This past Friday in India, several members the Bharatiya Janata Party, a right-wing political party, and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a non-government Hindu organization, joined together to protest Perumal Murugan’s novel Mathorubagan by openly burning copies in front of a local police station. The two groups are calling for a ban of the book and the author’s arrest on the grounds that he represents the Hindu temple in Tiruchengode, Lord Shiva, and female devotees in a “bad light.”
The book, published in 2010 (published in English as One Part Women), tells the story of married couple Kali and Ponna’s struggles to conceive a child — a struggle in which they have tried everything from prayer to pilgrimages to potions, but all in vain and much to the vocal displeasure of their community. Their last resort is a chariot festival in the temple of the half-female god Ardhanareeswara, where consensual sex can occur between any man and woman. The book is a contemporary narrative that explores the decrees of society through the lens of this modern couple’s personal struggle and anxiety.
It is just this type of contemporary narrative, though, that has led to violent threats made against the author by community members and to police complaints demanding that the book be banned, ultimately culminating in the burning of several copies of the book this past week. As author Murugan expressed in a recently to The Indian Express:
Most of the threat calls were anonymous while all of them sounded abusive. As a writer, I would welcome any kind of criticism… But burning copies of the book is really saddening. After all, what I have written is a fiction and like all my other works, the plot of Mathorubagan revolves around my native place, Tiruchengode, and its beliefs and myths.
Although calls for banning books still happen around the world today, it is a rare occurrence when groups resorts to the archaic practice of burning them. To go so far as to physically destroy the work in such a manner is a testament to just how strongly these groups feel about the books portrayal of their religion and its followers. By no means does this justify their actions, but rather what it reveals is just how much the modern world and freedom of speech and expression still suffers from violent biases.
Regardless, Kannan, the publisher of the book, has made public comments refusing to stop printing the book and stands behind his belief that the book, like all fiction, is the author’s narrative interpretation and was not meant to deface an entire religion or its followers in any way:
[P]eople get hurt by many things including the narration of uncomfortable truths. The Constitution does not safeguard anyone’s sentiments from getting hurt. Kalachuvadu [the publishing house] will not withdraw Mathorubagan. We will not cease publishing his (Murugan’s) novels in print. We are prepared to fight this atrocity.
Although the rash actions taken by these groups come as a shock to many, the Express News Service in The Indian Express writes that the book burning is only one of several protests that have occurred in India in the past couple of months in light of rising discontent by Hindu organizations. In February, Penguin India pulled Wendy Doniger’s book, The Hindus: An Alternative History over protesters’ claims that the book “denigrat[es] Hindu traditions.” Similarly, another Indian publisher, Orient Blackswan, opted to stop sale of two of its unnamed titles that deal with similar subject matter.
As The Indian Express reports, though, “In this context, it is heartening that Murugan’s publisher has refused to withdraw the novel. It is now on the state and civil society to help guard the space for the assertion of the fundamental right to freedom of expression.”
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Contributing Editor Caitlin McCabe is an independent comics scholar who loves a good pre-code horror comic and the opportunity to spread her knowledge of the industry to those looking for a great story!