J Devika’s translation of Unni’s 2019 Malayalam novel ‘Prathi Poovan Kozhi’ beautifully retains the soul of the original.

A collage of Malayalam author Unni R and the cover of his book The Cock is the Culprit translated into English
Features Book review Sunday, November 15, 2020 - 12:52

A cock-a-doodle-doo alarm goes off at daybreak and starts life till Kochukuttan, a young man who dreams of a life in Saudi Arabia, wakes up to the news of police landing at the home of Naaniyamma, a hearing-impaired, senile old lady who lives alone at his village. Chaos and confusion follow during which it is discovered that Chakku, Naaniyamma’s neighbour, has filed a police complaint against her rooster, which, with its unusual crowing, has interrupted a silent remembrance prayer held in honour of martyrs. Chakku, a diehard fan of the US who believes that the road to peace is through war, alleges an ‘anti-national’ conspiracy in the crowing of the rooster, breaking all hell loose.

Rumours mount, pass from ear to ear, get repeated and finally ‘become’ the truth. Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Communists, schoolchildren, teachers – everyone’s rituals and activities, even the National Anthem, get disrupted by the catastrophic hoot of the rooster, which, interestingly, no one has seen, but only heard or felt. Panic-stricken patriots, revolutionaries, believers, communists and rural folk vouch for the ‘existential crisis’ caused by the piercing sarcastic hoot of cockerels in the village and together decide to go for ‘total annihilation’. While Naaniyamma is oblivious to the hullaballoo, an upright Kochukuttan decides to address his moral dilemma and join the rooster hunt. What ensues is a chain of events, mysterious for some, absurd for others, but everyone decides to go with the ‘popular’ opinion.

The Cock is the Culprit, published by Eka, is a translation of the 2019 Malayalam novel Prathi Poovan Kozhi, the first novel penned by Unni R. The 118-page satirical fiction, translated into English by J Devika, is political indeed!

As Unni shifts his turf from short story to novel, he brings with him the charm of storytelling, the humour in the mundane, the subtlety of current political narratives and his trademark jibe at social realities. One can’t help but draw parallels to George Orwell’s Animal Farm; the setting of a world where some are equal and some, more equal; where the pig and man could no longer be differentiated; where liberty means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear. The irony at certain parts of The Cock is the Culprit, like when the widowhood and orphanhood of hens is justified as a sacrifice for national security, is hard-hitting, particularly in the wake of the contemporary political climate of the country.

The satirist in Unni, through Kochukuttan’s broodings, makes a few interesting observations as well. In Chapter 5, titled Darkness, referring to the rooster crowing fiasco as a modern folktale, Kochukuttan thinks, “All human beings have the inborn ability to tell a tale. Some write it down; some just tell it. Those who write the tales are praised as novelists or short-story writers; those who tell them are counted as liars. Because all tales are lies in the final analysis.” The tale Unni’s characters tell is a ridiculous lie that never gets a final analysis but is perceived as the truth and swallowed without an iota of doubt, and then frames an innocent man, who goes straight to trial. Whether the cock is a figment of imagination or a patriotic tale worth passing down generations is left to the readers to decide.

When it shifts from Malayalam to English, the novel beautifully retains the soul of the original, the burlesque and the morbid humour that hits below the belt. Devika’s free-flowing narration laden with excellent metaphors make the read worthwhile. Brownie points for the perfect choice for the title where it’s not the ‘rooster’, but the ‘cock’ which is the ‘culprit’ and not the ‘accused’. The cock, the bruised male ego, armed with patriarchal weapons of hyper-nationalism and privilege, is actually the culprit, though the blame is on the rooster and a powerless, unprivileged, low-caste layman who allegedly instigated the invisible ‘violence’ upon the public. The novel shows how masculinity-induced power and fascism finds a defenceless, senile nonagenarian single woman’s rooster as a culprit and shuts down the only sane voice that resists the illogical attempts. However, the ending has a twist in store, something one might not see coming, which delivers a tight slap on the face of the delusional group of men who have been chasing irrationality throughout.

The illustrations by Riyas Komu reveal what Unni has been hiding in plain sight throughout the narrative. The Cock is the Culprit would be convincing set anywhere in the country and hence, is timeless. The collective loss of reasoning, intolerance and figments of imagination take the lead in ostracising and persecuting the ones who fail to conform or defy ‘baseless’ public assumptions, traverse the happenings in today’s India – curtailing freedom of speech, spreading fake news, engaging in blame game and mob violence, and trial based on hearsay and not evidence.

A mirror held to oneself and the contemporary, The Cock is the Culprit leaves the readers spellbound, laughing their heads off but leaving them brooding as to who they were laughing at. Hilarity, here, takes a U-turn!

Vandana Mohandas is a movie-maniac, an unapologetic feminist, a believer of human rights, and admits it if she is wrong or ignorant, or both.

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