Imphal Review of Arts and Politics

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When Facial Hair Becomes a Symbol of Defiance Against Entrenched and Inherent Social Oppression

Book Name: Moustache

Author: S. Hareesh

Translated by: Jayasree Kalathil

Published by: Harper Collins India

Literary Fiction, Translation

Rating: 4.50/5 stars

 

Book summary

Vavachan is a Pulayan who gets the opportunity to play a policeman with an immense moustache in a musical drama. The character appears in only two scenes and has no dialogue. However, Vavachan’s performance, and his moustache, terrify the mostly upper-caste audience, reviving in them memories of characters of Dalit power, such as Ravanan.

Afterwards, Vavachan, whose people were traditionally banned from growing facial hair, refuses to shave off his moustache. Endless tales invent and reinvent the legend of his magic moustache in which birds roost, which allows its owner to appear simultaneously in different places and disappear in an instant, which grows as high as the sky and as thick as rainclouds—and turn Vavachan into Moustache, a figure of mythic proportions.

Set in Kuttanad, a below-sea-level farming region on the south-west coast of Kerala, the novel is as much a story of this land as it is of Vavachan and its other inhabitants. As they navigate the intricate waterscape, stories unfold in which ecology, power dynamics and politics become key themes.

Originally published in Malayalam as Meesha, S. Hareesh’s Moustache is a contemporary classic mixing magic, myth and metaphor into a tale of far-reaching resonance.

About the author:

Hareesh is the author of three short-story collections of which Adam received the Kerala Sahitya Akademi Award. He is also a recipient of the Geetha Hiranyan Endowment, the Thomas Mundassery Prize, and the V.P. Sivakumar Memorial Prize. Moustache (Meesha in the original Malayalam) is his first novel.

About the translator:

Jayasree Kalathil is an award winning translator and author. Her translation of N. Prabhakaran’s novella ‘Diary of a Malayali Madman’ was awarded the Crossword Book Award for Indian language translation (2019)

My Review

 

Reading S. Harreesh’s ‘Mustache’, I was struck with its various layers slowly peeling away in bits and pieces until at last, there lay bare the author’s brilliant writing style. The main ‘story’ set in Kuttanad in Kerala is about what happens to and around Vavachan/Moustache, a Pulayan (a class that the reader knows belongs to the lower social caste order) after he ends up wearing a moustache for a play, something that is not allowed. The larger context of course is that keeping moustaches is deemed a privilege as a status symbol for the higher caste and the most upper social class, which holds true till date in certain parts of the country. When Vavachan takes to the stage, the sight leaves the audience gasping in fear and awe while Vavachan feels an inherent change in his own persona. When he decides to grow his moustache further, the life and exploits of Vavachan takes on a turn of events that keeps him on the run even as many stories sprout up about him.

So then, is the book about the social and caste system? Or is it about the socio cultural history of the Kuttanad region? Is it more about the hardships faced by people in a region faced by yearly floods and hard labour? Is it about the lack of agency for women given they hardly occupy a meaningful position or place in the story or narrative except being the victim of sexual exploitation and violence? Moustache is all of these and more: the tone of writing is extremely conversational and makes reader to pause and think, to engage with the narrative. There is humour and satire, magical realism and stark scathing commentaries throughout the stories that flow like a wide water expanse that seems placid at first sight but which leads to various bends and streams with identities and whims of their own.

 

The author pays an ode to the old traditions of story telling with a character whose name mirrors that of Sita in the Ramayana who has been carried off by men against her wishes. Much like the Ramayana which has been told and retold by different bards and writers, with embellishments to the main story by region, across time, a story with different elements and yet the same: one where women are victims of circumstances, to be slandered, to be cast off in the scheme of larger causes, the author tells us Vavachan’s story and that of Sita. There are two endings to the story of Vavachan or rather, there are two strands to the story but both leave his final condition to the same end and therein, lies the sheer beauty of the writing by S. Hareesh who makes a point about the power of story telling: is it the story or is it how it is told? This is a book that challenges readers to read what is written and left unwritten.

The probing on art, culture, literature and how the audience perceives them, the dynamics of class, caste and the abuse of women as sexual objects, the socio cultural and historical asides will have you enthralled. The author uses imagery to great effect and one passage describing Vavachan hiding in the marshes and gliding on the back of a crocodile paints a haunting picture of a solitary unknown life living in the fear of being hunted any time. The translation by Jayasree Kalathil conveys so much of the mood and feel of the setting and the characters such that one tends to forget that it is a translated work. I would recommend this book to those who love Indian literature and to lovers of clever writing.

Moustache has been Shortlisted for the JCB Prize for Literature 2020.

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