Moustache by S. Hareesh: The winner of the JCB Prize for Literature 2020

A modern fable traversing the length and breadth of the below-sea-level farming areas of Kerala, set about a hundred years ago resurrecting forgotten stories, myths, and legends within the realm of magical realism.

Undoubtedly, ‘Moustache’ was the most awaited read for me, especially after it won the JCB Prize for Literature 2020. ‘Moustache’ is written by S. Hareesh in Malayalam and translated into English by Jayashree Kalathil.

‘Moustache’ is a unique title and instantly conjures up the image of male masculinity. The book explores masculinity within the fold of caste-ism, ecology, and poverty. Another interesting element in ‘Moustache’ is that it harps on the aspects of storytelling and the importance of stories in our lives.

We yearn for a good story, and often the popular stories are a part of our ‘collective imagination’. This book is not a single story; there are dimensions and clefts that take you through a meandering and enriching literary waterscape. 

A good story is like an arrow from the Pandava prince Arjunan’s quiver: a single arrow that becomes ten when released from the bow, and hundreds of thousands when striking the target.

A Peek into the Story

‘Moustache’ is about Vavachan, a Pulayan converted to Christianity, living in Kuttanad, Kerala. He lives with his parents – Paviyan and Chella and his siblings. Life is hard for the people belonging to the lower castes in these areas – they work in the agricultural fields and as fishermen, yet have to beg for a bowl of leftover rice water or hunt for food in the wild – spending their lives in abject poverty, hunger and ignorance.

Fate brings Vavachan to play the role of a policeman in an act staged by Ezuthachan who had returned from Madirasi (present-day Chennai) with his experience of theatre. A non-descript act at a local level and an even minor role without a single dialogue lands Vavachan in the spiraling mysticism of the larger than life character – ‘Moustache’.

The audience is petrified of ‘Moustache’, comparing his appearance to the ten-headed Ravanan. After the act when Vavachan returns home, he realizes a change within and refuses to shave off his moustache. This is the time when the lower castes are barred from growing facial hair. Vavachan defies this norm and is on a run from then on. Soon the stories of his terror become a commonplace talk and farm songs, turning him into a shapeshifter, a thief, and attributing many misdemeanors to him.  

Over the years, many versions of his wanderings come about, and with it the digressions in his story, his origin, and name. You wonder – Whether the stories on Moustache were an honest portrayal or did he come to live in conformity with the stories about him?

Moustache heads out into the wilderness intending to find Seetha and reaching Malaya.

Moustache’s nomadic ventures are the kaleidoscope through which the reader reaches many lives touched by him, knowingly or unknowingly. These stories reveal the social structure at the time of World War, the advent of the British exploring the land, its people, and the spreading missionary work.

Sublimely you are swamped into one story after the other, visiting talking crocodiles to ghosts to knowing about social reformers and other famous personalities.

The primary narrator in the book is a father who shares the stories about Moustache with his little son, Ponnu, adding an interesting layer of narrative complexity. He is an author too; his fascination with stories brings to the fore a treasure chest of philosophical musings on the art of storytelling. 

Review

‘Moustache’ is an amazingly rich book in terms of its content and the authentic rustic flavor in the offering.

In ‘Moustache’, S.Hareesh brought forth the much popular and clichéd symbol of Malayali masculinity, the twirling ‘meesha’ or the ‘moustache’. A greater part of this notion of masculinity is in its warped understanding, of subduing women and those lower in the power structure.

Caste is the most pronounced theme in the book. Yet S.Hareesh did not tread the much-beaten path of bestowing heroism to the lower caste protagonist confronting the upper caste. Rather the narrative peels off the hidden layers of exploitation and marginalization. The fact that ‘Moustache’ is a Pulayan’s story from his point of view divulges an expansive understanding of the social construct. 

Vavachan or Moustache is an anti-hero. Much like Ravanan, his actions are malevolent and questionable. The allusion to Ramayan is subtle, and yet profound. There is Ravanan and there is Seetha. However, this is a different story!

The language does not hold back anything; there is crudeness and lack of sensitivity. There are deep entrenched social prejudices and even the evil acts against women and animals are passable jokes. Jayashree Kalathil, the translator of the book has achieved successfully transferred these nuances from Malayalam to English. She ensured that nothing was lost in translation; I was reading the book and relishing the metaphors and imageries.

Moustache’ reminded me of ‘The Hungry Tide’ by Amitav Ghosh. Ghosh had created a beautiful literary picture of the Sundarbans, tying it with historical fiction and myths. Similarly, you can see Vembanad Kayal in front of your eyes in this book, the dredging to transform the marshy lands into cultivable areas. 

I found ‘Moustache’ to be one of the most picturesque books on Kerala. Not just the wondrous waterways and embankments, wildlife – animals, and birds – are an integral part of the book too. S.Hareesh brings ecology, poverty, and man’s greed and progress to show how mankind encroached on the serene wildlife, disturbing the delicate balance.

Magical realism is a tricky terrain; the author could have easily gone overboard. The magical power of a moustache may seem exaggerated but you begin to read between the lines, as ‘moustache’ becomes the means to unravel the various other stories. I think herein lies the beauty in S.Hareesh’s storytelling, his fertile landscape of stories is not the ones with morals or perfectly strewn romantic endings but of the social issues and poverty with talking animals, devils, mystical creatures, and ghosts.

‘Moustache’ makes you believe in the richness of contemporary Indian literature. It is definitely a book to re-read, each time promising to reveal a new facet. For me, this book far exceeds my expectations. I am yearning to go back to re-reading ‘Moustache’, especially the two chapters – Brendon and The Last Crocodile.

If you have watched ‘Jallikattu’, the Malayalam movie that is India’s entry to the Oscars this year, then you got a glimpse into S.Hareesh’s world of storytelling. ‘Moustache’ is realistic, bold, and crude in the most fascinating way.


You can order your copy of ‘Moustache’ by S. Hareesh from Amazon.in

Moustache by S. Hareesh,
Translated by Jayashree Kalathil
Harper Perennial India, 328 pages

About the Author

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

S. Hareesh is also the author of two screenplays – for the film Aedan, which received the Kerala State Award for best screenplay in 2017, and for the 2019 film Jalikattu, which is now India’s entry for the Oscars.

About the Translator

Jayasree Kalathil‘s translations have been published in the Malayalam Literary Review; No Alphabet in Sight, an anthology of Dalit writing; and as part of Different Tales, a book series for children. Her translation of Kerala writer, N. Prabhakaran’s novellas, Diary of a Malayali Madman, was shortlisted for the 2019 Crossword Book Award for Indian Language Translation. She is the author of The Sackclothman, a children’s book that has been translated into Malayalam, Telugu, and Hindi.

I received this book as part of the Blogchatter Book Review Program in exchange for an honest review. 

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