Let me say at the outset that this is one of the toughest reviews I’ve ever had to write. Moustache, S. Hareesh’s much-lauded book, is not easy to read or interpret. All the same, it’s remarkable and engrossing, as the best books ought to be.
The story of the book is the story of a time and a place that was once here but doesn’t exist anymore. And paradoxically, it’s about the way things remain the same even after a hundred years. It’s about what we have lost, and continue to lose, in the pursuit of “development”.
The premise of the book is simple. Vavachan, a Dalit youngster from the Pulayan caste, gets a role as a policeman in a local play. As part of his character, he has to keep and grow his moustache, something Dalits of the time aren’t allowed to do. His act terrifies the audience, and he’s so enamoured with his moustache that he decides to keep it, going against the norms. From there, his moustache takes a life of its own, and Moustache comes into being. Vavachan, our protagonist till then, becomes a secondary character.
Speaking of characters, there are scores of them in this book. The lead, of course, are Moustache and Vavachan. But apart from Seetha, the woman Moustache wants to be with, the rest form a strictly ensemble cast. Most of them get their chance to shine in their own mini-stories. In this, the book is a remarkable piece of work. Characters as different as a crocodile and a White guy have their own little stories in what’s essentially one big parable. These characters all have their own conflicts and resolutions. The one constant character, apart from the eponymous lead, can be said to be the Kuttanad landscape. To be fair, calling it constant would be a disservice to the lush, diverse and unique world that this landscape was, and still is. All the stories in the book are enriched because of the sheer geographical cornucopia.
The book is also an exercise in folklore. There are characters here who were actual people. These real people flit in and out of stories where they’re either surrounded by or themselves surrounding fictional people. Using this trick, the book does a sort of reverse engineering with times and history. So, for example, we have a famous Malayali playwright as a minor character in one of the early passages. This person gets his own story later in the book. When we first come across him, he’s not whom the story is about. Later, though, as we contemplate the book’s themes when he’s back on the page, it seems remarkable how things have a way of turning out, and how they could almost have been so, so different, had he not been there. This way, the book both builds on existing stories as well as create folk tales and folk songs of its own.
In today’s post-truth world, where we search for the definitive fact amidst a pile of fake news and lies, it’s easy to believe that reality is fluid, based on your vantage point. Moustache is an exercise in drumming this home. As I mentioned earlier, Vavachan’s moustache takes a life of its own. Moustache’s genesis brings with it stories that are far removed from reality. People tell them, and others believe them, because no one knows Moustache the man, and the stories they hear all seem believable. As readers, we understand the absurdity of some of these claims. But for the characters inhabiting that place at that time, these stories seem to be right in the realm of the possible. To add to this variety in reality, we see different – for want of a better word – iterations of who or what Moustache is. At certain points, the book leaves the realms of logic and plot and jumps instead into a hyperimaginative smorgasbord of possibilities that bounce off of the real world.
Remember when I said that this book is not easy to read or interpret? Moustache the book has a beginning and an end. It has a narrator and a central conflict. But, unlike most other books, even in the literary fiction genre, there’s no attempt to bind it all to one single character and seek answers to the usual questions – X faces A problem. How can X overcome the problem and reach B? Instead, the book takes you to a time and a place that has ceased to exist. The Kerala of today was then three separate princely states. The book takes you, as Jayashree Kalathil’s Translator’s Note at the beginning aptly says, “…into the nooks and crannies of the world it inhabits.” The Hollywood film “Now You See Me” has this tagline – “The closer you think you are, the less you’ll actually see.” What happened with the book is, I kept coming through exciting passages, each one as vivid and as unique in its hook as the previous one. But I still struggled to understand what the book overall was portraying, even as I bathed in the joy of the passages. It’s only at the finish, as the author took pity on the bamboozled reader that he used the narrator to sort-of explain the story, or how or why he did what he did with the book.
A word on the translation too. Jayashree Kalathil has done a fabulous job. It couldn’t have been easy to translate the text of a book that’s rooted in its age and ambience. To do that and keep the book’s essence is immense credit to her. Top work.
It’d be wrong if I finish this review without a mention of the kinds of social and sexual discriminations and assaults described in the book. Both caste/class-wise and gender-wise, the book has passages that should come with trigger warnings. Some of these descriptions, as the author mentions in his note, have come in for criticism. The behaviour of some of the characters towards the so-called lower castes and the women of the book is downright horrible. Now I don’t want to come across as an insensitive jerk, but I think the book makes an important point with these snapshots. In fact, it’d have been a shock for me if the kind of society described in the book was equitable for its social and gender minorities. Given the power equations there, gruesome violence as a tool for keeping the minorities in control is plausible. Furthermore, given the not-so-infrequent reports of violations against Dalits and women even in the modern world, I think outrage against the book or its characters constitutes barking up the wrong tree. It’s a work of fiction. If you want to outrage, maybe direct the anger towards the real world instead?
Where does this book stand in the literary pantheon? I don’t think I’m qualified enough to have an opinion. All I can say is, it enriched my ideas regarding the themes that I’ve mentioned in this post’s second paragraph. This translation ensures that readers everywhere can read and relate to the book’s examination of these universal fears and themes. If nothing else, that’s a triumph.
Genre: Magic realism, Drama, Historical fiction
Have you read Moustache? What are your thoughts on the book? If you haven’t, did this review excite you enough to pick up the book? Do share your views in the comments section.
Thanks for reading.