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Home > How To Lounge > Books > Your weekend fix: Lounge recommends ‘The Cock is the Culprit’ by Unni R

Your weekend fix: Lounge recommends ‘The Cock is the Culprit’ by Unni R

This scathing satire on fake news, rumour-mongering, and the male ego by the Malayalam writer is a tale for our divisive times

Representational image. Photo by Kazi Faiz Ahmed Jeem on Unsplash
Representational image. Photo by Kazi Faiz Ahmed Jeem on Unsplash

Earlier this year when a “spy” pigeon, belonging to a Pakistani national, was “arrested” by India for flying across the line of control, I wasn’t really surprised. It wasn’t the first time an animal had been accused of espionage by either India or Pakistan. And any attentive reader of literature, especially George Orwell’s iconic fable Animal Farm, would agree that animals can have strong political views indeed.

Which is why when I encountered the havoc-wreaking, mysterious rooster in Unni R’s novel, The Cock is the Culprit, I was assailed by a sense of déjà vu. Not least because the story, beautifully translated by J. Devika from the Malayalam original, resonates at multiple levels in these times of fake news, malicious rumour-mongering and fragile male egos.

The story opens with Kochukuttan, a young man in a remote village in Kerala, consumed by the great Malayali Dream of moving to the Gulf in search of a better life. But before his passport and visa are processed, Kochukuttan gets embroiled in a bizarre conflict involving Naaniyamma, a 90-year-old woman, who can barely hear or see anything.

Named after a revolutionary freedom fighter at birth, Naaniyamma’s identity has long been subsumed by her universal grand-motherliness. Her influential neighbour, Chakku, however, suspects her to be far from innocuous. He is irked by her rooster, who has a habit of crowing shrilly at the oddest of hours through the day, interrupting all manner of affairs—from prayers for martyrs organised by Chakku and his cronies to school assemblies and daily prayers of Hindus, Muslims and Christians.

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Soon enough, Chakku enlists the local police, abetted by some of the village elders, to capture this “anti-national” bird, setting the entire microcosm into a tizzy. But try as they might, no one is able to even catch sight of the elusive bird, least of all actually catch hold of it.

As his neighbours are getting into a twist over this fowl, Kochukuttan is among a rare few who has their wits about them. He intervenes on behalf of the ancient woman, who has no clue about the drama brewing around her and gets into big trouble in the process. Repeated attempts at catching the culprit are thwarted, misunderstandings gather momentum, and an outbreak of exaggerated gossip leads to violence and mayhem.

The front cover of 'The Cock is the Culprit', published by Westland.
The front cover of 'The Cock is the Culprit', published by Westland.

All this sounds like an everyday Indian story circa 21st century. The ascendance of social media, fake news and mob lynching is part of our national fabric now, blessed by venal political leaders. Although Unni wields his satirical pen with aplomb, it is the gritty realism of his setting that leaves a sustained uneasiness in the reader. Perhaps a report of chaos unleashed by a spectral creature would have been dismissed as a cock-and-bull story in another time. But in the era of mobile phones and the internet, it is easier (and more tempting) to detect a whiff of conspiracy even in the most banal coincidences.

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In spite of its relative brevity (the translated text is a little over 100 pages long), The Cock is the Culprit is able to pack many punches—not least in the English title itself. Devika, a noted feminist scholar, has chosen to render it with the pun on “cock” fully intended. Apart from the brazen corruption in contemporary politics, be it among the right or the left, Unni draws the reader’s attention to the cockiness of arrogant masculinity—the phallic allusion also referring to the bruised ego of the local busybodies, baffled by the ghostly bird. A handful of misfits in the community, including Kochukuttan, his mother, and a same-sex couple, appear to have their conscience intact, even in the face of repeated assault, physical and emotional, from the rest of the village.

Last year, the publication of Unni’s short-story collection One Hell of a Lover, also translated by Devika, introduced Anglophile readers to a writer who is exceptionally adept at evoking magic realism and surreal horror. Published earlier this year, The Cock is the Culprit brings out his mischievous wickedness, his capacity to fearlessly mock fools as well as for finely honed self-irony. Why else, one wonders, would Unni put these double-edged lines into Kochukuttan’s mouth? “All human beings have the inborn ability to tell a tale. Some write it down; some just tell it. Those who write the tales are praised as novelists or short-story writers; those who tell them are counted as liars. Because all tales are lies in the final analysis.”

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