Earlier this week, Moustache, the English translation of Meesha, won the JCB Prize for literature, one of the most coveted awards for literary fiction in this country. In 2018, Jasmine Days by Benyamin had won the same award. Malayalam fiction is certainly going places
In the publishing world, Indian languages are gaining in acceptance. Is this a reflection on the state of Indian English writing?
Great literature is happening in Indian languages. We now have some excellent translators and that has brought change. Look at the JCB prize. It’s just three years old but two of them were won by translations from Malayalam. Publishers have a feeling that Malayalam is the language to scout for works of literary merit.
I am not equipped to comment on Indian English writing since I haven’t read much. Recently, I read two novels — Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line by Deepa Anappara and These, Our Bodies, Possessed by Light by Dharani Bhaskar — which were on the JCB shortlist. Both were good reads. Interestingly, Deepa is a Malayali and Dharani has ancestral roots in Kerala.
Meesha is a complex tapestry-like work with many nuances; there is also the rustic language of Kuttanad and its histories. How do you rate Moustache as a translation?
I had my concerns but it shaped up well. Moustache wouldn’t have happened if not for a devoted translator like Jayasree Kalathil who approached it like a creative work. She handled it deftly, adding a line or two in places to avoid the burden of footnotes. I did not dictate anything and my interventions were minimal.
The novel has a fable-like fictional universe where snakeheads and pangolins appear as characters along with rotten mangroves and logs of wood. How important for you is the craft?
For long, I had a wish to bring in land as a character in a novel. But I had no idea how to do this. So, when I found a spark in the story of Vavachan, a lower caste man, who gets the role of a cop with a Moustache in a play and decides to keep it for life, I felt I could narrate it in the backdrop of Kuttanad. I am a stickler for children’s literature, where birds and animals are anthropomorphized. I still find time to read them and have been greatly influenced by it. For a writer it gives freedom to narrate stories in multiple ways. Meesha has its archetype in Chengannooradi, a folk song where birds and animals are characters. I do not worry much over craft. For me, nothing is planned in writing. I start with a story in mind and a vague idea how it would move and end. The rest comes naturally. The Meesha that you read today was not planned that way. It transformed as I kept writing and took on a large canvas. It’s a fair game to identify the politics in a text and criticize it, if needed. But it should not be the only tool. It cannot decide the value of literature, which has many facets and reflects on the beauty of life and the nature of our existence.
Do you think being in a Left stronghold for long is a constraint for writers in Kerala?
It is something I can agree to some degree. Our imagination has been affected due to the influence of socialist realism. If you look at the kind of stories that are celebrated here – including mine — you can see that they are political. It’s rare for a story which does not have political content to find takers.
Did the controversies change you?
I was shocked. It changed my perceptions about Kerala society. I was aware of the existence of a savarna Hindu consciousness in Kerala but had never gauged the depth to which it had permeated. Many, who I thought were progressives, turned away from me. Friends and relatives stopped talking or became hostile. What did I do? I didn’t rob a house. All I did was to write a book.
Do you feel that the work is still being censored?
This consciousness has ensured that the work continues to be censored passively by not talking about it. Articles written on Meesha are often not published. Even the news on JCB Prize was displayed in a way that it wouldn’t be seen. Some online outlets deleted it after publishing. I have felt that they would have celebrated me as a martyr if I failed to find a publisher. For these reasons I should be thankful to the publisher and the prize.
You don’t believe in political correctness. But do you have politics?
I believe in democracy and consider it the most acceptable system of governance. But I am doubtful now because fascists have come to power riding the system, not once but twice. In the last century you had Hitler and Mussolini. Now you have Trump, Modi and Bolsonaro. Where do we get from here?
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.