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Perumal Murugan: Resurrected Through Writing

Periyar made such a reform that people don't use the caste names in their names in southern India anymore. Whereas in other parts of India people are still using caste identities in their names.

Perumal Murugan

Acclaimed Tamil-language author Perumal Murugan’s books were once burned by far-right groups, and now he’s longlisted for one of the most prestigious awards in literature.  

Explore Murugan’s profound literary odyssey, from the challenges of being a Tamil writer in rural India, to the turmoil of book burning and societal backlash. This exclusive event explored Murugan’s latest work, Pyre, as he navigates societal complexities of villages “full of quiet menace”, so tense it leaves readers “gasping for air” (The New York Times). In a conversation, chaired by award-winning author and UNSW lecturer Roanna Gonsalves, explore Murugan’s extraordinary literary resilience, his literary legacy and the cultural tapestry he weaves. 

Perumal Murugan, a Tamil speaker, and Roanna Gonsalves, an English speaker, are in conversation in their respective languages. Kulasegaram Sanchayan provides consecutive interpretation throughout the event.

Presented by the UNSW Centre for Ideas and supported by Adelaide Writers’ Week


UNSW Centre for Ideas: Centre for Ideas. 

Roanna Gonsalves: Hello everyone. My name is Roanna Gonsalves. I am a writer and also a lecturer in creative writing here at UNSW. I would like to acknowledge the Bidjigal People who are the traditional custodians of this land, and I would like to pay my respects to Elders, past and present, and extend that respect to any Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people who are with us here today.

Tonight we have the pleasure of having Perumal Murugan join us to explore his work. Please also allow me to introduce our interpreter for the evening, Mr. Kulasegaram Sanchayan from SBS Tamil who will assist us tonight. 

Perumal Murugan is one of India’s most respected and highest selling literary writers. He’s the author of eleven novels and five collections each of short stories and poetry. He was born in rural Tamil Nadu, where he continues to live and work. He has twice been longlisted for the National Book Award for Translated Literature for One Part Woman, and The Story of a Goat. Also published by Pushkin Press, Pyre – this book – was longlisted for the International Booker Prize in 2023. His latest book, Fire Bird, will be published in Australia soon. Tonight we will be focusing our attention on Pyre. 

Mr. Murugan, thank you so much for making the time to come here. I also spoke with Mr. Murugan, I interviewed him in Adelaide a couple of days ago and so it’s just such a joy to speak with him again. I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit about Fire Bird. The book is not yet published in Australia, but before we get to Pyre, I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit about Fire Bird, what the story is about, because that book has recently won the JCB Prize for literature, a very prestigious literary award. And it’s quite… it’s a book that I’m looking forward to reading. Would you like to tell us a little bit about it?  

Perumal Murugan: Responds in Tamil.

Kulasegaram Sanchayan: Greetings, everyone. It’s a privilege to be at this university talking to you all.  

The Fire Bird was written in 2012. It’s about displacement. Migrating from one country to another is not the only displacement, but people moving from village to another village or relocating because of economic, or other situations, is also displacement. The story revolves around a farmer who relocates about 150 km from his own village. Because of some dispute.

Caste is very prevalent in the state of Tamil Nadu, but it’s prevalent all through India. And when you move from one village or town to another, you may be living amongst people of a different caste. And the discrimination that you face is very different from your own village. That is what touched a nerve with all the readers, whether they are in India or abroad. That fact resonated with all of them and what I had observed.

People migrating for education, for betterment of wealth is pretty normal. And that had been happening for ages. So that had increased a lot now. And the pain people feel when they migrate now is far more because they are made to move, not by choice.

Roanna Gonsalves: That’s so interesting because this movement, either forced migration or in some of your books, migration by choice, there’s a really interesting movement that happens in Pyre. Let me contextualise Pyre a little bit. Saroja and Kumaresan — Saroja a woman, Kumaresan a man — are in love, and in danger. After a whirlwind romance, they marry in a small southern Indian town before returning. So that’s the movement, from a town to a village. It’s Kumaresan’s family village. But the newlyweds are harbouring a dangerous secret. They belong to different castes. And if the villagers find out — the villagers from Kumaresan’s village — if they find out, there is a sense right from the start that, you know, he thinks that, there will be a lot of danger, but he feels, oh, Saroja has fair skin, she’s a fair skinned person, and that might offer some protection. The privilege of, a kind of whiteness, I suppose. However, faced with venom from her mother in law and pointed questions from her new neighbours in her husband's village, Saroja struggles to adjust to a lonely and uncomfortable life. Kumaresan throws himself into building a business, hoping to scrape together enough money for them to start over somewhere new. But then, of course, as in all good literature, things get worse. 

