In the beginning was Malayalam. It was the language of Urulikunnam, the village he was born in, of Sunday mass and catechism, of the magazines he read as he learnt to string words together, and of the books he hungrily consumed. The first time Paul Zacharia heard English being spoken was when he was 16 years old — he had enrolled into an English-medium college in a nearby town in Kerala’s Kottayam district after Class X. “I didn’t understand a word the teachers said,” he says.
As a writer of pathbreaking modernist short fiction, Zacharia went on to hone Malayalam into a lean, flab-free precision. Despite that awkward first encounter, English too filled the grooves of his mind over the years, becoming a “language I think in, and write in”. Having written op-eds and essays for many years, he enters a new phase of engagement with the language — with a novel in English, The Secret History of Compassion (Context). Despite their frosty relationship, Zacharia sees no friction between the bhashas and Macaulay’s bequest. “English is now an Indian language. It has been here for 200-odd years. It has been mauled and damaged but that is also how it becomes naturalised,” says the 73-year-old writer, essayist and public intellectual.
Writing fiction in English did make him nervous, he says — “I bought five-six thesauruses because I wasn’t sure I knew many things” — but also released him into a greater freedom. “When I saw I could keep going, I became as inventive as I can, without stopping for any propriety or possible moral taboos. I wrote about sexuality in ways I won’t be able to in Malayalam — because it is a very conservative society and we don’t have a vocabulary for it,” he says, when we meet him at his home in Thiruvananthapuram.
A copy of The New Testament in Modern English lies on a table in the living room; on the walls are images of Lata Mangeshkar, Kishori Amonkar, Ramana Maharishi and Ernest Hemingway. A wind chime tinkles in the mid-morning breeze as we speak. “I had to reassemble the way I worked as a writer. But I enjoyed using a language which I have loved, which has enriched my imagination for the last 50 years,” he says.
The Secret History of Compassion is the longest work of fiction Zacharia has written — he has never written a novel in Malayalam. It’s a garrulous book, where the plot — if there is one — is frequently hijacked by the characters’ urge to tell a surfeit of stories. Zacharia’s fabled finicky-ness scrubs the prose of ornament or even atmospherics; an ironic chuckle is unmissable, sending up everything from the church to the army to the self-delusions of horny novelists.
Squirrelled into the fantastic narrative is the writer’s old project of remaking Christian theology. Three zany characters are in search of an essay — perhaps, like the trio, who existed before the Fall of Man. There is Lord Spider, bestselling writer and possibly paranoid middle-aged Adam; Rosie, his wife and freelancing philosopher; and the agent of temptation, a shape-changing, flying hangman JL Pillai. God exists, but has gone through a user-friendly update. “I thought there was no point talking about a bearded, wrathful god anymore. So, God is a woman; she is in her 20s and plays the guitar. This god is a compassionate one, but she is very forgetful, that’s true,” he says.
The god who watched over his childhood seemed to him to be a forbidding one. In an essay called “Sinning in Mysore” (Name Me a Word: Indian Writers Reflect on Writing, Yale University Press, 2018), Zacharia writes of a village “where God patrolled us relentlessly and inexorably”. But the lessons in doubt were learnt at home, from his father.
An affluent farmer, MS Paul Mundattuchundayil was an unbeliever and Communist sympathiser — but, most important for his son’s destiny, he loved books. “This is something I never really found out: Why did he become a rebel and a reader, a freethinker and a communist fellow-traveller? He never went to church, nor asked me to go. He had inherited 100 acres of land, but he blew it all up — on friends, drinking, books and travelling. Even when he came home completely drunk, he would go to sleep reading a book,” says Zacharia. The Bible of this irreligious farmer was a book on Kerala’s birds (Induchoodan’s Keralathile Pakshikal, 1958), says his son; he was also a reader of the travelogues of SK Pottakkat: “the first writer-cum-reporter from Kerala to bring back firsthand reports for Malayalis from Africa, Bali and all over the world.”
