Malayalam writer S Hareesh's controversial novel Meesha once again hogged the limelight as it won the Kerala Sahitya Akademi award on Monday.
Meesha's English translation - Moustache - had won the JCB Prize for Literature in 2020. The novel was translated into English by Jayasree Kalathil. The Rs 25-lakh award is touted as the biggest literary award in India in terms of prize money.
Hareesh, in an interview with Onmanorama, says that he is least bothered about political correctness when it comes to writing. He also traces the route map of his literary career and narrates the story behind Meesha.
Here is the edited excerpts from an interview:
Q: JCB award carries a whopping Rs 25 lakh as prize money. Have you ever thought that you could make so much money from writing?
Never. I have never had such thoughts. I always considered writing as a side activity. After sometime, I realised that writing is the only activity that I can carry out with a little bit of confidence. I never thought of making money with that. However, there's nothing wrong in making money because it gives us a lot of freedom. It also helps us spend more time on writing without much tension about daily life.
Q: How was Meesha, the novel, born?
I used to write short stories and like any other prose writer, I wanted to write a novel. Around eight years ago, I attempted to write a novel that had 10 chapters. When I showed that to a friend, he said it was not up to the mark. He said it was not a novel I was supposed to write. I shelved it then. I started working on Meesha after a long time. Vavachan, the central character in the novel is someone who lived in our locality. He had a big moustache. My father had a ration shop and as a youngster I used to help him. Meesha would visit the shop sometimes. People either respected or feared him. Even my father would ask me to give him whatever he wanted without delay. It might have been the fear of a Dalit who dared to don a moustache or they were afraid of a Dalit who dared to question others. I had also heard a lot of stories about him that remained in my memory for long. After a long time, a friend of mine told me that he started donning the moustache after he played the role of a cop in a drama. There I had the spark for my novel.
Q: How did the controversy over the novel change your life and writing?
It did change my life to an extent. I could understand the attitude of the people. I never thought people had that much communal thoughts and hatred within them. Friends turned enemies overnight. People stopped talking to me and spoke against me in public. Some people started abusing me and my family on social media. All these were strange to me. There are people who still don't talk to me. I live in a rented house and my neighbour doesn't speak to me. He doesn't even know that Meesha is a novel.
At the same time, I also realised that writing is my way of life and I cannot move forward if I do not have the courage to write. The controversy, in fact, gave me more courage.
Q: Really? Don't you have a sense of fear now when you take up the pen?
Not at all. In real life, I'm a fearful person. If someone says he would slap me, I would run for my life.
Q: The entire controversy was over a dialogue in the novel. Do you regret writing that?
Never. In life, people speak a lot of things that are contradictory. Everything that people chit-chat in a local gathering cannot be politically correct. Naturally, such conversations reflect in fiction too. It's part of the novel. If you trace the history of our novels, you can find such elements in a lot of works right from Indulekha (Malayalam novel written by O Chandu Menon), or in the works of (Vaikom Muhammed) Basheer. But we don't find fault with any of them. The entire controversy happened because some people used it for political gains.
Q: But you made some revisions when it was published as a book, especially after the controversial dialogue.
Yes, I had edited some other parts in the novel also. It's the prerogative of the author. See, I'm not attempting a comparison here, but see O V Vijayan used to revise Khasakinte Ithihasam when a new edition was published. In my case, nobody has the right to say that I edited the text due to the controversy. Nor does one have the right to ask me to revise my work.
Q: You were born and brought up in a village in Kottayam. You have a government job. How did you become a writer?
I had a passion for writing even before I got my job. I used to read well when I was a student but those days I did not think about becoming a writer. I became a writer quite accidentally. It may sound funny. After completing my post graduation, I remained jobless for sometime. During that time Mathrubhumi called entries for their Vishu edition short story contest. Then I literally cooked up a story and sent it for the contest. I sat at the Kottayam Public Library to write it. It somehow won a prize. I did not write anything after that for sometime.
I resumed writing after I got my job. The boredom of professional life was also a reason for that. I was around 25 at that time. Again there was a break in my writing. That was a time when I was not even reading much. Again, after 8-9 years, I turned to short story writing seriously. It was then that works like Adam, Appan and Meesha came out.
Q: The first chapter of your second novel was published in the launch edition of the web portal Truecopy Think. Then, there has been no news about the work. Why?