I wanted to ask you about this movement, but also this idea of fairness, the white privilege in that sense, is… it’s valued in a country like India, but yet it is not at all enough to save Saroja, or to protect Saroja as Kumaresan thinks. He thinks her fair skin will protect her, but actually her fair skin cannot protect her from the evil entrenched caste system.

I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about that.

Perumal Murugan: Responds in Tamil.

Kulasegaram Sanchayan: Usually people migrate from village to city or town, but in this story, the migration happens from the city to the village. Kumaresan is the reason why they’re moving, because he owns land in the village and his mother lives in the village, and he thinks that he will have some protection in the village where he moves to. And Saroja, the heroine, she is fair skinned, and generally fair skinned people are associated with higher castes, and he thinks that she will be accepted in his village. But that is not what happens in Pyre.

Roanna Gonsalves: It’s also very interesting that link between class and caste. Because, actually, Saroja is much more sophisticated. She’s much more sophisticated than Kumaresan. So, for example, she’s used to —  in the town where she lives in — she’s used to having privacy when she, you know, has her bath and goes to the toilet, etc.. She uses toothbrushes, she has a transistor, you know? There’s  all of these markers of modernity and contemporary life that Saroja is used to. And so for her, it's actually coming down in class, but that sophistication also is no protection for her when she moves back to the village, to Kumaresan’s village. And Kumaresan is not really rich. They own land, but it’s like subsistence farming. So it’s just so interesting the way you’ve made so complex these easy distinctions between caste and class, and similarities between high caste and high class, you just completely make that, you blow that out of the water in many ways. If you could just talk a little bit about those links and those inversions of caste and class.

Perumal Murugan: Responds in Tamil.

Kulasegaram Sanchayan: In India, caste plays a more powerful role than class. Even workers do not unite for a common cause. Tradies come together based on caste, then their trade. And he used auto drivers, which are the tuk tuk drivers, as an example. Even if their economic status is the same, people will differentiate or discriminate based on caste. So they both may be having the same struggle, but they will discriminate each other based on caste. 

Even communists are not able to make roads in the community because caste plays a bigger role than the economic struggle that people face. In some states where caste is not as prevalent, communists have made some inroads. 

The story is set about 50 years ago, and there is a belief, the villagers think, that the city dwellers are not trustworthy. They may be engaging in unacceptable behaviour. So in this context, even though Saroja appears to be fair skinned and others because she’s from the city, she is looked down. Even a religious leader had made a statement that women should not go to work, because if they go to work, they may lose their chastity. There’s a belief that women will uphold the caste structure more than the men and people from the city, particularly if it’s a woman, has more chances of breaking those barriers, and therefore it is not accepted in the village. That’s how I have dealt Saroja and Kumaresan story in this novel. 

Roanna Gonsalves: Yeah. It's really interesting the way you have developed the female characters. So there’s Saroja, who is… most of the novel, is, kind of, from Saroja perspective. We get a little bit of Kumaresan’s perspective, but it’s really Saroja’s perspective. And so she's someone who, she knows her power and she knows who she is, and she knows that she's more sophisticated. She has had access to those markers of modernity in the city. And it's really difficult for her in this little village. But the mother in law, I love that mother in law character, Marayi, she's amazing! She's… she has… she herself was widowed when she was 20 years old and raised her son as a single mother in this village. She was from a wealthier family, but then came kind of, you know, she married beneath her, so to speak. She married beneath her, and moved to this little village. And her husband, committed suicide or drowned? I wasn't quite sure. It's nice, that ambiguity in the novel, to not be so sure about what happened, exactly to the husband. But the thing is, she herself has faced so many hardships, such a hard life. And yet she's so awful to Saroja. She's awful to Saroja. She has some of the best lines in the book. 

