“BUT here we confront a philosophical question: Is God a reliable factor with regard to Compassion? How do we know She has an abiding interest in the cutting edge of the subject? Is it not possible that She must be pushing Evolution to a point where the task of promoting Compassion is franchised to the common cold virus? And does History bear out God’s compassionate credentials? It is doubtful in the extreme. Look at all the butchers who have dominated History.”
Thus reads a part of the “Essay on Compassion” that Lord Spider’s collaborator JL Pillai dictates to him. Spider and Pillai are the lead characters in Paul Zacharia’s first full-length English novel, A Secret History of Compassion .
I came across Paul Zacharia’s Malayalam stories for the first time in the mid 1970s. They were strikingly different from the modernist stories of M. Mukundan, Kakkanadan, M.P. Narayana Pillai and other leading literary luminaries of the time. Zacharia, as Paul Zacharia is known to Malayalee readers worldwide, wrote stories stretching the limits of imagination, challenging the prevailing sensibilities and elevating his readers to new levels of aesthetic experience. The stories were fresh and original.
No such stories had been written by anyone before. They created an entirely new magical aesthetic space for the reader hungry for new reading experiences. This was similar to what Raymond Carver or Tobias Wolff, Zacharia’s American contemporaries, had done to the American short story.
In A Secret History of Compassion , Zacharia takes off from all the dizzying heights he had conquered in his stories, flying, as the main characters in the novel are seen doing. With this novel, he has definitely ushered in a new sensibility, a new approach, examining in a playfully sceptical vein all that we hold “solemn”. One can doubtlessly say that he has introduced an entirely new narrative structure in fiction writing. Without being ruthless and denigrating towards his imaginary targets, he presents the drama of life in our times as a grand burlesque.
Laughing even at the prospect of death is the mark of heroes; “grinning and bearing it” seems to be the lot of sensitive people. But laughing at the futility of it all, with an inherent sense of irony and a tinge of melancholy, seems to be the best way to confront reality. Zacharia’s one-of-a-kind novel accomplishes this. It definitely is an exciting entry into the Indian English novel scene.
Micro-sensitive, coming alive in its details, the narrative progresses by deconstructing the ideal, the lyrical, the romantic, the political, the religious—all the givens of contemporary existence. A grand parody of our world and its workings, feisty in its exuberance, Zacharia’s narrative surges ahead, ICBM-like (to borrow one of his own conceits employed in the novel), piercing the cirrus clouds of such preconceived notions. The female principle gets validation in this novel through the depiction of God as an alluring 20-something young woman in jeans, top and goggles, singing popular Western songs. Even the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin is the subject of a charm offensive, as the author describes him as being a woman secretly.
Zacharia, the wizard of words that he is, weaves the web of a grand illusion. Spider, interestingly, is the nom de plume of the central character—a writer, who has four other names: “Yellow Man”, “Lightning Hero”, “Jack of Spades” and “King Cobra”. We never get to know his real name. His wife, a “freelancing philosopher”, is known by the name “Rosi”. The family is complete with their canine companion of deadly mien, Brother Dog, whom the writer is obsessively jealous of and describes as an agent of the Devil because he suspects the dog to be his wife’s paramour. The dramatis personae is complete with the inclusion of the one person who has a full name—Jesus Lambodara Pillai, or JL Pillai, who it seems is the son of the 37th reincarnation of Jesus Christ and hails from a village in Tirunelveli, Tamil Nadu. He is a hangman by profession and is, by passion, a “meditative witness” or a voyeur in plain language. He is a shape-shifter and a flier. His oft-adopted form is that of a bat because his mentor who taught him to fly was a young virgin, a lady bat. His initiation into flying was done when she bit his shoulder.
Spider appears to be timid, a partial hypochondriac. He is anticipating to be done in by human as well as astral agents all the time. He believes that the walking dead are populating his neighbourhood—people who he suspects are dead but do not realise that they are dead. He even suspects his wife to be an alien out to spy on him.
