|  06 NOV 2020

Call Me by My Pen Name

Malayalam novelist, screenwriter and short story author Unni R opens a window into his inner world.

Unni R dreamt that he was in the wrong house. The bed felt unfamiliar and the window, tiny and too far away. When he woke up, he carried the confusion with him to the kitchen, where he threw open a window and let in whatever remained of the afternoon. While the water for his kattan kapi is boiling, Unni suppresses a yawn and stumbles for the record button, speaking into his phone: “In all my years of writing, it was the first time I had abandoned something. It was a period novel, and I was already 25 chapters in, but it just did not feel like the right time,” he says.

Balanced on the fence, my cell phone shudders, and Unni’s voice plays to an audience of trees. I am in my yard, repurposing an old window frame into a stake to save the turkey berry. “This year has been about abandoning things midway,” I respond while looking at the waterlogged garden beds and yellowing foliage in a backyard that resembles a toppled board game. “How difficult was it to give up something that you were knee-deep in? Do you see yourself going back to it?”

Unni sips his black coffee and puts down The Letters of Gustave Flaubert, which he likes to read at random. “It may look like an act of bravery, but it is better to walk away than to continue without conviction. I already adopt a similar attitude when it comes to editing my own stories. I pluck out beautiful sentences and metaphors – anything that comes in the way of the story.” He grips the phone like he would a microphone and walks to switch on the tube light.

In these days of growing darkness, Unni and I have been exchanging voice notes for a week. Even though we live a few kilometres apart (in Thiruvananthapuram), he is quarantining at home after an acquaintance tested positive for COVID-19. It was not so long ago, when face-to-face interviews did not involve gambling with one’s health, that we had walked half the length of the city in search of a passion fruit variant, one that looks parched and cracked from the outside but packs a sweet nectar in its crunch. Today, such a walk would be nothing short of an adventure in a city that is under the grip of Section 144. There are no dine-ins, no parks, and with untimely rain showers all day long, this year has been far from real. Even more so for the author because it is also the year that Unni lost his mother.

On March 22, he was in the middle of a badminton game (a newly acquired distraction) when he received a call from his twin sister, Ambily, about his mother’s deteriorating health. He grabbed two shirts and a mundu and zipped through a deserted highway to his hometown in Kottayam. One of the many things this virus has taught Unni, who labels himself a shopaholic, is lessons on minimalism. “I almost felt Gandhian as I alternated between the same pair of clothes for the three months I was home. I realised that all you need can easily be stuffed into a cloth bag.”

Unni’s oeuvre – one novel (the recently released The Cock is the Culprit) and sixty short stories – are all set in his hometown of Kudamaloor, a village in Aymanam that is known for being the backdrop of Arundhati Roy’s Booker-winning novel, The God of Small Things. As much as he loves Roy’s language and her activism, he is more fascinated by her mother, Mary Roy. She fought the patriarchy from the inside and fiercely built a legacy in this forsaken place that is otherwise no country for women, young or old.

In contrast, Unni used to believe his own mother lacked any sort of personality. “It is only after my father passed away [when Unni was 16] that I truly saw how capable and resilient she could be,” he says.

I receive an image of his parents; it’s the same one whose physical copy takes a seat on a bench in his writing room. In it, Radhamma, his mother, wears a simple cotton sari – the floral print could be pink or baby blue. Her appearance, authoritarian yet pleasing, is like that of a teacher you can be friends with and still respect. Having never seen her grow old, I am easily able to picture her tuck her sari and rush to the talkies for the matinee show that Unni tells me she went to every Saturday. She’d come back home to her chores and her little children who were eagerly waiting for her to narrate the plot to them. “Amma had a distinct style of storytelling, maybe from years of teaching six-year-olds, that would draw you in with bated breath as you’re wondering all along, ‘And then what happened?!” He remembers one bedtime story in particular (a “moral story”, he emphasises), about a little goat who disobeyed his mother and decided to take a stroll under the moonlit sky. It had been his absolute favourite.

On the third day of our correspondence, we mainly discuss the way the pandemic has altered the concept of time. I point out how, had it not been for the lockdown and its restrictions, his visits back home would otherwise have been made in fragments. In some way, he ended up spending as much time with his mother this year as he would have over the next five. And without the world at a standstill, he might also have been distracted by Bilal, the sequel of the 2007 blockbuster movie Big B, which was meant to go on the floors toward the end of March. Or been anxious about Vaanku, an upcoming film that is based on one of his story stories and is also his first outing as a producer.

When Unni lost his mother, his grief was shrouded by a sense of surrealness; the pandemic rituals of sanitising and distancing had been more elaborate than the funeral rites. His elder sister, who had to undergo a mandatory quarantine after traveling by road from Mumbai, was in the adjacent room and unable to see their mother one last time. Unni tells me that the priest who came to perform the final rites informed him that the number of elders passing away has decreased. His explanation was that the elderly are now surrounded by their loved ones and get undivided attention, and so they stick around longer. Ambily had done just that. She quit her job as a teacher and came to Kottayam to spend time with their mother.

