Blog : The Year of the Moustache #JLF2021

In my last post, I had started a series of blogs based on the sessions in Jaipur Literature Festival, 2021 conducted virtually from 19-28 Feb, 2021. This blog is based on the session – THE YEAR OF THE MOUSTACHE : S. Hareesh, Jayasree Kalathil in conversation with Aruni Kashyap, introduced by Tejaswini Niranjana conducted on 19 Feb, 2021.

Originally published in Malayalam as Meesha, S. Hareesh’s Moustache is a novel of epic dimensions and a contemporary classic mixing magic, myth and metaphor. The debut novel won the JCB Prize for Literature 2020 and is an extraordinary example of the importance of bringing India’s hidden corners to light through literature. In this session he and his award-winning translator Jayasree Kalathil speak with author and translator Aruni Kashyap about the work’s deep roots in the history, geography, politics and folklore of the Kuttanad region along with the process of translating this award winning novel.

I haven’t read the book so I was very confused about attending this session initially. I was worried the session might be full of spoilers and difficult to comprehend. But to my big surprise, the speakers discussed about the book, the controversy surrounding it, casteism, writing under totalitarian governments etc without spoiling the book too much for the possible future readers. So I enjoyed it thoroughly. I also felt that this conversation deserves to be shared with more people. So here goes. Throughout this blog I will be adding excerpts and thoughts from the session, often paraphrased.

The following questions were asked in English by Aruni Kashyap, S. Hareesh replied in Malayalam and Jayasree translated it to English. Some questions were asked directly to Jayasree also.

Q. How did you start writing this novel? What was the inspiration?

Hareesh: I wanted to write a novel since a long time back. I wanted to write about my place Kuttanad, the life there, its flora and fauna. Vavacahan is a real person in my village. At one point, I learnt that Vavachan once acted in a play as a policeman and like his fictional counterpart refused to shave his moustache since then. When I learnt about this, I decided to write that as a novel.

Q. The novel was first serialized in Mathrubhumi magazine. Then it stopped due to the controversy. Did you read it then? How did you get to know about the novel? What made you to take up its English translation works?

Jayasree: Mathrubhumi magazine is an important place for aspiring writers to get published and be recognized. I had read the novel in its serialized version. I was in London when the controversy happened. I didn’t watch it very closely or anything. Then Harpercollins contacted me asking if I was interested in translating the book. I had read only the first two chapters. So I asked for the full book. Once I had read the whole book, there was no way I was going to turn down the opportunity to translate it.

Q. Caste is a major theme in this book, especially caste politics in Kerala. Is it possible to write a caste-blind book anymore? Or will it always seep into our literature and art?

Hareesh: I don’t know about whole India in detail since I have never lived there, I only know from the news, literature etc. But in Kerala where I live, caste-politics is always there even though we call ourselves progressive. Caste-politics is not very explicit in Kerala, but very internal and implicit. Caste is there even in people’s names as suffixes. It is expressive in how wedding or funeral rituals happen. We don’t think it is a contradiction if the same person is a leader in a communist party as well as the leader of a caste community. I don’t think caste can be avoided in our writings. It won’t be true if it is done so. It is a very dishonest way of writing.

Q. Is there caste-politics in other Malayalam writings? Does Malayalam have a tradition of anti-caste, dalit writings?

Jayashree: Many popular mainstream writers are from upper-caste, some even write in a casteless way. Their language or narrative is often seen as standard, this is problematic. But we also have a lot of anti-caste, dalit writings in our literature. C. Ayappan‘s short stories, young writers like Renukumar etc are good examples for that. The recently published anthology ‘No Alphabet In Sight‘ is also an example.

Hareesh: Definitely, we have a good tradition of such writings. Pulikelappan who was a poet and revolutionary leader in Kerala, the poet Kumaranashan, writer C. Ayappan, Mukundan‘s work Pulayapattu etc are good examples. But the domination of uppercaste writings, standards etc are problematic.

Q. “Novels are free sovereign countries. We can’t take responsibilities for what our characters do.” This is an excerpt from the author notes of your book. There is a popular neo-liberal tendency where writers are accused of what their characters do, labeling it as glorification. That’s not how fiction works. What was your reason behind adding these lines? What are your thoughts about this argument?

Hareesh: The primary reason behind adding these lines were the controversies. A few lines of conversation between two characters in the novel spurred up the controversy. The whole book and the writer’s character is judged based on a few lines in the book. They don’t even have primary knowledge about fiction; they don’t know how to read fiction. I have quoted this many times, I will repeat it again. In Ramayana, a fisherman questions Sita’s chastity. But that is not Valmiki’s opinion. Saying so limit’s the writer’s creative possibilities and artistic freedom. In one of Llosa’s interviews he says: “how a labourer argues for fair wages, its in the same strain a writer argues for freedom.”

Q. In fiction, only trouble is interesting. Fiction is interesting before the happy endings happen. We need troubled people to create this trouble. Should we give “cautionary notes” about traumatizing events in the story? Is fiction a safe place, or as a view of the real world is it so traumatic and troubling?

Hareesh: Difficult question. No need. Writers themselves should think of writing or fiction as a safe place. It is a rescue place for the writer. Totalitarians are afraid of free speech. Storytelling is a fundamental part of our democratic process: to be interested in another person’s story. Recently, this is constantly threatened. Readers and writers have to hold on to it, demand it.

Q. In an interview of Margaret Atwood, one of her readers exclaimed that reading her books made readers sad. Atwood replied that it is a preparation for a real world. Quoting another writer she said, “Life should come with trigger warnings if novels should be a safe place.

Hareesh: I agree. Life is full of mixed experiences. One such experience is happiness, it is not the only one. So fiction is also sad.

Q. Where do you think a storyteller and translator comes in, in the process of sustaining democratic tradition in 2021?

Hareesh: Covid was beyond all kinds of religion, boundaries and barriers; so was its solution. So should be democracy and storytelling. Storytelling should be unifying. I hope it continues to do so.

If you are someone like me, who hasn’t read the novel Meesha or its English translation The Moustache yet, I hope you will buy the book and read it soon. In fact, I’m waiting for my copy to arrive. Please share your thoughts about the novel in the comments. Happy reading 🙂

You can know more about the author and buy the book using below links:

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