Shock and awe
The many lives of Malayalam magical realism.
What has to happen to the world for the animals to start talking? In S Hareesh's novel Moustache, a whole menagerie has something to say. Crocodiles seek revenge for old trauma, bullfrogs dispense free advice, and coconut trees speak of generational memories. Kuttanad, the landscape that is the novel's chief allegorical tool, swallows and spits out people and stories. By the novel's end, the reader heaves a heavy sigh, for the world has been distilled to a single story – of each of us trying to live as best as one can, while caught in the intersections of caste, class and community.
Moustache, titled Meesha in the original Malayalam, follows a long literary tradition in the language and is best described as magic realism. Around the same years that Gabriel Garcia Marquez was working on his magnum opus, One Hundred Years of Solitude in Colombia, a book that continues to define the genre, in Kerala, O V Vijayan was writing his masterpiece, Khasakinte Ithihasam (The Legends of Khasak). Vijayan's debut novel might not have drawn international attention, but it inaugurated a new phase in Malayalam literature that was influential enough for some critics to divide the language's literary history into pre- and post-Khasak. As a genre, magic realism remains popular in Malayalam culture, not just in literary works, but also in cinematic forms. Marquez and other Latin American writers were translated into Malayalam well before they were available in other Southasian languages. Thanks to the abundance of reading rooms and libraries in Kerala, these books were easily found even in small villages.
However, it would not be correct to say that this access was what led to Malayalam's adoption of the genre. The expression of inner experiences without resorting to the continuous and linear narrative is a storytelling tradition long practiced in most cultures, Southasia and Marquez's Colombia included. The oral tradition of rich folklore culture across the Subcontinent, and even more Brahminical works from mythology, the epics and allegorical works like Panchatantra, employ narrative styles that formally resemble magic realism. Hareesh's Moustache, translated into English by Jayasree Kalathil, is a notable addition to these storytelling traditions.
Vavachan, the novel's protagonist, is a Pulayan, from a Dalit caste in southern India. He is recruited to play a policeman in a play directed by a travelling playwright and director, solely based on his thick moustache that has somehow escaped the barber's blade. This also gives him the name 'Moustache'. When he appears on stage, the facial hair on his dark skin looks fearsome enough to terrify the audience. He reminds the audience of the mythical demon king Ravanan, though his role is otherwise inconsequential in the play. After the theatre group packs up and leaves, Vavachan refuses to shave off his moustache, triggering a period of turmoil, violence and fear in the Kuttanad region where the story is set.
Often called the 'Rice Bowl of Kerala', Kuttanad lies below the sea level, where growing paddy is an everyday struggle with keeping the water in or out of the shapeshifting fields. The people making their lives around the fields are poor, often surviving on kanji-water. This fragile physical and human landscape is both stage and actor in the novel and the site for Hareesh's inquiries into ecological concerns. The novel maps the names and people of the villages that ebb and flow with the changes in the story. Is Vavachan a metaphor for Kuttanad, or vice versa, one often wonders.
The novel's social concerns are equally urgent. That a Pulayan man could not sport a moustache was among the many restrictions imposed on dispossessed castes by upper-caste communities in Kerala in the first half of the 20th century, the period when the novel's main parts are set in. Among the most infamous of such caste atrocities was the 'breast tax', imposed by upper-caste Namboodiris, where women other than those from the upper castes were allowed to cover their upper bodies only if they paid this tax. The amount was decided by measuring the breasts by hand, and the rates were too prohibitive for the disadvantaged women to afford them.
Vavachan's rebellion to be allowed to keep his moustache, and the changes that ensue, reminds one of the stories of Nangeli, a woman who is said to have chopped off her breasts and presented them on a banana leaf to the men who came to measure her after she had decided to rebel against the breast tax. The incident, documented more extensively as a legend than in written history, reportedly triggered a change in the laws, timed with a fresh influx of missionaries into the region in the beginning of the 19th century. Marking this memory of resistance, Hareesh's missionaries in the novel grow coconut orchards and refuse to employ women who will not cover their breasts. They give Christian names to the Pulayans working in the fields, and "when they went back home in the evenings and retrieved their old names, their prayers were heard by Jesus anyway."
