Meet Keralite in UK whose translation of S Hareesh’s book “Moustache” secured the prestigious JCB Prize for Literature – UKMALAYALEE

Meet Keralite in UK whose translation of S Hareesh’s book “Moustache” secured the prestigious JCB Prize for Literature

Tuesday 24 November 2020 7:52 AM UTC

By Balagopal

LONDON Nov 24: Jayasree Kalathil has been in the UK for almost two decades working as a researcher, writer and translator. Keralite community would have read so much about Jayasree in the literary world but many wouldn’t have known her as a Keralite living in London. Jayasree was again in the spotlight when the JCB Prize for Literature 2020, India’s most valuable literature prize, was announced this month.

“Moustache” (“മീശ “), by S. Hareesh, translated from Malayalam by Jayasree Kalathil, was announced the joint winners of the JCB Prize for Literature. The prize is Rs25 lakhs for the writer and an additional Rs10 lakhs for the translator. Originally published in Malayalam by DC Books, Meesha was translated into English by Jayasree and published by HarperCollins.

According to Tejaswini Niranjana, the chair of the jury, “Moustache is a fine work of Indian fiction by a highly regarded Malayalam author whose work is now coming into English translation. Hareesh engages in an agile and deeply insightful way with the caste and gender equations of the Kuttanad region in this intricate and highly readable story. Jayasree Kalathil’s translation of the novel is fluent and energetic. She conveys the specificity of the context without missing the wood for the trees.”

S Hareesh’s novel Meesha stirred a hornets nest when it was initially published as a series in Mathrubhumi Weekly. The right wing Hindu parties took offence to two lines of dialogue between two characters about women going to the temple. The main character, Vavachan, is a lower cast individual who grows a moustache that takes on a life of epic proportion.

Things blew out of proportion and the serialisation in Mathrubhumi Weekly was brought to a halt. Although, later, published copies of “Meesha” were burned it became a runaway bestseller in Kerala. Hareesh withdrew the novel from the weekly because of threats made to his person and family; the editor resigned in protest against the management; when the book came out a case was filed demanding its ban; the Supreme Court ruled against the ban.

Jayasree  juggles her time in London as a writer and an activist in the mental health user/survivor movement challenging the discrimination against people with psychosocial disabilities.  The literary work “Meesha”, was commissioned to Jayasree for it to be translated into English. Jayasree was by then noted for her publications widely both in academic and non-academic spaces. Her translation of Kerala writer N Prabhakaran’s novel, “Diary of a Malayali Madman”, won the prestigious Crossword Books Jury Award for Indian Language Translation in 2020.

In a brief tete-tete Jayasree speaks to Balagopal about her works in mental health, human rights and literary world.

Q: Can you please share with us how you were commissioned by HarperCollins to get “Meesha” translated and also were you concerned with the issues surrounding this novel. What are your views on the issues surrounding this novel. How do you view this?

For me, the first criterion in choosing a book to translate is whether I enjoy it as a reader. When my editor at HarperCollins, Rahul Soni, asked me whether I would like to translate “Meesha”. I had only read the chapters that had been published in Mathrubhumi weekly before it had to be withdrawn because of Hindu fascist protests. Rahul then sent me the book and I read it. I enjoyed everything about it – the theme, the style of Hareesh’s storytelling which challenges norms of fiction writing, all of it. As for the controversy, I am not a person who is easily scared, especially by bullies. A translator, I’d argue, is the closest reader of a book. To me, what Hareesh tried to do in the book is to unearth the toxicity of masculinity that flourishes within patriarchal systems of power and expose its impact on women, Dalits, nature and the environment itself. I am not sure whether this story can be told in sanitised terms. Anyone who reads the book closely would agree that the book describes the devastation caused by men drunk on their own masculinity and caste privilege. In fact, I would even argue that although the controversy was framed as disrespect towards women, the real reason Hindu fascist and caste-group leaders agitated is because the book exposes the caste relationships that are deep-rooted in Kerala society.

Q: Meesha delves in the lives of people of a particular village? You live in London and how were you still able to relate to those times? Please share about your early childhood if that would have helped you to translate this book

I have been to Kuttanad a few times but as a tourist. The biggest challenge was the regionality of the book. It is set in upper Kuttanad, a below-sea-level farming region within which people live in close proximity with the land, the water, the flora and the fauna. It deals with specific experiences, language, metaphors and stories that are regional. We tend to think of Kerala as a small geographical region with a uniform culture and language. But it is not so. All languages are inflected by caste, class, race and so on. As an upper-caste woman from the hilly parts of Malabar who writes predominantly in English, I had to do a certain level of linguistic and aesthetic negotiation in Malayalam itself before even thinking about the English translation. There were things that helped when I began translating. I am familiar with Kerala history. I know quite a bit about caste and gender relationships in Kerala. As a child, I too grew up on our storytelling traditions which Hareesh employs brilliantly in the book. It is not a linear narrative but one that reminds us of the storytelling traditions of Kathasarithsagaram, Panchatanthram, Mahabharatham, Ramayanam and so on where stories lead to other stories. I am also very conscious of the fact that there can rarely be a translation that is entirely faithful to the original while also being perfectly readable, which in many ways is a liberating thought. It is a process of immersion in the book and its world. Initially, I was anxious about the multiple voices and tonalities in the narrative. But within that, Hareesh has his own unique style. It is playful; it is irreverent; it defies expectations of what a good narrative in fiction should be. This is in some sense freeing for me as a translator because while being loyal to the writer and the story, I also like some latitude in translating. I don’t usually start at the beginning and finish with the end, but pick and choose sections and do several drafts until I am comfortable with the language, diction and tonality. As long as one maintains the loyalty to the story, I think a language emerges, over several iterations, that seems to suit the world that the author has created within the book. I also tend to resist ‘mainstreaming’ language. I think, in this regard, living and writing from the UK was helpful. As a migrant living in the coloniser’s country, I am constantly faced with the demand to explain myself, to apologise for my otherness. This is a demand that I have learned to resist, taking my cues from minority and migrant writers such as Viet Thanh Nguyen, Jasmine Kaur and others, and from campaigns to decolonise literature and writing.

