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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Procrastinator’s Pride: An Incomplete List Of Unfinished Books In My Shelf

Since yesterday, I can wax eloquent about Kiran Nagarkar’s Ravan and Eddie. Shamefully, it is my first Nagarkar read. Arguably his best work, (1.) Cuckold, was one of my gifts when I turned 25. And I turn 30 this year. A procrastinator’s pride, I have been meaning to read that book for half a decade!
That’s how I thunk up this list. These are books I should have read MUCH earlier; I own copies of these, have read some of these, but haven’t completed them yet.
I’ve had a copy of this Malayalam must-read for over 10 years now.
I remember the first time I read the premise of this book. It was the summer of 2010, a period when i had all the time in the world to read. I was skulking around Blossoms hoping to meet “the rich man of my dreams” who would buy me as many books as I cared to read! Oh, for life’s simple needs! I ended up buying a lot of obscure books other than this one because they were cheaper.
The year was 2007 and I was very excited about debut novels. Right up until I got myself a copy! Never got around to either of them.
In Evil Hour
Of course there was a Marquez phase. The tragic end to that was marked by a thesis that exorcised the Marquez fetish. This book came to me right after the exorcism. I had no energy left for one more ecstasy. I read the first 20 pages from time to time but never again found the urge to finish it.
I was in the eucalyptus stillness of the mountains. A chill rose among the plantations along with the potent smell of coffee. I remember I was reading Everything is Illuminated short on the heels of his other book, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close which was A-M-A-Z-I-N-G!! All I can say is the woods had me in their hold and a warm cup of freshly brewed coffee did me in!
I don’t remember who introduced me to this one. I remember reading more than half way through this. And I remember it being very engaging. But then I did put it down.
Hmm, 8 is a good number, don’t you think? How about we make this a running list. I have a feeling I hide books I own but haven’t read, both from myself by double lining the bookshelves and from my conscience by not acknowledging them even when I see them. Watch this space for more in this list.