Two years after a mob campaign forced S Hareesh to withdraw Meesha, his novel then serialised in a Malayalam magazine, its translation Moustache (2019, HarperCollins) by Jayasree Kalathil, has been chosen for the 2020 JCB Prize for Literature. Hareesh, of course, is happy because the translation, and the prize, will fetch him an international audience. This unassuming writer, who watches the world from his home in Neendur, a village at the north-eastern edge of Kuttanad, Kerala, relishing Mario Vargas Llosa’s fiction over Gabriel Garcia Márquez’s, rejecting Che Guevara and Fidel Castro because they had an authoritarian streak, also must be smiling at the irony of the Hindu right-wing contributing to his launch as an international writer.
Hareesh’s story, of course, recalls the unexpected trajectory another writer’s career took after a right-wing mob in another language and cultural setting forced him to apologise over hurt sentiments. That episode in December 2014 turned Perumal Murugan from being a provincial writer, largely known to serious readers of Tamil literature, to an internationally recognised novelist. The ban-the-book campaigns in both cases had positive outcomes, with the judiciary expressing unambiguous support for the writers while reaffirming India’s constitutional commitment to free speech.
It was a friend who first alerted Hareesh to the tension brewing over Meesha, which the Mathrubhumi Illustrated Weekly had just started serialising. That was in July, 2018. “Pani varunnundu (there’s trouble coming),” he had warned Hareesh. Thereafter, it was “a relentless shower of abuse for days,” says the writer. The mob was largely upper-caste Hindus and the Hindu right-wing. When the abuse extended to his family, Hareesh withdrew the novel. Fortunately, a counter mobilisation was on, with readers, politicians and the state administration backing him. In August, DC Books, a major Malayalam publisher, announced the publication of Meesha. The first edition sold out in no time. A month later, a three-judge bench of the Supreme Court dismissed a plea to ban the book on the ground that it had references derogatory to Hindu women.
The controversy helped sales, but it coloured the reception of the novel. Meesha is a complex, multilayered work that, in poet K Satchidanandan’s words, seeks to resurrect a language within a language. Hareesh, 45, had hoped that his novel, ambitious in its historical and ecological canvas and innovative in narration, would be read and reread in quiet. With a dozen or so short stories, he had already carved out a niche in the crowded world of Malayalam fiction. This was his first novel. The controversy, he believes, prevented a close and intimate reading of the work. The regret remains to this day. There have been very few discussions on the aesthetics of the book, though it has sold nearly 50,000 copies. The JCB Prize, hopefully, will trigger a fresh look at the book.
Did the experience of threats to life change the writer in him? Not really, he says. There was tension initially, but that was mostly because people were only talking about the controversy. A lesson he learnt was — “I didn’t know there were so many savarna communal fellows around us.” At least one neighbour stopped talking to him. The Dalit community — the hero of the novel, Vavachan, is a pulaya, a Dalit caste — backed him throughout, despite the odd murmur about savarna writers’ obsession with the oppressive past of the community. Hareesh cautions against reading Meesha as a Dalit novel: “Much of Meesha’s social space is the world of upper castes. In fact, I (a non-Dalit) could not have written in any other way. And, Vavachan is escaping this world,” he says.
Set in the first half of the 20th century in Kuttanad, a unique landscape of land, water and wetlands, Meesha was a terrific reimagining of a place, its inhabitants, ecosystem, social relations and even language. It was deeply political in its own way, for it was woven around the figure of a Dalit rebel, who, inspired by a character he got to play in a drama, challenges the established civic norms and social hierarchies of that time, among them sporting a meesha (moustache). With its multiple references, beginning with the figure of Ezhuthachan, who unwittingly initiated Vavachan’s rebellion by introducing the subversive recreational form of theatre to the village, Meesha took flight to become a magical tale, more than just a provincial narrative or a story of a Dalit rebel. It was another Ezhuthachan in the 16th century, who first imagined a new Malayali identity through his retellings of the epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata. Theatre was an important instrument, too, for the radical figures of 20th century who shaped modern Kerala by challenging caste and class relations. Kuttanad has had its fictional chroniclers — for instance, the great Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai — but Hareesh uncovered a hidden ecology of flora and fauna, birds, fish and reptiles, sharing space and in conflict with their biggest predator, the humans, and in a refreshingly new narrative style.
However, some Malayali readers, especially the upper-caste Hindu, failed to see beyond the “ugliness” of some of the characters. Hareesh has an explanation for why his characters speak and behave the way they do: “There are many characters in this novel who speak in ways that are anti-women and anti-human…I agree that these characters should have shown more care and behaved more responsibly. But novels are free countries, and there is very little a writer can do about what the characters get up to,” he says. In a way, the assault on the novel was a failure of the imagination of those protesting. In their egotistic selves, burdened by memories of vacuous caste pride and family honour, stories had ceased to be stories but sharp jabs that forced them to confront a past that offered little to be proud of.
Meesha is not exceptional in its irreverent look at the past — Hareesh’s short fiction is rich in subtle inversions of upper-caste histories and in many ways provokes a deep interrogation of caste relations. The alchemist in him transforms all that he observes into layered stories that sparkle with wit and sarcasm, invoking a deep empathy with the underdog.
