The recent literary controversy in Kerala over a novel titled Meesha (The Moustache) offers valuable lessons to the whole nation. The first lesson is that literacy has nothing to do with literature in the times that we live in. The second lesson, expectedly, is that literacy has nothing to do with culture or civilisation either. Otherwise, how could the casual conversation of a misogynistic character in a novel trigger massive protests in the most literate state of India? How could protestors threaten to chop off the novelist’s hands and attack his family even though neither the narrator nor the novel enforces this view espoused in the conversation? Why, the misogynistic character dies in the very next paragraph.

The magnitude of the organised attack against the author S Hareesh for his novel has no precedence in Malayalam. The vulgar comments posted along with the photos of Hareesh’s family undoubtedly proves that a society hitherto proud of its literacy and social awareness is nose-diving into medieval standards. Thanks to right wing religious fundamentalists – or “awakened Hindus” as they describe themselves – for the first time in the history of Malayalam literature, Malayalis have been taught a new lesson on how to read a novel.

It was really saddening to us, his readers, to see Hareesh forced to withdraw Meesa from Mathrubhumi, the weekly which was serialising it. Ever since I had read his short fiction Mantrikavaal (The Magic Tail), which was about two classmates meeting after a long time and falling in love as the man transports her father’s dead body to her native place, it was difficult to let go of his work. His narration is simple and from the heart. His short stories, like Modasthithanayangu Vasippu Mala Pole (He Remains Blissed Out Like A Mountain) –which dealt with the decadence of the Kerala Renaissance initiated by Sree Narayana Guru who had revolted against the caste system – and Tha Thai Dhom Thai Thaka Dhom Thaka Dhom (rhythmic sounds from the Velakali ritual) – a philosophical outlook on human existence which works as an allegory on many aspects of Malayali life – are pure gems. Meesa is his very first novel.

Retribution for a society

Hareesh’s decision to withdraw the novel is the best reply to the protestors as well as to others. By withdrawing it, he has achieved greater status as a writer. Not that it might appear significant to the protestors, who seem to be acting with a hidden agenda. It takes a superior kind of political awareness and nationalism to be proud of our rich regional languages. To the rest of us, the safe-zone players, it is severe retribution for a society that boasts of progressive ideals but fails miserably to stand up for its literature.

However, Hareesh’s decision to publish Meesa in the form of a book as and when our society becomes intellectually mature can turn out to be a brutal joke, for the chances seem negligible in the immediate future. One reason is that a large section of people around us are by default fiction-haters. This is irrespective of age, gender, class and religion. For example, many of my friends in school and colleges used to say with pride, “I don’t read stories/poems at all,” or, “I don’t like politics.” In those days it was a mystery how a literate person could not enjoy reading. Much later, I cobbled together an explanation – that readers, too, need to be imaginative to enjoy fiction. All literature becomes meaningless unless one can reinvent oneself as the character. Not all of us are, or need to be, equally imaginative.

It is intriguing that this particular insensitivity offers the most appropriate metal out of which to carve our new political sensibility. All the joyous party-goers of capitalism, misogyny and communalism are armoured in it. It was after completing Aaraachaar (The Hangwoman) that I came upon an explanation for this mind-set in an American research paper, which proved that reading literary fiction increases our capacity of empathy. But there was no answer to how people can be so evil-minded when it comes to religion.

It was then that I chanced upon another research paper, also American, on the inter-connection between religious fundamentalism and four levels of empathy. The study concluded that religious fundamentalism undoubtedly lowers empathic concern, the ability to have a perspective, and the power of creating fantasy. Conversely, lower levels of empathy can generate all forms of fundamentalism too.

At war with libraries

Consider this: religious fundamentalism is caused by the deficiency of empathic concern, which can be cured effectively by an appropriate dose of literary fiction! Thus, it is self-explanatory why the perpetrators of fundamentalism wage their war starting with libraries. It also explains why the hate-speeches by “hurt” Hindus accusing Hareesh is noticeable for the similarity in tone and content to the vehement outbursts from Islamic fundamentalists in comparable situations.

For example, the whole controversy around Meesa is based on an observation made by a side character, to the effect that women who go to the temple well-dressed are trying to broadcast a subconscious message that they are prepared to have sex. However, the state president of the protesting organisation has deliberately misinformed people that it is not a character but the author himself who has made such a statement. The protesters pretend not to have seen the word “subconscious” at all.

It isn’t funny that while women all over the world are proclaiming unconditional power over their bodies and sexuality, a state which tops the list of educated women in the country sees women being told it is wrong to express sexual desires even “subconsciously”. And this is the second reason for considering the maturity of our society a joke: the outrage is conscious. Subconsciously, it is an effort to reinforce the concept of the honour of the upper caste, by the upper caste and for the upper caste.

I believe that the most important lesson to be learnt from the catastrophised protest against Meesa is that it has nothing to do with the honour of the Hindus. It is only about the politics of terror. With the Parliament elections closing in, we Malayalis too are being prepared consciously and subconsciously for our share of violence. Afterwards, who knows whether there will be any need ever again to differentiate between the literal and the literary.