A novel originally written in Malyalam, Moustache had a troubled reception. Banned initially, after only three chapters had featured in serialized form in a magazine, it has resurfaced to be feted for its multi-faceted critique of social and political life in Kerala. Couched in the framework of stories told to a child by his father, it tells of a man who was asked to grow a moustache in order to play a role in a village play. Thereafter, he was expected to shave it off since a man of his low caste was not allowed to sport facial hair. He refuses to do so. Since it was unacceptable to continue with the moustache, the man hides and even runs away to escape capture and punishment. He is said to be sighted every now and then. He grows in stature and all kinds of marvels are attributed to him. The man becomes a myth and a symbol of rebellion. While caste politics is the primary focus, the stories provide a wide angled view of life and customs, attitudes and prejudices in Kerala then and now. Gender politics, control and oppression by higher castes and the control of resources by those in power form the major themes. One meaningful aspect of the novel is the power of stories that is demonstrated by the myths that grow around the man with the moustache who came to be known as Meesha (moustache).
The setting is Kuttanad in rural Kerala and the timeline is the earlier half of the 20th century. The book certainly succeeds in throwing light on the life and customs of a rural Kerala that hardly exists anymore.
Shanti Menon brought a clear-sighted summary to the discussion and also a useful slideshow. Since, as she said, she is a Keralite herself, she was able to give us context and background which helped in understanding the objectives of the narrative. She had clearly read the text closely and was able to answer the many questions with aplomb. An interesting point that came up concerned the differences in the speaking of a language by speakers of different castes. Since the text read was an English translation, these differences were conspicuously missing. Shanti’s guess was that the original text was likely to display these differences. In fact, she felt that a lot had been lost in translation. She also felt that the book needlessly includes a lot of description of body parts (both male and female) that have no real good reason to be there.
All in all, the discussion was very interesting. The book seems to be truly intriguing in terms of its narrative technique and central concept of the man who grew larger while remaining almost invisible: how myths are born, grow and proliferate. Interestingly, each story can stand alone and self-complete while also being connected to the intricately woven narrative in its entirety.
- Mohini Khot