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Love, lust, and some casual cruelty

Malayalam writer Unni R.’s first collection of stories in translation bristles with absurdist humour and stylistic experiments

Unni trains his critical eye on the Malayali macho masculine in his stories. Getty Images
Unni trains his critical eye on the Malayali macho masculine in his stories. Getty Images

In the titular story of One Hell Of A Lover, a collection of short stories by Malayalam writer Unni R., a layabout sculptor is hired to make a replica of the Pietà. Commissioned by Matha Mappila, a near-mythic man, 7ft tall and the epitome of virility and insatiable lust, who is never seen, the statue is required to have the face of his enigmatic lover instead of Mother Mary. The sculptor becomes increasingly obsessed with this object, even as he quietly simmers with envy, ultimately committing an unimaginable act of violence. Brutal, coarse and unexpected, it’s a quintessential Unni story.

The 48-year-old author, who has been writing short stories and screenplays for over two decades, has earned a place as one of Malayalam literature’s most exciting contemporary writers for his experimental narrative, dark absurdism and imaginativeness of storytelling and language. Mostly set in the village of Kudamaloor in Kottayam district, where he was born, Unni’s stories possess a sinister parochialism and an intimate understanding of the intersections of gender, class and caste that form the bedrock of life in rural Kerala. But his particular renown comes from a discomfiting eye for—and willingness to pick at—the casual cruelty and bigotry hidden within ordinary characters.

Despite the popularity of his films, Unni’s preferred form remains the short story. He has written about 50 over the last 20 years, some of which have been adapted to film. Nineteen of these form One Hell Of A Lover, his first story collection to be translated into English, by J. Devika.

An inherently political writer, Unni’s stories often apply a surrealistic lens to explore hierarchies of power. In Satanic Verses, an illiterate bookseller is arrested by the police for possessing a banned book, only for the evidence to suddenly go missing. In Calling To Prayer, a college-going girl expresses her deepest desire—to call the azaan—much to the horror of her family and friends. And in the wonderfully sensitive He Who Went Alone, Jesus Christ strikes up an intimate friendship with a Pulaya Dalit man who is wanted by the police and feels forsaken by god because of the community’s relatively recent conversion to Christianity.

But what distinguishes the writer most vividly in the landscape of contemporary literature from Kerala is articulated best by his translator Devika in a note at the end of the book: the searing, critical eye he trains on “what is too often deemed as the very grounds of literary creativity in Malayalam: the Malayali macho masculine".

Examining the workings of codes of masculinity “from the inside", Unni’s stories are unforgiving in portrayals of men who, by virtue of their gender and caste, exhibit unthinking misogyny, violence and an overriding obsession with physical pleasure. There is no comeuppance or recrimination for their actions, and it is in the writer’s refusal to mask or explain the stench emanating from their festering amorality, the very ordinariness of it all, that the grotesqueness is laid bare.

In Holiday Fun, a group of four men begins an innocuous game while drinking which transforms chillingly into deadly violence. In Leela, the longest story in the book, a wealthy, eccentric man, dedicated to a life of decadence, goes on a seemingly madcap adventure to buy an elephant so he can have sex with a woman pressed against its trunk. As the cruelty behind his playfulness becomes clearer, the story changes in register to depict an unpalatable darkness.

These stories have been the source for two of Unni’s most acclaimed films—Holiday Fun was filmed as Ozhivudivasathe Kali and Leela was adapted into a movie by the same name—but it’s in Caw, just a few pages long, that the writer hones in with precision on the fragile underpinnings of masculinity, as a small, insignificant man who had always wanted to be a hunter, like the “unshaken muscular" Ahab from Moby Dick, rallies the residents of his building complex to carry out a horrific massacre of crows—a bird he felt had “mockingly laughed" at him as a child.

Yet, interspersed throughout are stories of remarkable tenderness. In one, a queer man, constantly forced to hide his identity, finally finds companionship. In another, a blind woman and her granddaughter travel around the world using their imaginations. And in what can only be described as a story bursting with love, Unni writes about a morning in the home of Krishnan Big, a tribute to Malayalam poet Vailoppily Sreedhara Menon, as he goes about his solitary life carefully preparing food and composing poetry—far removed from an oppressive masculinity.

Unni’s evident love for the arcane may not always translate into a satisfying narrative but in telling such stories of those who defy callous hierarchies, he wields, with utmost care, the power to grant them the dignity they are not otherwise accorded.

Harsimran Gill is a Delhi-based writer and editor.

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