“Novels,” S Hareesh declares in the author’s note for Moustache, “are free countries and there is very little a writer can do about what the characters get up to.” A necessary disclaimer for such a novel – whose characters speak and act in ways that are anathema to the sociopolitical status quo – in a country not half so free. In an India which saw the systemic mismanagement and coverup of the Hathras rape and murder case only the other day, even the blurb of this novel – which promises that its protagonist, Vavachan, will revive “memories of characters of Dalit power” – is fuel for furore.
Moustache – now shortlisted for the JCB Prize for Literature 2020 – has found itself the target of widespread acclaim for much the same reasons that it has received outrage: its bold coverage of power hierarchies, its unflinching portrayal of horrifying social dynamics, and its suggestive possibilities of empowerment through transgression. Beyond this, though, the novel’s mettle lies in its unceasing confrontation of the complex confusions of these social dynamics: even the very symbol of the moustache, for instance, here transgresses caste and reinforces patriarchy.
Characters, sequences, symbols and situations are all embedded in similar complexities: from Kesava Pillah, a peripheral character who refuses to eat at his in-laws’ place but has somehow deigned to marry into the family, to the man-hunt for our rule-breaking protagonist, which involves people of all castes and genders.
It is an unfortunate coincidence that Moustache is as familiar with witch-hunts as its eponymous character. In 2018, it was even withdrawn from publication due to violent threats against Hareesh. The demands to destroy the book indicate the depth of social aversion to this novel – and simultaneously reveal an underlying unease with the potentiality of stories. In an ironic but fortunate turn of events, Moustache is fundamentally a novel about the pervasive power of stories.
Conjured into existence
The first obvious sign is the story-within-a-story framework in which the novel runs: his narrator, a writer (ahem), appears once every few chapters to tell his son the stories of Vavachan, the man whose moustache caused terror in Kuttanad. These segments serve a dual purpose: not only do they reinforce the fact that these stories about Vavachan may be yarns spun by folklore rather than a depiction of his life, they also create a space for our resident story-teller to philosophise. These contemplations are often direct reflections on story-telling in general (“Why do we read stories?”), and implicit commentary on the craft of Moustache at other times.
Through the narrator, Moustache offers us self-reflexive and directive moments – asking us to think about the decisions the novel is making, to pay closer attention to its story-telling. In one such moment of contemplation, our narrator gives us the key to decipher who or what Moustache is: “Some people are not flesh and blood, but fully made up of stories. What is there to do when such a person – Moustache, for example – is killed off in stories?” The answer, which the narrator pursues: tell different versions of the story.
Vavachan’s moustache is groomed when he acts in a play, for the purposes of his character. But the terror he causes with that frightening persona lingers long after the play is gone. Deeply afraid of “Moustache,” folks take to concocting wild (and reverent) stories about him. Imaginations conjure his moustache into existence in the thick of dark nights; people ashamed of their instinctive fear upon encountering him deliberately exaggerate his superhuman strength; and eventually, even the disappearance of the paddy is blamed on “Moustache and his gang.”
Near the end of the novel, Vavachan listens to endless songs sung about Moustache – ancient songs of folklore that he recognises, but for one change: his name is now in all of them. “Who [are] these songs really about,” he wonders, for the man has been turned into a myth, a horror figure, and even a protective idol of a god. The impact caused by the moustache takes on a life of its own, turning into the stories of Moustache, larger than Vavachan and his Moustache persona.
Even as people invent these stories to explain their real reactions and real problems, the stories in turn begin to shape reality. Moustache knows all too well the differences between myth and his life: where he is happily with the woman of his desire, Seetha, in the songs, she spits on him when they meet outside them. He finds himself pursuing her nevertheless, “hoping that the songs will come true.”
