In January 2015, India’s English-speaking, urban middle class awoke to unusual news. In a small southern town, Perumal Murugan, a college lecturer and novelist little known beyond his home state of Tamil Nadu, had taken to Facebook to announce his own “death” as a writer.
“Author Perumal Murugan has died,” he posted. “Perumal Murugan, the writer, is dead. As he is no God, he is not going to resurrect himself. He has no faith in rebirth. As an ordinary teacher, he will live as P Murugan. Leave him alone.”
He asked his publishers to stop selling his books, and promised to compensate them — and any reader who felt it was “a waste” to buy his books — for their losses.
Murugan’s renunciation was prompted by the eruption of a controversy over his 2010 Tamil-language novel, Madhorubhagan, which tells the story of the anguish of a peasant couple, childless after 12 years of marriage. Under intense family pressure, the wife attends a religious festival where it is permissible to have sex with any man to conceive a child, who is considered a gift from God.
In December 2014, agitators complained that the novel defamed local women, depicting them as “sexually permissive”. After rabble-rousing protests, which drove the author and his family from their home, the authorities tried to restore order with a “peace meeting”. Murugan was put under pressure to “unconditionally apologise” and agree to withdraw the offending portions of the novel.
His metaphorical suicide note followed swiftly. “He was in torment,” Kannan Sundaram, his Tamil publisher, says. “He felt he can’t be a writer any more if he is afraid and has to take account of so many things he can’t write freely about — temple, caste or women.”
One Part Woman — the novel’s English translation published more than a year before the furore — had been critically acclaimed, but sales had been limited. After Murugan made national headlines, however, the English version of his book began to fly off the shelves, the latest novel written in one of India’s indigenous languages to find national fame.
Until recently, writing in regional languages struggled for attention in India, overshadowed by English. But of late, India’s growing publishing industry, hungry for more original literary fiction, has cast its net beyond the urban, anglophone writers who have dominated the literary spotlight. Critically or commercially successful novels written in indigenous Indian languages are increasingly published in translation, helping them transcend their linguistic boundaries to reach wider audiences.
“The most experimental and most ambitious novels I’ve read tend to be translations,” says R Sivapriya, fiction editor at Juggernaut Books, a digitally oriented Indian publishing house. “If you claim you are publishing the best and most interesting Indian fiction, a large part of it has to come from the Indian languages.”
Growing interest in indigenous language writing stems partly from a sense of “sameness” of many Indian-English novels, given their authors’ similar socio-economic backgrounds. “Writing in English tends to be from, and about, a certain kind of English-educated middle class,” Sivapriya says. “In the Indian languages, it tends to be people from all corners of society.”
Nilanjana Roy, an author and critic, says the literary “snobbery” that previously favoured English-language fiction is eroding. “There is a sense that Indian languages are no longer the stepchildren languages,” she says. “They may not get the global attention they deserve, but there is a lot of confidence in the Indian languages — a feeling that they can hold their own.”
Twenty years ago, Salman Rushdie, the Indian-born British writer, provoked anger when he derided writing in India’s indigenous languages as being akin to Soviet “tractor art” — socialist realism known for its earnest depictions of grim village life. Indian writing in English, he claimed, was a “stronger and more important body of work” than vernacular writing. Yet today, contemporary Indian language authors are tackling themes that resonate beyond parochial audiences.
Hangwoman, a novel by KR Meera, written in Malayalam (mostly spoken in the southern state of Kerala) and published in English in 2015, wrestles with issues of crime, punishment, class and gender in contemporary India, albeit through the story of the last in a long line of hereditary executioners in Calcutta. Goat Days, by the Malayalam-language writer Benyamin, looks at the dark side of globalisation as it relates the story of an Indian migrant worker who goes to the Persian Gulf hoping for a better life but ends up in a slave-like existence as a goat-herder in the Saudi desert.
Ghachar Ghochar, by Vivek Shanbhag, who writes in Kannada, a language predominantly spoken in the state of Karnataka, explores the impact of sudden wealth on a tight-knit middle-class family, mirroring the changes that have transformed India over 25 years of economic liberalisation. An English translation was published in India in last year, and will appear in the US in 2017. “It is not just English writers that respond to the modern world,” says Shanbhag, a former executive at Unilever, who says he had “no choice” but to write in the vernacular language of his childhood.
India’s literary community has long been torn by debates over language. Between the 1960s and 1980s, writers such as UR Ananthamurthy, OV Vijayan, and Mahasweta Devi, consciously spurned English, despite their fluency in the language, to write fiction in the vernacular tongues of the communities they were depicting — respectively Kannada, Malayalam and Bengali (spoken in West Bengal). It was also in regional languages where they felt their most important readership lay.
Many of today’s young regional language writers, who come from more diverse social, economic and educational backgrounds than their predecessors, have no option but to write in the vernacular as they lack sufficient command of English. “The literature of Indian languages is getting more and more democratised,” says Sundaram. “All sections of society — people from rural areas, oppressed castes, minority religions, women, gays and transgenders — are all coming into Tamil literature in a big way, telling new stories, unknown stories.”
Muguran, who speaks little English, epitomises this trend. He is expected to return to writing soon. In an important victory for free speech in India, the Madras High Court in July upheld his right to write freely, criticised the officials who put pressure on him to apologise and ruled that his promise to withdraw One Part Woman had no legal force. In their conclusion, the judges urged Murugan to be “resurrected to do what he is best at: write”. In response, the writer, who had ruled out his resurrection as an author, promised his readers: “I will get up [and write again].”