S Hareesh’s Moustache is a diligently told story of a troubled yet awe-inspiring land
S Hareesh’s novel Moustache, translated from Malayalam into English by Jayasree Kalathil, is set in Kuttanad where he has lived his entire life.
In this fortnightly column, Pages From The Wild, Urvashi Bahuguna looks at accessible, engaging books from around the world, on the environment and ecology.
Trigger Warning: Sexual Assault and Caste-Based Oppression and Violence
S Hareesh’s novel Moustache, translated from Malayalam into English by Jayasree Kalathil, is set in Kuttanad where he has lived his entire life. The “sticky mud, decaying mangroves, knotted networks of waterways, and endless collections of fields” of this “waterscape” are rich in biodiversity with rare species of mangroves, a large population of resident and migratory birds, numerous fish and shellfish species and mammals found in the area. Spending a week in the company of Hareesh’s writing immersed me in a land where every minute in the fisherman’s boat traversing the local canals introduces a marvel such as a species of fish drawn to human spit or a horror such as the water-bloated corpses of cattle after a flood. There is a compelling exactitude to his descriptions that (presumably) can only have come from the rewarding experience of having known these sights all his life. He is like a boatman in the novel who knows “the exact spots in the canals where, in low water seasons, the boats would scrape the bottom.”
Kuttanad is an area spread over three districts in Kerala. Comprised of numerous waterways, reclaimed paddy fields and coconut plantations on limited high land, Kuttanad boasts the lowest altitude in the country. Much of the paddy cultivation takes place in areas that were originally lakes or swamps but were later drained of water for farming. It is the only place in India where rice is farmed below sea level – this agricultural practice is rare because of the frequent flooding these low-lying reclaimed areas face and the subsequent salination of fields and water bodies. The area’s 200 years of experience farming this way are considered an important model for other coastal farming areas in an era of climate change with FAO naming it a Globally Important Agricultural Heritage System.
Set in the middle of the 20th century, Moustache is as much a history of caste oppression and local politics as it is a nod to Kuttanad’s unique and partially man-made ecology. The eponymous character is a lower-caste man belonging to a fishing community. Impoverished, the young man finds power in growing a moustache – an ornament that is generally reserved for upper-caste men. This seemingly minor act of self-expression strikes terror in the hearts of the rigidly hierarchical communities of Kuttanad. There is a growing suspicion that he is stealing paddy from fields that had previously never known theft. When it is suggested that he could disrupt important trade along the river routes, a man-hunt to apprehend Moustache is set in motion.
This chase becomes a way for the reader to understand that the area is an impossibly complex and unmappable matrix of fields, canals and bunds. In the novel, Hareesh calls it “[a]n expanse that only had a beginning, and no end.” Moustache knows the land too well to be easily caught, and the tangled nature of the land itself helps harbor him. It is reminiscent of the way the untraversable marshlands in North Carolina helped harbor outlaws in Delia Owens’ Where The Crawdads Sing.
The humans that reside here are largely those whose lives are inextricably linked to the land – duck herders, laborers in the paddy fields, toddy tappers, fishermen. This predominantly lower caste workforce works the fields owned and managed by people who are often upper caste. There are other professions too in the novel such as law enforcement, goldsmiths and even theatre troupes. In his author’s note, Hareesh says there is an argument to be made that it is the paddy cultivation for which Kuttanad is famous in Kerala that has allowed feudalism to endure in the region.
The abundance of flora and fauna continuously jars with the real, unsolvable hunger of many of the people who live amongst it. Repeatedly, the novel demonstrates that Kuttanad’s landscape holds more than one note. It is beautiful but devastating. It is home to both the poisonous mushroom as well as the nourishing. It awakens the conservationist in some men and bloodthirst in others. It thwarts starving men despite every effort and it provides when it is least expected. It is the site of enrichment and employment as well as the ground for widespread violence against women and lower castes, famine and disease.
The novel opens with the story of a pangolin collecting fallen mangoes through the night only to lose sense of time and be forced to abandon his loot at daylight, and closes with a riverine ghost. In Kuttanad, as in most landscapes where the wilderness is relatively intact, a mythology crowded with spirits and animals with anthromorphic characteristics goes hand in hand with the local ecology. The trees and rivers appear (at times benignly) haunted to the locals who use these stories to process a world that is hyper-alive and untamable – it was particularly so in the mid-1900s when nightfall shut illumination out entirely and night walks from one house to another included the threat of jackals and snakes.
After reading Moustache, I dreamt of crown rot on bananas, flesh eating eels, owls swinging low over Kuttanad, the weed that blooms red on the water. What can make one fall in love with a landscape one has never visited, one that reminds us of the feudalism that the country is built on? Hareesh’s words and Kalathil’s translation has me believing that it is a good story told locally and diligently, and without obfuscation that can convey the essence of a troubled, awe-inspiring land.
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