Interview: S Hareesh, author, Moustache, winner of the JCB prize 2020

Congratulations for the JCB Prize but this is not the first award that you’ve won. There’s no denying the fact, however, that this might create a new readership for your work. Keeping the monetary incentive aside, do writers really benefit from awards?
For a writer, being accepted by readers is more important than winning awards. There are so many excellent books that have not won any awards. For example, Khasakkinte Ithihasam by OV Vijayan is considered to be one of the most important novels in Malayalam, but it didn’t win many awards. However, as you point out, awards help writers find new readers. And awards with financial incentives help the writer to have a bit of freedom to write. The traditional thinking in Kerala seems to be that writers should live and write in penury and in desperate circumstances, to be ignored until their death when they are celebrated to almost mythic proportions. I was hoping for the JCB Prize because an award like this gives a writer self confidence. I am a little wanting in that department.

Moustache is your debut novel. You have published short stories before. How did you know Moustache had to be a novel?
Many of my stories, Aadam and Appan for example, began as novels and then ended up being short stories because of my lack of confidence. I have wanted to write a novel ever since I began writing. Around eight years before Meesha (Moustache in Malayalam), I had written a short novel, but when I showed it to my friends – writers E Santhoshkumar, Unni R, and (the late) KV Anoop – they were not impressed. And they were right. So I let it go. Vavachan, the central character in Meesha, was a person who lived in my village. Although not to the extent in the novel, there were many stories about him. I have also always wanted to write something with Kuttanad, my native place, as the main character. It is a notorious local drunkard who told me that Vavachan had grown his impressive moustache after playing the role of a policeman in a play. It is this bit of information that seeded the story inside me, and I will always be indebted to that drunkard for it. And not just Meesha, most of my stories have come from people who are considered bad or worthless by their fellow beings. I even have a theory that a good story needs such people.

Could you also tell us about your association with the translator of your novel, Jayasree Kalathil?Translations are creative works. It is the quality of the translation that decides whether a novel is accepted in a language different from the original. I became a writer reading wonderful translations from Bengali, Russian and so on into Malayalam. But it is only recently that we have excellent translators who work from Malayalam to English, and I consider Jayasree to be prominent among them. To be honest, I was sceptical about the possibility of translating Meesha into English because it is a book steeped in local language and local life. But the quality of Jayasree’s translation soon got rid of all that scepticism. We have not met in person so far. Jayasree discussed meanings of words and phrases and so on with me, and sent me drafts of chapters. Reading them, I had very little changes to suggest. I don’t think we had a difference of opinion ever. I like to consider Jayasree not the translator of Meesha, but the co-author of Moustache.

You have a day job in the revenue department. When do you usually write?
I am on leave now. I am not a disciplined writer who follows a routine, and I take a long time to write. I don’t give up eating and sleeping for writing. I wake up quite early in the morning, a habit that I’ve had since I was a child. And that’s when I write the most.

What do you usually like to read? What did you read while working on Moustache?
I read mostly novels and history. I like reading Llosa, Calvino and many others. While writing Meesha, I was reading mostly books that dealt with Kuttanad as a region. The works of Kavalam Vishwanatha Kuruppu, an important writer from Kuttanad, were not available. My friend and literary critic, Rahul Radhakrishnan, found them for me, even sent me photocopies at his own expense.

Read more: Review of Moustache by S Hareesh

Kuttanad, the setting of your novel is a character by itself. Was it a very conscious choice to undo the socio-realist depiction of the place?
Yes. Writing about the time and place when Vavachan was alive, it is natural that the narrative style slips into that mode. Writers like Thakazhi have written in this style. Vavachan’s lifetime was a time of social renaissance in Kerala. What fascinates me, however, is the aesthetics of storytelling rather than social anxieties. And, perhaps because I was born after the era of great social upheavals and changes, it was Kuttanad’s myths and stories that got more of my attention.

Meesha/Moustache met with stiff opposition from certain conservative forces in Kerala. Did the writing of the novel and the experiences therefore reveal new facets about your state?
Your question actually contains the answer to that. Although we speak a lot about renaissance and progressiveness, inwardly ours is a conservative society. As in other parts of India, caste is what determines how political parties place candidates and how people vote. People see no contradiction in being a member of the Communist Party and the convenor of the temple committee at the same time. Malayalam cinema has been, in recent times and to a certain extent, able to overcome its entrenched savarna/upper-caste aesthetic imagination. But Malayalam literature still has a long way to go in this regard. The influence of the Sangh Parivar is increasing within Kerala and getting more and more entrenched. Many writers, these days, have no qualms in appearing on Sangh Parivar platforms. The speed at which Kerala society is being subsumed into the Hindutva agenda is frightening. The campaign against Meesha was spearheaded by the Sangh Parivar and a foolish caste leader. The owner of the publishing house that published the novel in one of its magazines – a Lohia socialist and an MP from a left-wing party – went to the caste leader’s house and apologised, and forced the editor to resign.

Would you have any regrets if you were not translated?
Absolutely yes! What happened to Meesha in Kerala is an example of how controversy can negatively affect how a book is read. Most of the attention was on the bits that were deemed controversial. The public even saw it as a work of pornography. Even now, Mathrubhumi has not covered the JCB Prize win, not even in its obituary section! All in all, Malayalam media tried very hard not to talk about Meesha. So, I think the English translation has been a lifeline from shame and ignominy. Without it, it would have been buried forever in the underworld of Malayalam literature.

You write in Malayalam. You perhaps have a Malayalam reader in mind while writing. Translation opens a new readership for your writing. Henceforth, who will you write for?
I don’t think it is possible to write with a specific reader in mind. I try to write in a way that I think is good, which is based on my reading experience so far. Even if I were to imagine a reader in mind, it will be a Malayali reader.

Kunal Ray is a culture critic. He teaches literary & cultural studies at FLAME University, Pune

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