How Perumal Murugan found literary stardom with his debut novel ‘Rising Heat’
The Tamil writer speaks about caste, rural society, and the making of his first novel, out next week in English for the first time
In 1991, when 25-year-old Perumal Murugan published his first novel, Eru Veyyil, he made a splash in Tamil literary circles. Although only 1,200-odd copies were printed in the first run (half of them were sent to libraries and another 100 to the critics, which left roughly 500 for the market), the story touched a chord with readers and reviewers alike. The influential Tamil writer Ashokamitran praised the book in The Hindu. A collection of essays on the book by Tamil critics was proposed, though it never saw the light of day. Nearly 30 years later, the book appears next week in English for the first time, in an elegant translation by Janani Kannan.
Rising Heat is a work of understated beauty, an elegy to the past, yet hauntingly resonant with our turbulent times. Murugan’s debut bears the mark of his mature genius, especially the signature realism of One Part Woman, for which he is best known in the Anglophone world. You can feel the pulse of his setting, the camaraderie as well as hostility among the characters, smell the verdant air of the environs, and hear the sizzle of cooking as the women make their humble meals. The plot, which revolves around the changes that befall an agrarian family in rural Tamil Nadu after the state acquires their farmland to build a housing colony, is drawn from Murugan’s life. “It was by verbalizing the grief of that loss through the novel that I could find some relief," the writer says on a Zoom call, mediated by his translator.
The protagonist of Rising Heat is Selvan, a stand-in for Murugan, whose life, from boyhood to youth, traces the journey of his village from a rural backwater to an up-and-coming suburban small town. Along the way, the morals and ethos of community life disintegrate. The elderly are left high and dry, rejected by the younger generation, with barely any aid from the state. Those who come to live in the housing colony antagonize the villagers, who refuse to allow them to bury their dead in the local cemetery or use the village well. Caste tensions come to a boil as Selvan’s sister elopes with a man and rival political factions make a bid for control over the neighbourhood.
From rallies against the imposition of Hindi to the fights that erupt over a play being staged by the local lads, Murugan paints a vivid portrait of a society in flux without compromising the pace and progression of the plot. While the references to the government of the day did not earn him the ire of the state, he says he still got into odd troubles. “A teacher in Erode recognized the character of Veeran, who has a limp in the novel, in real life and lent him the book," Murugan says. “The real Veeran, a man with serious political connections, wasn’t too pleased with my portrayal." In the end, the writer managed to placate the offended man.
Murugan caused far greater offence with One Part Woman, originally published in 2010 and translated into English in 2013, propelling him to international stardom. Accused of hurting the religious sentiments of specific caste-based communities, the book became the subject of a lawsuit filed in the Madras high court, before it was decided in favour of the writer in 2015. But Murugan’s criticism of caste and social practices goes back decades, evident in the ambitious writer of Rising Heat. “When I was young, the social divisions were so rampant that tea stalls in my village kept separate tumblers to serve people of lower castes," he says. “These practices have mellowed now but are still not entirely gone."
Although the brutal deforestation of village land leading to aggressive urbanization imparts an air of tragedy to Rising Heat, Murugan doesn’t see rural life as an unqualified idyll. In his universe, industrialization can be a ticket to the blurring of caste lines, erasing inequality through economic upliftment, even at the cost of filling the air with noxious fumes and the land with refuse. The coexistence of these complex and opposing truths gives Rising Heat a unique moral compass—one that is reflected in Murugan’s expert characterization as well.
From the Machiavellian Sevathaan to Selvan’s wizened grandmother, everyone plays a pivotal role in this thickly populated story, dictated by their social, caste, gender and geographical moorings. But Murugan has departed from such hard realism since he came back to writing after declaring himself “dead" as a writer during the height of the uproar over One Part Woman. Instead, his stories now tend to be subtly layered with metaphors and allusions. “If it were not for the controversy, I would not have been forced to change my approach. I would never have discovered that I was capable of this new mode of writing," he says.
During the lockdown, Murugan has written some 20 stories in this newfound voice. His latest novel in translation, Estuary, will be released later in July by Westland. As this prolific writer continues to flourish in his new literary life, Rising Heat feels like a befitting gift for his admirers—one that takes them back to the moment when his star began to rise.