Chances are, if you haven’t been living under a pandemic-shaped rock of ascetic withdrawal from the real world, you will have heard of S Hareesh. His debut novel, Meesha, translated from the Malayalam into English as Moustache, won the JCB Prize for Literature in 2020. India’s 2020 official entry to the Academy Awards, Jallikattu, was based on one of Hareesh’s short stories from the collection Adam, which won the Kerala Sahitya Akademi Award of 2016. This same award-winning anthology of nine stories has been translated into English by Jayasree Kalathil – and what a stunner of a collection it is.
Towards a posthumanist aesthetic
There is so much going on in the stories that make up Adam. Hareesh makes a disturbingly real study of human behaviour, of the slivers of darkness that lurk under the surface of urbanity, of a playfulness that doesn’t quite know how to co-exist with the serious business of living. However, what catches the reader’s attention, perhaps more than anything else, is the distinct shift from an anthropocentric to a posthumanist aesthetic.
Animals populate the pages in almost equal measure to humans and these are not the animals of fables or easy metaphors or the binarily “otherised”, bestial aspect of human nature. No. Hareesh writes animals like most writers write humans. They are complex, they are nuanced, they defy expectations and they do not seek validation from a human world.
The eponymous story, “Adam”, starts with a father rushing home to meet his newborn son, carrying the gift of a puppy. In a complete upset of conventional narrative tropes, the story then goes on to focus on the dog, its pedigree, its special skills, and the litter it produces. The infant son barely merits a mention. The new litter, with their human-sounding names – Candy, Jordan, Arthur, and Victor – become the protagonists.
The lens is still human. The stories of all four brothers are told from human perspectives, but the stories are their own. There is rebellion, there is subversion, there is love, there is longing, and there is that quintessential marker of all existence – violence. The narrative is in clear defiance of any anthropocentric imperatives. The “animal” as the inferior / the lesser / the one in need of protection, is a trope that has been replicated excessively in literature. Breaking from this tradition, Hareesh’s animals, in “Adam” and elsewhere, stay resolutely unpinnable.
“Maoist”, the story that was adapted into the screenplay for the aforementioned Malayalam language film Jallikattu, is a deliciously subversive reading of this animal-human relationship. Two buffaloes, a male and a female, escape from the butcher who has just bought them and what ensues is a night of chaos and destruction, followed by a resolution which has remained unchanged in narratives since Shakespearean tragedies – the resumption of normalcy through a shift in power.
The cast of human characters keeps swelling as the story unfolds. So does the litany of their flaws. The privileging of human life at the cost of all others has resulted in practices like the butchering of bull calves that have no reproductive value and therefore cannot be allowed to “wastefully consume” the mother’s milk. All animal life is assigned value within a masculine capitalistic system. The buffaloes running amok destroy human property and must therefore be punished.
In “Death Notice”, a litter of mongrel puppies is drowned because there is no transactional value to their lives. All attempts are made to save a pregnant cow in the same household, and when they fail, her dying body still retains value and fetches a price when sold to a butcher. Casual acts of cruelty are inflicted on all bodies (animal and human) deemed unfit and inferior.
“Lord of the Hunt” takes this devaluation of “other” bodies further in its engagement with the illegal activity of hunting wild game. The animals are hunted for their meat, but the act of consumption is not so much for “taste” as it is for an experience of power. The men who buy and consume the meat “eat it with the same satisfaction as though they have personally gone to the forest and killed the animal.”
It is not enough to have killed to establish dominance. The act of killing must also be advertised to establish unquestionable masculinity. In an analogy that is damning in its misogyny, a doctor of considerable repute opines: “Eating wild game is like the doctor having an affair with one of the nurses. (…) It’s forbidden and so you don’t want anyone knowing about it, but really you want the whole world to find out.”
Re-casting the monstrous
Within this schema, the inversions of power that Hareesh structures are unequivocally delightful. In “Adam”, Victor is not just a prized police dog but an alpha male himself. Arthur, re-fashioned as Adam, cast away from Eden, is the ultimate rebel, the commoner, exacting his revenge on an oppressive system, aggressively establishing a new order in which pedigree is destabilised and humans aspire to live like strays.
