No other literary book, in recent years, has created so much controversy and organized opposition as ‘One Part Woman’ of a Tamil writer Dr. Perumal Murugan. Although its opposition was confined mainly to Tamilnadu, yet it was quite intense and violent as well. Governments in our country are known for buckling under pressure of agitations of some groups. We have seen it in the cases of ‘Satanic Verses’ of Salman Rushdie’ or ‘Lajja’ of Taslima Nasreen. However, in the case of ‘One Part Woman’, the Madras High Court has delivered a landmark judgment and it has come down heavily on the tendency of the governments for banning the books. The concept of morality an obscenity changes with times. What was considered to be obscene a few decades ago has now become normal and acceptable feature of the society.
Literature is said to be the mirror of the society. We get the description of the customs, traditions, social norms and politico-economic conditions of the society in the litterateurs. Nevertheless, there is always a distinction between literature and life. When the lines of distinctions are blurred, they create a great deal of misunderstanding and confusion, which is often accentuated by the so-called custodians of the society like religious and communal leaders. It is a matter of huge relief and satisfaction that the judiciary in India has never been narrow in the interpretation of the freedom to be enjoyed only by creative persons like litterateurs and artists etc.
Literature cannot achieve the zenith of glory when there is a suppression, oppression and bigotry in the society. It can flourish when there is full guarantee of freedom of speech and expression. Fortunately, our constitution is the most formidable sentinel of our freedom, which says that this can be restricted only when the question of sovereignty, security and integrity of India is involved or if it vitiates the friendly relations with foreign countries of India. It can be further restricted for maintaining public order, decency or morality or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement of offence.
Let us very briefly know the contents of the novel Modhorubagan (One Part Woman), which has received many literary awards. It seeks to relate the travails and tribulations of a childless couple –Kali and Ponnayi (called Ponna) – that constantly face the barbs of the society. The couple battle out against social and familial pressures. Somewhere, the family pressures gain an upper hand and what transpires to assist procreation is the troubling area of the story. The novel is not based on history despite the fact that it is set against the author’s native place, Tiruchengode (Tamilnadu). It begins by referring to the Portia tree with dense foliage and flowers, whose stalk was planted by Kali three months after his marriage to Ponna. Twelve years down the line, Ponna looks at the tree and sighs: “A shadow fell on her face. She must have thought about how while the tree had grown so lush and abundant in twelve years while not even a worm crawled in her womb. Every wretched thing reminded her of that lack.”
There had been talks of second marriage of Kali, both openly and secretively for about seven to eight years prior to the period because of the non-conception of a child by Ponna. It is Kali who used to tell Ponna about the chariot festival at Tiruchengode. Look at the pathos and despair of the woman. “Ponna, too, was full of hope after praying to Pavatha. After every twenty days, she prayed, “God, please fill my womb at least this month.” Even if there was a day’s delay in her menstrual cycle, she was filled with excitement: “This is it!” But if her cycle began the next day, the house looked like someone had died in it. She didn’t eat properly and just lay around.”
The couple left no stone unturned in offering prayers, whether it be at a big or small temple, or for the forest gods. Kali was stated to be ready to forego his cattle and all that he had saved with his frugality, if only their prayers were to bear fruit. The couple made prayers ‘n’ number of times at Tiruchengode itself. They had to go past the forest where the Pavatha shrine is, and climb further up, to arrive at Pandeeswarar Temple. The deity on the hill top was called Pillaiyar. No ordinary soul could reach there; one needed both mental and physical strength. Ponna did even that effort, though it was dangerous, and the worry in Kali’s mind was that if she were to trip even a little, it would be end of it all because he would be accused of doing away with her by pushing her off the edge deliberately, for that place was (in)famous for murders and suicides. Sleeplessness started overtaking Kali. His mind would turn to different thoughts. Kali’s mind turned towards the incident where his mother and mother-in-law stayed together in the night, allegedly confabulating about something, but neither he nor Ponna could make out what they were discussing so intently. Ponna’s suspicion was that they were talking about a second marriage for Kali and she knew that her parents did not mind if Kali were to marry again. Even on questioning, she could not elicit an answer from her mother and thus, she went to Kali to express her suspicion. Kali was concerned at the fact that people were asking him to send his wife to another man just for the sake of a child, even if he did not need a child. He took a decision that he should find an opportunity to tell Ponna very firmly that he did not want children. It was much better than losing one’s honour and he also wanted to know what was in her mind.
Writing the judgment in the Madras High Court for the bench consisting of Justice Ms Pushpa Sathyanarayana, the Chief Justice Shri Sanjay Kishan Kaul asked, where is obscenity in the book? A common test of obscenity is that – (a) a book when read as a whole appears lascivious or raises lustful thoughts or desire; and (b) when the book contains no literary, artistic, political or scientific value. No doubt, the burden to prove the same is on the party seeking a ban. ‘Decency’ and ‘obscenity’ are relative terms. Justice Kaul posed a question whether it would be desirable for the Courts to intervene or should it be left to the readers to learn for themselves what they think and feel of the issue in question? There are often challenges raised with good intentions, including keeping it away from the reach of children. But it may not be in its entirety.
Sex, per se, was not treated as undesirable, but was an integral part right from the existence of civilization. The Indian scriptures, including the Mahabharata, are said to be replete with obvious examples of sex outside marriage, also specifically for the purpose of having pro-genies and that too, of the intellectual class. These practices have been followed by both the higher and lower social and economic strata of the society, only as an endeavour to have a future perfect King. Can we say that the Mahabharata or the various other literature, which are part of our history, yet they say something that is unusually lascivious and therefore should be banned? The Supreme Court of India in many of its judgment has expanded the jurisprudence on the concepts of constitutional fraternity vis-à-vis fundamental duties as constituting the core principles of our Constitution, whereby the sense of respect and dignity that is to be offered to another’s views, beliefs and practices are termed as a constitutional norm.
Whenever free speech and expression is sought to be given wings and let loose against the backdrop of one’s creativity, it must carry on its flight within the domain of constitutional morals, forever remembering that while individual opinions and forms of expression are critical to advancement and multifaceted national development, equally important is the safeguarding of the dignity and respectability of another and his cherished beliefs, for the latter must never be compromised on account of the freedom guaranteed under 19(1)(a). In Uttar Pradesh vs. Lalai Singh Yadav the Supreme Court has held that the a valid order of banning a book is to be examined on the anvil that the book or document contains any matter, which promotes or is intended to promote feelings of enmity or hatred between different classes of the citizens of India and (if the Government itself cannot invoke the power under Section 99-A IPC, how can a group of self-serving persons decide to use their number power to achieve what is not permissible even under the provisions of law? Thus the judiciary has acted as bulwark against the arbitrary and illogical demands of some vested interests. The maturing of public opinion through judicial pronouncements is indeed a welcome evolution.