Moustache book cover

A crocodile that takes you on its back in the river and talks about people; a tree that’s fallen across water, making a bridge, recognising you and steeling itself to not break as you cross over it; turtles that meet over hundreds of years, wondering about people. Water that ebbs and flows with its own rules, snakes, fish with enchanting names and stories and the songs that people sing when the harvest is on. Folklore and tales for the sake of stories; hearsay that twists events and reputations. Braid these with human greed, inequity and neglect – of the land and water that feeds us and of other people.

‘Moustache’ is raw and atavistic and savage, with an honesty that makes you flinch but that you recognise as truth. Strip away the refinements and the pretensions that we have as a ‘civilised’ society and the veracity is reflected in these pages.

Stark poverty, hunger, caste privileges, abuse of people and of the environment, disease, despair, the narrative is a commentary on all this and more. It is shape-shifting, flitting between reality and magic realism, wandering from real events to folklore of fantastical men so that you are swept along the tide of stories here and there, as relentless as the expanse of water in Kuttanad, the place of below-sea level farming, spread across three districts in Kerala.

The story telling does not follow the conventional linearity, there is a sense of surreality as entire years seem to go by, seen through the lens of sowing to harvesting and yet the protagonists stay where they are, observing, hiding, held by spells.

It’s masculine in every way as a moustache is; the women are reduced to mere objects, harshly treated and seen only as bodies.

The forces of nature seem to be all-powerful, bringing men to their knees through floods, drought and disease, salinating land, reclaiming it till men destroy the ecosystem in an effort to triumph.

In all this, ‘Moustache’ is a giant of a narrative, as copious and wild as the moustache Vavachan sports, that refuses to be trimmed or tamed, with a life of its own.

The Book

S. Hareesh’s ‘Moustache’ has been described as ‘a novel of epic dimensions’, rooted in the regional history of the place, tracing it’s social transition over the years and transcending it to move to the realm of myth. (K. Satchidanandan in the foreword to the English translation). It was originally written in Malyalam as ‘Meesha’ and has been translated by Jayasree Kalathil.

The book is set in Kuttanad, a veritable waterscape of coastal backwaters and an intricate maze of canals, tributaries and rivers, where farmland is dredged up from lake bed, reclaimed and proscribed through bunds. The diversity of the aquatic flora and fauna is described in breathtaking detail; the land, the trees and the natural forces acquire a spirit of their own.

“Kuttanad is the only place in the world that is entirely made by human beings. God had only created swamp and water, but the vast paddy fields that you see today are really only around two hundred years old.”

Caste rules that governed nearly every aspect of a person’s daily life also intruded upon gender roles and where and whom women could marry. Vavachan, the protagonist, also known as ‘Moustache’ throughout the book dares to get facial hair in defiance of caste rules that leads him to a life of wandering and loneliness.

“Caste is still the primary signifier of worth, dignity and position of people…”

Ayyankali, Guruswamy, social reformists of those times make an appearance. There are allusion to the epic Ramayana, in the names and the situations of characters. These definitely would rile people who do not want to question or look beyond what has been fed them.

Moustache actually is a bunch of stories, from myths and folk tales and the songs sung in the countryside.

“Each of us is made of the stories that are told of us. If we look carefully, we can see a train of murmuring stories following each person like the royal mantle follows an advancing king.”

My View

‘Moustache’ is a textured narrative, layered with a rare awareness and depth of the place and time it is set in. It’s as much about the land as about the people.

Buy the book here.

This book review is part of Blogchatter Book Review Program.

4 thoughts on “Moustache by S. Hareesh: Book Review

  1. books like Moustache make me think of the hidden gems of vernacular literature which we are unaware off as they are not in English. Your review is very well balanced and has piqued my interest. Will definitely try and pick a copy soon.

    Liked by 1 person

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