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Paul Zacharia on A Secret History of Compassion, his relationship with the Left, and pursuing 'pure storytelling'

Towards the beginning of Paul Zacharia’s novel A Secret History of Compassion (after hundreds of short stories, his first novel, as well as his first book written in English), we meet Lord Spider, bestselling genre fiction author, as he’s struggling to make the transition to non-fiction. After 20 years of potboilers, Spider is keen to broaden his horizons. To ease the “paradigm shift from fiction to non-fiction”, he tells his wife Rosi that they ought to “make love tonight in such a manner as to compel the universe to force upon my life a turning point — a major shift to non-fiction”. Rosi begs to differ, responding with a theory that startles her husband.

“‘Also,’ she concluded, ‘lovemaking is essentially fiction. So by positing lovemaking as a turning point towards non-fiction, you are barking up the wrong tree altogether.’

Spider was so shocked he couldn’t breathe for a few seconds. Lovemaking is fiction!

He didn’t have comparative statistical inputs to evaluate his lovemaking figures, but he thought that in his own small way he had made a credible contribution to the great cycle of birth, copulation and death. Was it all fiction, then? He was shattered. Was it, he wondered sadly, at least adult fiction?”

This passage is representative of the tone and tenor of A Secret History of Compassion, a novel immersed in grand parody and yet, anchored to some of the vital truths of our time — the erosion of ideology, the collapse of institutions, the way the vocabulary of social justice has been weaponised, and so on. In order to pivot to non-fiction, so to speak, Spider decides to accept a commission from the Communist Party — an essay on Compassion. Therein begins a madcap sequence of events that changes Spider’s views on life and literature forever, thanks to his new collaborator Jesus Lambodar Pillai — professional hangman, habitual shape-shifter, expert voyeur and wannabe writer. Even as Pillai helps Spider to write non-fiction, Spider’s life starts resembling one of his own outrageously plotted novels — featuring a Gandhi doppelganger, a dog who may or may not be Satan’s agent, a seemingly reincarnated Stalin and God herself.

Pushing the limits

Speaking at the novel’s Delhi launch, Zacharia said: “I had tried to write this novel in Malayalam over a decade ago, two or three chapters. And then the idea came to me that I should try writing it in English.” Zacharia, of course, is one of the most acclaimed Malayalam writers alive, the author of over 30 books of short stories, novellas and essay collections, although only three among these have been translated into English so far.

 Paul Zacharia on A Secret History of Compassion, his relationship with the Left, and pursuing pure storytelling

Paul Zacharia. Wikimedia Commons

“I am a worshipper of the given forms of fiction,” the author said, “whether it’s the art of the novel or the art of the short story. I have been nourished by them, but at the same time I would also like to disagree with the given forms, especially the way they have been used in India, in English as well as in Malayalam. I was not interested in writing a novel about the middle classes, about their marital conflicts. I’m a middle-class man myself; I just think this is a finished area as far as fiction’s concerned. So I pushed myself to pursue pure storytelling, the kind of fiction where anything can happen.”

While A Secret History of Compassion does indeed have a lot of deus ex machina plot twists, another way in which it pushes boundaries is its engagement with (and critique of) dialectical discourses, which is to say, assessing a situation by considering opposing forces. This is apparent throughout the novel — whenever Spider or Pillai hit a theoretical roadblock while writing the Compassion essay, they simply change the definitions of concepts or entities as per their convenience. Communism becomes beholden to market forces, Death undergoes a branding exercise to “improve its image”, and a former actress describes herself as the winner of a “National Citation for the Most Homely Sex-Object”.

Explaining this phenomenon, Zacharia said, “I think that’s the writer and the non-writer in me, in conversation, especially given the world we live in today, where there are assumptions and misconceptions about everything. Like patriotism for example, the way that word is thrown about, the way it’s used for political purposes. There are so many people today who want you to be a particular kind of patriot. So without appearing to question or debate concepts seriously, Spider and Pillai are trying to change their ideas of patriotism and love and compassion, and so many other things we have taken for granted.”

