In a welcoming move, The Madras High Court recently quashed the criminal case against Tamil writer Perumal Murugan for his controversial book- Madhorubhagan (the English translation reads as One Part Woman). Chief Justice Sanjay Kaul (who previously rendered the historic judgment in the obscenity case against M.F Hussain) and Justice Pushpa Sathyanarayana delivered an inspiring judgment as to why the Court will not initiate proceedings against Murugan nor erase parts of the book.
The Court that delves into the freedom of art, from eroticism in the medieval ages to M.F Hussain’s judgment, highlights why art and writing should be allowed to transcend any social norm unless it deeply affects constitutional values, denigrates caste, raises racial issues or of the like. See here for a full copy of the judgment.
Madhorubhagan narrates the story of a childless couple, Ponna & Kali, and about the chariot-festival of the Tirchengode Hill where any childless woman may engage in sexual intercourse with a man, in the perception of a divine acceptance and blessing of a child. Murugan’s book, however, is a wonderful critique of the rigidly controlled sexual codes in India, enforced through various structures. In a country where endogamy is strictly followed and violently enforced through caste and religious structures, and exogamy similarly enforced through gothra and sub-caste structures, Murugan’s tale is a refreshing narrative, and a hopeful alternative on the norms of sexuality in India.
As Professor Uma Chakravarti elucidates in Gendering Caste: Through a feminist lens, the axis on which caste and sexuality revolve are inextricable in India. Caste structures are one of the most important factors that leads to the development and entrenchment of sexuality norms. The sexuality of the upper caste daughter, emanating from a deep apprehension of pratiloma, is to be closely safeguarded to prevent any blemish on the purity of the caste. The fear is based on the concept of purity & untouchability among the castes. The non-adherence to these norms, have on uncountable occasions, led to the death of the transgressors. It is in this context that Ambedkar proclaimed ‘women are the gateways to the caste system’ which ( therefore) leads to the intense policing.
Apart from being a hopeful tale for the freedom of sexuality from caste structures, Murugan’s tale, and the chariot-festival in particular, may just be another way of elucidating the sickening nature of monogamy and exclusivity. The response of Kali, who is devastated when he finds out about Ponna going to the chariot festival for consummation, does not seem uncommon. Nevertheless, the legitimacy and acceptance which is extended to the festival practice by the local population is something that is unusual. Even today, the idea of open-marriages or open-relationships raises eyebrows and invokes ridicule. But as Osho says, what is the point of love if you are going to put a full-stop to it? Or as Fuhrer once observed how can marriage be the goal of life, if it is also the end of life? I will not delve into the discussion of exclusivity and monogamy in detail, as I have already done so here. But it would suffice to say that Murugan’s work also marks an important difference between sex and love, and how the former need not always be linked to the latter.
Murugan’s work, originally written in Tamil, may just be the impetus for the kind of literature that brings spectacular ideas to even the remotest of villages. But any critique of a social norm in India does not escape opprobrium and relentless contempt. Murugan was harassed for months together and threatened relentlessly with dire consequences to the extent that Murugan declared that he is giving up writing which, needless to say, sent shock-waves to the literary world across the globe.
However, the Tuesday judgment seems remarkably significant for more reasons than one. Firstly, the judgment comes down heavily on unreasonably invoking baseless religious sentiments to curb freedom of expression. “All writings, unpalatable for one section of the society, cannot be labelled as obscene, vulgar, depraving, prurient and immortal” reads the judgment. Expressing disappointment of the strikes and bandhs that were effectuated by the mob in Tirchengode, the Court observed,
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 court in this way seems to have put its foot down strongly against using religious reasons to control any form of expression. But the Court went a step further in persuading Murugan to take writing up again,
Murugan should not be under fear (…) 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. (…) we conclude by observing this- let the author be resurrected to what he is best at. Write.
But the second and even more important significance of the judgment in whole, and in part, is the stand of the Court not to be swayed by those who created the controversy against Murugan. Because it is not only religious fanatics that have been ‘disheartened’ by the book, but those who found it blasphemous to even conceive the idea of having a system ( or no-system) of free sexuality without norms. And in that, the Madras High Court has rendered a phenomenal judgment not only on free speech, but also on the freedom of sexuality. It is only to be hoped now that the religious stupidity dispelled by the Madras High Court paves way soon for hyper-nationalism/ sedition stupidity to be dispelled by Courts as well. And needless to say, the least that Chief Justice Thakur can do now is to take inspiration from Chief Justice Sanjay Kaul when the CJI sits in the constitutional bench of the Supreme Court for the curative petition on Section 377.
Featured Image Credit: A collage of the book cover & Perumal Murugan’s picture | scroll.in