S Hareesh, the winner of the richest award for contemporary Indian fiction, the JCB Prize for Literature 2020, works as a village office clerk in the great sickle of a state, Kerala. In the daytime, he observes the cruel life of the masses who walk into the sarkari office, hoping to get work done without bribes or connections. They may totally miss the unsuspecting clerk, moving files from one table to another, dreaming up Murakami-esque dark fantasies about their lives in his head.
At night, sitting on his bed, Hareesh puts his strange stories into words, and sends them to the top editors of Malayalam publications via WhatsApp. Soon enough, the entire state’s literate population was hanging on to his every word. His stature grew with each passing day, the stories bagged awards, inspired scripts for movies and, as happened with his JCB Prize-winning debut novel Moustache (translated into English by Jayasree Kalathil), led to one of the most controversial books in the state in recent memory.
Hareesh isn’t a household name among Indian readers, but he is certainly a phenomenon among Malayalees. He is part of a new crop of artists—this is true for both literature and movies—who provoke complex thoughts, and derive inspiration from sources as diverse as Latin American writer Mario Vargas Llosa and social reformer Narayana Guru. His stories are as much a new guard against the older, more established order, as they depict the political churn of our times.
The attention over this new Malayalam fiction in the Anglophone world also speaks of the skills of a new league of translators who have arrived on the scene. Jayashree Kalathil, the academic and translator of Hareesh, for instance, who lives in London.
"She knows Kerala politics inside out. I've never even met her," says Hareesh. They spoke over the phone throughout the translation, but Hareesh says he never had to spend agonising nights worrying over the novel's aurality or tone or meter getting lost in translation.
But, above everything else, Hareesh is a master storyteller. I have witnessed firsthand the reception he gets. Once, I was at the office of a top weekly magazine in Kerala on the eve of them going to print. Around noon, everybody was rejoicing at the week’s work finishing. And then, the editor’s WhatsApp beeped. It was a new S Hareesh story, fresh out of his bedroom. It was as though a fire alarm went off, and the whole place transformed in a jiffy.
The entire layout, which had taken half the week to design, was changed to accommodate the story as the cover. Finding it all surreal, I requested to read it. Titled "Play School", it was about a childless nursery teacher playing hide and seek with her pupils—all cute and charming until a child, who had gone into hiding, simply vanished. His parents are about to come to take him home, and the clock is ticking. Wouldn’t you be dying to read the rest?
A literary superstar
Hareesh, 45, was born and raised in a wildly beautiful village called Neendur in central Kerala’s Kottayam district (only a few kilometres away from that other village of Syrian Christian texture immortalised by Arundathi Roy, Aymanam). For someone who has published two short-story collections and one novel in a career spanning 12 years, he is a superstar of sorts in the state.
Almost all his books have been blockbuster hits. His second and latest collection of short stories, Aadam, won the highest official prize in the state, the Kerala Sahitya Akademi award, in 2016. Last I checked in 2018, that book was into its fourth edition, each edition running into 2,000 copies, where the industry standard for a short story collection is one edition, at best two, according to Prakash Marahi, one of the editors at the Kerala-based publisher DC Books.
Yet, there is an air of simplicity around him. He opted not to take promotion tests at the job so that he can carry on his life in and around Neendur. You can hear birdsong in the background while talking to him on the phone. “I am an ordinary person who lives in Neendur. I’m not powerful in any manner. I am not even a very masculine male, except for a heavy baritone,” he says. “In Neendur, writing is not seen as a serious vocation. So I keep a low profile."
Our world is filled with people making money and getting by, Hareesh adds, before narrating an anecdote. "I once visited Aymanam John (another Kottayam-based writer), who lives not very far. While I was returning, I met someone from my neighbourhood in John's village. We got chatting and I told him I came to visit John. He asked me, 'what does John do for a living'. I told him he is a writer of short stories. Pat came his reply: I knew there is something wrong with that guy! These are the kinds of people I am surrounded by!”
And yet, Hareesh admits he wanted to win the JCB Prize to be recognised for his writing itself, not just because of the controversy it created. Moustache (or Meesha in Malayalam) follows the destiny of Vavachan, a lowborn, who is not allowed to have a moustache. But he manages to grow a magically giant one, which is stiffly opposed by the upper castes. The moustache forces him to become a fugitive in his own land. As he is driven underground, Vavachan becomes ever more popular: local yore is filled with mysterious tales of his power. And as Kerala takes baby steps towards its formation as a modern state in the first half of the 20th century, the moustache becomes no less than a symbol of downtrodden resistance.
It is a fable of a man defined by his caste and gender, a subversive history of the bountiful Kuttanad region in central Kerala, a celebration of its biodiversity, and much more. But the controversy was about something else. The Sangh Parivar, a caste outfit called Nair Service Society (NSS) and some big business groups took offense to a conversation between two adults in the novel’s initial pages about the sexual appeal of temple-going women. Hareesh got death threats. Following protests by members of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Meesha was withdrawn from being serialised in Mathrubhumi Weekly. The weekly’s editor Kamal Ram Sajeev resigned in protest.
These events dovetailed with the state’s larger politics. The conservative opposition used the novel to browbeat the liberals. The ruling communists used the novel to beat back the waves of nationalism and populism flooding the state due to the ascendance of right-wing forces.
