We begin our Zoom call by comparing Jayasree Kalathil’s cloudy London skies with my rainy evening in Kerala, as we wait for S. Hareesh to join us. Just as I am about to ask another casual ‘weather’ question, Hareesh joins and catches me off-guard—“From the name, I thought you were a Hindi-kaari (a Hindi speaker),” he says, sending all of us into splits of laughter and instantly lightening the mood. Within the next minute, Hareesh and I, both hailing from the same district, have discussed landmarks and neighbouring places, as most Malayalees do while meeting each other.
Hareesh, jointly with Jayasree Kalathil, won the JCB Prize for Literature 2020 for Moustache, a translation of his Malayalam novel Meesha. From his unassuming, affable manner, you wouldn’t guess that he has braved a publishing controversy in 2018, or won the richest literary prize in India this year or that movie adaptations of his short stories (Aedan, Jallikattu) have won awards. He is delighted with the recognition, especially since Meesha had a rocky start in 2018 when right wing Hindutva groups made a hullabaloo out of two characters discussing the sex appeal of temple-going women in the serialised novel. Things blew out of proportion—the serialisation in Mathrubhumi Weekly was brought to a halt, and the editor resigned soon after. Later, published copies of Meesha were burned. But it became a runaway bestseller in Kerala.
Hareesh is eager to talk about the people who crossed paths with him— a glutton who loved buffalo meat, his friend’s grandfather who had a pet crocodile that obeyed his commands, a man who sported a moustache after acting as a policeman in a play, and his own grandfather who survived the 1924 Kerala floods by growing banana plants on a hill.
These ordinary men get a new lease of fictional life in the complex world of feudal Kuttanad in Meesha. With varied textures — there is a chapter told through nadan patt (folk songs) —...