Aniruddhan Vasudevan, the critically acclaimed translator of ‘One Part Woman’, has declined the Sahitya Akademi Translation Prize 2016.
‘One Part Woman’ is a translation of ‘Madhorubagan’, a Tamil novel by award-winning author Perumal Murugan.
‘Madhorubagan’ – the tale of a couple from Tiruchengode, who face societal discrimination due to their inability to conceive a child – sparked uproar in 2014, with Hindu caste and religious groups holding protests.
The furore died down, but reared its ugly head again in 2017 when the Sahitya Akademi awards were announced and Aniruddhan’s name featured on the list. The agitators filed a petition in the Madras High Court against the book receiving the award.
In December 2017, the Madras High Court asked the Akademi to go ahead with their award ceremony as scheduled while ordering a stay on the English translation prize until further notice.
On Monday, the translator wrote to the Akademi and declined the award.
Kannan Sundaram, of Kalachuvadu Publications, which published ‘Madhorubagan’, told TNM, “He does not want to fight a legal battle to get the award. He also does not want eminent writers like Githa Hariharan, K Satchidanandan and others being scrutinized. He sees this (the fact that the case is still going on) as part of the ongoing problem of hounding Perumal Murugan, and does not want to be part of it.”
In 2014, four years after Perumal Murugan’s much-acclaimed ‘Madhorubagan’ released, the Kongu Vellala Gounder community began protesting against the book. The caste, which has a stronghold over the Kongu region in Tamil Nadu, claimed that the book insulted the women of their community, in addition to disrespecting Hindu deities. A police-mediated ‘peace talk’ between Perumal Murugan and the caste-Hindu right-wing groups resulted in the writer tendering an unconditional apology.
Soon after this, Perumal Murugan announced his decision to stop writing in a post on Facebook, which said the author in him was dead. Following multiple criminal complaints, in 2016, the Madras High Court finally quashed all proceedings against the book and the writer.
The court observed, “If you do not like a book, throw it away. There is no compulsion to read a book. Literary tastes may vary – what is right and acceptable to one may not be so to others. Yet, the right to write is unhindered.”
The judgement was hailed as a victory for freedom of expression.
In 2016, when the award to Aniruddhan was announced, the Kongu Kalvi Valarchi Arakattalai – the outfit that had protested against the book in 2014 – filed a petition in the Madras HC asking for the award to be cancelled.
According to reports, the petitioners took issue with the translation not being reproduced verbatim as well as the jury members having supported Perumal Murugan in the earlier controversy.
What the jury said
Malayalam poet and critic K Satchidanandan, a member of three-person jury that awarded Aniruddhan, said, “All of us in the jury feel that he should have accepted the award. But he feels that he is embarrassing the jury because the case is in court. He says he respects all three of us, but doesn’t want to put us in an embarrassing situation.”
Satchidanandan added, “He also feels that perhaps he’s not as good and that he’s only a beginner when it comes to translations. But we don’t share that view. We were very clear about our judgement. We are sure that this was the best among the books shortlisted. It was not for any political reason that we have given the novel the award.”
When asked about the legal battle, he said, “We are also accused in the case, as though we have conspired to give him the award. We had supported Perumal Murugan when he was silenced and they are connecting this award to that. Our conscience is clear.”
Githa Hariharan, acclaimed writer and another member of the panel, said, “If debates about literary merit or the merits of translation are going to be taken to the court, we’re in great trouble. There are two things here: One, the complete overturning of the freedom of expression on its head and second, the tremendous waste of the court’s time. If we have to go to the courts to discuss either literary merit or the prize-worthiness of either a book or a translation, not only is it ridiculous, but that’s not what the courts are equipped to do and that’s not what the courts are there for.”
She added, “Nobody in the jury canvassed for Perumal Murugan’s novel or for Aniruddhan Vasudevan’s translation. What we did, like hundreds of other writers and readers and literary critics and media persons, we stood up for the freedom of a writer to imagine, to speculate, to publish without being hounded.”