#2020JurySpeaks Author, translator, Professor, and Chair of the 2020 jury of #TheJCBPrize, Tejaswini Niranjana on the winning book, ‘Moustache’. @HarperCollinsIN @dcbooksonline pic.twitter.com/oMAHFbNswn— The JCB Prize for Literature (@TheJCBPrize) November 11, 2020
But Hareesh has been enjoying a turn in the tide recently. A petition to ban the book was thrown out by the Supreme Court. Kerala-based DC Books published the novel as a mark of protest against the censorship calls. Soon, it became Malayalam’s fastest bestseller. There were queues outside bookstores in the morning it was published on 2 August 2018. The first edition of 5,000 copies flew off the shelves in hours. DC Books clocked in more than a million rupees in revenue, according to a person with the publisher, who did not want to be quoted.
“I had to go through a lot for writing Meesha,” says Hareesh. “My wife became a bit emotional hearing this news. On social media, my wife and children were showered with obscenities. Several relatives, who we thought were close to us, quarrelled with us. All for writing a novel!”
Then came the ₹25 lakh JCB prize, and people in his village sat up and noticed him. “People are a bit shocked, I think. Because getting this much money for writing is unheard of here," adds Hareesh. "It was a hot topic in the village market the other day. Some were relieved thinking that I would have to share the money with the translator, and not get to pocket the entire sum.”
A teller of strange tales
Jovial and unassuming, Hareesh stands in contrast with the peculiar and haunting stories he writes. They are strange and unadorned. In one, two enemies begin a swearing match at a bazaar, which ends with one of them having to arrange the other’s funeral. In another, a tribal bank officer hunts a deer. In "Maoist", an entire village pursues a buffalo running amok.
These are people who are almost always in search of something forbidden—be it sex or alcohol—and often land in trouble. After drinking profusely, in one story, two men quarrel over seeing Jesus Christ or late bohemian filmmaker John Abraham. In another, one pretends to take care of an elderly man next door during the day and shocks him to death at night. Hareesh's characters raise dogs who can bark and attack. They kill puppies.
“They say we don't show in our writing what we are in real life,” Hareesh says when asked about the contrast between his life and writing. “I’m a man of many vulnerabilities. Writing stories, in a way, is how I enrich my reality.” He has always liked children's books, Kathasarith Sagaram, The Arabian Nights, and so on. "Because they exist in a fantastical realm," he adds. "My basic need is to satisfy my craving for stories. When I read (Mario Vargas) Llosa, the first thing that I notice is the story. Then there are other layers we (as readers) like, which give the story its beauty.”
Speaking of layers, Hareesh never misses the forest for the trees. As arresting as the stories are, they are also richly complicated. Along with writers like Unni R and Vinoy Thomas, he is indeed a flag bearer of a new generation of fiction writers emerging out of Kerala.
They are mostly baby-boomers, a generation raised on promises and protest marches, now suspicious of easy ideology and heroism of the earlier progressive writers. They do not individualise social evils like caste and class atrocities, like some of the titans of modernist Malayalam literature, such as MT Vasudevan Nair. They are not self-consciously experimental like earlier postmodernist mavericks like Methil Radhakrishnan either. Instead, they are ripping apart norms by writing more violent, dirtier, raunchier and angrier books than anything written in the language so far.
“The most appreciation I receive is from young people. I think the major reason for that is the post-90s globalisation. I was born in 1975. Those who studied with me in school and college have become severely communal now. But the new generation, those born after the 1990s and 2000s, gives me hope,” Hareesh says.
“They interact with their peers around the world. They do not face the sexual poverty we faced. They are free of such frustrations. They value ethics. They broke free from the caste-religious axis that controls our society. All of these (factors) may have contributed to creating a modern sensibility. And while we pushed open our windows to the outside world with globalisation, I think we also started to look within ourselves.”
This new crop of Malayalam fiction writers is also curious about exploring the underbelly of contemporary Malayali life, its many ironies and hypocrisies. Caste is a palpable theme because writers like Hareesh want to reflect reality. And it does not get the support of everyone. Long before the sangh parivar came after him, the communists were also irked by a story by Hareesh, about a local party worker doubling up as the president of an upper-caste outfit.
“Malayalis have a lot of hypocrisy, especially in matters of caste, communism and sex. We can't question certain things here. You cannot live peacefully as a writer in Kerala if you attack the communist faith or caste. These are things people deem private, you are not allowed to scrape it out for public discussion,” Hareesh says.
How did it all come to this point? “A lot of Malayalam literature from the old times, if you notice, do not have characters with caste. Writers from another era, like Thakazhi, Keshavadev, Ponkunnam Varki, have written honestly about caste. But the generation which came after them, perhaps under the influence of world literature, had individualised social evils,” Hareesh explains.
“After the Renaissance era (early 20th century), our literature decided that all Malayalis have become perfect gentlemen aka communists. But caste never left our homes. From birth to death, caste maintained its presence in social life. Over a period of time, it has created a savarna atmosphere in literature. There was a certain sentiment that not all lives are good enough material for stories.”
Malayalam literature has torchbearers of progressive social movements in characters written for stage-dramas, where they go up a podium and raise slogans. Hareesh, though, does not believe in fiction devoted to making a statement. His characters, he admits, could be really profane. That's probably the root cause of all the criticism against him and Meesha, especially against the characters accused of sexualising the appeal of temple-going women. Such behaviour is seen as politically incorrect.
But what stops him from glorifying politically incorrect characters? Where does he draw the line? Is there a line at all?
“I am a person who believes in democracy but I’m not a believer in writing only politically correct things,” says Hareesh. “Because I don't live a politically correct life. I don't believe anyone in the world lives a politically correct life. We may be carrying within ourselves an anti-women moron or a casteist elite; don’t we see several such people around us?"
Hareesh also disagrees with the sentiment that all literature should have good messages for society. "My only wish is to tell stories. To tell stories and hear stories are the most democratic acts," he says. "The notion that I have to hear your stories, and you have to hear mine, is the most basic democratic sentiment.”