Among his friends were the firebrand anti-Church writer Ponkunnam Varkey and other communists. “This was before 1957. Most communists were Ezhavas or Nairs, but rarely Christians. The church considered it a major sin. Communists were a hunted people in Kerala at that time,” says Zacharia.
In his father’s collection, he read Marthandavarma (1891), a historical novel by CV Raman Pillai, which he describes as his first textbook in writing; the stories of Vaikom Muhammad Basheer, Uroob and Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai as serialised in Mathrubhoomi Weekly; and the works of radical Christian scholars who dismantled the church. He sampled satire as a child in the back issues of Vijaya Bhanu, Malayalam’s first humour magazine — even when the jokes did not make sense. “I became a writer in Malayalam because I was a voracious reader in Malayalam,” he says.
The father-son were not emotionally intimate. “People were not close to each other in those days,” says Zacharia. He recalls going with his father to Kottayam, after several changes of transport, to buy books. “At the time, I never really understood what he was doing. Only now in retrospect, I think that he was, perhaps, a dreamer and a traveller in his imagination. He had put all his books in his children’s way, thinking one of us would do what he couldn’t do,” says Zacharia.
In 1963, Zacharia was an 18-year-old student of English literature in Mysore, with the great Kannada poet Gopalakrishna Adiga as his teacher. He had fallen “head over heels in love” with the “spare, sanitised lyricism” of TS Eliot, and Shakespeare as revealed in Adiga’s classes (“full of special effects, like watching a science fiction movie”). And so, there he was, trying to turn Eliot’s Preludes into Malayalam. “Almost as a continuation of that, I wrote something in Malayalam which turned out to be a story,” he says. Stirred by Eliot’s poem about the fragmented visions of city life, he wrote ‘Unny Enna Kutti (A Boy Called Unni)’, a story that was “pure Urulikunnam…” “It was my childhood, waking up, listening to various sounds of the house, just drifting through the day. Nothing happens in the story,” he says. He sent it to Matrubhoomi, the foremost literary magazine in Malayalam — where it was published in its prestigious annual issue in January 1964. “It was a big thing. From that day, I knew I had become a writer,” he says.
By then, the Malayalam short story had already been shaped by two generations of writers, from Thakazhi Pillai to Basheer and Kamala Das. “Zacharia was one of 10-12 writers who ushered in modernism in Malayalam short fiction. But even within that group, he stood out for his surreal fantasies, and his spare epigrammatic prose that avoided the lyrical,” says poet-critic K Satchidanandan. Zacharia’s early fiction from the 1960s, especially, was highly inventive and original — a frog brooding on the meaning of life (Oridathu, or Once Upon a Time); a hypnotic tale about a hen in love, longing for annihilation (Oru Pidakkozhiyude Asanna Marana Chinthakal, or The Reflections of a Hen in Her Last Hour). “They were fables that spoke of the dilemma of the human condition,” says Satchidanandan. He was not a prolific writer, writing a maximum of two stories a year. “Even now, sometimes I write an opening sentence 70-80 times to get it right,” Zacharia says.
Despite the existentialist concerns of his early stories, the young Zacharia would read the works of Franz Kafka, Jean Paul-Sartre and Albert Camus later. “I was moving into a modernist space set in my mind by people like Kamala Das and Basheer. I had a preference for a very stripped-down language, which came from Hemingway. Without being exposed to Kafka and Sartre, in my mind, I was remaking a short story, which was not cluttered with Sanskritised language or emotions,” he says.
But the ravenous reader from Urulikunnam dived into serious intellectual pursuit as a postgraduate student at Central College in Bangalore. Zacharia recalls spending days at the British Council Library, then above the Koshy’s café, poring over issues of Encounter, a literary magazine edited by the poet Stephen Spender and covertly funded by the CIA. “It was a life-changing encounter. How could a magazine be so sharp? On every page, you found something radical or original. My style changed. I plucked romantic stuff out of my writing — except using it occasionally to crank the machine…,” he says.
This was also the time when he read the Bible in full for the first time.