So what she does is often she speaks to imaginary people and animals. So she’ll speak to the goats. She will speak to her dead husband and chastise and berate him. And when her son hears this and he's used to his mom, you know, constantly talking to imaginary people, the son says, “Why are you talking to my father? He's dead.” And you know what she says? She says, “So what? Being dead doesn't mean you have settled your accounts.” Isn't that such a great line? I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about the creation of this… so you don’t… she's awful to Saroja. She wants to kill Sar… she wants Saroja to be killed. And she's constantly just so dramatic. She's the melodramatic mother in law. But yet, I felt really drawn to her. My heart was actually breaking for Marayi. Because, you've created her in a very tender way. We hate her, but we also love her.

Perumal Murugan: Responds in Tamil. 

Kulasegaram Sanchayan: It appears that way, that Marayi is an evil woman. But it's a situation that had created her. She is, as you mentioned, she's a young widow, brought up her son by herself. And most of the time, it is her inner feelings that are brought out. And that's what he wanted to bring out to say, because it is the environment in which she is put, that had created that character. And she has not travelled far. She has not travelled further than 30, 40 km from her own town. Her caste, clan, kith and kin are very important to her. And she pegged everything on her son Kumaresan, and when he brings a woman from outside, particularly the caste, and from the city, it breaks her. Because she's broken, she behaves in such a way.  Honour killing. I hope you all know about honour killing. People kill their own children, because they had married someone out of their caste and things like that. For a person like Marayi, the world revolves around her son and her village. And when the son had done such a thing, they would go to the extent of performing an act like that.

Kulasegaram laughs 

So he had used a psychological approach to convey Marayi’s inner thinking, feelings. Because loneliness plays a big role in such villages. And, when you are lonely, you tend to talk to goats, trees, because you can't talk to a neighbour, and you can't find any neighbour to talk to, and that's what you, that's where you find solace. So, that's what they resort to. 

Perumal Murugan: Speaks in Tamil. 

Kulasegaram Sanchayan: Oh! Ahhhh!! 

Laughter and applause. 

Perumal laughs. 

Kulasegaram Sanchayan: I skipped that part.


Kulasegaram Sanchayan: Even if she wants to… curse… 

Perumal Murugan: Speaks in Tamil. 

Kulasegaram Sanchayan: Ahhh! Because it happens to me! Yeah. 


Even if Marayi wants to curse her husband, she would say things to the goat. 


“Goat, you didn't do this, or do that” to the goat! Which means the message would go to the husband.

Roanna Gonsalves: But that's so interesting. That, even though she loves her son more than life itself, to her, the shame, the humiliation, or what she perceives as shame and humiliation, a son marrying someone from a lower caste and bringing the girl, back home to the village because, often, often in the book, lots of different, many characters will say, oh, it's fine if you want to have your fun, but take her back to the city, don’t you bring her here. That's what's shameful. But that sense of saving face, the shame of the community and the respect of the community is so much more important than individual happiness. She can see her son is so happy with this woman. And she, the woman is happy, Saroja is happy with Kumaresan, and Kumaresan is so happy with Saroja. They're a good couple. They're good together. 

But that's again not enough. That's the entrenched, the systemic oppression of the evil, evil caste system, which actually has its tentacles in Australia as well. There's a lot already been written. You can look it up. About, how, caste it has been, is one of the imports, so to speak, I mean, of course, we have our own issues here in Australia, but the caste system has migrated, along with many South Asian communities here, as well. But that sense of, as you were saying, it's a system that has created the person, made Marayi the person that she is. But it's also the system that demands that it's upheld. It's individuals who uphold the system. Individual happiness plays no part. It's always about saving face, the respect of the community.

I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit about that. Because you deal with this theme, in a lot of your work. You know, caste, the entrenched nature of caste, the way in which, the community, the systemic oppression of caste. It's not just about individuals of course, individuals. The caste system is manifest in individual behaviour. But, it's really just such an evil system that's been going on for so long in India. Even seeing your own son completely in love with this woman, I wonder if that's, it's a way of exerting power over the son, in that kind of sense of the mother having control of the son all his life. And now… so there's multiple ways of power and control that she's trying to exert for multiple reasons. But caste is the main, the shame of this inter-caste marriage seems to be the main one. But you're also doing many interesting things with, you know, that sense of maternal control over the child.

Perumal Murugan: Speaks in Tamil. 

