“I have found a pleasing story to tell my son tonight. The story of Meesha, a magician who can appear in two or three places at the same time, disappear in a second. A friendly eagle has built its nest at the tip of his moustache that has twirled up and grown to touch the skies” – from Meesha, a novel by S Hareesh.
Over many nights, the narrator tells his son, Ponnu, the many tales of Meesha. The legend of Meesha, the lead character whose real name is Vavachan, was born on a stage in Neendur, a village in Upper Kuttanad, near Kottayam, some time in the first half of the 20th century, when a director introduced a Dalit teen with a large moustache (meesha). Over time, and in the narrations of skillful village chroniclers, he became a legend and assumed mythical qualities. The narrator, however, tired of repeating stale stories, embarks on retelling the tale of Meesha to his five-year-old son. Ponnu, of course, loved it. But not the Hindu right wing in Kerala.
In July, three issues after Mathrubhumi Weekly, a reputed magazine, began to serialise the novel, groups that claimed to speak on behalf of Hindus picked a piece of dialogue spoken by a minor character about female devotees visiting temples and framed it on social media as an instance of the author insulting Hindus. The campaign spread like wildfire and many “aggrieved” persons, including leaders of caste and communal outfits, claimed that the yet-to-be-published novel maligned the Hindu community. When threats and abuses mounted and the abusers began to single out his family, the novelist, S Hareesh, withdrew the novel. Later, he said Meesha will be published when the society attains the maturity to read it.
Kerala, of course, is not new to bans on “sacrilegious” works. The Christian clergy, especially, has a history of forcing artists and publications to banish works they disagree with. The Hindu right is relatively a late entrant to the politics of “hurt sentiments” and seems eager to make up for the lost time. Three years ago, a marginal Hindutva outfit had ended a column on Ramayana by Malayalam scholar, MM Basheer, in the Mathrubhumi newspaper. A few months ago, Christian groups got Malayala Manorama to withdraw its literary journal, Bhashaposhini, for a painting it carried as illustration. Publishing houses and the media, burdened by commercial interests, have sought to appease the self-appointed custodians of faith and morality, empowering them further in the process. The polarisation over Meesha exposed the communal faultlines that threaten Kerala’s relatively liberal, multi-religious society.
In the case of Hareesh, events took a happy turn as the government and major political parties rallied around the 43-year-old writer, considered one of the finest contemporary writers in Malayalam. Many publications offered to publish the novel. Hareesh chose DC Books, the largest publishing house of Malayalam books, which had published his last short-story collection, Aadam (2014). The novel arrived in bookstores late July and has since sold over 35,000 copies.
That a set of bigots almost managed to ban a novel that ought to be canonised as a milestone in Malayalam literature, however, marks a new low for Kerala. If they had got Meesha killed, it would have been no less than an act of cultural erasure.
For Meesha is a multilayered work, a rich and reflective telling of the history of Kuttanad, a watery landscape that hugs the banks of major cities/ towns of Kerala, Ernakulam, Alappuzha and Kottayam. It is centred on Meesha, named so for his big moustache, and weaves in the many histories — social, ecological, economic and political — of the region. Hareesh conjures up a whole vocabulary from existing and forgotten local registers and usages — slangs, proverbs, abuses, insults, terms of endearment, names — a whole world of living and extinct avian and aquatic life and so on. Like Kuttanad’s waterscape, which is a mixture of the sweet water of the hill rivers, the brackishness of Vembanad backwaters and the saltiness of the Arabian Sea that travels in with high tide, Meesha is a melange of different but distinct stories and voices that come together to become a singular subversive narrative of a unique land and its people. Meesha is also a celebration of the idea of storytelling (in Hareesh’s words, storytelling is a higher form of democratic practice) and Kuttanad’s native-speak.
