Malayalam writer S Hareesh’s announcement on Saturday that he was stopping the publication of his novel Meesha (Moustache) in Malayalam weekly Mathrubhumi, has raised serious questions about freedom of speech and expression in Kerala, said writers and activists.

The novel, set in Kerala about 50 years ago, was being serialised in Mathrubhumi. Only three chapters have been published so far.

It is unclear whether Hareesh took the decision on his own or was asked to recall the novel by the magazine’s management.

Just a day before Hareesh’s announcement, a group of Hindutva activists protesting against the novel had vandalised an exhibition organised by Mathrubhumi Books in Kochi, according to a report in the Hindu.

Organisations associated with the Sangh Parivar have been protesting against the novel since last week, alleging that it portrayed Hindu women in bad light. They picked on a conversation between two characters, in which one of them said that well-dressed girls who visit temples are subconsciously conveying their readiness for sex.

Hareesh said that he had received several threats to his life through phone calls, text messages and social media last week. “I am too weak to take on people who rule the country, so I am withdrawing the novel,” he told Mathrubhumi News channel on Saturday. “I will consider publishing the novel when there is a change in society’s attitude.”

Mathrubhumi’s editorial head Kamalram Sajeev told The Times of India that the novelist had informed the magazine of his decision to withdraw the novel in an email on Saturday. was unable to contact Hareesh for his comments.

The writer has received both praise and criticism for his announcement.

‘Be courageous’

While some of his colleagues hailed the withdrawal as a unique way to protest, others felt that Hareesh should have courageously countered those who attempted to intimidate him by continuing with Meesha’s serialised publication.

Poet Kalpetta Narayanan compared the difficulties faced by Hareesh with that of the Tamil writer Perumal Murugan, who declared that he was dead as a writer in 2015 following attacks by Hindutva groups. Murgan ended his literary silence with a new book titled Poonachi (Story of a black goat) in March.

Narayanan said he never expected that a writer in Kerala would face a similar situation. “Right-wing groups have been attacking Hareesh for an inconsequential comment made by an unimportant character in his novel,” said Narayanan. “They could not demarcate between the writer and the characters. This shows the growth of an extreme group in Kerala that cannot enjoy works of fiction.”

He added: “[This also] points to the growing trend of literalism. People who fall into this trap can make interpretations only in the literal sense. This is a threat to our imagination.”

Littérateur and former secretary of the Sahitya Academi K Satchidanandan said the withdrawal of the novel from publication was of serious concern. It indicated the growing threat posed by right-wing groups in Kerala, he said.

Novelist Anita Nair said that the incident was a setback for not just literature but progressive society. “What will be the future of democracy and humanity if there is no freedom of expression?” she asked.

Others, like novelist Benyamin, criticised Hareesh for not putting up a fight against Hindutva groups. “His decision will empower right-wing groups,” Benyamin said. “I am quite disappointed.”

Previous incidents

Hareesh is not the first writer in Kerala to withdraw a novel midway through its serialised publication.

In 1965, following harassment, the late writer and poet Rajalakshmi, whose novel Uchaveyilum Ilam Nilavum was also being serialised in Mathrubhumi, recalled her novel after only eight chapters were published.

“It was a brilliant work with a biographical touch,” said writer CV Balakrishnan, recalling the inclident. “She faced lot of criticism and harassment from family and society for writing such an explosive novel. The reactions made her angry and she got the manuscript back from Mathrubhumi editor NV Krishna Warrier. Later she committed suicide.”

Rajalakshmi’s suicide note said she had decided to kill herself so as not to write anymore.

Balakrishnan said writers in India are facing threats from different corners these days. “Political party leaders and religious leaders are the most intolerant people in the country,” he said. “Political parties on the Right and Left are on the same page when it comes to intolerance.”

His novel Ayussinte Pustakam had drawn a lot of flak from the Church when it was first published in 1984.

In 2016, Malayala Manorama, the biggest media group in Kerala, recalled the December issue of its 125-year-old literary magazine, Bhasha Poshini, after protests by both Christian and Hindu religious groups.

Christians were upset by a painting that illustrated a play published in the magazine. Inspired by Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper, the painting depicted a bare-breasted dancer at the centre, in the place of Jesus, with Christian nuns in place of his disciples. The dancer is believed to have represented the Dutch dancer, courtesan and German spy Mata Hari – executed in France during World War I – whom the play alluded to.

Hindus objected to the cover of the magazine that depicted an image of social reformer Sree Narayana Guru. Accusing the publishers of distorting the image, religious groups Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam and its political arm, the Bharath Dharma Jana Sena, took to the streets to protest.

Besides withdrawing the issue from the stands, the publishers were forced to publish a public apology in both cases.

Balakrishnan was of the opinion that writers and artists cannot make everyone happy. “They should have the freedom to criticise the societal norms and express their dissent,” he said. “It is the duty of the society to ensure their freedom [to do so].”