Kulasegaram Sanchayan: Marayi was made a widow at a very young age. earlier you mentioned, the husband was, committed suicide or… that is well written and it's very subtle. We don't know, because there were no witnesses for his death. So, her possessiveness comes through, possessiveness because her son is the only person that she has, and no husband, no other relatives close by. And, she can't stand when he is showering love to his wife. And that's one way of looking at Marayi’s character. 

All his novels will have some connection to the caste system and the caste discrimination. Because in a village setting, you cannot write without touching caste. Because if you do, then you are hiding something, you’re not completely telling the story. 

So in Murugan’s village, there are three major castes, and all have their own area where they live. And if a person from another caste comes to this area, nobody will stop you. But people will want to know why that person, or what that person is doing in this part of town, or village. There's no common space in villages. In cities there will be many temples, where people from different castes may go, but in villages each caste will have their own temple. And they don't like other people, other caste people coming to those temples.

In early 90s, when he started writing, he also read a lot about… of writings of Ev Ramasamy Periyar. He was a reformer of the social structure in India, the southern states and Babasaheb Ambedkar, he was the person who was instrumental in writing the Constitution of India. I’m taking a few more minutes to let the audience know who these people are. Periyar made such a reform that people don't use the caste names in their names in southern India anymore, whereas in other parts of India, people are still using caste names in their names, or caste identities in their names. And Periyar had said… Oh! Not all southern states? Okay only in Tamil Nadu. Yeah. No surnames or no caste base names in Tamil Nadu state, and that's a big, social reform that… and he had said if you want to, get rid of the caste system, you have to get rid of all the villages.

Roanna Gonsalves: And it's not just your garden variety xenophobia, it's not fear of Other, it's more than that. It's about impurity and defilement,9 the caste system. It's about people from the lower caste being subhuman. Even the sight of them, their shadow, will defile you and make you impure. When Dalit people speak, they say that it's the worst form of oppression, because it's not just colour of the skin or the way you look or anything else, it’s actually about impurity and defilement, isn't it? 

In the nov… 

Perumal Murugan: Speaks in Tamil. 

Kulasegaram Sanchayan: What’s your question?


Roanna Gonsalves: The question is, in the novel, many of the characters especially, Kumaresan’s uncles and the uncles family, his mother's side of the family, and also people in the village say, “She's impure. Get out. She's impure.” You know? It's about impurity. Can you tell us a little bit about what that, how the effects of that are, how you try and represent that in your work.

Perumal Murugan: Speaks in Tamil. 

Kulasegaram Sanchayan: Each promoter of the caste system wants to show that they are pure, their caste is pure. And when there is any chance of anyone mixing out of caste, it becomes a big issue. And his book, One Part Woman, deals with that and… 

Perumal Murugan: Speaks in Tamil. 

Kulasegaram Sanchayan: Oh! And the issues that made him… Are we going to go into that? That he stopped writing?

Roanna Gonsalves: Yeah! I would love to! Love to hear about that. And for the audience to hear, because that book created a huge problem for you. I mean, to put it mildly, huge problems. And would you like to tell us about those challenges? Because there were petitions raised against the book. The book was burned, 2015? 2015 the book was burned, and petitions raised against you, against your work. You were a professor of Tamil, and you had to quit your job or take some time off from your job, because it was getting the threats of violence very, very difficult to work in that situation. Which led you to say, “Perumal Murugan, the author is dead”. But then the judge, thank goodness for some of the judges in the Indian… in our justice system in India. But you put it very beautifully. I have something written down here, but in Adelaide you said something really beautiful about the judge reading the book line by line. Would you please like to tell us about that?

Perumal Murugan: Speaks in Tamil. 

Kulasegaram Sanchayan: The issue that came to surface in 2015 when he published that book is related to this. There are laws and there are ways to deal when laws are broken. If someone's struggling to have babies, there are fertility clinics, [where] you can do IVF, and so on, now. And those days, the book, the story deals… 90 years ago, the British… 1940s, right? And, during that time, they had a system to deal with, impotency or things like that.

Roanna Gonsalves: Infertility. 

Kulasegaram Sanchayan: Infertility, yeah. There were three charges against him. One said that, his writing… disrespect to religion, disrespect to caste and disrespect to women. Were the three charges brought against him.