Fed by five major rivers that flood the region with mud, silt and rich humus from the slopes of the Western Ghats, Kuttanad as it exists now is no gift of nature, but the product of human labour, especially that of the Dalits, who were forced, first, as slave labour into the reclamation of shallow parts of the Vembanad lake in the 19th century for paddy cultivation, and, later, turned into farm hands. In Tales of Rice, a monograph on Kuttanad, KT Rammohan writes, “The Kuttanad backwaters were vast and deep. Reclamation in such conditions was an arduous task and fraught with the risk of failure. The technology of reclamation under such difficult conditions owes to the depressed caste Pulayas.
With all land in the hands of upper castes and communities, state and temples, Pulayas and other landless castes were forced to live on the peripheral patches of the lord’s holdings or to settle on common land. The silt washed down by rivers often formed a new landmass in the backwaters and Pulayas occupied these. Alongside, they reclaimed small patches of the river-swamps and very shallow portions of the backwater for sustenance cultivation. Pulayas evolved the fundamental principles of the technology of reclamation under these conditions.” It is both a beautiful and a scary landscape, where paddy is cultivated below the sea-level, in some places as deep as seven feet, dykes protecting rice fields that stretch for miles into the horizon from an immense body of water. Any breach in the dykes can flood the fields in minutes and ruin the crop in hundreds of acres.
Meesha, the central character of Hareesh’s novel, is a Pulaya (a Dalit caste), born in this landscape of mud and water, in the early years of the 20th century. At the time of his birth, some time after the Great Floods of 1099 (1924), the reclamation of backwaters, that started in late 19th century, had almost stopped, though the oppressed castes were facing extreme exploitation. The Great War and floods had caused famines and forced many people to migrate to distant lands — Malaysia was one such El Dorado to which young people would sail to, and, hence, Meesha goes around asking, “Malayayilekkulla vazhiyetha (Which way to Malaya)?”.
This story of exploitation and the subsequent empowerment of peasants has been told well by novelists like Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai and local historians like NK Kamalasanan. In fact, Thakazhi’s fiction, particularly his magnum opus, Kayar (1978), is essentially an extended chronicle of Kuttanad’s social, political and economic transformation as he had witnessed in his lifetime.
The canvas of Meesha recalls Kayar, an epic that explored 200 years of Kuttanad in rich detail. However, Thakazhi, who started writing in the 1930s when social realism was the preferred mode in fiction, was preoccupied with the human story. In contrast, Hareesh is a fabulist. Thakazhi’s links with working-class politics and his schooling in the 19th century European fiction influenced him to tell stories from a human-centric perspective. The Kuttanad of his fiction is populated only by human beings, busy in their daily struggles even as political upheavals change social relations. Kayar, a late novel in Thakazhi’s career, is an exception where time and the landscape acquire the persona of narrators, and where fundamental questions about man’s relationship with land are raised.
The Kuttanad Thakazhi missed in his chronicles comes alive in Hareesh’s novel. His Meesha is as much a novel of birds and beasts as it is of humans. For the novelist, these non-humans — birds, fish, cattle, snakes, crocodiles, worms — are an integral part of the landscape and as much victims of the feudal, and later, capitalist, agriculture, that had turned its original human inhabitants, the Pulayas, into slave labour. It is also a landscape inhabited by folk deities, forlorn and hungry ghosts, and memories of forgotten ancestors. Suresh Kurup, the CPM MLA who chaired a solidarity meeting for Hareesh in Neendur, says Meesha is a work like Kayar, though very different in its tone and outlook, a remarkable record of local history, which narrates life in Upper Kuttanad, especially of the very poor and oppressed, in rich detail. It invokes the presence of all living beings in this region, he adds.
