Book Review: Moustache by S Hareesh; The magic of simple folklore

Published: May 17, 2020 4:00 AM

Mundane realities of life get hues of fantasy in this powerful narrative.

Originally published in Malayalam as Meesha by S Hareesh, Moustache is an almost surreal narrative translated in English by Jayasree Kalathil.

By Sapna Kumari

Originally published in Malayalam as Meesha by S Hareesh, Moustache is an almost surreal narrative translated in English by Jayasree Kalathil, transporting the reader to another world through its classic storytelling.

The novel revolves around the character of Vavachan, who is a Pulayan. Little did he realise that his brief appearance in a musical drama as a policeman with a huge moustache would make him a legend overnight, evoking a response by the community that is marvellous and strange at the same time.

Almost like a story within a story, the book captivates the imagination of the readers till the very end. It merges various plots and storylines within a compact and dense rubric of fiction. Brilliantly using the tool of magic realism, the book builds upon the intriguing character-cum-entity of ‘Moustache’. It takes the readers through the vicissitudes of myth making deeply rooted in folklore and oral tradition. The narrative follows the parallel intervention of the author himself, with his child alongside, as the main plot of Vavachan. The child provides an honest interpretation of the story, like an onlooker, and is more like a commentator. As the child’s vision gets countered with that of an adult, the book can rightly and most deservedly be termed an epic, with a naïve construct of myth and magic.

The book uses the backdrop of Kuttanad, a farming region on the south-west coast of India. Set during a time when the country was undergoing key changes with the English missionaries, education, and social reforms at every level, the novel reflects upon the magnitude of caste and gender rift prevalent in the country. The inspiration for the fictional character of Vavachan, as the author states in one of the chapters, is drawn from the old man he meets in his life. The unique traits of that man and the memories recollected out of his observations were etched deep enough to be later reproduced on paper.

The book is, in short, a collection of the striking discovery made by the author who goes on to create a massively strong character beyond all human frailties. He almost becomes a legend, appearing in several episodes and several places at the same time. The novel displays a big range of characters, who each bring in their unique stories to the novel.

The novel meticulously roves through the community differences and unintentionally becomes a story unleashing the caste differences in India. As stated in one of the chapters, the book endeavours to prove that the stories that affect our imagination and strike us with the emptiness of reality, just as a child’s fantasy, need to be told over and over again. After managing to evade the entire community’s quest to catch him, Vavachan seeks only two things—the woman, Seetha, who left an imprint over his vulnerabilities, and reaching Malaya, which will feed him sufficiently.

Even his moustache seems to have taken a life of its own, and at times it seems to have the superpower to know things even Vavachan is unaware of. The enigmatic tone and descriptive representation of the otherwise mundane reality involving paddy fields and toddy has made this book more interesting.

As also summed up in some of the lines in the book: “each of us is made of the stories that are told of us. If we look carefully, we can see a train of murmuring stories following each person like the royal mantle follows an advancing king. Some people are not flesh and blood, but fully made up of stories. What is there to do when such a person—moustache, for example, is killed off in stories?”

This book by Hareesh is a brave attempt to unapologetically celebrate the simplicity of life, giving a free hand to imagination along the way.

Sapna Kumari is a PhD Scholar in Delhi University, also teaching at Miranda House, Department of English

Book details

Moustache: A Novel
S Hareesh; translated by Jayasree Kalathil
HarperCollins
Pp360, Rs 599

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