Source : The Hindu – Sunday Magazine
Paul Zacharia may not be as baroque as Lord Spider, the flamboyant protagonist of his new novel, ‘A Secret History of Compassion’, but he says he is as vulnerable
Lord Spider is half a communist, author of 131 bestsellers, a conscientious sinner and the seeker of scientific truths — not necessarily in that order. A man on a fresh creative mission, he encounters an unprecedented crisis while making a switch from “imagination to thought” when working on an essay on compassion commissioned by the Communist Party. Helping him out of the deadlock is Jesus Lambodara Pillai, a shape-shifting hangman and practitioner of “meditative voyeurism”.
Paul Zacharia’s A Secret History of Compassion, published earlier this year, easily sucks you into its vortex of surreal adventure where no character or situation can escape absurdism and dark humour. It brims with an eccentric charm, navigating the bandwidths of silliness and sarcasm. In a career spanning half a century, A Secret History of Compassion is Malayalam writer Zacharia’s first outing in English fiction — he attributes the unrestrained energy of his book to the new medium.
“There are too many taboos in Malayalam. It’s not as if literature created these taboos or checked itself out of certain things,
but the society in Kerala functions in a particular way which I cannot change. And if a writer wants to break free it won’t be easy, especially when you are dealing with subjects like politics and sex. English over many centuries has gathered to itself diverse elements from all over the world, whereas Malayalam prose is hardly 150 years old,” he says, when I meet him in his flat in Ootukuzhy in Thiruvananthapuram.
Getting it right
Dense, complex and baffling, A Secret History of Compassionseems like a stark departure from the author’s relatively simple oeuvre in Malayalam, except for the undercurrent of humour that characterises all his work. But Zacharia says he did not try to orchestrate a linguistic circus, that the entire process has been organic. “I started around 2005 and followed a schedule that lacked any deadline or discipline. Apart from creating the quirks of each character there has been no special or conscious effort on my part to make my novel profound or philosophical.”
An author who believes in sitting and confronting the white page rather that waiting for that evasive epiphany, Zacharia says sticking to the stylistic rhythm of the book was a real task. “Any writing is difficult as you have to struggle till you get it right — the right word, the right feeling. I keep drafting and redrafting till I am satisfied.”
A Secret History of Compassion is a kind of genre-bender where you will find no visible fracture lines between fantasy and mockery, irony and absurdity. The author says it was a free-falling story and he was not trying to fit it into any politically correct template in terms of literary theory. “I have my own creative mechanism and I wasn’t following any rules of aesthetics. While writing you need to be very genuine; the moment the reader feels you have an agenda or you are playing games with him, you fail.”
The novel is also risqué. A few pages into the novel Zacharia introduces Vana Kumari — actress, ex-wife to three superstars, and recipient of the National Citation for the Most Homely Sex Object. Then you meet Mary, who believes in having sex every day, and Stalin-woman, the Russian revolutionary who in reality is a “sensational-looking” female. Rosie, Spider’s philosopher wife, has cold coffee in her left breast and God is a young lady strumming guitar and singing ‘Summer Wine’ in a maroon T-shirt and blue jeans. “I don’t believe in god, but Hinduism has at least a dozen popular goddesses. Nobody has stated the age of Parvathy or Saraswathy and so my god is a pretty young woman. I don’t find any problem with it.”
He calls religion a game in which you encounter a mass of phonies. “People need it as a social prop. Even if Catholics know the entire hierarchy is fraudulent, nobody is going to give up the Church.” In all his work, fiction as well as non-fiction, the Left is dealt with as much irreverence as religion is, and Zacharia says the barbs spring from his perennial confrontation. “We are people who started dreaming with the Left and the entire movement of modernism was started by leftist writers. I remain a Left person though I disagree with the stands of the party.”
Zacharia agrees he has deconstructed sex in his novel without “being a retailer of the act”. In A Secret History,Pillai cooks up a grand theory on peeping; Spider gets erections during holy mass; Rosie believes love-making is essentially fiction and asks her husband to take prior appointments for sex. “When you start romanticising or philosophising sex, you fall into the mainstream trap. You see it as a sacrosanct act, something to be kept under wraps, even a guilty crime. I see it as an ordinary biological function, not a sacred manoeuvre.”
A Secret History is also an inverted fairytale where the author has tried to reconfigure the familiar. I ask Zacharia whether Lord Spider is an author surrogate and he smiles: “I cannot be all those things he is but I am as vulnerable as him. I am also a person who rejects most of the mainstream stuff. In a way Spider is a projection I have created for what I could be, and so is Pillai, who sees the world upside down.”