Was this oppression, co-option and assault on nature without resistance? That’s the suppressed, unrecorded history that Hareesh explores through the legend of Meesha, who gets to sport a moustache while playing the role of a policeman in a play, and then turns it into a mark of his defiance of the existing power relations. The moustache, forbidden to depressed castes, becomes a symbol of self-respect and rebellion. Meesha is forced to turn a fugitive and stories of his immeasurable strength and power — men are scared in his presence whereas women are attracted to him — gain ground. The authorities — caste elders and state officials — fail to subdue him as he moves in the shadows, constantly threatening society’s power structure. He is sought out or is invoked by all those people who have an issue with the state of the society and they enrich his legend. For the social elite (upper caste Hindus and Christians), he becomes the human form of their subconscious fear of the Pulaya, whose life they had stolen. In the novel, the legend progressively assumes a mythical form; he becomes a symbol, isolated, though, of Pulaya resistance. His ancestors had lived in perfect harmony with Kuttanad’s mud and water, its wind and floods, but Meesha marks a rupture: He refuses to be subjugated by the caste and landed elite, but joins the hunt to rid the backwaters of all beings that pose a threat to their quest to reclaim it for farming.
An acute consciousness of power relations mediates Hareesh’s narratives. Hunger (for food and sex) is an underlying thread of all the stories and relationships in Meesha. There is an episode where Meesha is invited to an upper-caste Christian farmer’s home and served a feast. The narration of the food on offer and how Meesha consumes it becomes both a celebration of food as well as an oblique reference to its role in power relations. Another Hareesh takes up is the cracking of the ecological balance that had existed between man and beast before feudalism transformed Kuttanad. Hareesh has chosen the extinction of crocodiles in the Vembanad to narrate the ecocide wrought by man’s greed for land. There is a story about Meesha’s father, Paviyan, taking refuge on the back of a crocodile when his boat overturns in Vembanad. The episode of Meesha hunting down the last crocodile turns out to be a meditation on breakdown of relations between the human and the non-human beings. Cleansed of many a wild species, the lake becomes a lifeless body of water — “the house of a couple whose children are dead, silent, without even the faintest flutter of the wind”.
Time tames Meesha and there is a slow demystification of the character as the novel winds to a close. Meesha returns to the social mainstream, but the memory of the myth endures. But, for Hareesh, who has a tendency to deflate the egos of the social elite (stories like ‘Aadam’, ‘Maoist’), it is inescapable, perhaps, that his superhero had to finally reveal himself as just another human being, rebellious, of course, but a mere invention of scared, and scarred, minds. It is also a reflection of the democratic micro-politics of his fiction, which refuses to endorse father figures. He was brave to tell a magazine that he dislikes Che Guevara and Fidel Castro, heroes in communist Kerala, because they were authoritarian.
Hareesh believes that novels are independent republics with a high awareness of civic duty and democratic values. The subtle but biting humour, the irreverence to power, and, of course, narrative skills, make him part of a fine tradition of Malayalam writing that include, among others, Vaikkom Muhammed Basheer, OV Vijayan, VP Sivakumar and Paul Zacharia. Thakazhi has once said he wished to tell stories the way an uncle of his would regale his friends when he was a young boy. Hareesh, even when he writes sentences that twist and turn like the rivers in Kuttanad, is essentially a storyteller in the sense of the storytellers Thakazhi fondly recalls. In Meesha, Hareesh offers a whole new vocabulary of words and terms unearthed from the spoken language of the Kuttanad region. Poet-critic K Satchidanandan calls it “the resurrection of a language within the language”. Hareesh’s layered reading of history, historical personalities and processes runs as an undercurrent in what becomes a matchless rendition of stories.
Satchidanandan speaks about Meesha as an instance of “the periphery talking to the centre, truth speaking to power, of the literature of villages encircling the literature of cities”. He wants Meesha to be read as a narrative that questions, of a great rupture, of a new aesthetics. In that sense, Meesha belongs in a great tradition of pathbreaking novels that, while exploring the unique history of a region, achieves an epic dimension and a resonance that travels beyond its regional limits.
With the once-in-a-century flood drowning large parts of Kerala, the attention has moved away from Meesha. In Neendur, a village that lies at the eastern edge of Vembanad lake neighbouring Arundhati Roy’s Ayemenem, Hareesh waits for the flood waters to recede. He hopes his novel will no longer be read for the two or three controversial sentences, but for the enchanting story it is. If it is not, the loss is not merely his.