Stories employing magical realism in Malayalam literature have often been avenues for commenting on pressing socio-political questions. Often, not much 'happens' by way of plot. The subplots may not seem like they have much to do with the main character, but there are subtle threads weaved across stories that go around in circles. Vijayan's Khasak remains a classic example of using local paradigms to grapple with universal problems, making the literature very open to multiple readings. For instance, in the valley surrounding the village Khasak, we come across the dragonflies that the character Appu-Kili catches and ties to leashes of yarn. The frail insects are mere toys for Appu-Kili, but they also represent the fragility of people's lives and mental states in the novel. The deep valleys and mountains, the flowers that bloom and the gathering of seasons in the village stand in for human acts of betrayal, love, desire and longing, a subtle reference to Tamil Sangam poetry where geographies were assigned to every emotion.
Among the few such Malayalam writings available in translation to readers in English, Moustache revels in intertextuality with references to Hindu epics, historical events, and current affairs. Johny Miranda with Jeevichirikkunnavarkku Vendiyulla Oppees (Requiem for the Living, in English), Benyamin's well-known work Goat Days and K R Meera's feminist novels have used tools of the magical realism genre to address questions of personal freedom and the blurring of lines between lived experience and imagination. There have been valiant attempts like Deepan Sivaraman's play The Legends of Khasak and films like Shaji N Karun's Olu (She) and Lijo Jose Pellissery's Jallikattu, whose screenplay was written by Hareesh based on his short story Maoist. But the genre does not allow easy rendering to stage and screen. Like in a work of poetry, each reading of a text in the genre is like an onion skin that peels to a different layer of nuance, a quality that makes novels like Moustache nearly impossible to analyse to satisfaction.
In keeping with the features of the magic realism genre, Moustache is a story in metaphors. Moustache's mother dies of a snake bite, and, as revenge, he loads a boat with dead snakes while crossing the fields. Hair becomes the metaphor for personal agency among the disadvantaged; the moustache is sometimes an umbrella, sometimes a nest for bees and birds and sometimes gets entangled in the roots of trees that line the canals. With every popular retelling of Moustache's story, his body hair shrinks and grows in people's minds and "their minds worked, eagerly and energetically, to ensure that Moustache's story would have the ending that they desired." Caste colours every single story within the story, and every metaphor extends to each other, making the narrative a web of intense complexities.
As the pages turn, Vavachan is transformed from a puny, shrunken man into a hyper-macho Yeti-like figure who is at once a myth and a fantasy to be in fear of. He is both a rebel who needs to be brought back in line for the upper caste and a braveheart for his defiance of caste norms. He is also both hero and villain, as he travels across Kuttanad in search of Seetha, a woman he wants (love is a refined emotion the author denies the characters who are seen expressing baser feelings) and the road to Malaya where he believes there is wealth to be gained. This subaltern Ravanan also becomes the Rama, in search of his Seetha. These dualities Moustache is given only enhances the mystery surrounding him. Here too, Seetha is a woman scorned, and here she spreads the smallpox pestilence like the red seeds of the manjaadi tree. The novel's unnamed narrator, quite like a sutradhar, invents the stories of Moustache, Baker Saheb the white man, Seetha, and a multitude of other minor stories, that stand alone, yet feed the making of the Moustache myth. The narrator's son Ponnu is the audience he must entertain at bedtime. Often the novel operates on the meta level, with the story of a story that becomes a legend being told to Ponnu and the reader.
Among the most fascinating aspects of Hareesh's novel lies in showing how easily the myth of a person can be built by word of mouth, rumours, and the blurring of news and propaganda. Reading this within the current political landscape of India and elsewhere, it is hard not to see Hareesh's clever use of such trajectories to comment on the cult of personalities and the effect they can have on societies. Moustache is oblivious to the power he wields on people's hopes and fears; he decides, for instance, that the songs about him that people sing while working on the fields have nothing to do with him. But the myth and the cult of personality that feed off each other has repercussions, in the novel and in our post-truth world of politics.
Once Vavachan's myth is built to Frankensteinian proportions, the narrator discovers the many ways in which the legend of the moustache has inspired real-life people. Was Air India's icon inspired by the big moustache? Moustache never made it to Malaya and eventual fortune, yet were names of restaurants along the route there inspired by him? Real-life figures walk through the later parts of the novel. Are the incidents concerning them true to life? At this point, one wonders, does it matter what is factual and what is fertile imagination?
Moustache is far from an easy novel to read. The explicit treatment of gender violence in the novel, for example, is hard to read, and goes with the morbid masculinity that Hareesh heaps on to the making of his protagonist. But the author does not gloss reality over with political correctness. Its success lies in its daring ambiguous quality: it can be read as history, as a text on climate change and ecology, even a work of psychology. This spacious scope of the novel makes it quite the tour de force in, if not Malayalam alone, certainly among translated literature in India.