ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Roars of Dalit Audacity

Moustache, a scathing commentary on Brahminical ritual purity, tells the story of a Dalit protagonist with the “audacity” for bodily grooming.


In mainstream literature(s) across languages, Dalits have been imagined by non-Dalit writers through a frozen spectrum of tropes such as dirty, devious, incestuous, ignorant, servile, and passive victims of Indian society. They are often written about as types and subjects who serve to inversely highlight the virtues and progressive attitudes of the (savarna) protagonists. Even when Dalits are portrayed as focal figures, their agency for critical reflection or decisive action is either wilted or altogether withheld in the flow of the narrative. The Malayalam literary tradition, too, is ensconced within these Brahminical narrative conventions. However, the novel Moustache (2020, translated by Jayasree Kalathil) by S Hareesh heralds a fresh promise with its tightly woven array of myths, legends, folklores, hearsay, songs, and stories that revolve around the eponymous character Vavachan—a Pulayan (Dalit) Christian. Primarily set during the early 20th century in Kuttanad—a waterscape teeming with flora and fauna in Kerala—this rambling cornucopia of tales is about an “impertinent” Dalit and his defiance against the established caste propriety as much as it is about the ensuing consequences that divulge the many darker yet overlapping shades of history, politics, agrarian economy, and colonialism.

Under the caste system, Dalits are disallowed bodily grooming like doing their hair, donning headgear, wearing ornaments, footwear, or elegant clothes, for these are constitutive markers of humanity and self-worth. Dalits are violently disfigured by caste Hindus for living their own bodily sovereignty. It is this fetid social intransigence against which the author conceives his protagonist Vavachan. In the novel, Vavachan gets an opportunity to play the character of a policeman with a big moustache in a musical drama, in contravention of the established conventions. Vavachan’s character is initially slated to appear only in two scenes: in the first one, he has no dialogues but has to deliver “a few grunts and piercing looks,” and in the second one, he gets to “look at the audience and roar angrily.” The audience (almost entirely “upper-caste” men), drawn from Kerala society “proper,” do not recognise Vavachan on the stage. But Vavachan’s towering body, moustached dark face, bloodshot eyes, and roaring grunts throw the audience into jitters; they see the formid­able Ravanan, the mythical king of Lanka, being embodied in front of them. When Vavachan unexpectedly reappears in another scene roaring “Da…!” straight at them, they ultimately flee in utter panic.

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Updated On : 13th Nov, 2021
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