Review: Adam by S Hareesh
While reading S Hareesh’s collection of short stories, Adam, translated from Malayalam by Jayasree Kalathil, I have repeatedly thought how deficient our literary culture would be without translations. Not that I didn’t know that before, but reading Adam is a reaffirmation. The imagination that Hareesh brings to his interpretations, the breadth of his characters, their quirks and their worldviews akin to constructing a mini universe of oddballs is all unthinkable in Indian writing in English or the small cocoon from which emanates most of these writings and constantly regurgitates. It is when writers like Hareesh are translated into English that the Indian English idiom gains new life, a new voice, a new character, and a new worldview.
That said, I also wondered if Hareesh fiction could emerge from anywhere else in the country? After all, his stories are rooted in the soil of his native Kerala. To read Hareesh is to attempt a parallel reading of the state and its complex socio-cultural dynamics. I do not offer a simple sociological analysis of his writing because formal and narrative experimentation are at the heart of his work. The magical realist setting or ending of many of the stories in this volume are deeply embedded in the state’s cultural ecosystem. Do you consider Aravindan and Vijayan as the cultural ancestors of Hareesh? I would, but not in an imitative way. In his writings, I can feel the flora and fauna of the state, its dense forests and its rivers. Perhaps the magical and the real constantly intersect in such settings.
For example, a story titled Culvert Murder chronicles the life of Maadan Thambi, a thug turned law-abiding citizen after his self-proclaimed divine encounter with Christ. Now, how is that even possible? Maadan Thambi posts a photo where he is seen posing with a Christ-like figure. His audience cannot suppress their laughter as they identify the late Malayalam filmmaker John Abraham in the photo whom Maadan Thambi mistakenly believes to be the Christ due to physical and dress similarities. It’s an ingenious situation and a great intersection of comic book-infused magic with the real thing. Isn’t it incredulous that Maadan Thambi really believed in the reality of such an event? But there are many like Thambi for whom it is entirely plausible.
Adam and other stories were written before Meesha, which, when translated into English by Mustache, was critically acclaimed Hareesh and instantly recognized in the English-speaking world. It is a fascinating novel rich in folklore and mythology. The awards often decide the fate of the non-English speaking Indian writer in the English speaking space. Either way, I’m glad that more of Hareesh’s works are now being translated and remain in circulation.
As I read the stories, I also thought of the role and insight of the translator, Jayasree Kalathil, and the difficulty of her undertaking. Not only is she responsible for translating a language but also the author’s imagination. And it is the latter which is the most critical because of its very local character. How does a local imagination or an imagination about the local relate in a foreign language to the sensibilities of the characters in the story whose lives take place in their native Malayalam? Kalathil has done an outstanding job of addressing this dynamic in his translation – to reimagine the local in a foreign language.
Several of the stories in the collection feature people exhibiting aberrant behavior or what would broadly be termed aberrant by societal standards. It is perhaps Hareesh’s interest in the aberrant that also adds a magico-realistic dimension to the characters and their actions. A realistic approach alone can often be a shortcoming in examining their complexities or motivations in such a situation. In lord of the hunt, Dileepan can go so far as to consume game meat and also offer it to others as a sign of his masculine pride. In Kavyamela, Vasuvannan against a blind man and runs away with his girlfriend. There is a series of such events that could beget the question – but why? Hareesh does not answer. Maybe he too is looking for the answers. These doubts are also his. Nevertheless, the encounters also suggest the world contained in his fiction. And therein lies the success of his endeavor – entering the reader’s mind, building a home there, and energizing our imagination and curiosity.
Kunal Ray is a cultural critic who teaches Literary and Cultural Studies at FLAME University, Pune