I had written almost one third of the novel. The portal’s editor Kamalram Sajeev sought a story from me when he launched the website. That time I did not have a new story with me, hence I offered to give him a portion of the novel I was writing. Readers thought that the novel would be serialising in the web portal, but I had no such plans. Now, I have kept aside that work and started writing another novel. I hope to finish the second work sometime.
What is the current status of the third novel?
I'm half-way through, and I hope to finish it soon. I took up the work because I was so excited to work on it. When you write a short story, you work on it for a couple of weeks or a month. Whereas when you write a novel, it should keep you excited throughout the process of writing. That's why I jumped to another project.
Q: How do you view trend of auditing a work of art employing political correctness as a tool, especially on social media? Does it affect your writing?
It's never a hindrance to me. I know very well that what I write is not politically correct. When Jayashree was translating my works, she had concerns about some portions. For me, if I try to be politically correct, I won't be able to write. I don't live a politically correct life. I do help my wife in the kitchen but I'm not a feminist. Similarly, the casteist and religious thoughts that are inside everyone are there within me also. I know I have not been able to come out of it fully. All these will reflect in my writings too. Of course, people can criticise it. They can point out that what I wrote or my political views are not correct. However, nobody has the right to tell me I should not write it.
I have not seen an absolutely politically correct person. I don't think it is practically possible to be one. Then why are we adamant that writing has to be politically correct? There are too many critics on social media. It's good that work is being audited. However, the criticism these days means either too much praise or tooth-nail criticism. A proper analysis of a work is done seldom and by very few people. My view is that one doesn't have to be cautious about possible criticism.
Q: What do you have to say about Jayashree Kalathil's translation of Meesha? Were you part of the process of translation?
I was hugely anxious about Meesha being translated into English because it's a work that employs local dialect to a great extent. I was also afraid if some dialogues, names of places and paddy fields and the novel's complex plot could be translated properly. My view is that the author of the original work should not interfere in translation. The translation is a different creative work. In the case of Jayasree, she used to send me the translation as she finished each chapter. After going through them, I sometimes expressed some of my doubts and she would clarify them. Often, she was right. If necessary, she would make corrections. Personally, I'm very satisfied with the translation. Some of the best readers in Malayalam also told me the same thing. I could win the prize just because the translation was brilliant.
Q: Awards have a lot of political implications in our society. JCB Award is instituted by the manufacturers of earthmovers, often described as a symbol of human's endless greed for development. Do you have any moral dilemma as to accepting an award from the company?
Never. I'm neither rich nor a fool to reject Rs 25 lakh. If we go after those who institute awards, it would be problematic. For example, the Nobel Prize was instituted by the one who invented dynamite. We know that in Europe and all big companies set aside an amount for these kinds of things to promote literature or as part of their image building. This award is also a similar project.
In India and especially Kerala, prize money is often small. Also, there is a notion that a writer should live and die poor. For me, money is important because I suffered a lot of poverty when I was a child.
Q: You are into scriptwriting also nowadays. Lijo Jose Pellissery's Jallikettu was the cinematic adaptation of your much-appreciated work Maoist. As a writer, are you happy with the film?
That question is irrelevant. A film should be watched as a film. When Lijo first met me, he made it clear. He told me that my story is already there and the film will be a different work. If someone wants to read that story now, they will read it as an independent work, not in comparison with the film.
I may be getting a story from a life experience. It might have been shared by you. Then I make a story on my own out of it. Similarly, Lijo Jose Pelissery made a film inspired by my story. I am satisfied with the film.
Writers often want a film to be like the story. They ask if the film did justice to the story. I don't think like that. I think the film has to do justice to itself. In that sense, Lijo has succeeded.
Q: What about your other film projects?
I wrote the script for Churuli. It's based on a story by Vinoy Thomas and was directed by Lijo. I have not committed any other films. For now, I'm concentrating on the novel I'm writing.
Q: When can we expect a new story from you?
These days, ideas come to me in the form of novels. Novels give us a lot of freedom even though the process of writing is very difficult. The structure is more flexible. I enjoy the freedom to develop characters and the possibility to expand a single point. Anyway, I will be writing stories as well.
(The interview was orgianlly published after Hareesh won the JCB Prize in 2020)