Summary and Story:
Moustache is a story of a Pulayan man, Vavachan. His family may have converted to Christianity but the caste ostracisation still remains. He is practically hired off the streets to play a policeman and sport a moustache. Something lower caste men are not allowed to sport.
The audience and the upper caste men are terrified of the persona. Vavachan discovers the heady power it brings and refuses to shave off the moustache. What follows is a series of events. He traverses across the land, escaping from men baying for his blood and leaving colorful stories in his wake.
Set in Kuttanad, a below-sea-level farming region on the south-west coast of Kerala, its is as much a story of Vavachan as it is of the land and its people. Originally published in Malayalam as Meesha, it combines myth and magic realism.
I am not big on award-winning books but the JCB Prize for Literature always seems to get it right. Some of my recent favorite reads by Indian authors (Jasmine Days and Poonachi) have been on the JCB shortlist. This year had an interesting mix across genres. Originally published in Malayalam as Meesha, and translated to English by Jayashree Kalathil, Moustache was a front runner. No surprises it was declared the winner. I had been keen to pick it up.
I have always enjoyed books that are not just about people but also the region. Although the book depicts caste politics and abject poverty, it is as much about the land, the people, and their daily struggles. The author has done a brilliant job of bringing Kerala alive. One is transported to the paddy fields, the canals, and the palm-lined banks.
Translated books are not always successful when it comes to retaining nuances. But the translator Jayashree Kalathil has done a brilliant job. I have not read the original, but as a reader, I was able to connect with a culture and land not my own.
Our experiences and thoughts gain relevance only if endorsed by others; our lives lived only in the thoughts and memories of a handful of people who would also be dead and gone in a short period of time.
The writing style is conversational. At its heart, it is the story of Vavachan and the repercussion of him not shaving off his moustache. But it is also about the social and economic hierarchies. The power dynamics and politics. The state of women and the breast tax. The missionaries and the World War. Talking crocodile and geese, and a moustache with a mind of its own.
The non-linear narrative is also a discourse of the time it is set in. The narrator’s (author’s) views where he shares the story of Vavachan with his son set in the current times adds an interesting layer to the narrative. Of how things have changed, but haven’t really.
That said, this is not a book for everyone. It is a heavy read that requires time and patience. It can also be emotionally draining. The lack of agency for women and the way abuse and rape is depicted in the book is disturbing. Although I did not have an issue, some might struggle with the cultural aspects of the book.
If you enjoy literary fiction with a generous dose of magical realism, do pick up the book. If my review has prompted you to get a copy, join the read-along hosted by my favorite book blogger Resh @thebooksatchel in the second week of January 2021 where she will be discussing the cultural aspects of the book as well. I will definitely be joining in for a re-read.Combining myth and magical realism, a stark look at caste politics, social and economic hierarchies. Moustache by S. Hareesh #BookReview #TheJCBPrize @HarperCollinsIN @blogchatter #BookChatter Click To Tweet
About the author
S. Hareesh is the author of three short-story collections: Adam, which received the Kerala Sahitya Akademi Award, Rasavidyayude Charithram, and Appan. He is also a recipient of the Geetha Hiranyan Endowment, the Thomas Mundassery Prize, and the V.P. Sivakumar Memorial Prize. Moustache (Meesha in the original Malayalam) is his first novel. Hareesh is also the author of two screenplays — for the film Aedan, which received the Kerala State Award for best screenplay in 2017, and for the 2019 film Jallikattu, which premiered at the Toronto Film Festival and won a silver peacock at the International Film Festival of India. Hareesh works in the revenue department, and hails from Neendoor in Kottayam district, Kerala.
Jayasree Kalathil‘s translations have been published in the Malayalam Literary Review; No Alphabet in Sight, an anthology of Dalit writing; and as part of Different Tales, a book series for children. Her translation of Kerala writer, N. Prabhakaran’s novellas, Diary of a Malayali Madman, was shortlisted for the 2019 Crossword Book Award for Indian Language Translation. She is the author of The Sackclothman, a children’s book that has been translated into Malayalam, Telugu and Hindi.
This review has been written as part of the Blogchatter Book Review Program. I was offered the book in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.
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