Books

I drew on the stories I have been hearing from childhood to write ‘Meesha’, says author S Hareesh

S Hareesh

S Hareesh   | Photo Credit: Rajeev Prasad

S Hareesh weaves magic into a multi-layered story of a complex, feudal, casteist society and her people in his first novel, ‘Meesha’. It’s English translation, ‘Moustache’, reaches book stores on January 30

In a sliver of land defined by water and caste, unfolds a tale of a man and his moustache. The ripples of unrest and change that the Dalit Vavachan’s moustache brings about in a caste-ridden village in the early part of the twentieth century in Kerala is narrated in Meesha, as only a master wordsmith can, blending magic, myth, fact and fiction.

S Hareesh, one of the most-discussed Malayalam writers in recent times, sets his first novel, Meesha, in the fecund soil of north Kuttanad, where he hails from. A multiple award-winning writer, Hareesh says he had always wanted to write about the land, its inhabitants and unique ecology.

“North Kuttanad is different from other parts of Kuttanad. There is the annual intrusion of salt water into our fields, paddy is cultivated in fields that are below sea level... It is a land rich in myths, folklore and traditions. I drew on the stories I have been hearing from childhood to write Meesha,” says Hareesh speaking on phone from Kaipuzha, near Neendoor in Kottayam, where he works in the revenue department.

Collector of tales

Travelling all around Kuttanad and interacting with elderly residents in the region who have witnessed the change of seasons helped him gather material for the novel. “It was a heartfelt desire of mine to make Kuttanad a character in one of my works because of its special characteristics. Even the flora and the water-dwelling creatures and birds here are special. That is why I conceptualised Meesha in this place of enchantment,” says Hareesh.

Moustache, the English translation of the novel, published by Harper Collins, reaches book stores on January 30. Translated by Jayasree Kalathil, the book, hopes Hareesh, will enable a broader audience to read his work as “the novel was mostly read in Kerala in the backdrop of the controversy that erupted around it. Such a controversy is the worst catastrophe to befall a book. It takes away the attention from what the author has discussed in his book and focusses it on the controversy. I hope the translation will be read in its true spirit,” says the 44-year-old writer.

Although the writer and the translator did not meet in person, they were in constant conversation over phone and WhatsApp. “Meesha has a great deal of regional nuances, words, dialects and usage that are rooted in Kuttanad. It is not necessary that everyone should be familiar with the language and the context in which certain words and phrases are used. After every chapter, she (Jayashree) would send me her work to read. She saw it as a creative piece,” says Hareesh.

Since the novel deals with the intricacies of a casteist society, the book begins with a short note by Hareesh that explains its background, which he hopes will serve as an explanation for the ambience in which the novel unfolds.

‘Moustache’, English translation of S Hareesh’s ‘Meesha’

‘Moustache’, English translation of S Hareesh’s ‘Meesha’  

And how does a story unfold for Hareesh? Is it all planned in his head or do the characters take on a life of their own on paper? “Both happens in the case of every writer. When one sits down to write, there is a rough idea of how the book should be, the number of chapters, the broad storyline, the conclusion and so on. But once the actual writing starts, changes creep in, whether it be a short story or a novel. I doubt if any writer can stick to a completely planned framework. Therein lies the creativity and comfort of writing a story. A lot of changes and addition come in while writing. Those changes often become the most interesting part of a story, imbuing the characters with life,” explains the author.

World of words
  • He is the author of three short-story collections. Adam received the Kerala Sahitya Akademi Award. Rasavidyayude Charithram won him the Geetha Hiranyan Endowment Award of Kerala Sahithya Akademi and Appan is a collection of six stories.
  • Hareesh has written two screenplays, Aedan and Jallikattu. Aedan, based on three stories in Adam and directed by Sanju Surendran, received the Kerala State Award for best screenplay in 2017. Jallikattu, based on his short story ‘Maoist’, premièred at the Toronto Film Festival and won a silver peacock at the International Film Festival of India.

Admitting that he was disappointed about the controversy that ensued after a certain dialogue of a character was read out of context, he avers that the incident has not cowed him down in any way. “Never. If one can’t write what one wants to, then it is best not to write. There is no need for any kind of censorship. One should have the courage and the right circumstances to write what one feels will do justice to the story. If that is missing, it is best not to write. In the case of Meesha, I never expected such an uproar as the manuscript had been read by at least 10 people before it went into print,” he says.

However, Hareesh warns that there is a “new kind of censorship in vogue among mainstream publishers in Kerala.” “Recently, a reputed author and scenarist’s work on the Channar Lahala (revolt) in erstwhile Travancore in the early part of the nineteenth century was sent back because it was about a sensitive phase in history involving caste. The publisher decided that it would rake up a controversy and took the safe way out. That is an extremely dangerous trend for writers in Kerala. Today, nothing is free from commercial concerns and there is a kind of hidden censorship,” he elaborates.

The writer points out that if people can’t fictionalise history or write about it, it is a disastrous trend for the language. However, he rues that many writers seem unaware of this or don’t want to get into a tussle with the publishers. “At present, the trend is to please the publishers.”

Moving on to his works adapted for the screen, Hareesh says that in all the projects, he has been an active participant. “But cinema is a director’s art. He is the creator, not the writer. My story will remain as a story. When that gets transformed into a cinema, it is 100% the art of the director. He is free to do what he wants,” explains the writer.

Welcoming the revival of films inspired by literary works, Hareesh says Kerala has always had a rich literary tradition and many famous works have been visually translated on to the screen. “There was a decline in between. But now, there is a renewed interest in cinematic adaptations of literary works. I take it as a positive sign,” says the writer, who is currently working on a new novel.

IN OTHER WORDS

Jayasree Kalathil, who recently won the 2019 Crossword Book Award for Indian Language Translation for her translation of N Prabhakaran’s novella, Diary of a Malayali Madman, says translating Meesha was a challenge that she enjoyed.

“It is set in a different century. A lot of what the book covers is historical and includes many myths, legends, folklore and all of that. So, I had to do a lot of background reading to get a sense of things. For instance, I read about below-sea-level farming in Kuttanad, agrarian Dalit relationship at that time, the people mentioned in it... getting a sense of the area and its history. The other challenge was in the language itself. Since I hail from Malabar, the dialect in the book was not familiar to me but I had enjoyed reading the book and that is why I agreed to take it up,” says Jayasree from London where she lives.

Jayasree Kalathil

Jayasree Kalathil   | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

“It is not about just translating Malayalam into English. Meesha has lots of different types of people speaking in different time periods. There are chapters in the book where the narrator is talking to his son, telling him a story. That is in the present, which has a different register while the story itself is in a different register. There is a whole chapter made up of songs. That was quite tough. I was in constant dialogue with Hareesh. Rather than focussing on the poetry of the songs, because that would have been impossible to do, we decided to turn them into songs in English. Even the politics of the language came into play.”

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Printable version | Jul 14, 2020 7:03:39 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/books-authors/s-hareesh-on-his-first-novel-meesha-which-is-getting-translated-into-english-as-moustache/article30633087.ece

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