It’s fitting that the essay Spider and Pillai end up writing begins by requesting the reader to change the very definition of compassion, so that it’s more compatible with the economic and political values of the contemporary world.

The Left hand of darkness

Because the essay Spider is working on has been commissioned by the Communist Party, A Secret History of Compassion’s engagement with the Left is heartfelt, nuanced, sometimes scathing and often hilarious, like the fact that the essay is for an event intended to “raise funds for an Old Comrades’ Home”. Zacharia spoke at length about his relationship with the Left.

“I grew up as a Left person. The world’s first elected Communist government came to Kerala in 1957. We were all very young. The Left filled the air with fantastic new ideas, with poetry, with songs, the kind we had never experienced in our lives. It was an extraordinary Renaissance; I don’t think anything like it has happened under a Communist party anywhere in the world. It engaged a lot of artists, a lot of young people, and that’s how the Left came to power in Kerala — on the wings of a cultural revolution, basically.”

The cover of A Secret History of Compassion

The cover of A Secret History of Compassion

Of course, the flip side wasn’t too far away. “We thought that the Communist Party would remain the dream project that it started off as. However, when the communists attained power, they started to resemble any other political party in India. And one by one, artists, filmmakers, very senior people in their fields, started to drop out of the Party. Because they were being told, ‘Whatever you write or draw or shoot has to concur with the party line.’ Soon, the Party became a group of heartless, mindless professionals who came together every five years to form the government.”

Zacharia had a caveat to add, however. “This does not mean I can ever give up my Left ideals. But that is a different matter from being a member of the Communist Party."

His cross to bear

The fact that Pillai’s first name is Jesus (he claims that his father met Jesus Christ in person) is not a coincidence, one feels — Zacharia’s previous works have also displayed a deep engagement with the story of Christ. In his short story Till You See the Looking-Glass, part of the collection The Reflections of a Hen in Her Last Hour (Penguin, 1999, translated by AJ Thomas and the author), a young Jesus experiences a moment of fear, doubt and finally, existential despair when he looks intently at his own reflection in a large mirror. In the novella What News, Pilate? (part of the 2001 Katha book Two Novellas, translated by Gita Krishankutty), we meet an ageing Pontius Pilate, the Roman prefect who ordered the crucifixion of Christ, a well-meaning but clearly clueless administrator. Through a letter he is composing and the candid observations of his Jewish secretary, Zacharia critiques Jesus (referred to as Yeshu here), albeit gently.

“Pilate, shall I tell you the biggest failure of Yeshu, who you did not understand? It was that he did not open all the doors of his world to us women and invite us to enter. He wasted his time with those donkeys, whom he called disciples.(…) Who can protect a man’s soul the way a mother, a wife, a lover or a sister can? If only he had held on to his mother in the hurly-burly of seeking his father!”

This is the Zacharia signature — to speak affectionately of something or someone and to emphatically cut them down to size in the same passage. It is, ultimately, the greatest strength of A Secret History of Compassion, a novel of ideas that never lets its pace flag or its characters rest on their laurels. Nobody is above critique and everybody’s in the firing line, as is usually the case with great satirists. And as for compassion, well, just sample the direction Pillai/Spider take, around the halfway mark of the novel (with plenty of twists and turns ahead).

“Is it possible, we may then ask, that the most efficiently organised establishments of Compassion in the world are our armies, navies, air forces, secret services, terrorists, dictators, religious fundamentalists and nuclear-button controllers? Perhaps we have been mistaking them for annihilators whereas they only annihilate Sorrow at its root by putting an end to Life. Life is at the bottom of all problems. Do away with it, and we arrive at a model universe of mass graves where Compassion is a black bird flying in the night, singing of freedom.”

Like the best parodies, this passage is both hilarious and terrifying — and that’s a really, really tough combination to crack. It took a long time, but Paul Zacharia’s first novel is well worth the wait.

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Updated Date: Apr 21, 2019 11:40:28 IST