Don’t Like a Book, Throw it Away: Madras HC on Perumal Murugan
The author Perumal Murugan should not be under fear, the court said. (Photo: Altered by The Quint)
The author Perumal Murugan should not be under fear, the court said. (Photo: Altered by The Quint)

Don’t Like a Book, Throw it Away: Madras HC on Perumal Murugan

On Tuesday morning, a Madras High Court bench comprising Chief Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul and Justice Pushpa Sathyanarayana delivered the verdict on a petition seeking a ban on Tamil writer Perumal Murugan’s controversial book Madhorubagan.

The court has ordered that Perumal Murugan need not withdraw his book. You can read the full judgment here.

Below is the epilogue of the verdict, laying out the reasoning for allowing Perumal Murugan the right to publish and distribute the book.

In MF Hussain’s case, the judgment began with reference to Pablo Picasso, a renowned artiste, who defined art as “never being chaste and what is chaste not being art”. Since in the same way writings are vehicles of personal expression, they must be understood and appreciated, even if provocative, keeping in mind our rich cultural heritage.

The ancient Indian Art as depicted has encompassed eroticism as part of it. Of the so-called folklore referred to by the author here, there is material to show that it was not something unknown – and this is why he has labelled his book as a novel. All writings, unpalatable for one section of the society, cannot be labelled as obscene, vulgar, depraving, prurient and immoral.

There can hardly be any improper intent or motive assigned to the author in the present case, who even went backwards to ensure that the hurt feelings of all are assuaged. He is a writer who had imbibed education and grown from the same very town, holding it in high esteem.

There cannot be a new puritanism imbibed in this civilisation of variant cultures. We are not stating that the creative freedom of an artiste is unhindered. We have referred to the fact that these are not matters concerned with security of the State or of denigration of any religion or a class of people.

A section of people is just seeking to put themselves or their ancestors in the shoes of persons who are affected because of a reference to a location and a folklore, which description of location also stood withdrawn subsequently, since the author believed it was a work of fiction and could have been based anywhere else. There has to be an attitude of tolerance towards writings which have existed for ages and which come into being, which may not be “of our kind”.

The author and artistes like him cannot be under a constant apprehension that if he deviates from the oft-treaded path, he will face adverse consequences. The opponents of the novel may certainly be entitled to its critique, as the proponents of the novel are entitled to applaud it. But shutting down life of the town, holding it to ransom and effecting threats to the author is not the way. The State also performs an important role along with the judiciary in protecting these individual rights and freedoms.

The author Prof Perumal Murugan should not be under fear. He should be able to write and advance the canvass of his writings. His writings would be a literary contribution, even if there were others who may differ with the material and style of his expression. The answer cannot be that it was his own decision to call himself dead as a writer. It was not a free decision, but a result of a situation which was created.

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 hope our judgment gives a quietus to the issue with introspection on all sides. Time also teaches us to forget and forgive and see beyond the damage. If we give time its space to work itself out, it would take us to beautiful avenues.

We conclude by observing this – “Let the author be resurrected to what he is best at. Write.”

Other important portions of the judgement

  • What was not acceptable earlier became acceptable later. “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” is a classical example of it. The choice to read is always with the reader. If you do not like a book, throw it away. There is no compulsion to read a book. Literary tastes may vary – what is right and acceptable to one may not be so to others. Yet, the right to write is unhindered. If the contents seek to challenge or go against the very Constitutional values, raise racial issues, denigrate castes, contain blasphemous dialogues, carry unacceptable sexual contents or start a war against the very existence of our country, the State would, no doubt, step in.

  • There is no doubt that the language used in the novel, especially, can be said to be rustic and a little crass. Is that by itself fatal? To our mind, the answer to this would be in the negative. There has to be something more to classify the novel as obscene per se or for requirement to delete certain parts of the novel.

  • Can it really be said to be a spontaneous reaction by the locals against some writing, which is allegedly related to them? We do believe that this does not appear to be the situation in the present case.
  • It is a matter of concern that as an evolving society, our tolerance level seems to be on the decline. Any contra view or social thinking is met at times with threats or violent behaviour.

  • We may also notice another aspect that one of the substantive claims being made is that the reference to the temple and the area seeks to cast aspersions on the women of the area. The book is a novel. It does not claim to be history. In fact, the author even agreed to delete the reference to any known place, so that the protests by these groups would subside, but even that was not sufficient for the agitating groups.

  • Art is often provocative and is meant not for everyone, nor does it compel the whole society to see it.

  • Merely because a group of people feel agitated about it cannot give them a license to vent their views in a hostile manner, and the State cannot plead its inability to handle the problem of a hostile audience.

And the judges also enjoyed reading the book, the judgment says, “On reading the novel, we felt that it could not be put down without going the whole hog. It was so absorbing!”

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