In turn, people pursue him – trying to meet him, trying to stop his supposedly bandit-like reign – driven by the image of Moustache that stories, rumours, hearsay have built for them. With character names like Seetha and analogies of Vavachan looking like “the fearsome king, Ravanan” on stage, Moustache also alludes to the storytelling traditions of the subcontinent. Through subtle moments, like a final scene substituting Vavachan for Rama in an interaction straight from the Ramayana, the novel highlights that these are stories that are told, retold, and flexible to change.
Stories, stories everywhere
We witness the dedication to storytelling not only through the material, but even through the style of the book: the building blocks of this novel are different stories. Where books typically depict localities, characters, and events to lay out an understanding of the world they seek to present, Moustache tells us stories about each of the elements that constitute its novel-world. Even the setting is constructed through myths and histories of the place, and the wildlife accompanied by glimpses into its life or stories of its relationship to human beings.
Never do we get simply a description of a coconut tree or a crocodile; instead, we get a tale about how the coconuts liked people until people grew too greedy, or a digression into the collective history of crocodiles. Even a small fish that is only relevant because it slips onto Paviyan’s face from a counter and wakes him up has its story – of guilt for misguiding its fellows into a net – to tell.
The human characters too are afforded the same treatment: every character, no matter how peripheral, is introduced with a story. We encounter the Peshkar, for instance, only because he is connected to the Tehsildar, who is friends with Menon, who writes one report on Vavachan. And our encounter leaves us with a couple of stories about his sexual proclivities and past conquests. Therefore it is not possible to say: Moustache is a novel about this or that. It is a novel about endless lists of this, that, and everything around them.
What is phenomenal is how each of these stories is compact in itself: they draw relevance not because they add to the plot or complicate a character; they are self-contained even as they flesh out the world within the novel. Moustache is unusual and unique because it is tapestry made of such threads of stories: the novel builds an expansive world that far outreaches notions of plot, step by step, through all of these narratives.
A difficult investment
Our translator too notes this many-storied building of Moustache, saying, “Hareesh tells us a large number of stories.” Jayasree Kalathil’s work here is complex: to let us experience the complexity of the novel – to bring us these stories about places, flora and fauna, people, history, mythology – without making our reading experience laborious. She accomplishes her task admirably. From the rhythmic quality she infuses into the songs sung about Vavachan to her decision to keep the names of the flora-and-fauna in English, her translation successfully carries us forward – without any pause, confusion, or elaborate explanation – into the many stories that create the world of Moustache.
Even as Kalathil smoothly lets us access the fascinating stakes of this kind of storytelling, however, Hareesh’s technique weighs the novel down considerably. The constant shift from story to story prevents us from settling into a rhythm of reading. Though the most commonly recurring thread is the life of Vavachan-Moustache, it is presented to us in snips interspersed with other stories: there is no underlying, consistent current in this novel.
Moustache takes on a meandering tone because of this: we drift along with the switching tales, unmoored. The haphazardly magical aspects of the tale – meeting the gods, moustaches coming to life, time turning backward and going forward at unpredictable speeds – also keep us moving from one plane of suspending disbelief to another, which jolts us repeatedly.
This makes it difficult to invest ourselves in the novel as a whole: flashes of connection are created with a story only to be wrenched away as another takes its place. Every story is then required to stand for itself and draw our interest. This is a near impossible task, and in dryer, less witty segments, we are tempted to abandon Moustache altogether. The book thus makes for a discomfiting, frustrating, and initially quite an exhausting read.
To appreciate Moustache requires us to acclimatise to this different mode of reading: to listen to the story, as our ever-contemplative narrator directs, “without reservations.” With patience, it is possible to shift with its movements, stay with it through segments that intrigue us less and experience the world these stories create.
And as we familiarise ourselves with this style of reading, we discover the most powerful stakes of Moustache: it forces us to remember that our world, our realities too are shaped by stories. From our perceptions of people to our ideas of ourselves to our interactions with each other and the environment around us, our understandings are shaped by the stories we hear – and the stories we tell.
Moustache, S Hareesh, translated from the Malayalam by Jayasree Kalathil.