He is afraid of Rosi, although totally dependent on her for everything. Rosi places empirical experience above everything else and has made advances into the metaphysical, so much so that Pillai, assuming the shape of a crow and peeping at her naked body in her oil bath, “witnesses” her “metaphysical body”.
The real action begins when Spider is tasked with writing an essay on “compassion” for the souvenir of the Communist Party, as part of fundraising efforts to support comrades. For Spider it is a real challenge as he had never written any non-fiction before. He had been prevaricating for quite some time and had begun to dread the deadline. It is at this juncture that Pillai flies in in the shape of a crow, and begins, in due course, to practically dictate the essay, to the great delight of Spider.
Pillai assumes the role of a subservient, slobbering fan of the great writer, but is cunning enough to hold forth on his point. He has his levitating and swooning propensities, and changes into bird shape whenever he is frightened by circumstances—more often in the nature of Brother Dog making an attempt on his life.
The action moves forward in the process of the writing of the essay, mostly as a dialogue between Spider and Pillai. Running along, or studded on the frame of the essay template, are narratives that flesh out the novel. All these narrations and Spider’s own stream of consciousness are underpinned by a dark sense of humour.
The sub-narratives are peopled with extraordinary characters. Like Ambujam Nair who witnesses Death sending her cheating paramour to a sudden end upon a railway platform and gloats over it. Or, Mary Mathew, the disillusioned wife whose scientist-husband Ignatius has been sleeping with his aunt throughout their marriage, denying her any sexual fulfilment. When confronted, he tricks her into divorce with a promise of life-time royalty for his unsold books as alimony, and she advertises for a husband who can provide her with steady sex, and is armed with a Kalashnikov to ward off possible intruders.
Yet another character is a famous philosopher who drinks to blankness, and soaked in his own pee in the bathroom, imagines himself to be his friend, a newspaper editor, who he thinks is cuckolding him. Tarzan, the stud-bull, Spider’s companion in his adolescence, who, probably in reverie about young and buxom cows whom he could service, breaks up the funeral procession of a popular matinee idol, which Spider still believes was a mega film shoot, is a typical one.
Another one is Pillai in his earlier incarnation as a frog who is caught in the jaws of a single-father snake who is out hunting for prey for his starving children. The clever frog gives him the slip using a ruse, probably caught in the cycle of karma, when a frog-catcher cuts the frog for its hind legs to be sold in the market and throws the bleeding body into the bush. The angry snake, deprived of his prey, bites the frog-catcher fatally, but gets himself cut in two with the frog-catcher’s knife. All three die, posing the ultimate issue of compassion—as to who will look after the baby snakes. There are a few more episodes attached to the main narrative around such fantastic characters in the great Indian storytelling tradition of “story within a story”.
Early in the narrative, Pillai reveals to Spider that there is a Valley of Lost Songs in the Eastern Mountains where, “on certain nights, forgotten songs gather and share memories” and disperse before sunrise. Pillai promises to help Spider and his wife change shape and take them to the valley.
One of the high points in the novel, towards the end, is how Pillai keeps his promise. He helps even Brother Dog to change into a bat and all of them fly off to the valley. On the way, they encounter Satan (whom Spider had dreaded as Enemy Number One from the beginning, but proved to be an amiable giant, as described in the story “Satan Brush”—originally written by Thomas Joseph, writer of exquisite stories in Malayalam), God and Jesus Christ in the sky paths. Finally, they alight at the site of the assembly of the Lost Songs. Zacharia, despite his careful avoidance of romantic lyricism, has built this highly evocative scene into the narrative to emphasise the liberating effect of pure imagination, based on an extremely pleasurable personal experience tinged with nostalgia.
This novel is a kind of fiction in which anything is possible. Using words like “zany” to describe the twists and turns that “reality” undergoes in the course of narration is certainly inadequate. If it is dystopian, it is hilariously so, and exudes a positive energy. It stares lidless at reality as it is, piercing through all outward forms, and asks Sphinx-like questions through humour and satire. It calls upon the reader to grip firmly on the handle bar of the giant-wheel seat and give in to the sheer exhilaration of experiencing the unparalleled.