Perumal Murugan was born in 1966 to a family of farmers who had small land holdings near Koottappalli village, Thiruchengodu, a town in northern Kongunadu. His father, a farmer, supplemented the family's income by running a soda shop in a cinema theatre in Thiruchengode. Murugan began writing from an early age, and some of his early lyrics for children's songs were featured on programmes broadcast by the All India Radio.
Murugan initially studied Tamil literature both as an undergraduate, in Erode and as a postgraduate in Coimbatore. He went on to obtain M. Phil. from Madras University in Tamil studies, and followed by a Ph.D. His doctoral thesis focused on the works of Kongu author R. Shanmugasundaram.
As a professor of Tamil literature, Murugan has made several contributions to research and academic study of Tamil literature specific to the Kongunadu region, including building a lexicon of words, idioms and phrases special to Kongunadu. He has also extensively researched and documented Kongu folklore, especially the ballads on Annamar Sami, a pair of folk deities. In addition, Murugan has worked on publishing authoritative editions of classical Tamil texts. He has also republished works of literature relating to the Kongu region. One commentator notes that "In sum, his over 35 books provide a veritable cultural map of the Kongu region." Murugan taught as professor of Tamil at the Government Arts College in Namakkal. but was forced to leave Namakkal following assaults and protests by right-wing Hindu and caste groups, and now heads the department of Tamil literature at a government college in Attur, Tamil Nadu. In between, he briefly taught at the Presidency College in Chennai.
Murugan is the author of ten novels, and five collections each of short stories and poems, as well as ten books of non-fiction relating to language and literature, in addition to editing several fiction and non-fiction anthologies. Several of his novels, Short stories and poems have been translated into English, including ‘Seasons of the Palm, Current Show, One part women, Pyre – Novels’, ‘The goat theif – Short stories’ and ‘Songs of a coward – Poems’ . He has also written a memoir, Nizhal Mutrattu Ninaivugal (2013).
Murugan began his writing career by publishing several short stories in the Tamil journal, Manavosai between 1988 to 1991. These stories were later collected and published in a book titled Thiruchengodu (1994).His first novel, Eru Veyyil ('Rising Heat') was published in 1991, and dealt with the problems that a family faced when their land was acquired for the construction of a housing colony, engaging with themes of family, greed, and corruption. His second novel, Nizhal Mutram (1993), translated into English by V Geetha as Current Show (Tara Books, 2004), drew from his personal experience of helping his father run a soda stall in a cinema theatre.
Murugan's third novel, described by the translator and critic N. Kalyan Raman as a 'tour de force' was titled Koolamadari (2000), and was translated by V Geetha as Seasons of the Palm (Tara Books, 2004). The book dealt with the life and travails of its protagonist, Koolaiyan, a young goatherd of the Chakkili caste, who was bonded to work in a Gounder caste family to repay his father's debts. The book dealt with themes of childhood, autonomy and freedom.
His next novel, Kanganam (Resolve, 2008) dealt with the consequences of sex-selective abortions and female foeticide that caused a skewed sex ratio in the Kongunadu region. It focuses on the protagonist, Marimuthu, unmarried because of the scarcity of women within his caste and society. His novel, Madhurobhagan (2010) translated by Aniruddhan Vasudevan as One Part Woman (Penguin, 2013) dealt with a young childless couple struggling within their marriage, drawing specifically from the community and culture of the Kongunadu region. Aniruddhan Vasudevan was awarded Sahitya Akademi Translation Award (2016) for this book. According to historian Romila Thapar, it is the story of a childless couple with a strong desire of having a child, "depicted with admirable sensitivity, anguish and gentleness".
Aalandap Patchi (The Misanthropic Bird, 2013) again engages with the themes of land, family, and caste in the Kongunadu region, focusing on a young man cast out by his family who struggles with migration, exile, and livelihood.
Recently, his novel Pookkuzhi (Pyre) has been translated to English by Aniruddhan Vasudevan, as well.
In 2017, an anthology of Perumal Murugan’s poems, Mayanathil Nirkum Maram (A Tree that Stands in the Crematorium) was published, containing his four previous collections of poetry: Nigazh Uravu, Gomuki Nadhikarai Koozhaangal, Neer Midakkum Kanngal and Velli Shani Bhudhan Nyayaru Vzhyayan Chevvai. A series of litigation and suits concerning One Part Woman were instituted before the Madras High Court, and on 5 July 2016 the Madras High Court dismissed the case under citing Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution of India, ruled that there was no binding force or obligation in the previous state intervention that forced him to apologise and withdraw the books. The court further directed the state to provide appropriate protection when artistic or literary people come under attack, and to form an expert body to help guide the police and local administration to develop sensitivity to the issues involved. Following this judgment, Murugan returned to his literary career with a collection of poetry, “Kozaiyin Padalgal (Songs of a coward, Penguin – Translated by Aniruddhan vasudevan)”.
Awards and Prizes
In 2005, Perumal Murugan's novel Seasons of the Palm was shortlisted for the Kiriyama Prize.
In 2016, the English translation of Murugan's novel Madhorubhagan, or One Part Woman, by Aniruddhan Vasudevan, won the Sahitya Akademi's Translation Prize.