Unni’s relationship with his twin hadn’t exactly been the kind that novels are written about. He remembers how they’d behave like strangers toward each other in school and how that eventually became the permanent tone of their relationship. Then she got married and settled in Belgaum. “I never knew she had such a great sense of humour. After all these years, it is now that we have grown a fondness for each other as adults, the kind we had when we were six or seven years old.” He feels the need to explain further because I romanticise the notion of being a twin. “Being in a small town, brothers are generally distant and take on a more protective role,” says the forty-nine-year-old.

In his short story Bhootham, the characters are named Unni and Ambily, after him and his sister. He does that often, use names from the family, as a safety measure. “At least no one else from the town could accuse me of writing about them.” That is another reason names recur throughout his universe, like Prabhakaran and Padmini, who appear across various stories, in different phases of their lives.

During the extended stay at Kottayam, Unni – or Jayachandran, as he is known by people in his hometown – bumped into many of his characters as they were going about their lives. And it was while waiting in line to buy essentials that he saw the astrologer who once told him he’d never make it as a writer. “I was terrible in academics but won a lot of prizes for writing, and it always seemed like the only career I could ever have,” he says.

Unni moved out when he was 24, but each time he sits down to write, he still summons Kottayam.

“How does one be away from a place for so long and still internalise its people and places? Don’t small towns change?” I send a voice note and wonder why we are so obsessed with our own hometowns, even (especially) those of us who walk away.

“Aa naadinu oru maatavum illa [Nothing has changed there],” The shortest voice note from him is trailed by another one that contains details about how the few changes that occurred have made life worse. “Caste remains a matter of pride in this polarised town; prejudices are out in the open,” he says. It was during this visit home that Unni had the idea for Malayali Memorial, a story about a young upper-caste boy who dresses up as BR Ambedkar for a fancy-dress competition, earning himself a nickname that he would, as an adult, go to any length to disassociate from.

The story appeared in Truecopy Think, and online portal. His writings, which used to be published in mainstream magazines, now find homes only in smaller magazines and newly launched digital publications, and that is no coincidence. “The management and ideals of the leading magazines in the state have all gone through an upheaval. Politics, sexuality, a controversial stand are all frowned upon now, and following suit, many writers are self-censoring their stories. But I am not one of them,” says Unni, who published a well-timed meme mocking the Babri Masjid verdict, which went viral. “We are turning into a closed society. One can’t comment on Sabarimala or Ayodhya today. If there comes a time when even the online portals are bought off, I will resort to self-publishing. There are a lot of ways to reach the reader, that’s the best part about being a writer in these times.”

The Cock is the Culprit is a story of the stifling times we live in. The idea for it took seed on the day he decided to stay over at a friend’s house to escape the many friends and relatives who pour in annually to take part in Attukal Pongala, a temple festival during which women gather in lakhs, to make jaggery and coconut studded rice in earthen pots as an offering it to the Goddess. He was already haunted by the news of an encounter of a Maoist in Wayanad, which had occurred earlier that morning. “I don’t subscribe to Maoism or their politics, but I find them to be innocent fools. I saw this guy’s photo; he was young and so naive,” he says. At his friend’s house, as he tossed and turned on an unfamiliar mattress, he could hear a rooster crowing relentlessly. It went on all night and the next morning too. He merged the macabre with the physically daunting task of trying to find the noisy rooster, and that’s when he knew: his first novel would be a satire.

The story like all others, takes place in Kottayam even though the idea was spawned and the book was entirely written in Thiruvananthapuram. “I still haven’t exhausted the characters from my hometown, and, to be honest, I find rural lives far more interesting,” he says. Unni lives with his wife and daughter in Trivandrum and it is the only place in the world where he can sit down to write his stories.

Unni’s writing table isn’t aligned with a window or wall. If he wanted to, he could look out onto the wide expanse of coconut palms, spot parrots and treepies while writing, but instead, he has built a fortress with books and sits facing the interior of the room. Every time he looks up, his eyes meet with writers. Small and big, native and foreign; they’ve all been where he is at that moment – staring at a blank page. Unni has no writing rituals, except for reading compulsively. He can go without writing for days. During the one week that we conversed, he wrote a few one-liners, penned a preface for his dear friend and film-maker Venu’s travelogue and procrastinated reviewing the Sree Narayana Guru book that he is excited to help readers discover. Other than that, writing has been limited to typing out answers for interviews for national media, (all of which arrive as questionnaires in place of actual interactions), ever since the translated version of The Cock is the Culprit released, the original of which had sold 10,000 copies in the first 100 days.

Unni is a translator himself and has been working his way through a Russell Edson collection this month. Along with translating to his mother tongue, Malayalam, he likes that which haunts him. “Translating another writer is also a part of my writing process. The Very Thing That Happens is a brilliant collection. I am drawn to the ease with which Edson portrays cruelty.”

