Unni R. is a leading writer of short fiction in Malayalam. He hails from Kottayam; many of his stories are set in and around the region and employ the Kottayam dialect of Malayalam. However, any attempt at identification pinned to region and dialect has to end here because Unni’s fictional world is utterly original—like that of the greats in the genre, such as Vaikom Muhammad Basheer, Madhavikkutty (Kamala Das) or Paul Zacharia—and his voice stands out as singular and unique.
While this quality is itself the greatest challenge for any translator, it is also where the translator of Unni’s stories has proved to be as original and intrepid as the author.
In translating One Hell of a Lover , J. Devika has developed an inventive new language, a creation in itself. This writer experienced the same exhilaration reading these stories in English as he did when reading them in Malayalam, and that, surely, is the test of a great translation.
The Malayalam short story, which shed its cast-iron structures of philosophical preoccupations and idealistic projections of the modernist period, became lighter and directly linked to lived experience from the late 1970s onwards. Some of the stories that appeared after the mid 1990s lean more towards the poetic than to the linear, plot-oriented structures of prose fiction. Unni’s language is at once lyrical and radical and weaves together fantastic worlds, peculiar characters and indescribably complex situations, all moulded in his exuberant imagination. The starkness, irony, pathos, understated sense of tragedy and the bare, abrupt finishing lines, all contribute to the outstanding quality of Unni’s stories.
There are 19 stories in this collection. At 28 pages, the title story “One Hell of a Lover” (“Oru Bhayankara Kamukan”) is the longest. It is about what local rumour-based legends and fantasy can weave together and form or deform the popular psyche. Also, it presents the thrill and adventure the common man feels when there is a strong character who rebels against deep-seated power structures such as religious orthodoxy. The narrator, Parameswaran, a sculptor by profession, has been undergoing treatment for a mental illness resembling schizophrenia, caused perhaps by addiction to alcohol, sleepless nights and an overriding sense of failure brought about by rank underachievement. The hazy world of the artist and his creativity versus the actual, material world of everyday living represented by Padmini, his practical-minded wife, is a strong realistic streak in the story. The action begins when Parameswaran is commissioned for a sculpture project by Matha Mappila who, even at 80 or 90, is notorious for his sexual feats (although no one has witnessed his escapades first-hand). Matha Mappila’s emissary engages the sculptor to create a replica of the Pieta opposite the local church. Parameswaran is also informed that the Pieta should be nude, should not hold the dead Christ in her lap, and that the face should be modelled on the notorious courtesan Chungam Kuttyamma, whom Matha Mapilla is believed to have appropriated for himself long ago and who is living (though many believe she is dead) in his mysterious manor riddled with preternatural and supernatural beings and happenings. Matha Mappila is considered by many to be the incarnation of the Devil. But what Parameswaran narrates about Matha Mappila, though most of it seems to be hallucination, is also pegged here and there to real-life situations, giving us the contours of a real story into which the mentally deranged narrator’s world is introduced. Unni’s creative imagination is revealed in this story in all its vastness.
The story “Holiday Fun” (“Ozhivudivasathe Kali”) reveals a nightmarish scenario in which role-playing for fun turns into a deadly power game. Four friends, Dharmapalan, Asokan, Vinayan and Das, get together in Room No.70 of the Nandavan Lodge every Sunday around a bottle of liquor to escape the drudgery of work, in the vein of “the refugees from the plague in The Decameron ”. While they usually spent time gossiping, criticising the government or engaging in typical “men’s talk” about the female anatomy, they want to do something different that Sunday.
Finally, they settle on a game in which they draw lots to play the characters of king, minister, police and thief. Dharmapalan becomes the king, Vinayan the minister, Asokan the police, and Das the thief. As the game progresses through rounds of liquor, the “king” Dharmapalan snatches the actual executive power for a few moments and stabs Das the “thief” to death, even as the other two watch on, mute and acquiescent.
Dharmapalan is reminiscent of Jack Merridew of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies . A disquieting parable for our times, this story was made into a film by Sanalkumar Sasidharan and won multiple State awards and international recognition.
The protagonist of the story “Leela” is quirky, middle-aged Kuttiyappan, lone heir to immense wealth, spoilt brat-turned-eccentric adult who is obsessed with the idea of making out with a girl, leaning her against the trunk of a tusker. The subservient character, Pillechan, who cannot raise a word in protest against the wealthy bully, is clearly a metaphor for the common, acquiescing citizen over whom the powerful ride roughshod. Through a string of escapades over long distances in a tattered jeep, the girl and the tusker are arranged. But what awaits them is something that cannot be imagined, and hits the reader hard. This story was also made into a film.
“Calling to Prayer” (“Vaank”) is the story of a Muslim girl’s yearning to call out the azaan, something the women of the community are forbidden to do. She takes a young male friend along with her to a strange and unpeopled region to call out the azaan in utter solitude. Unknown to them, some hooligans are following them. However, the power of the azaan in her voice drowns out all negativity in the world around. This story is also being made into a film now.
“He Who Went Alone” (“Ottappettavan”) is the story of Jesus Christ taking a stand in a caste-ridden Christian community, with the history of 20th-century Kerala Dalit Christian renaissance under the leadership of Poykayil Appachan woven into it.
The narrative is framed around Akkiri, a Pulaya Christian falsely implicated in and imprisoned for the murder of Thundiyil Mathai, an upper-caste Christian. Akkiri escapes from prison and lives in hiding in the forests of Idukki, where Jesus meets him. At first, Akkiri is cross with Christ, who knows the truth, that Thundiyil Mathai was murdered by his own relatives over a land dispute, and yet is unable to exonerate him. However, Akkiri relents and teaches Christ the basics of fishing and swimming and prepares dishes of tapioca and fish for him. As the days go by, Christ works miracles to cook the dishes and clean the hut and the compound. Finally, as the police close in on Akkiri on Good Friday, Christ makes them believe he is Akkiri, gets beaten up and is taken to prison, while Akkiri returns home. The elan with which this story is told, as if it were happening before our eyes, sinks the fantastical elements below the surface of the narration.
In the book’s blurb, Paul Zacharia describes Unni’s stories as representing “a quantum leap in Indian literary imagination”. He adds: “Unni is a master of the interior, a fabulist of the humdrum, a saboteur of the given. Political to the core, here’s contemporary Indian short fiction at its best.”
As J. Devika points out in the Translator’s Note: “Unni R. represents a new generation of male short story writers who have, perhaps for the very first time in Malayalam literature, chosen to turn a searing eye on what is too often deemed as the very grounds of literary creativity in Malayalam: the Malayali macho masculine.” She further examines how naattukaar (local people), a seemingly innocent expression, actually connotes the purveyors of “a vicious form of masculine power—groups of men of particular localities who monopolise public spaces and violently suppress any sign of subversion of opposition by women and others. Unni and some other contemporaries examine the psychology of this highly homosocial group; Unni, especially, from the inside.”
This review will not be complete if mention is not made of the excellent cover along with its illustrations, the illustrations of each individual story, and the motifs strewn around throughout the book—all accomplished by Elwin Charly.