Perumal Murugan: Speaks in Tamil. 


Kulasegaram Sanchayan: None of the women who had read the book said anything was wrong with the book or anything against the book. There are women who had asked him, how did he know my story? And they had fallen at his feet and said, you have brought out my story beautifully. There are more men, who talk, or raise issues about, or / on behalf of women.

Roanna Gonsalves: / On behalf of.

Perumal Murugan: Speaks in Tamil.  

Kulasegaram Sanchayan: It was caste and religion combined that caused all the issues in Karnataka state, then the joining state to Tamil Nadu. There were two writers, they were murdered for their writings, and it's about the time that his book was taken to task. 

So in that context, the district administrator had a meeting with the protesters and, Mr. Murugan, and made him, or forced him, to sign an agreement that said that he will not sell that book anymore. Withdraw the book. And he felt shame. So shameful that he said, I'm not going to write anymore. And the writer, Perumal Murugan is dead.

Roanna Gonsalves: Yes. And then?

Kulasegaram Sanchayan: … and the court case.

Perumal Murugan: Then, then… 


Speaks in Tamil. 

Kulasegaram Sanchayan: Progressive Writers Association went to court saying that, the agreement that Mr. Murugan had signed, should be withdrawn. And, there were two judges, S.K Kaul, and Pushpa Sathyanaraya. S. K Kaul was the high court judge in Tamil Nadu, Chennai, chief justice in Tamil Nadu. He became later, Supreme Court judge. Yeah? And in the judgement, the last sentence of the verdict – sentence of the sentence – was one sentence that said, write. Mr. Murugan should write. And that gave him… as in, he felt that it was an order, that he should continue to write. 


Roanna Gonsalves: Yeah. And isn't that a great thing that you have continued writing? Just going back to, the way in which you depict women and you know how, you said that some of the petitions were saying that disrespect to religion, disrespect caste, disrespect to women, and then not so many women readers said, you have represented my story. And I feel like, when I was reading Pyre, what struck me was this very tender depiction of women, not on a pedestal, not putting up, woman there like a saint with no flaws, but you really get into the head of the characters. Saroja and Marayi, their interior world, the inner thoughts and feelings, so beautifully that we feel we are experiencing the world as they are. 

And the other thing that I was really so moved by is a structural thing, actually, in this book, which is, you move backwards and forwards in time. And if you buy the book, you'll see the translator's note at the end, where the translator says that these time shifts, going backwards and forwards in time, without any markers, it's quite… it's accentuated in the Tamil, and not so much the translator saying it was hard to do in English. But I think that's absolutely there in the English translation, and the effect of that is that I felt as I was reading, that was such an excellent, like such a skillful, sophisticated stylistic choice. Because to me, as I was reading, I felt like, oh, Saroja, it's so horrific what's happening to her. She cannot process it in the moment as it's happening. It's only on reflection. It's like a deferred understanding, that we get, that that she has when she's looking back on certain things. I feel like that's what the time jumps do for the reader. It gives us a sense of that horrific, that sense of these events being so horrific that they cannot be expressed, they cannot be talked about in the present as they are happening. You have to reflect on them to make even the slightest sense, because it's just, it's illogical, it’s evil, all the things that are happening to her, the things people say to her, violent, hurtful. And so that's…

Would you like to tell us about how you… is there a process that you go through when you, when you create these female characters? Which are… who are just so beautifully created, so complex.

Perumal Murugan: Speaks in Tamil.  

Kulasegaram Sanchayan: I was a mama's boy. The reason why I'm able to portray women's inner feelings beautifully is because of my mother. I couldn't get along with my father, and everything is… He has written a book titled Amma. Amma means mother in Tamil. And even his wife would say, even now, sometimes, when he narrates few things, or talks to her, you're talking like your mother. I was surrounded by women from childhood, lots of female cousins. And, therefore, I could understand their inner feelings.

Roanna Gonsalves: I just wanted to ask, my final question is about the depiction of nature. I feel that as I was reading this book, it's not nature as we kind of think, you know, the stereotype of nature being bountiful, and nature being protective, nature being, like, you know, Mother Nature, that sort of thing. This is an environment of threat. Even the natural world is an environment of threat for Saroja. And nature actually betrays her. I don't want to give away the ending. It's just a beautiful, moving book. It's a very moving book. I strongly urge you to buy a copy and read it. But if you would just tell us a little bit about the depiction of nature in Pyre.