Q: Can you please briefly tell us about your research and activism around mental health and anti-racism in UK?

I came into human rights activism around mental health in the 1990s in India. I am myself a survivor of psychiatry. Psychiatry, as well as the society at large, medicalises mental distress arising from ‘problems of living’ as mental illness. Each society has its own norms of what is normal and what is not, and those who deviate from these norms are often seen as ‘mad’ or having a psychiatric illness. For example, there was a diagnosis called ‘drapetomania’ which was defined as the tendency to vagabondism that made slaves run away from their masters. Up until the 1970s ‘homosexuality’ was seen as a mental illness. Women who challenge patriarchal norms are still diagnosed as having ‘borderline personality disorder’. And once someone is given a psychiatric diagnosis, our society, our laws and our policies discriminate against them. Mental health laws, across the world, are the only laws that allow for coercion and the locking up of people who need support and understanding. My initial interest was to understand the socio-cultural aspects of what we call ‘madness’, especially around how it was represented in literature and cinema. Later, I began working collectively within what is known as the mental health service user and survivor movement to challenge the discrimination against people who experience life differently from others and to set up support structures within communities, including peer support and advocacy. After moving to the UK, I became aware that the discrimination against people experiencing mental distress was compounded by structural racism. In the UK, if you are from a Black or Asian community, you are much more likely to be given inappropriate psychiatric diagnoses, to be locked up in a psychiatric ward, to be treated without consent, and to be denied social protection. I joined anti-racism campaigners and researchers working within mental health, initially through an organisation called The Afiya Trust (which, unfortunately after being active for over 25 years, closed down because of the cuts to community services). In 2007, I set up Survivor Research, a virtual collective of survivors of psychiatry with a specific interest in exploring and challenging racism in mental health services, and creating our own knowledge about mental distress and wellbeing. I am also an associate at the National Survivor User Network (NSUN,, a network of mental health service users and survivors across England. Currently, I am engaged in writing the history of activism by mental health service users from Black and Asian backgrounds in the UK.

Jayasree with husband Adley Siddiqi

Q: Can you please give a brief about your works with addressing domestic violence in the UK? Is there anything which is there that Kerala can learn from the UK model? 

I have personally experienced domestic violence and so it is an issue very close to my heart. Most of my work in this field has been through addressing the after effects of domestic violence. The distress that women experience as a result of violence and trauma is usually medicalised as mental illness. But medication cannot resolve issues of gender discrimination and violence perpetrated within patriarchal power structures. What is required is socio-political solutions in terms of psychological help where that is relevant as well as material help such as housing, income, child support, means to live an independent and dignified life. I am currently a trustee of Asha, a South Asian organisation that works to end violence against women and girls. In the UK, as with mental health services and support, domestic violence services are also intersected with institutional racism. It has taken decades for minority communities to set up support and solutions that are relevant to them. But since 2010, there has been massive cuts to funding that has negatively impacted culturally relevant support for women from minority communities. Refuges and shelters and access to legal aid have been decimated. Organisations are struggling to meet the needs of women and children. As for what Kerala can learn from the UK, I don’t think models of support can be transplanted across cultures. Solutions in Kerala must come from Kerala, and there are plenty of organisations doing good work in Kerala. I don’t think lack of models or solutions is the problem; it is the political will to act upon them, and that is true both of Kerala and the UK.

Jayasree with her mother Kalathil Sreekumari

Q: Can you please briefly provide a glimpse into your family husband, family back home in Kerala? 

My family is from Kottakkal in Malappuram district. My father, Melathra Janardanan, passed away six years ago. He was an ex-serviceman. My mother, Kalathil Sreekumari, retired from the Leprosy Control Unit of Kerala Department of Health, lives with my only sibling, Sreeja, who teaches Malayalam in a local high school, and brother-in-law T.K. Ravi who is a social worker. As a lower middle class family, buying books outside of what is required for school was not always easy, but my mother who is an avid reader always encouraged me to read and write, and I would spend every bit of pocket money, Vishu kaineettam etc. on books. I left Kerala in my early twenties to pursue my PhD, and then lived in Hyderabad, Pune and Bangalore. I met my husband, Adley Siddiqi, while doing a brief stint at an NGO in Odisha. He was working there on a VSO placement. I guess love is what brought me to the UK.