There is something about small, inland villages cut off from the rest of the world. They make indefatigable travellers out of some of their residents.
Malayalam writer Paul Zacharia, for instance, is currently in Cuba. He will be writing a travelogue on the island nation, another addition to his wide collection of writings on travels to countries ranging from those in Africa to the Far East.
But for him, home — no matter how strong the itch in his feet — will always be the lush environs of Urulikunnam, a quiet, agrarian village in Kottayam, Kerala. “Even today, there’s no road to Urulikunnam. You have to walk all the way in. It’s such an interior region that it is still untouched and unchanged,” he says. “When I visit the place, I find that not even a stone has moved.”
Over the course of a nearly six-decade-long literary life, Zacharia — who goes by only his last name in his Malayalam books — has more than 50 works to his credit, which includes short story collections, novellas, screenplays and children’s fiction. But his first novel A Secret History of Compassion , published last week, comes arguably late in a distinguished career. Moreover, this is a first of another kind. Known for writing in Malayalam in shorter formats such as novellas and essays, his full-length novel is in English. Zacharia, who lives in Thiruvananthapuram, demystifies his decision with a casual wave of the hand. “Look, it just happened that way,” he says.
BL ink caught up with Zacharia (73) at his publisher’s office in Saket, New Delhi, before he left for Cuba. Wearing a beige corduroy jacket and blue jeans to shield himself from the vestiges of Delhi’s winter, the Sahitya Akademi awardee is candid and affable, but deliberate and purposeful in his responses. At times, he closes his eyes as he speaks, almost as if he is seeing the words before he chooses to say them. But when he says something particularly serious, he immediately follows it up with a wisecrack and a laugh, as if to indicate that most things — especially the serious ones — shouldn’t be taken all that seriously.
Outwards and onwards
Journeying, for Zacharia, is both symptom and cure for a long-standing restlessness. What gave cause for it? “Books,” he replies. “I grew up reading SK Pottekkatt’s travelogues. Never underestimate the effect a travelogue can have on someone from a small town like Urulikunnam. I wanted to get out and see the world, and reading travelogues was one way to do that.”
Pottekkatt (1913-82), a prominent Malayalam writer, politician and Jnanpith awardee, wrote 18 travelogues. His writings, especially a 1951 travelogue on Africa Kappirikalude Nattil (translated as ‘In The Land of the Negroes’), heavily influenced Zacharia as a young man. “When I began travelling on my own, the first major journey I undertook was through the African continent. For five months, I travelled on the same route as Pottekkatt,” he says. “Everything I read stayed inside me.” His experiences of the trip were published as Oru African Yathra (2001).
When he travels, he carries a small pocket notebook with him, in which he jots down anything that strikes him as peculiar — whether it’s a landscape or a conversation. “The promise of travel is fulfilled when I am able to take my experiences a little further than myself,” he says, as he underscores how he has grown, both intellectually and imaginatively, through the journeys he has undertaken.
In addition to Pottekkatt’s travelogue, the other factor that fired Zacharia’s travel bug was his penfriend, Pete Mathison, who lived in Maine, US. Pen riends have become obsolete in the age of instant connectivity across the globe, but when Zacharia was growing up, his friendship with Mathison offered almost magical glimpses into a larger, unimaginably diverse world.
“Pete would send me The Saturday Evening Post and National Geographic . That’s how I first came across Perry Mason stories, which were serialised every week in The Post . And everything I saw in National Geographic made me want to travel,” he says. In return for the magazines, Zacharia would send Mathison, who was very curious about Kerala, photographs and pictures of his hometown. “In those days, we had a papaya tree that would bear fruit all along its stem — right from the top, down to the roots. I’d send him [pictures of] things like that,” he says.
A father’s gift
Despite the smallness of Urulikunnam, Zacharia has no quarrel with it. Or at least, he seems to have resolved any he might have had. “It was a kind of a paradise — that kind of environment, the trees, the moonlight, the fireflies, the animals, the hills, streams and rivers. When you grow up in a place like that, the biggest impressions on you are made by nature,” he says. He recalls an idyllic childhood where playtime extended through the day. “There’s this thing called thottil-chaattam — where we spent all day jumping in and out of streams. Then my mother would come in the evening with a stick to drive us back home,” he recalls with a smile.
