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Unni R and the pursuit of precision

Rihan Najib | Updated on October 04, 2019 Published on October 04, 2019

The man and his words: Unni R’s work in film and literature resonates with audiences across Kerala

The author of ‘One Hell of A Lover’ discusses his collection of short stories, and why it’s important to disregard fortune-tellers

In the sleepy town of Kudamaloor in Kerala’s scenic Kottayam district, a 16-year-old boy felt he ought to clear the air about his future. Convinced he wasn’t going to get anywhere with his abysmal grades, and therefore anxious about his prospects, he decided to consult Murthy, the local astrologer.

The boy, with trepidation, asked the astrologer the one question on his mind: “Will I ever become a writer?”

Murthy spread his cowrie shells across the squares on a wooden plank and considered the possibilities. He fixed the boy with a stare and said, “Son, this is what I know — in this lifetime, you will never become a writer.”

 

The boy returned home, crestfallen by the revelation.

Unni R laughs heartily as he recalls his boyhood angst. “Murthy is still around. I never went back to tell him he was utterly wrong,” he says in an interview to BLink over the phone.

One of Kerala’s foremost contemporary writers, Unni (48) is renowned for his screenplays and short stories, many of which have been translated from Malayalam into other Indian languages. The recipient of several prestigious literary awards such as the Kerala Sahitya Akademi Geetha Hiranyan Endowment and the Thomas Mundasseri Award, Unni’s work in films and books resonates with audiences across the state. His writing stands to gain new ground with the release last month of One Hell of A Lover, a collection of 19 short stories translated into English by scholar J Devika.

One Hell of a Lover Unni R (translated by J Devika) Westland/ Eka Fiction ₹399

 

 

“Translating my stories couldn’t have been easy, since the specifics of caste and religion are brought out through the inflections in a character’s colloquial dialect. Many of these changes are difficult to capture in English,” he says.

The collection brings alive the layered sociocultural fabric of Kottayam’s small towns; their fissures, preoccupations and mythologies. The stories move along the margins of this fabric, following characters who are a quiet but singular deviation from a society predicated on conformism. Another author had famously done this earlier — Arundhati Roy in her depiction of Aymanam village in her Booker-winning novel The God of Small Things.

Unni’s hometown of Kudamaloor is about three kilometres from Aymanam. Both places share the same verdant landscapes — and the same sense of menace. He trains an unforgiving eye on caste and gender hierarchies, the myriad ways in which lives lean towards ruin because of them. His critique is never humourless. Unni’s weapon of choice is absurdity.

In The Spectre (Bhootam in Malayalam), a pair of twins from an embattled home discovers a pot, from which floats out the unhappy ghost of Karl Marx. The story He Who Went Alone follows a woebegone Jesus, who leaves the Church to visit a lower-caste Christian who has a bone to pick with the Son of God. A girl whose bottom has been pinched in a crowded bus seeks to exact revenge in The Grievance.

Each story is a delicately constructed universe, invested with an adversary only a touch removed from reality. “Fiction is not just about documenting reality,” Unni says. The point is to surpass it.

Born to a father who was a station-master in the state transport department and a mother who was a schoolteacher, Unni recalls being a bored student all throughout school. But as an undergraduate student of literature, his life changed.

Being part of a group of thinkers, activists, writers and voracious readers, he found himself immersed in philosophy, fiction and counter-culture. The period was marked by all manner of youthful excess and indiscretions. “The times that form us, make us who we are today are not always pleasant sights to witness. But that period, the company I kept, the books I read — they shaped my outlook. They taught me how to read the world I lived in”.

Unni elaborates on the complex task of translating from Malayalam to English. The words “enna” and “entha”, for instance, both mean ‘what’, but reveal much about character — the usage of the former being typically associated with Christians from Kottayam. In the Translator’s Note, Devika notes the challenge of capturing “the multiple layers of [Unni’s] Malayalam”, since “his storytelling tends to mirror the sociological richness of the place it refers to”.

The author calls himself a slow writer, producing at most two or three stories a year. “Ideas for stories come like a flood, but writing is not about spontaneity, but about precision,” he says, discussing the painstaking process of editing and reworking his tales. The stories in his collection had earlier been published in Malayalam, and some have been made into critically acclaimed films.

Holiday Fun, for instance, was filmed as Ozhivudivasathe Kali. Directed by Sanal Shashidharan, it won the State Award for Best Film in 2015. Leela was made into a film of the same name in 2016. The stories Calling to Prayer and The Grievance are currently being filmed, as is his debut full-length novel, Prathi Poovan Kozhi (The Rooster is the Culprit), which was released in May this year.

Currently based in Thiruvananthapuram, Unni is shuttling between film shoots. His screenplays for films include Chhaapa Kurishu (2011), 5 Sundarikal (2013), Munnariyippu (2014) and Charlie (2015), for which he won the State Award for Best Screenplay. The screenplays are hailed for their lively dialogues, incisive social commentary and sudden shifts in a character’s destiny. But Unni would know best about the detours of fate. He is the boy who became a writer.

Published on October 04, 2019
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