Reading Unni R in 2020

Reading Unni R’s short stories in 2020

If you came here looking for The Dog We Stole series, we resume on Monday morning.

It is true that I am late to the Unni R appreciation party. However I am glad I got around to reading his books in Malayalam. His books are getting translated to English now and there’s always the fear of just reading it in English because that’s easier for me. I believe that books in translation, however good, are another version of the original. The English translation of പ്രതി പൂവൻ കോഴി (Prathi Poovan Kozhi) was released by Eka (an imprint of Westland Publications) in August 2020 as The Cock is the Culprit. It’s been translated into English by J Devika. The plan is to read it in Malayalam first and then in English.

In the past couple of weeks, I read three of his books, കോട്ടയം 17 (Kottayam 17), ഒരു ഭയങ്കര കാമുകൻ (Oru Bhayangara Kamukan) and ഒഴിവുദിവസത്തെ കളി (Ozhivudivasathe Kali). 

I loved the first story I read, തോടിനപ്പുറം പറമ്പിനപ്പുറം (thodinappuram parambinappuram), a tale of an old woman and her granddaughter who go on adventures. This simple premise is elevated when the author’s imagination runs wild taking us along on a delightful ride. The author uses personification with the mastery of a magician. He creates an atmosphere of plausibility in a small town where not much happens. Most importantly he makes a case both for the reading habit and for democratising travelogues. Another wonderful  and rarely told storyline is ആനന്ദമാർഗം (Aanandamargam). It is a story of a group of teachers, all older women, who go on a weekend trip. These teachers swear, drink, have fun and don’t like to be revered, unlike teachers of popular imagination. It’s a simple story line of a group of people we all know, with hilarious dialogue that tugs hard at your emotions. This in essence is what draws me to Unni R’s writing. 

Kottayam 17 is the collection that includes his popular story ലീല (Leela) that was adapted into film by the director Ranjith (available on Hotstar). Leela is the story of a rich man who sets about to satiate one of his desires—to have sex with a woman standing against an elephant. I’d watched the movie in 2016 when it was released and found it unpalatable. Having said that, the story weaves Kuttiyappan the protagonist with more nuance than the film. In the story he comes across as a quirky fellow with the money to follow through on his wild plans. Kuttiyappan of the film fits into too real a mould of a rich man doing as he pleases, painting him with the worst of our society’s stereotypes—patriarchy and misogyny.

In Ozhivudivasathe Kali, I liked how ആലീസിൻ്റെ അത്ഭുതലോകം (Alicende Athbhuthalokam/Alice in Wonderland) is narrated. In narrating it from Alice’s perspective, he highlights the child’s innocence making the gravity of the situation even more stark. Of course, what is not to love about Uroos in പ്രാണിലോകം (Pranilokam) who speaks only to plants and animals? Without fanfare, the author brings to the fore, the fact that humankind’s progress has come to be linked intrinsically with vanishing flora and fauna.

This post is incomplete without mentioning his portrayal of women. Travel-loving grandmothers, post menopausal teachers, sisters who are braver than brothers, wives who are equal partners grace his stories with the ease I would love to see more widely in literature and film. Liars, bookworms, closeted gay men, Karl Marx, Jesus, lovers and oglers form Unni R’s world of the truest kind of magic—a simple one. In writing this post I realised that I like his stories when they are about simple people living their truth. I found those more powerful than when he tries to hold up a mirror to society from within the realm of literature.

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