police intervention, he was compelled to apologise and withdraw all copies of the novel. In January 2015 he announced on his Facebook page: “Perumal Murugan the writer is dead.”
The trauma of being attacked by the community around him went deep. Apart from saying how the forced internal “exile” deeply affected him, his wife and children, he has declined to talk about it, even now.
“I have been constantly avoiding talking about my mood in that period. It was a situation I never wanted to see myself in. Can we rather speak about the present happy mood?” he said.
He emerged from his self-imposed exile only in 2016 when a court threw out petitions by Hindu groups demanding that he be prosecuted for his writing.
Later that year, Murugan told people at an event in Delhi that “a censor is seated inside me now. He is testing every word that is born within me.” Nonetheless, his preoccupations did not change, nor his willingness to dissect social evils such as caste.
It is impossible, he says, to talk about Indian society without mentioning caste.
“Caste is against life, and personal freedom. Caste suppresses the place of action that a human being naturally deserves. How can a society thrive if individual freedom is taken away? Caste is the reason why Indian society has not achieved sufficient development,” he said.
He is all too aware that the atmosphere has worsened since the mobs corralled him for One Part Woman. He calls it “a time of unprecedented state repression against freedom of expression”.
But socially, he sees trends that are heartening. More than ever before, there are opportunities for Indians from all walks of life to study and work together.
“The problem is that the forces which seek to gain and maintain their political power by fuelling the religious and caste sentiments of the people are opposed to such social changes.”
The hope lies with social media. “It is easy for conservatism to be ridiculed and taken to task. Social media gives us this hope,” he said.
Writing itself is another solace. “Writing to me is life … Every day, I go to write and bury myself there. The next day, I am born afresh.”
As the son of an illiterate farmer who grew up in a village with goats as pets, nature is another source of comfort for him.
“I am a farmer in harmony with the soil and its vegetation. I have a heart that goes tender on seeing a cow or a goat. Writing is my beloved lamb and I constantly follow it.”
This story was amended on 21 March to clarify that Murugan’s novel was longlisted for the International Booker Prize.