S Hareesh, the author of ‘Moustache’, and Jayasree Kalathil, the translator, talk about the novel that has recently won the JCB Prize for Literature.

Malayalam author S Hareesh in a light pink shirt looking to his left and in the background is blurred greeneryS Hareesh / Photo credit - Vinod Veerakumar
Features Books Sunday, December 20, 2020 - 17:21

Vavachan was pleasantly surprised that day when his father Paviyan, who hardly ever let anyone near the boat, asked him to hop on. It was an offer none of his five siblings or mother Chella had got in all these years. He climbed on, father and son bobbing on the backwaters of Kuttanad on what would be a strange and difficult journey. Years later, Vavachan would remember a woman who shooed away his father that day, when he tried to take her bananas. By then Vavachan would be known by another name, not welcome anymore in the land he grew up in. All because of the moustache he refused to shave away after growing it for a play.

S Hareesh wrote the story of Vavachan turning into ‘Moustache’ and while he did, added many more tales, mystic and often dark. Meesha or Moustache, the novel, got recognised over and over again, and most recently the English translation by Jayasree Kalathil won the book the JCB Prize for Literature.

Hareesh brushes off terms like magical realism. The bit of magic he created in his book has always been around in the folk songs sung over and over again by the people of Kuttanad. Many characters seeped out from the songs and found new lives in his book, he says. “Planning to write something and what you finally write can be very different. I wanted to bring the north Kuttanad that I grew up in into the writing. The myths, the stories, all of it, I adapted and fictionalised heavily for the novel,” Hareesh says.

Mystic, mysterious characters

Vavachan was based on a character Hareesh knew in his village. There was a man with a big moustache, who, like Vavachan, never took off the ‘meesha’ he grew for a play. This story sowed the first seeds for a fascinated Hareesh to write his novel.


Hareesh / Photo by Vinod Veerakumar

The characters, who seem like they are dropped into the pages of Moustache like puppets on stage, are not forgotten after their chapters are done with. The ever-hungry ghost, the mother Chella, the ‘Last Crocodile’, the British sahebs and the Little Saheb are all linked to Moustache’s tale. Even the elements from that boat journey that Vavachan took as a child with his father keeps coming back – the two men who rowed across on their boat, the angry woman they saw.

When the grown-up Moustache thinks of the woman, he begins to believe it’s the same person he later falls in love with and searches for everywhere – Seetha. At first the chapter on Seetha appears to end too soon and you worry if you will hear about her again. The fierce woman from whom profanities flew, who was afraid of none and who was attacked one night by Vavachan when she hurt him.

Later, he would wander about looking for her. He only wanted two things in life: to find the way to Malaya and to find Seetha.

Caste politics

In his introduction, Hareesh writes that he didn’t set out to write a novel about caste politics, but caste features primarily in the book. Vavachan’s moustache vexes one and all because he was a Pulayan who converted to Christianity and Pulayar, an oppressed community, just did not grow moustaches. Everyone from the barber to the dominant caste Nairs cannot bear the sight of a Pulayan with a moustache. It scares them – perhaps not so much the physical appearance of a man with a big moustache as the power it gave an oppressed man.

“There are all sorts of people, anti-human and anti-women. Even now there are. I didn’t want to whitewash all of that when I wrote the book,” Hareesh says.

Jayasree, his translator, feels that the novel, at a very fundamental level, depicts the toxic masculinity that thrives in patriarchal caste communities. “It exposes the frayed edges of the kind of strutting masculinity that assumes itself to be all-powerful and is dangerous, but is also, ultimately, ridiculous,” she says.

Controversy and after-effects

A dialogue on women in chapter 2 of the Malayalam novel created a controversy so big that Hareesh withdrew it from Mathrubumi magazine, which had been serialising it.

Read: Threatened by right wing, Malayalam writer S Hareesh withdraws novel from magazine

Two years after the controversy, its effects have still not died down. On a train journey that Hareesh took recently, a man selling books told him that people would sometimes get angry at him for selling Meesha. “He said that some people would ask him why he was selling a banned book! They think that the book is banned. The after-effects of the controversy just fail to die down. It even affects the reading of the novel – the focus is on that small controversial element, and critics sometimes don’t even look at the rest of the book,” says the aggrieved author.

If it weren’t for the controversy, that bit of exchange between men on women’s menstruation would perhaps have seemed insignificant, serving only to establish their characters. And they are hardly relevant, one of them appears only on that page and the other is the narrator of the stories, making guest appearances in the book as he tells the stories to his five-year-old son Ponnu. “It gives writers the freedom of storytelling, you can tell all the mysteries and all the folk tales in any way you want, when it is told to a child,” Hareesh says.

At one point, the child in the novel however asks if there are two Moustaches. The father had cut out the parts he thought wouldn’t be appropriate for a child and that leads to the boy’s confusion. But it doesn’t stop the child from asking intelligent questions.

Translator’s work

The non-linear narrative is one of the reasons that made Jayasree take up the translation work commissioned by Harper Collins. “I was instantly captivated by the story as well as by Hareesh’s style of storytelling – the way he plays with language, the non-linear narrative that invokes folkloric traditions of storytelling, even the irreverence towards what is expected of a novel. For me, personally, it’s also important that the politics of the book is something that I’m comfortable with,” she says.

Read: N Prabhakaran, author of 'Diary of a Malayali Madman' opens up on his inspirations

Translating a book like Meesha is no easy task, it gets hyper local at times. Jayasree found it most difficult to translate the folk songs. “The tune of the Malayalam folk songs completely occupied my head, and I found myself reading my English versions aloud in that tune. I was getting nowhere with them when in one of our conversations Hareesh reminded me that these were not his songs, that they were part of an oral culture and were invented and reinvented by different communities and people. So why not give them a new life in English, he said. That helped, and that is what I tried to do.”

Her favourite chapters in the book are the ones titled ‘Chella’ and ‘Birds’. “One of the things that I enjoyed immensely about the book is Hareesh’s descriptions of nature and the environment,” she says.

Hareesh is quite happy with the translation. He has other reasons to be happy, like the selection of Jallikattu, a film he co-scripted with R Jayakumar, as India’s entry to the Oscars. But he brushes away compliments saying all of it belongs to the director of the film, Lijo Jose Pellissery. Hareesh is now working with Lijo on another film, Churuli, which is currently in post-production.

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