“When I left Kerala at the age of 16, the Catholic Church did not permit households to own a Bible. Those were holy words, not for ordinary people. But now I began looking at it as an independent text. By then, I had stopped going to church,” he says. In subsequent years, his reading of the Church’s history reinforced his scepticism and made him a lifelong critic of organised religion. “I discovered that the church is a manmade institution for power and wealth. Jesus is essentially a brand name with which they operate,” he says.
Faith did not survive the test, but a fascination for Jesus of Nazareth remained. He turns up in Zacharia’s works, not as the unassailable son of God, but as a man, vulnerable and given to doubt — and sometimes, as in the 1997 story, Kannaadi Kaanmolavum, even restless for a haircut and a shave. The story so enraged the Catholic church, that it was denounced as a “second crucifixion.”
“Jesus is one of the most decent human beings in history. If the stories about his healing people are true, he was truly a compassionate human being, perhaps even more than the Buddha,” he says. In Enthundu Visesham Pilatos? (What’s Up Pilate? 1996), Jesus is seen through the eyes of Pontius Pilate and a group of his followers. “He is important because he posited a new god to replace the angry deity of the Old Testament. This was a new god of love,” he says.
In the mid-1970s, Zacharia moved to Delhi, to work as a journalist. There, he came in touch with a group of other Malayalam writers, including OV Vijayan, Anand and M Mukundan. According to Satchidanandan, the nearly two decades spent there marked an ideological turning point, as Zacharia’s stories move away from existential tales to an engagement with power and power relations. It surfaces most strikingly in Bhaskara Pattelarum Ente Jeevithavum (1988), a story about a feudal relationship between a servant and a landlord. It was made into the film Vidheyan (1993) by Adoor Gopalakrishnan.
In 1993, Zacharia moved back to Kerala, where he began writing a political column in the weekly Kalakaumudi. He was unorthodox and irreverent, offending the church , state and the middle class in equal measure. In recent years, he has been one of the many voices of writerly dissent against the BJP government at the Centre and a pervasive Hindutva fanatic consciousness, which he outlined in Ithanente Pere, a 2001 novella told in the voice of Nathuram Godse.
As a political commentator, Zacharia has watched the Sabarimala agitation in Kerala with some alarm. He blames the Malayalam media for twisting the issue and overemphasising the opposition to the Supreme Court judgment allowing women between the ages of 12 and 50 to enter the shrine. “The real issues were never discussed: the question of constitutionality, of progressiveness in thought, the symbolism behind admitting women into the temple,” he says.
If chief minister Pinaryi Vijayan made any mistake, says Zacharia, it was in hastily declaring that he would implement the order at any cost. “It was a signal to everyone on the other side to oppose it. Politically, there are ways to manage such situations. He is a ground-level comrade, not used to it. (Former Congress chief minister) Oomen Chandy would have done it differently. Of course, there would have been no entry of women, too,” he says, chuckling.
Zacharia wants no truck with the cynicism that dismisses talks of Kerala’s “renaissance values” as intellectual propaganda. “The Nair leader Mannathu Padmanabha was a renaissance leader, as was Sree Narayana Guru — both wanted to bring out their castes, Nairs and Ezhavas, from the dirt they were lying in. The missionaries addressed the Christians. Then came the Communists. All these people created the renaissance. These values were assimilated over a long period of churning and reading. And they still hold,” he says.
Zacharia speaks with the zeal of one to whom books and writers are more tangible than people. His influences range from James Thurber to Jorge Louis Borges and a Malayalam translation of One Thousand and One Nights, from J Krishnamurti to the comic George Burns. “What made me write is the entanglement with imagination — through reading all those people who took me into amazing worlds. When I started writing, I was trying to do what they did — create worlds that are fascinating. So that each story would become, if possible, a magical place,” he says.
The writer, who once described himself as a “radical human being”, has rejected religion, party (“I am a leftist, but never shall I be subservient to the communist party”) and state in his quest for a state of freedom. “Any human being, and especially a writer, should be free — of all possible influences upon his intellect and imagination, of religion, caste, ideology. He should be able to question everything. He should be able to stand as an outsider and look at the world,” he says. That is, perhaps, the gospel, according to Paul Zacharia.