Perumal Murugan: Speaks in Tamil. 

Kulasegaram Sanchayan: All my novels will have land, flora, fauna, all those will be elaborated in my novels. Because the background of the environment is important in my novels. And sometimes, it becomes a character of its own, because people take comfort with nature, and that comes out in all my novels. 

Roanna Gonsalves: Beautiful. Thank you. Does Marayi feel more shame or pressure because she doesn't want to be seen as a bad mother who failed to raise her son the right way without a man?

Perumal Murugan: Speaks in Tamil. 

Kulasegaram Sanchayan: Even now all the blame is taken by the mother. When a child makes a mistake or faults. So, you can read it like that as well.

Question One: It's such a pleasure to be here and to see you in person. After reading your books and reading about you in the newspaper. My question was not on the novel, but on your writing process. When you're writing, do you start with characters? Do you begin at the end, in the middle? How, if you could just walk us through the process of writing, is it, is it enjoyable? Is it painful? How does it… just the process of writing. Thank you.

Perumal Murugan: Speaks in Tamil. 

Kulasegaram Sanchayan: Both. Some parts, enjoyable. Some parts are very, tormenting. Sometimes that he had he had stopped writing for days, sometimes years, before he had gone back to the writing. Oh, he had been writing seasons of the poems for seven years. Each novel has its own life and process.

When he was writing One Part Woman, the character, female character goes to the temple towards the end, and, he had, he couldn't continue. And he had stopped writing and he had a dream one day, and it was a word. And he had written down that word and then, sentence. And then he could continue.

Roanna Gonsalves: So you work with sentences rather than… because some writers will have an image, and start with an image. Some with words and sentences and some with…

Perumal Murugan: Speaks in Tamil. 

Kulasegaram Sanchayan: It's never the same process. Sometimes the opening line is the biggest issue, but once you start writing, it flows. Sometimes it's not. 

Question Two: In English, so that you'll also understand. Everybody will understand. I just wanted to ask that, about your case, there were three charges rose against you. One was, that is against religion, caste, and then women. This is intriguing because, you know, recently, the right wing politics in Tamil Nadu, and in India, how they set the narrator is through women. You know, like, for example, there are movies coming out of Tamil Nadu that say - speaks in Tamil - which means, you can't touch my woman, you can't touch my land. Which is, you know, treating women like an object. Objectifying women. That's what happens. 

I just wanted to attribute Periyar, as well. Periyar said – speaks in Tamil – you know, even, like, feminism… don't trust any man who speaks feminism, even if it's me. Right? Even if it comes from me. He was a very big feminist. In 1879, he was born, and in a very conservative state called Tamil Nadu. He was a very feminist, progressive man. And, he said that. 

And, my question is: has Tamil literature – because you are a professor of Tamil – has Tamil literature, has it always spoken, the politics of men through women, or is it a recent trend? Or has it always been like that? Because mainly the question is that, I see that, in the north, especially in India, that we see that from the north, I kind of get a feeling that that's how it is. Is it a trend that came from the north, or has Tamil always been like that? Tamil [indecipherable] has always been like that, or not? That’s all. 

Perumal Murugan: Speaks in Tamil. 

Kulasegaram Sanchayan: The question was, when did this start for women's perspective to be portrayed through men's eyes? And whether it came from Tamil literature from olden age, or was it from the north? And Mr. Perumal said, not, definitely not from the north, maybe from the west. But when women started writing and they said, who are you to talk about my issues? I will speak myself. It started with Periyar and there was, poet during the independence movement called Bharathiyar. Periyar wrote a book called Why Were Women Enslaved? So from that on in the 90s, women started questioning men. Who are you to speak for me? I'll do it myself. So there were a lot of women poets, who have come up and so on.

Question Three: Professor, thank you so much for your insightful dialogue here. You do believe that you’re not an activist, but a writer, writing and connecting with a society - and your fictions give you more freedom for the exploration of characters. My question concerns two of your novels: One Part a Woman, 2010 and Kumiji, 2018. I’m particularly drawn by your ability to portray humans through the lens of animals and vice versa which fosters a deeper understanding of funny side, gentleness, humaneness, and the human condition across boundaries. Do you meant that-  I could see that the characters and personas are closer to your experience if it is so, how did this experience, I mean your One Part a Woman experience, shape your approach to giving voice to marginalised communities in your [indecipherable].

