How Perumal Murugan's Amma Came To Accept His Obsession With Books

In his new book 'Amma', Murugan captures the life of his mother in a collection of essays.

When I was in class eight, Anna and I started buying magazines like Rani, Ananda Vikadan and Kumudam. Amma thought this was an unnecessary expenditure. Once we got hold of these magazines, Anna and I couldn’t do anything else until we finished reading them. Sometimes we bought a copy each. Amma hated it; besides the money being wasted, work was also getting affected. These magazines also occasionally carried glamorous pictures of actresses. ‘Are you spending money to buy and read these kind of books?’ Amma would ask furiously. Soon, she gave up the habit of collecting paper because she could now tear pages from our magazines when she needed to.

Presently, she had to face another issue. When I was in class nine, I started buying literary books. None of the shops in our village sold them, so I ordered them through VPP after seeing advertisements in magazines. The postman would deliver the books and collect the money. Amma would silently watch me hand the money over. The loathing and anger on her face could scorch.

As soon as the postman left, she would begin ranting, going on and on, and there was no way I could read the book then. I would go and sit somewhere in a field and not return for a long time. Though Amma would call out loudly enough, I would pretend not to hear and return home only after dark.

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‘He forgets everything around him when he has a book in his hand. At this rate, is he going to have the time to study well, become a district collector and give all his money to me? I graze goats and cows, sell milk diluted with water and save every paisa. This dog throws all our money at paper! I don’t know how he is going to survive!’ and so on and on she grumbled.

I used to buy a book every month. Amma’s tirade would begin the day the book arrived, and by the time it subsided, the next one would come. Her cycle of rants would start up again. To avoid this, I told the postman not to deliver the books to our home and picked them up from the post office instead. However, Amma would find me reading the book, and know what I had done. She remembered the covers of all my books and recognised a new one instantly.

Though I also had a membership in the public library, it did not have the books I needed, nor did it stock any new ones. It was tiring to search for books there. I was deeply interested in poetry around this time. There was an unwritten rule that the public library could not purchase contemporary poetry. Traditional poetry ran for many pages, but the contemporary books had a lot of blank space, with three or four lines printed in a corner on just one side of a page. Why would one buy books with so many empty pages? This is what the then education minister, and others in positions of responsibility and authority, must have thought. Perhaps a professor who detested contemporary poetry was a member of the committee that selected books for the library. I, who had a deep interest in poetry, did not find sufficient fodder in the public library. I was forced to buy books.

Predictably, Amma had a problem with allotting space in the house for my books. But I negotiated and secured a stool to stack them on. She reproached me every time she laid eyes on that stool. Then I managed to find a wooden box for my books. She complained that it took up too much space in the house. I was afraid that she would sell my books by the kilo to a scrap store when I was away. The one thing Amma disliked about me was my habit of buying books and we frequently quarrelled over it. ‘Mad fellow! Mad fellow!’ she often said.

The more Amma scolded me, the deeper grew my fascination with books. I threatened her every day when leaving home: ‘Don’t you dare misplace my books on the pretext of cleaning or sweeping the house. If you do, I’ll never come back.’

My obsession with books was a huge source of trouble. It was my bane to constantly roam around in search of them.

I named my brother’s daughter, born in 1985, Ilamathy. Nonetheless, to check if there were better names, I ordered a book titled Names for Babies from Manimekalai Publishers. Was it necessary to spend money and buy a book just for naming a child, Amma scolded me severely.

Our financial circumstances were bad those days. We hardly had any income because the cinema theatre in which my father had a shop had shut down. Appa was in poor health and was confined to the house. The meagre income from selling the milk of two buffaloes is what sustained our family. Given these circumstances, Amma could not make sense of the idea of buying a book only to name a child. Her remonstration began with ‘Don’t dance around without understanding the value of money,’ and only grew from there.

I too provoked Amma by claiming more space for my books, from the stool to the wooden box to a wooden cupboard. When I went on to do my higher studies, Amma’s rants scaled down to mutterings. Whenever I visited home, my bag was full of books. She would stare at the bulging bag and fall silent. ‘Do you have money for food?’ she would mock me.

From this time on, she never directly disapproved of my book-buying, but indirectly, she did express her displeasure. However, this did not trouble me and I just laughed it away. I had come to be known as ‘the boy who reads’ in the village. Amma allowed herself to feel a little proud of this, and perhaps that is why she now tolerated my books.

I lived and studied in Chennai for a few years, and had also got married around that time. I had by then become the owner of a substantial collection of books—many bought in Chennai, piles of them I had picked up from scrap stores, some stolen from others and so on. In 1996, I got a government job and shifted to our village with my new family. I was a college professor and the first government employee in our village—a matter of pride for Amma.

We had very few things to transport from Chennai. The ten cartons of books that we had dispatched soon reached us. Now, there were a few thousand books at home, including those that were already here.

We lived in a one-bedroom house. Where was the place for books? I built long concrete shelves on the walls to properly store them all. Amma raised no objections. She once said: ‘Your father was obsessed with alcohol and beedis. Addicted to them, he tortured us until he passed away. Your elder brother is also addicted to drinking and smoking beedis. He also causes much trouble. Every human being has some addiction. Is there a person without one? You too have an addiction—books. Other than the fact that it is an expensive obsession, it doesn’t trouble anyone. Go on, do as you please, buy more and stack them up to your heart’s content!’

Excerpted with permission from Amma, Perumal Murugan, Eka Westland.