In “Maoist”, Bhanu, the bull-calf destined to die, transmogrifies into a larger-than-life hero, challenging the age-old trope of man, the saviour, against monstrous animal. Monsters, are, after all, as Pramod K Nayar posits in his Posthumanism, “expressions of cultural anxieties about – and demonization of” – forms of life different from that defined as the norm. Adam becomes, then, an excellent exercise in re-viewing our anxieties of this “other” and re-casting our ideas of the monstrous.
There is another form of “monstrosity” the collection explores in the story “Kavyamela”. The disabled body has frequently been imaged as “abnormal”, both in literature and in public consciousness. While the moral model of disability sees it as a consequence of moral corruption or lapse, and thus, a punishment to be borne by the disabled person, the medical model turns the disabled body into an anomaly that needs to be healed in order to find its way back into the fold of normalcy.
Attitudes towards disability are so insular that we are constantly either inventing euphemisms about “specialness” or constructing narratives about super-abilities; in both cases, otherising the disabled body, refusing to accept the disabled individual as normal, feeding the need to distance disability from the corporeal ideal – the perfectly functioning, aesthetically appealing, able body.
“Kavyamela” tells the story of Soordas, a blind college student who falls in love with Vidya, also blind. While Soordas seems to check all of the sighted narrator’s boxes about stereotypes associated with the blind – his shirt is tucked askew, he is well-versed in music, he has an obvious vulnerability to him – Vidya defies his expectations: “The woman next to him was a golden statue of some goddess gliding towards me, stunningly beautiful with voluptuous breasts and a shapely back. She did not look as though she was blind. With her wide open eyes and clear face, she looked more like an actress playing the role of a blind woman in a movie.”
Vidya’s disability makes her vulnerable in ways she does not understand, foregrounding a discomfort that the reader cannot ignore. Her body, voyeuristically looked at by the narrator and other sighted men, becomes a site of control. This sexualised body, with its promise of perfection, cannot be allowed to be claimed by a disabled lover, as per the code of masculinity that operates in their world. Monstrosity, as is evident in the story, lies not in the body that is imperfect, but in the gaze that establishes proprietorship.
Hareesh’s stories, while firmly rooted in contemporary socio-political-cultural reality, often defy the ordinary. The narrative seems poised somewhere between Freud’s uncanny and Garcia Márquez’s and Borges’s magic realism, perhaps settling into the realm of the phantasmagorical, a term which has often been used for his writing.
In “Alone”, the protagonist finds himself completely alone for the first time in his life when he misses his bus stop and battles not just fear but also the unsettledness of human existence. “Death Notice” has two characters playing a game based on obituaries and it seems to follow in organic progression that there would be a haunting; whether it is spectral or corporeal, is left open to the reader’s interpretation.
Both stories draw on the futility of human desire(s), as also an acknowledgment of a darkness within. Like the narrator of “Death Notice”, a writer of fantasy fiction, says, “A good story needs good villains.” The protagonists of Adam are often flawed, often failing, and always just a shade unexpected.
A slightly different strain of the phantasmagorical can be seen in “Magic Tail”. Drawing on folklore while situated in the politics of linguistic, religious, and geographical difference, the story explores the strangeness, even uncanniness, of grief. Neethu, grappling with the death of her father, must carry his body across state borders, so as to be able to perform the rituals of death. The journey she undertakes is as much through a changing landscape as it is through her own processing of loss.
Death weaves through all the stories in the collection, sometimes as an act of violence, sometimes as release, and twice, as a strange sort of competition between the living. There is much commentary on the human condition as also a conscious shifting away of focus from the essentialism of human concerns.
Hareesh’s fictional world interfaces and overlaps with the real despite its inroads into the uncanny. It is a world where gradations of caste, class, and gender are not just visible but aggressively assertive. And yet, the narrative never slides into despair or wrings its hands in idioms of dramatic tragedy. Instead, there is a whimsical, celebratory quality to the prose. Underdogs often win. When they don’t, they come close to toppling hegemonic structures. Strongmen reform into paragons of virtue based on mistaken identities.
Men, often not-nice men, walk into new temporal realities. Villains remain unapologetic. It a world that is unusually free of judgement and censure and perhaps that is how Hareesh ensnares his readers – we are complicit. We are like his characters, even when separated by boundaries of language or geography or species. Therein lies the triumph of this brilliant collection of nine haunting stories that will stay with you long after you have finished reading them.
Adam, S Hareesh, translated from the Malayalam by Jaysree Kalathil, Vintage.