Hareesh and his family were subject to vile online harassment, the novel was withdrawn from Mathrubhumi and an appeal was made in the Supreme Court to ban it (which was dismissed). DC Books then published Meesha as a novel and the English translation, by Jayasree Kalathil, was published by HarperCollins.
In a telephone interview with ET, the 45-year-old, currently on leave from his day job in the state’s revenue department, talks about his writings and the reactions to them. Excerpts:
You have won numerous awards. What does winning the JCB Prize mean to you?
This was a prize I really wanted to win. Because after Meesha was published in Malayalam, it became known as a controversial work. Nobody went into its literary merits. Even those who supported me would only talk about whether the controversy was right or wrong. That was not what I wanted. When I write a novel, I want people to read it. I felt readers in English would read it differently, not against the background of the controversy, which many of them are not even aware of. There were far more reviews in the English media than in the Malayalam press, which focused on the controversy. Malayalam papers will not publish reviews — you would not have read the news about the JCB Prize in the Malayalam press either, not even in the obituary section! My hope is that the JCB Prize will also mean more genuine readers in Malayalam. That makes me happy.
In the preface to Meesha, you wrote that the world of stories is ‘an autonomous republic where characters enjoy boundless freedom’. It’s ironical that the same work caused such a storm because of an innocuous passage.
Once I had finished writing it, I gave it to 10 of my friends to read, before it was published. None of them said anything, especially about this particular passage. I was astonished when the outrage broke out. I think this was a creative way they (the right wing) came up with to get back at Mathrubhumi (a campaign was simultaneously launched to wean Hindu readers away to the right-wing paper, Janmabhoomi). There are so many works which have passages that, if taken be misinterpreted. This became a controversy beacause it involved the right wing.
How did that experience change you — both as a writer and as an individual?
As a writer, it has not changed me. I will write whatever I have to. If one keeps thinking about what other people will say, one cannot write. It’s better not to write at all. On how it changed me as an individual, while I knew that Kerala was a savarna Hindu society, this incident revealed how deep that kind of thinking went. I could not understand why people were getting so incensed. Many people who were angry did not even know Meesha was a novel. Many thought I was a journalist at Mathrubhumi. They were agitating without any kind of awareness, or logic, which I couldn’t figure out. For instance, I’m currently staying in a rented house. My neighbour will not speak to me. I later realised it’s because I am the author of Meesha. He’s the kind of person who would not even read a short story. I didn’t murder anyone or rape anyone, all I did was write a novel. I cannot understand why someone will not speak to me because of that. It’s very curious. (Chuckles)
Has the award changed their opinion?
Not really. They are from a section that does not read at all, they will never withdraw from their position. I am not bothered because I don’t encounter them. They still bring it up occasionally. They had spread the falsehood that it’s a lewd novel. The JCB Prize helped change that perception. My acquaintances, like my neighbour, view the Rs 25 lakh prize money with great surprise, as a big deal — otherwise, they would not bother even if I won the Nobel prize.
There are growing instances of intolerance. How do you see its impact on the arts, including writing?
It’s affecting it badly. Even 10 years ago, in Kerala, people would openly criticise fascism. Now, there is a real fear though Kerala is ruled by CPM and the main opposition is the Congress. But the media in Kerala has a fear of the Hindu right wing, which they don’t have for these parties because the right wing withdraws advertisements and influences subscribers. You can see the effect of this in newspapers and magazines; it’s happening in front of our eyes.
To outsiders, Kerala seems like a progressive state. Meesha, of course, describes a society in the early 20th century riven by caste and gender discrimination. What has changed, and what hasn’t?
When it comes to caste and, particularly, communalism, Kerala is relatively better. When it comes to gender, in some matters, I feel, the north is better. Kerala society likes to pretend caste does not exist. But it’s there in our daily lives — in weddings, in funeral ceremonies. We used to hide it; now, for some time, it’s out in the open, along with communalism.
How does it influence the politics of the state today?
With the consolidation of Hindutva, it has come to a situation where parties today feel they have to appease that to go ahead. Reservation for forward castes was introduced recently. Earlier, there was no real ‘Hindu vote’ in Kerala, there were only caste votes. Now, people talk about the Hindu vote. I expect it to only get worse, like in the rest of India. This revolves around an organisation that’s over 100 years old — the RSS, which has hordes of workers and can bring in any number of leaders. It cannot be overcome easily.
What are you reading currently?
I’m reading a couple of books. One is (Roberto) Bolano’s Nazi Literature in the Americas. Before that, I was reading Yoko Ogawa’s The Memory Palace. It’s not that I read a lot, but I read whatever I can get my hands on.
Do people recognise you in the revenue department? Have you become a celebrity?
No, not really. Some people recognise me but I live in Kottayam, which does not really value writers or writing, you know. When I won the Akademi award, which people know about since it’s a question in entrance exams, someone asked me how much was the prize money. My reply — that I won `25,000 — was met with great contempt. (Laughs)