The English translation of Meesha, Hareesh says, has been rewarding, for it has allowed an uncluttered reading of the book purely as a piece of fiction. The reader of the English work seems to have the eye and ear for the story and its fine details. There was, of course, the occasional criticism, fuelled by a failure to relate to the finer points of rural life.
So, how did this very “provincial” book find an audience among the urban English-speaking middle class? Hareesh has a ready answer: When human life is turned into a good story, readers love it. He also believes that a lot of Indian writing in English is about urban, upper-caste experiences: “The madness of writing (ezhuthinte pranthu) is less, I think writers from a rural background have it more,” he says.
Since writing Meesha, Hareesh has been involved in movies. His script for the Sanju Surendran film Aedan (2018), based on a short story from his 2014 collection, Aadam, won a state award; Lijo Jose Pellissery’s Jallikattu (2019), based on another story “Maoist” from the collection, is India’s entry for the Oscars this year. But cinema is not his space, he believes. “Not a place for me to take a dip and those who chose to take the plunge, didn’t surface,” he says. He is working on his second novel, and an English translation of a selection of his short stories is due next year.
In Namakkal, a few hours by road from Neendur, Perumal Murugan, 54, has a similar story to tell. Like Hareesh, Murugan, too, was a writer relatively unknown outside the Tamil reading public until a controversy broke in 2014. His 2010 novel, Mathorubagan, had just been published in English as One Part Woman (Penguin) in 2013 and he had rejoined his college in Namakkal, where he taught Tamil language and literature, after a sabbatical to complete the sequels to Mathorubagan, when the campaign against the novel started.
Murugan received the first abusive call on December 1, 2014, while he was at the college. What started as a campaign on social media turned into a vicious personal attack, and later, became a communal mobilisation, that forced him to sign an apology. Singed by the attack, Murugan wrote his now-famous obituary on Facebook, declaring that Perumal Murugan the writer was dead. It took a while for the Tamil public to realise the importance of Murugan’s “death-note”, that it was not a simple case of a writer ending his writing career, but the murder of a writer by a mob. Solidarity meetings were held in many places across India and a host of organisations, among them the Tamil Nadu Progressive Writers and Artists Association, moved the Madras High Court in 2015 against the targeting of Murugan. A year later, the court delivered a scathing judgment against the curbing of free speech and appealed to Murugan to resurrect his writing life.
Since then, Murugan has published several works, including Songs of a Coward: Poems of Exile (2017, Penguin), Poonachi: The Story of a Black Goat (2019, Context) and Amma (2019, Eka), a memoir of his mother, and has been translated into numerous languages. He has been told that the mob attack turned out to be beneficial to him in the end, but Murugan reminds them that at the time, he wasn’t sure that he would survive the hate, let alone keep writing. The fear, he says, is likely to stay with him all through his life.
Did it change him as a writer? It influenced him not to be direct in his politics; to seek out allegorical tools, be more subtle in depicting human condition. In Poonachi…, the first book after the controversy, he confided that he chose to write about goats because they are problem-free, harmless and above all, energetic. He confessed that he had become fearful of writing about humans, even more fearful of writing about gods. The fact is Poonachi has been as political or more than any of his previous writings, its ironic tone gripping and biting while capturing the fear of our times.
The best outcome of the events of 2014 for Murugan has been that he got to travel to many parts of the country. He rarely refuses invitations to speak at literary festivals and seminars. “For me, it is a kind of thanksgiving to all those people who stood by me in those dark days,” he says.
Publisher and friend Kannan Sundaram points out that Murugan is not just a best-selling author now but has attracted international attention. Mathorubagan sold over 25,000 copies in Tamil, but what’s more interesting is that Murugan has since been translated into at least 10 Indian languages as well as in French, German, Czech, Slovene, Chinese and Korean. Kannan recalls the buzz around Murugan when he was present at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2018. “The controversy helped, but Murugan’s books are doing well because he is honest as a writer,” Sundaram says.
Murugan and Hareesh are also the beneficiaries of a newfound interest in regional language writers. Satchidanandan, who has been on many prize juries, lists multiple reasons for this attention on bhasha writers: “The expansion of the publishing industry and reader base, which wants to look beyond Indian writing in English, the realisation in European languages that authentic writing about Indian experience is in regional languages, translators who are familiar with contemporary literary language, a reorientation in reading preferences as well as academia, and prizes that value translations to be on par with original writing in English,” he says.
Beyond all this, bhasha writers have been at the forefront of resisting the politics of hate. The award wapsi in 2015 saw numerous writers from all major Indian languages protesting the murder of MM Kalburgi, Narendra Dabholkar and Govind Pansare, and standing up for the right to speech and dissent. The appreciation for translations from Indian language could well be a subconscious political pushback against attempts to impose the notion of a unitarian, Hindi, Hindu India. Murugan and Hareesh, who are hyperlocal in their writings but unambiguously humanist in their moral vision, seem to be representatives of a federal India asserting itself culturally.
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