Review: Moustache by S Hareesh is a novel that integrates songs and legends in a metafictional whirlpool – books reviews
When I finished reading S Hareesh’s Moustache translated from Malayalam by Jayasree Kalathil, I was met with a sense of confusion. Now he had to try to write about a first novel that has already been hailed as a contemporary classic in Malayalam literature. All the other friends from Kerala I spoke to seemed to confirm this opinion. Awards and nominations don’t matter as much to me as people’s perception of a book. After all, where would the books be without readers? However, doubt is not a good start for a reviewer.
Moustache It is Hareesh’s first novel. He is the author of three short story collections and received the Kerala Sahitya Akademi Award. I first came across his writing through film. Lijo Jose Pellissery’s Jallikattu (2019) and Sanju Surendran’s Aedan (2017), both acclaimed Malayalam films, are based on the Hareesh tales. The publication history of The place (in Malayalam) or Moustache He is an urban legend in Kerala. The novel was being serialized in Weekly Matrubhumi. Some parts of the book offended certain right-wing groups that threatened the author and his family. Hareesh decided to withdraw his novel. The Kerala state government supported Hareesh and soon DC Books approached him to publish the novel. The place It is now widely available in Kerala, and with its English translation, many more have read it since. A similar trajectory was followed by the Tamil writer Perumal Murugan. Hareesh’s novel, however, is more expansive in its imaginative breadth and vision.
Located in the Kuttanad region of Kerala, Moustache tells the story of Vavachan, who comes from the Pulaya Dalit community of landless workers. Vavachan is cast in a small role in a local play for which he is encouraged to grow a mustache. After the play, he refuses to shave his mustache and decides to let it grow longer. The mustache is a marker of caste identity. Only upper caste men could sport mustaches. All attempts to persuade Vavachan to shave his mustache fail. Unsurprisingly, the upper castes are angry at his petty crime. The townspeople are terrified of his mustache. They compare him to Ravanan. A search is launched for Vavachan but is nowhere to be found. It reappears in the stories of the people and in the gossip of the town. The remainder of the novel vividly describes Vavachan’s various attempts to escape from his detractors and the stories of those he meets while on the run, including his love for Seetha and desire to go to Malaya. The main narrator of the novel is a father who shares these stories with his five-year-old son, Ponnu, thus adding another layer of narrative complexity.
In many ways, Vavachan is like a local Don Quixote. There are several stories about him. The women sing about their strength while working in the fields. The men spin stories about imaginary fights in which they stood at a distance silently observing their strength. The region is full of stories about the man with his growing mustache. The police try to catch him and fail. Vavachan becomes a local legend. Everyone has a story about Vavachan, but who do you want to believe? Have you seen or met Vavachan? Besides a strong indictment of caste hierarchies and oppression, Hareesh’s novel is also about the inner life of stories and the art of storytelling. Hareesh may feel that the narrator is also a creator. People keep stories alive. Some of these stories gradually turn into myths and fables. The novel incorporates songs, legends, local myths and integrates them all in a whirlwind of metafictions.
Kuttanad is a highly photographed region for its lush rice paddies, backwaters and canals. It is also known as the Kerala rice bowl. It is perhaps the only place where agriculture is practiced below sea level. The region is known for its geographical peculiarities. These geographical details are an integral part of the novel. Hareesh turns the geographical setting of the novel into a contemplation on the character and his actions. Vavachan’s story runs parallel to ecological changes in the region. The landscape inhabits the character. While reading, he often thought it was a novel about the landscape.
Magical realism is a much maligned term. While there are certain attributes that could be applied to Hareesh’s writing, his magical, realistic, fable-like narrative is more homely and does not mimic Latin American fiction or Gabriel García Márquez, a beloved writer in Kerala. OV Vijayan’s The Legends of Khasak (1969) was a pioneering work that introduced us to new narrative possibilities. For those familiar with Malayalam cinema, some of veteran filmmaker G Aravindan’s films, such as Kummatty (1979) would also bode well in this regard. Hareesh is an heir to this tradition although his work and artistic sensibilities are not derived. Mustache firmly demonstrates how poor a civilization without stories and storytellers would be. In the success of this novel lies the victory of the art of the story.
Kunal Ray teaches literary and cultural studies at FLAME University, Pune.