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‘Moustache’ Book Review: An Award-Winning Modern Novel Of Epic Proportions In Translation

Moustache by S. Hareesh was the winner of the JCB Prize for Literature in 2020. On the crossroads of caste, class, and gender roles is this subtly comical yet highly dramatic novel with several twists and turns, almost like a modern epic. Deeply seated in the issues of caste, the novel brings forth the amusing character of Vavachan, who happens to get a unique opportunity to play the role of a policeman in a musical drama. His character has a unique aspect to its appearance, with an immensely huge moustache. In terms of his personal life, he is a convert to Christianity, and he lives with his parents and siblings. He survives, like the rest of his family members, on meager means by working on the agricultural fields and assisting in fishing, which is the main source of work in the Kuttanad region. Nonetheless, like people of the lower castes who find themselves on the societal margins with no specific ways to move up the social ladder, Vavachan and his family are left to spend their lives in deprivation from their necessities as they live in abject poverty and suffer from hunger. Yet the vicious cycle continues as they plunge headlong into ignorance about their basic social and economic rights. This keeps them further restricted from entering mainstream society, though all of that is going to be turned upside down through the chance of bagging a small role in the musical drama.

Set in God’s own country, the novel Moustache is about a character named Vavachan, who is a Pulayan from Kerala. Pulayan is a particular caste found in some South Indian states. The novel was originally written in Malayalam and later translated to English by Jayasree Kalathil. To be more specific, the novel is set in the Kuttanad region, which is a highly fertile and agrarian area. This is important to know in order to understand the background of the character, his idiosyncrasies, and the social setup, some of which are represented in the interesting book cover done by Amit Malhotra, which has silhouettes of a snake and a coconut tree. However, there is no need for a lot of pre-requisite knowledge of the Kuttanad region before reading the book or the socio-historical background of the Pulayan community, as the author provides a basic understanding of these in the foreword to the book. This marks an important step in the reading process, as the foreword is the point of actual reference for the reader to properly understand the textual references. The turning point in this fictional tale comes when the character of Vavachan is given only two scenes but has no dialogue in the musical drama. However, Vavachan’s acting skills create a huge impact on the audience, which consists mostly of upper-caste people. It creates terror in their minds, which is derived from the fact that it revives the power of the Dalit people and reminds them of the struggles, issues, and difficulties that surround Dalit oppression. Vavachan invites interest in his character on the basis of his impactful performance and the charm of his huge moustache, which sets him apart from the others. It immediately brings an analogy to the minds of the upper-caste audiences of Ravanan, who also has a huge moustache that Vavachan’s moustache resembles. As a person of the lower caste, Vavachan is not supposed to grow his facial hair, keeping in mind the limitations that come with his caste. However, Vavachan’s refusal to do so and keep the moustache growing becomes problematic and keeps him on the run, as he is on the radar of the upper castes. While this is the basis and simple explanation of the plot, the real catch is the mixture of fact and fiction that creates an overpowering effect that is a combination of myth, caste politics, and gender discrimination, to name a few.

The narrative has its own challenges as it is rather complicated with sharp turns and several twists in a genre that is neither epic nor magic realism but a kind of mix of myth, legend, magic, mystery, and fact. This makes the tale rather far-fetched, which requires immense patience to read if one is not interested in reading between the lines. The text presents a lot of information in a cryptic manner that requires it to be deciphered. It calls for attentive reading, but once the information is sorted and the reader gets a hang of the layout of the book, the narrative strategy, and the manner in which information is being delineated, then things seem easier to follow. The symbolism in the narrative is hard to miss. The symbol of the moustache, which is not only relevant in Indian myth but also a metaphor of male supremacy and power, is evoked to highlight the underlying thematic significance of the social issues mentioned in the plot. This ties up the themes with the storyline and makes for a unique narrative style. The narrative style is engaging, though with its own set of difficulties that need to be carefully traversed to reach the heart of the plot, which is all about recognizing the richness of diversity in India, which makes the book a call to celebrate social diversity. The language is well constructed with a rich vocabulary, though there are some Malayalam words that are kept in the translation to exude the rustic beauty of the novel. The pace varies between slow, moderate, and fast, though more often than not, the pace alters rather quickly, which creates a certain momentum that is akin to modern Indian fiction. However, one cannot deny that the narrative gets rather jumpy at times, is very discreet, and has several loose ends that eventually tie up only if the reader can keep that amount of attention and patience. The drama within the novel evolves to reveal stories within the story that are all intertwined. This makes the book enriching, though also challenging to read. At about 330 pages, the book is overwhelmingly modern in its theme, narrative structure, and plot, though it is deeply rooted in the rustic simplicity and social issues of rural Southern India at the same time.

Tasnima Yasmin
Tasnima Yasmin
Struck by bouts of bibliophilia several times a day, Tasnima can often be found between the pages of a book. She loves switching between book genres and can get terribly garrulous when it comes to discussing her recent reads. With an ever-growing TBR, she is frequently guilt-ridden at not being able to attend to all her book pals at the same time.


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