Sunday, 1 February 2015

Mathorupagan & Reality Check

Perumal Murugan’s Mathorupagan is the latest addition to the long list of books and other art forms that have been subjected to strong opposition in India for offending the sentiments of a community.

While the opposition for Mathorupagan was projected as a suppression of 'Freedom of speech' by the media and fellow writers,  realitycheck, a blog, has attempted to give a different perspective on this issue. With a contrived example of a toothpaste advert that could possibly result in a defamation suit, realitycheck points out the limits of free speech in a fictitious story.

“I take out an ad in the newspaper saying that there is proof that Colgate toothpaste causes oral cancer. Assuming The Hindu newspaper in a valiant hurrah to my right of expression publishes the ad. I will end up with a lawsuit by evening. Why should Colgate sue me for this and not publish a book explaining in detail why my claim is wrong?” 
- Reality Check India

One of main points in the mentioned post is that the vivid description of the offending event and the precise details like cast name, especially without a lack of a substantial evidence makes the protesters case stronger and even justified.

“There is no ambiguity in the book. The Vaigasi Visagam festivities, the chariot being pulled around town, the little details like the four streets, the various deities, descriptions of the fair, and on and on. The last day of the function he writes was “full of women over 30″ and on that day “all women are prostitutes”. The caste names also leave no room for ambiguity – it is about the womenfolk of Kongu Vellala Gounders.”
-Reality Check India

But after reading the book I felt that certain details, especially the usage of caste name, are not as precise as mentioned above. The edition I am referring to here is the third edition of the book, published in November 2012 by Kalachuvadu in Tamil.

To start with, to say that it is about the womenfolk of Kongu Vellala Gounders appears to me as a perceived thought. There is no direct mention in the book that the controversial ritual was practised only among the women of this caste. The family of the lead characters, Kali and Ponna talk about this ritual resulting in Ponna participating in it. Kaali and his relatives, at various points in the book, are casually addressed only as Gounders and not Kongu Vellala Gounder. 

Today, in popular notion, Gounders may be synonymous with Kongu Vellala Gounders. But the story is not set in contemporary times. There are subtle, but clear, evidences that the story is happening circa 1945. Even to infer that the Gounders referred by the author is in fact Kongu Vellala Gounders, based on the backdrop of the story, one should know the demography of the type of Gounders lived in and around Thiruchengode area around that time.

Currently there are more than one type of Gounders and it appears that not all Gounders are Kongu Vellala Gounders. The current list of Backward Communities approved by Government of Tamil Nadu has listed both Gounders and Kongu Vellalalars separately. Also the list has mentioned another caste Urali Gounder or Oorudaya Gounder in the district of Namakkal -- the district where the story takes place. But said that these data are most likely compiled in recent times and one has to know what type of Gounders lived in 1940s in that area to infer which Gounder was implied in the story. So, when the book mentions only the caste as Gounder, to state that it is about the womenfolk of Kongu Vellala Gounders. seems to be only an interpretation of realitycheck.

This difference in the caste name may seem trivial, but for those who haven't read the book in full and has read only realitycheck's post might incorrectly conclude that, the author has used this specific caste name. A quick look at the comments section of the above mentioned article will support this point. In spite of me pointing, in the comments section of the article, that there is no mention of Kongu Vellala Gounder in the book, a commenter still insisted that it is about Kongu Vellala Gounders. To quote “he has explicity used caste names, in detail..the main character is a Kongu Vellala Gounder”.

Realitycheck, in response to my comment, used 'THAT CASTE'  instead of the specific caste name. I believe this is probably because realitycheck agrees that Kongu Vellala Gounder was not used in the book.

“...The story did not involve Kali/Ponna making a secret pact or that she slyly did this on her own. But that it was a normal social practice in THAT CASTE as handed down by the old ladies. It may or may not have involved other castes, but that is not relevant. It may have dissipated the matter if storyline had Ponna participating with other community women.”.
-Reality Check India

But still, to say that it is a practice in 'THAT CASTE' seems to me, again, as an inference rather than what has been actually said. 

To quote from the book: In an instance where Muthu, Ponna’s brother, persuades Kaali to send Ponna to the event, he describes this as 'nothing new and it is only an age old practice'.  

“இது ஒன்னும் புதுசில்ல மாப்ள. காலகாலமா வந்துகிட்டு இருக்கற வழமொறதான” 
- pp 117

Though Muthu mentions it as an age old practice, he does not say whether it is a practice only among their community, or their family or the festival goers or among the people of the district. So to say that it is a common practice in 'THAT CASTE' is only an assumption. Even when Murugan narrates the event, he first describes it as 'any consented men and women can have intercourse on that night'. And in the next paragraph he says, 'no unmarried woman will be sent to the event. Women over 30 can be seen.'

“...கொண்டடத்தின் உச்சத்தில் வரைமுறைகள் எல்லாம் தகர்ந்து போகும். அந்த இரவே சாட்சி. இணங்கும் எந்த ஆணும் பெண்ணும் உறவு கொள்ளலாம்...திருமணமாகாத பெண்களை யாரும் அனுப்பமாட்டார்கள். முப்பது வயதுக்கு மேற்பட்ட பெண்களை எங்கும் காணலாம்.  ” 
- pp 87

Even here, Murugan does not associate the specified caste to the event.

I can understand if it is argued that the narration shows 'married women' or 'women over thirty' or 'any women or anyone attending the festival' in bad light. But to narrow it down to a certain caste seems inappropriate.

Similarly, reading the snippets and quotes may not always provide us the context. In the absence of a context, words can carry different meanings. The quote 'all women are prostitutes' from the book sounds quite offensive on its own. But in the context, where a prostitute, living in a street of prostitutes, who expects no customers on that day, says 'Who is going to see[visit] us today? Today, all women are prostitutes', the tone may be different. It is in this context that this quote is used in the book. 

“...இறக்கத்துக் கோயிலுக்கு எதிரே இருந்த தேவடியாள் தெருவில் அன்றைக்கு கூட்டமேயில்லை... 'இன்னக்கி நம்மள எவன் பாக்கறான். எல்லாப் பொம்பளைங்களும் இன்னக்கித் தேவடியாதான்' என்று அவர்கள் பேசிச் சிரித்துப் போனார்கள்.”
--pp 87 

Not everyone who might be offended by the first quote may feel offended when they read it in the context. Similarly, the meanings of these quotes might change when it is read in entirety. 

The point here is neither to dissuade people, communities from getting offended nor to argue that Mathorupagan is not as offensive as it has been criticized. But it is to show that that different people can interpret the same work differently. My inference or understanding of the story is different from that of realitycheck's (realitycheck indeed read the Tamil version of the book before writing the article). So I believe one should go through the full content himself\herself, be it a movie or a book, before feeling offended. If not, one may end up being offended by someone else's perception of the content rather than his or hers. This is highly likely in case of books, for a book does not always attain its meaning at the hands of the author but in the minds of the reader.