On January 14, Malayalam writer Kamal C Chavara publicly burnt copies of his book to protest alleged police harassment, two days after announcing on Facebook that he no longer wished to live as a writer. To many, this immediately brought to mind Tamil author Perumal Murugan who, in January 2015, had declared on the social media site that the author in him was dead.

But Kamalsy, as the Malayalam writer is known, insisted that his actions should not be compared to that of the celebrated Tamil author. “Murugan is a well-known literary figure,” Kamalsy told Scroll.in. “I am a relatively unknown entity who wrote just one novel.”

However, the similarities are hard to ignore.

Kamalsy was detained from Kozhikode in Kerala on December 17 and charged with sedition, after the Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha, the youth wing of the Bharatiya Janata Party, complained that one of his Facebook posts – said to be an excerpt from his 2015 novel Smashanangalude Note Pusthakam (Notebook of Cemeteries) – insulted the national anthem. He was released on December 20, after the police action met with widespread criticism from political leaders and activists.

However, Kamalsy last week alleged that he was still being harassed by the police and threatened by unidentified people. In an emotional Facebook post in Malayalam, portions of which have been translated below, he said:

“I don’t want to live as a writer. The case related to sedition over a Facebook comment, taken from my book Smashanangalude Note Pusthakam, still exists. I have asked the publisher Green Books to withdraw the book. On Saturday, I would burn my book in Kozhikode, taking responsibility for all my mistakes. I don’t want to be a writer.” 

“I don’t want to trouble my father, who is a heart patient, mother, brother, who has hearing and speaking impairment, and his family, anymore. The sedition charge on me has not been yet withdrawn. I am constantly getting threat calls. Admitting all my wrongdoings, I will publicly burn my book day after tomorrow. I urge everybody to pardon me for my decision and request to support me.”

Murugan too had announced the death of his literary career through a Facebook post in January 2015, after his novel, Mathorubhagan (One Part Woman) met with protests from Rightwing organisations and caste Hindus for allegedly offending religious sentiments. The author advised his readers to burn their copies of the book, published in 2010, and told publishers to take it off the shelves. In a landmark judgement in July last year, the Madras High Court dismissed all pleas seeking a ban on his book, ruling in favour of Murugan and freedom of expression. Shortly after, Murugan announced his rebirth as a writer.

Kamalsy and his supporters burn copies of his 'Smashanangalude Note Pusthakam'. Photo: TA Ameerudheen
Kamalsy and his supporters burn copies of his 'Smashanangalude Note Pusthakam'. Photo: TA Ameerudheen

Free speech debate

Kamalsy’s detention too sparked a discussion on free speech and the alleged high-handedness of the police.

A graduate from the School of Drama in Thrissur, Kamalsy, also a theatre activist, worked as a freelance journalist before trying his hand at creative writing. “I had written about Dalit and Adivasi issues in magazines and periodicals in Malayalam,” he told Scroll.in “But I stopped it as I found that media houses were not keen to publish stories of the marginalised sections of the society.”

Kamalsy said it took him five years to complete his first and only novel till date, which takes a dig at established political parties and social norms. “I don’t know whether it belongs to the novel genre. I have tried a different style of narration.”

But the years of hard work went up in flames last week, when Kamalsy set copies of the book on fire near the statue of Jnanpith award winner SK Pottekat on Kozhikode’s busy SM Street, surrounded by hundreds of activists who raised slogans against the police and the state government.

Photo: TA Ameerudheen
Photo: TA Ameerudheen

Earlier in the day, Kerala Director General of Police Loknath Behera said the police had stalled proceedings against the author. “No investigation is going on against him at the moment,” he said in a press release.”We are re-checking the case charged against him under article 124 (A) [Sedition] and other related cases.”

However, Kamalsy refused to budge and went ahead with the protest. He was allegedly abused and assaulted at a bar the next day by a man claiming to be a member of the Sangh Parivar.

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Voicing dissent

Kendra Sahitya Academy award winner Sara Joseph, known for her feminist works in Malayalam, said writers had different ways of voicing their protest in such situations. “Some would become silent by putting a full stop on their writing career,” she said. “Some would commit suicide while others would burn their books to show their disenchantment with the society…Writers must protest when they see and experience injustice, and it is a must for a healthy society.”

Dismissing suggestions that the protest and book-burning was a publicity stunt, Kamalsy said, “It is not for my personal gain. They should realise that my struggle is to defend the society.”

The author said that he cannot write when fear hangs above him like Damocles’ sword. “People must understand that I didn’t write my book to burn,” he said. “I was forced to take this extreme step by the state police and [Kerala] Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan.

He added: “I believe book burning and stop writing are creative political activities under the rule of [Prime Minister] Narendra Modi and Pinarayi Vijayan.”

Kamalsy’s publisher, however, criticised the author for taking a unilateral decision to burn the book and withdraw it from the market. “Green Books has signed a five-year contract to publish the book, and we are unhappy with the turn of events,” said Krishnadas, editor and managing director, Green Books. “He should have discussed the issue with us before announcing his decision. All the 1,000 printed copies had been sold a few months ago.”

Krishnadas said he would reprint the books if people wanted them to. “The contract is still valid. So we will print the second edition if there is a demand.”

Krishnadas said Kamalsy’s work was an example of experimental Malayalam literature. “That is why we decided to publish it,” he said. “It doesn’t contain any anti-national comments as claimed by the complainants.”