Perumal Murugan: Speaks in Tamil. 

Kulasegaram Sanchayan: I am from that background. That's why I'm able to talk about that. So two years ago, when there was an election in the capital, Delhi, there was a banner, billboard, which, campaign for party, which had, which had the message that they are helping people from the slums, with a photo of Mr. Murugan. And a lot of his friends called him and said, did you know that this is happening? And his reply was, what's wrong with that? Because I'm from there.

Question Four: I find it fascinating that irrespective of caste the woman is always taken for granted and remains at the very bottom. Patriarchy is always greater than caste. We see that in the gender pay gap even in modern Australia today. So I make 75cent to $1 that a man in my position would make. Honour killings, dowry deaths – I think about the intersectionality - Speaks in Tamil - Imagine the intersectionality. Your comments on what happens to women – yes – I would love to hear your comments on that intersectionality. And it could be age – Speaks in Tamil – of age, of sex, of gender. Because irrespective which caste you belong to – Speaks in Tamil – How come the woman is always at the bottom? 

Perumal Murugan: Speaks in Tamil. 

Kulasegaram Sanchayan: How Else? It is bad. But it is a lot better than it was a long time ago. Doctor Muthulakshmi Reddi was the first doctor from India, when she wanted to go to school, she had to write to the then King and get permission. And, when she went to school, the father would accompany her and people would spit  on the father and daughter. And in the school, there was a screen dividing the boys and the girl, the only girl, who topped the class and became the first doctor. But there was a division, so that the boys' hearts won't be spoiled looking at this woman. And we have come a long way. Doesn't mean that we are there yet.

Roanna Gonsalves: Before we finish up, Mr. Murugan, do you have any final words before we wrap up the conversation? I just want to say that, Mr. Murugan's presence here in Australia – is this your first time?

Perumal Murugan: First time. 

Roanna Gonsalves: First time! However, your work has been known for a very long time. In 2015, when, One Part Woman, you know, was burnt and there was all of that, agitation and, you wrote the author is dead, Perumal Murugan is dead. Some of us, and Christine is here, some of us actually took the book. We were so outraged that that could happen. And we felt we should resist. We should record some resistance. We went to the Town Hall steps, Sydney Town Hall, 2015. Christine is here. Sukhmani Khorana who works here, Sharon Rundle, who was also meant to be here, and Ben Edrington and myself. We read some of his work out loud at Sydney Town Hall.


No one noticed. No one notices a small act of resistance. But that's the power. That's the power of someone as great as him. He is a great man. Professor of Tamil, but writer of the most beautiful work. So courageous, so courageous. Writing about the caste system, the atrocities, the evil of the caste system which continues today. So thank you so much. Thank you for your work. Thank you for the labour you've put in for so long, at great cost to yourself. We have all benefited from that. Thank you.

Perumal Murugan: Speaks in Tamil. 

Kulasegaram Sanchayan: It is Mr. Murugan’s first visit to Australia, and he's happy to know that even in 2015, you had the protest in front of, or, read the script in front of the Town Hall. And he is happy to note that a lot of readers who have read his book and his work were here to ask him questions, and he thanks profusely the organisers, University of New South Wales, for organising this event.

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Perumal Murugan

Perumal Murugan

Perumal Murugan is one of India's most respected and highest selling literary writers, author of 11 novels and five collections each of short stories and poetry. He was born in rural Tamil Nadu, where he continues to live and work. He has twice been longlisted for the National Book Award for Translated Literature for One Part Woman and The Story of a Goat. Also published by Pushkin Press, Pyre was longlisted for the International Booker Prize 2023.

Roanna Gonsalves

Roanna Gonsalves

Roanna Gonsalves is an award-winning writer and educator with an interdisciplinary practice. She is the author of the critically acclaimed collection of short fiction, The Permanent Resident. Her series of radio documentaries about contemporary India, On the tip of a billion tongues, and her social-satirical radio essay Doosra: The life and times of an Indian student in Australia were commissioned and broadcast by ABC RN. She works as a Lecturer in Creative Writing at UNSW Sydney.

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