Verve Magazine

One evening, he sends me a picture of the well-worn dedication page of The Little Prince, its edges the colour of weak coffee. It’s a page he keeps going back to for inspiration. Coincidentally, the book was given to him years ago by J Devika, a friend who later went on to translate two of Unni’s own books.

When Devika rambled across Unni’s hometown in the early ’90s, little did she know that decades later, she’d be strolling between his sentences and transporting the small town to a whole new multitude of readers. It has been a little over a year since the 800-year-old whitewashed Kudamaloor church, the tall tamarind tree in the churchyard, the bright yellow SNDP office and the Ilavu tree behind the toddy shop all snuck out of Kottayam, mapping their own journeys through One Hell of a Lover. Devika translates with an intention of rescuing anti-patriarchal writing. And, although the author and translator knew each other as 20-something’s and were part of a literary and political students group, what convinced Devika was the nuance with which Unni examines the psychology of the nattukaar or local people (men) who monopolise public spaces and violently suppress any sign of subversion or opposition by women.

“All writing is stealing.” I remember Unni telling me this during our pre-pandemic interview while gesturing for the bill at a cafe where he is a regular. “I’d lift his mannerisms,” he’d said, looking at the restless manager, “his conversations.” In The Cock is the Culprit, the protagonist, Kochukuttan, thinks that all human beings have an inborn ability to tell a tale: “Some write it down. Some just tell it. Those who write are praised as writers; those who tell are counted as liars.” It is interesting how Unni associates words like “stealing” and “lying” to rid the process of writing of its puritan encumbrance.

If you were to bump into Unni at a cafe alone, tablet and stylus in hand, chances are he’s working on one-liners or a script. He separates his writing: scripts are entirely worked on out of coffee shops and strange hotel rooms, not his home. While the earlier crop, like Bridge (Unni’s segment in Kerala Cafe), Kullande Bharya and Munnariyippu played out more like his short stories, Charlie, which bagged the Kerala State Film Award for Best Screenplay Writer in 2016, was a blockbuster and helped normalise the idea of a woman living and travelling alone.

The day we were first supposed to catch up for the in-person interview I had to call him to postpone because a dear feral cat had met with a terrible end, and I wanted to grieve without being distracted. Unni in turn told me how an injured parrot had wound up on the veranda of his house just a few days ago. After failed attempts to save it, he decided to let the house-help take it home when he couldn’t bear how affected his daughter was by the ordeal. At first, he lied to his daughter, saying the parrot had recuperated. However, his wife believed that their child should understand that death is a way of life too. “She is the wise and practical one; I am useless when it comes to even changing a light bulb.” Anu is an Ayurveda doctor who has no interest in books or cinema, and that works for Unni, giving him a sense of freedom. “When we got engaged in 2001, there were barely 15-odd people. Paul Zachariah and Venu were part of the intimate gathering, but Anu had heard of neither of them,” he says amusedly.

If our exchanges take place in the evenings, then there’s the excitement of the IPL commentators in the backdrop and an occasional gasp or cheer from his daughter who is an aspiring cricket player herself and a big Dhoni fan. Together, they watch all of CSK’s and Rajasthan Royals’ (for Sanju Samson, who practices in the same ground as young Saraswathy) matches.

“Ever since the parrot incident, my daughter has wanted to give up eating meat,” he tells me one evening between innings. Never in an interview has there been a moment when I have related so much with someone’s emotions. I wanted to tell the kid that this feeling probably won’t go away; her empathy toward animals will haunt her whole life. It begins with renouncing meat, taking in a few strays, and things as are fine for a while  – until that miserable feeling after you fail at playing god and watch the ones that don’t make it, a feeling that will remain as intense as it was when you were a child. I keep this to myself and tell Unni the kid will be alright. I can hear the exchange between the mother and daughter across two rooms; it’s louder on evenings like this when Anu is back from COVID duty and prefers to isolate herself.

“Whatever happened to the goat in the bedtime story?” I ask, thinking about it again after all the animal talk.
“He got eaten by a wolf,” Unni tells me. I try hard to figure out why we remember only a story or two from our childhoods. Is it the imagery that makes some stories and rhymes stick with us through the years? When I remind Unni of his story Badusha the Walker, which is about a Muslim man who goes out for a walk at night and how his name comes in the way of enjoying a quiet evening, Unni is quick to dismiss me. “That story originated from my love for walking. I think that’s the only way you can slow down and connect with your surroundings.’’ I love the coincidence that his favourite bedtime story makes a cameo of sorts into his work. In hindsight, I feel it was a mother’s way to remind her son to always exercise caution, especially in a world where a name is enough to ruin your journey.

It makes me want to ask him about the moment he decided to use his pet name – Unni – and the first letter of his mother’s name as a pseudonym. “There were plenty of Unni’s already in the literary field. Phonetically, R sounds like ‘aar’, which in Malayalam translates to ‘who’. So I love that my pen name reads, ‘Who is Unni?’” He laughs at his little secret.