The Kuttanad region spread over the districts of Alappuzha, Kottayam, Pathanamthitta and Ernakulam has spawned a large number of artists, among them novelist Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai, poet-playwright Kavalam Narayana Panicker, filmmaker John Abraham and poet Ayyappa Paniker, who have also been chroniclers of the region’s life, rhythms and rich cultural traditions. S Hareesh, who grew up in the eastern edge of the region, is best known for his short stories, which are incisive accounts of provincial life. His is a distinct voice in Malayalam, his fiction notable for its exceptional narrative skills, sharp and nuanced political observations, humour, well-rounded character sketches, and deep understanding of social relations. The three collections he has published so far, Rasavidyayude Charitram (1998), Aadam (2014) and Appan (2018), were well-received and Aadam won the Kerala Sahitya Akademi award in 2016. He lives in Neendur with his wife and son. Excerpts from a telephonic interview:
Where did you get the many stories you narrate about the character Meesha in the novel? Did you have to research the history you have weaved in into the narrative?
These are stories I grew up with. I have heard them from my childhood. So, I did not have to carry out any research before writing the novel. But I did wander around a lot, meeting a lot of old people who had stories to tell. I also found the works of Kavalam Viswanatha Kurup interesting. (Kurup, a native of Kavalam in Kuttanad, has written novels set in the region — Kayal, Kayalrajavu — and a study, Kuttanadinte Thanimayum Pattukalum). His use of myths attracted me.
Is Meesha a real person or did you create him?
There was a person like Meesha in our neighbourhood. But my character is not just him. There are stories I have heard of persons who did such things. I drew from these stories and infused those characters as well to create my Meesha. Some of the events I narrate, like the coming of theatre to the village, did happen.
You are primarily a short-story writer. Did you begin Meesha also as a story and then develop it into a novel? Or, did you conceive of it as a novel?
I thought of it as a novel itself about four or five years ago. The character of Meesha had attracted me. I wanted to write a novel around him. So, I started planning a novel around the character. It took me about three to four years to complete it. It was not a period of continuous writing. I would write some parts and then move on to other things, then return to write more and so on.
There is a whole chapter where you retell songs about Meesha. Did you make them up for the novel?
These are folk songs that were already popular in our neighbourhood and the village. I adapted them and made changes to suit my characters. But the originals exist as folk songs.
How did writing this novel affect you?
The five years I took to write this novel was a period of a lot of wandering in search of stories, meeting people and so on. It transformed my understanding of the human condition. I got to know how the underclass, people at the lowest strata of the society live and work. I can’t help but say it, the novel changed my view of life itself.
But I had wanted this novel to be read without too much noise around it. That is not how it turned out to be. I hope it will be read differently — not around the couple of sentences people were provided on social media — after some time.