Dividing Lines: The power of a verdict

High court verdicts are often good news. But some news is better than others especially when the verdict goes beyond the question of the innocence of a man and challenges the very accusatory nature of a discourse. The Madras high court verdict on Perumal Murugan, author of One Part Woman, needs to be celebrated, but more than that it needs to be discussed because it is a sociological detective story that opens up a world and analyses it with deep honesty. In fact, the court not only tells its story but tells it by discussing all other narratives that have haunted this event.

The court, in its survey of the case, has pointed out that there are five separate narratives, each of which needs separate attention. It emphasises that beyond the author, proclaiming his own death, is the narrative of the lawyer and the publisher, each of whom displays a tremendous but understated courage and professionalism. In this day of witch-hunts and vigilante Kangaroo courts, to stand up to the crowd is not easy.

Big publishers have knuckled in quietly. When a small publisher and the lawyer stand courageously and fight a case even when an author proclaims his symbolic death one needs to applaud. Third, one has to salute the literary critics from Dilip Menon to V Geeta who created an anthropology of literature around the book elaborating every Rorschach and cultural symptom.

The court uses this literary criticism to enforce its argument. Criticism is not only a debate on aesthetics and obscenity but a meditation of a social psychology of a middle-class India still tinkering with its identity.

Fourth, there is the discourse of the plaintiff who challenges the alleged realism of the novel and accuses the author of defaming the town of Tiruchengode and its inhabitants. The court realises that there is not only the heritage of the town as a place of pilgrimage but there is also the ancestry of the freedom of expression, which the court has to sustain and articulate.

Finally, there is the opinion of the court itself, which after a systematic examination of all the narratives transforms the Perumal Murugan case from a law and order problem to a classic upholding of the right of an author to write. The judgment smacks of the nature of storytelling as the two judges examine all these shades of opinion.

The judgement begins with a prelude on Tiruchengode town which it calls the Kurukshetra of the battle and then quickly summarises the facts of the case.
Perumal Murugan’s Madhorubagan was written in 2010. It received considerable critical attention, a bouquet of awards for the Tamil work and for it English translation. The book had an almost non-controversial existence till 2014.

Murugan on his return from a Singapore conference confronts accusations of defamation. These voices of accusation intensify as a crowd turn repressive and becomes transformed into a law and order problem. In fact, the administration in interceding inadvertently becomes an extension of the interest groups who want to humiliate the author.

The court points out that the administration in reducing the book to a law and order problems loses its sense of responsibility about freedom and creativity, of the state as a protector of the fundamental rights of creative citizens.

In allowing protesters to burn 200 copies of the novel and for calling for Perumal’s dismissal, the crowd becomes a group of vigilantes and the state becomes an accessory. The court here is making a distinction between a repressive society where people think mechanically and uniformly and an organic society where law mediates difference. Contemporary law, the court points out cannot be a part of a repressive regime. The administration becomes accessories to the Katta Panchayats who behave like an extra-judicial phenomenon threatening the creativity of writers.

Oddly while the book performs an almost legendary role, the author withdraws heartbroken. He is invited to negotiations where he is deeply conciliatory. Yet, Murugan tries to explain that the function of an author is to question social values. He cannot mechanically accept society and adds, “when a society insists on rules, the writer will highlight exceptions”.

The everyday defence of the book is conducted by the lawyer, who makes a categorical distinction between regret and apology. Regret is loss, an empathy for a pain inadvertently caused while apology is a plea for forgiveness for an act wilfully committed. The lawyers admit to regret and caution the author from offering an unconditional apology. Murugan is heartbroken by the barbarism of the crowd. He claims that he is no God who can resurrect himself. He realises that he had opened a Pandora’s box that will not end with Madhurobagan. He announces his “death” as a writer.

What is impressive at this moment of distress is that literary critics come out in a creative defence with arguments that the court finds impressive. It quotes the historian Menon as complaining that Indian English authors like Narayan and Mulk Raj Anand are stilted next to regional writers whose sense of language and the smell of the region makes them more formidably authentic and culturally devastating. Menon adds that Malgudi reminded him more of P.G Wodehouse’s “Blandings Castle” than any real sample of rustic life in India.

The court in its reading of the book shows that the crowd has picked a few snippets without understanding the core of the book, which deals with the travails of a childless couple being corroded by the demands of society.

Both court and author show that folklore was more liberal about sexuality than the current middle class is still in its Victorians corsets. It is folklore which shows how moments of the carnival invert time and social hierarchy and allow the prohibited to be permissible.

During festival time, women can engage in sex with strangers providing history’s answer to a problem that haunts Indian society. The court emphasises that it is society that is cruel to childless couples and all Murugan does is to bring out the poignancy of the situation. The language is crude but apt because the crudity belongs to the mindset of a society which treats barrenness as sin, crime and illness.

The judgment is worth reading not only for the way it outlines the case but also for the pedagogic manner in which it outlines an argument. In an odd way, it is the judges who show that the Murugan story are three separate stories, a novel about childlessness, a battle about creativity and a court’s courage in showing that the duty of a writer is to write. Murugan declares the death of the author and it is the courts that resurrect him by emphasising his creativity necessity.

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