Malayalam writer S Hareesh on Saturday won the Rs 25-lakh JCB Prize for Literature 2020 for his novel Moustache, published by HarperCollins India. It is his debut novel. The translator of the book, Jayasree Kalathil, won an additional Rs 10 lakh. Moustache is the second translated novel to win the award, after Benyamin’s Jasmine Days, also in Malayalam, translated by Shahnaz Habib, in 2018.

The winner topped a field of five shortlisted books, the other four being Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line, by Deepa Anappara, Penguin Random House India; Chosen Spirits, by Samit Basu, Simon & Schuster India; These, Our Bodies, Possessed by Light, by Dharini Bhaskar, Hachette India; and Prelude to a Riot, by Annie Zaidi, Aleph Book Company.

The Malayalam novel talks about, among other things, the art of rolling the moustache, a masculine symbol of virility. The story features Vavachan, a Dalit man, who grows out his moustache for his role as a policeman in the local theatre. Vavachan belongs to the fishing community of Kuttanad, an area of paddy fields and swamps that spreads over three districts of Kerala.

When he grows out his moustache, a right reserved for upper-class men at the time, he is accused of stealing despite having no earlier record of theft. Vavachan, who knows the rich ecology of the region, will not be caught easily, but a manhunt is set up for his capture. The book mixes the magic and myth of the moustache with caste politics and the rich history of Kerala.

Jayasree Kalathil, translator of the prizewinning book.

As the review puts it, “Moustache 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.”

The jury comprised Tejaswini Niranjan (chair), Aruni Kashyap, Ramu Ramanathan, and Deepika Sorabjee. Said Kashyap about the prizewinning book: “Moustache is an astonishing and very original book. I don’t know any other novel that is actually written in this way. It is political but also a feat in storytelling...Moustache will be discussed for sure for its representation of caste politics, magic realism or folklore, the community, history of an underrepresented region called Kuttanad; but I will remember this book for its daring storytelling. I’m delighted that an unruly novel, a misbehaving novel that defies our conventional understanding and expectations of what a novel should be, is taking this prize.”