Thiruvananthapuram: Malayalam writer S Hareesh has won the JCB Prize for Literature 2020 for his maiden novel Meesha which had triggered a huge controversy in Kerala in 2018. The novel, a brilliant narrative woven around the lives of the oppressed people in the upper Kuttanad region of central Kerala, was translated from Malayalam by Jayasree Kalathil into "Moustache".

Hareesh was announced the winner of JCB Prize for Literature on Saturday, which comes with a cash prize of Rs 25 lakh. The book, which is a contemporary classic that mixes magic, myth and metaphor into a tale of far-reaching resonance, revolves around Vavachan, a Dalit man from Kuttanad in Kerala's Alappuzha, and how after acting in a drama, he carries around his long moustache, refusing to shave it, thereby creating a terror among people from the dominant caste.

The novel had run into controversy in 2018 after right-wing elements threatened the author and his family claiming that the novel was ‘insulting Hinduism’. The right-wing elements had claimed that portions of the novel offended temple-going women and made casteist slurs against Brahmin temple priests. Following this, Hareesh withdrew the novel that was being serialised in Mathrubhumi weekly, saying “I am too weak to take on the people who rule the country”.

The author had garnered wide support from other authors and politicians following the controversy. Later, in August 2018, DC Books published the novel as a book. The Supreme Court also dismissed a plea filed against the novel, citing that a writer’s imagination must be free.

The book was selected for the JCB Prize for Literature by a panel of four judges writer and translator Aruni Kashyap, professor, cultural theorist and author Tejaswini Niranjana, playwright and director Ramu Ramanathan, and Head of the Arts & Culture portfolio at Tata Trusts, Deepika Sorabjee.

“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,” jury chair Niranjana said.

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, she added. Kashyap said the book was astonishing and very original.

“I don't know any other novel that is actually written in this way. It is political but also a feat in storytelling. I think Moustache will be discussed for sure for its representation of caste politics, magic realism or folklore, the community, history of an underrepresented region called Kuttanad, but I will remember this book for its daring storytelling,” Kashyap said.

Hareesh has previously authored three short-story collections, as well as two screenplays. Previous winners of the JCB Prize for Literature include Benjamin and Madhuri Vijay.

(With inputs from agency)