Zacharia, the youngest of three siblings, was born to Thresiakutty and MS Paul in an agrarian family with considerable landholdings. He says the parents’ greatest gift to him was the habit of reading. Both were avid readers, his father especially so. He has dedicated A Secret History of Compassion to them.
“My father was a bit of an eccentric. He never went to church, and was a communist sympathiser. What he had was books. Whenever Pottekkatt’s book would be released, my father — who was crazy about travelogues — would go to Kottayam on the very day of its release, changing four buses from Urulikunnam, just to buy the book,” Zacharia recalls. “When I turned about five or six, he would take me along too. This was really the turning point for me. My father’s books made me a reader — and therefore a writer.”
When Zacharia’s first short story collection Kunnu (1969) was serialised in the Malayalam magazine Mathrubhumi , his father was immensely proud, especially since it was his favourite publication.
In the essay A Farmer’s Books , Zacharia documents his relationship with writing through his father’s bookshelf. “I suspect that by making books my friends, my father was telling me in a farmer’s silent way that it was in books I must hunt for the secrets that he, an outsider who stood defeated, would have loved to lay his hands on,” he writes.
Between two tongues
Despite the accolades he received for his stories and novellas, Zacharia considered a longer format, such as a novel, to be beyond his competence. “It was a lack of confidence really. I work on multiple drafts of each story that I write, so I just didn’t know if I could do that with a lengthy work with the same intensity.”
It just so happened that when he began writing a novel in Malayalam, he was about four-odd chapters in when he paused, unhappy with what had been written so far. “For some reason, I thought, why don’t I try writing all of this in English? And that’s how it happened,” he says.
The switch from Malayalam to English proved to be an enormously liberating one. “I never studied Malayalam formally. Whatever I knew, I picked up from books, whereas I had studied English literature in college,” he explains. He has a master’s degree in English literature from Bangalore University. “When I started writing in English, I found that I had greater freedom with words, usages, and nuance,” he says.
Writing about sex, especially, was possible in a way that wasn’t in his mother tongue. “When writing about sex and sexuality in Malayalam, it’s hard not to feel self-conscious, because this self-consciousness is steeped in society itself. The Malayali mind has a problem with the way it views sex,” he says emphatically. “In English, you don’t feel compelled to impose restrictions on what you write and how you write it. I could say many things that I couldn’t say effectively in Malayalam. That verbal energy really propelled me along.”
It is difficult to summarise A Secret History of Compassion . Zacharia doesn’t attempt it either. “Well, the plot just follows the main character — this popular writer called Lord Spider who has to write an essay on compassion — and his preoccupations and peculiarities,” he remarks. The novel is brimming with a strange, amusing opacity — whether the author had intended it or not. In it, God is a woman (“Why ever not? I’m so sick of the bearded guy”) and a hangman who is an aspiring writer shape-shifts between a crow and a bat. Zacharia’s leaps of imagination, however, serve to baffle the reader, with sentences such as, “Suddenly he was seized by the fear that she had stopped being his wife and had achieved the speed of light.”
But then that would have to do with Zacharia’s approach to writing and in a sense, life itself. “A man shouldn’t put pen on paper unless he is able to subvert. Subversion is fundamental to writing,” he says, “If you’re going to go along with the existing order of things, you needn’t do anything at all.”
Known for being a vociferous critic of establishments of various kinds — governments, religions, cults, the media — Zacharia has incurred the wrath of the Left and Right alike for his views. “There has never been a more necessary time for writers to speak out against the [Central] government. But if the media itself is kneeling before the government with a begging bowl, what is the writer to do?” he asks. “I’ll say it as plainly as possible — the emergence of the media, in the form of newspapers and now social media, has ruined Malayali society and whatever progress it had made.”
As the interview draws to a close, Zacharia reflects on his long years between the pages of books, and confesses to feeling a sense of displacement. “In my time, I knew that if I said certain things a certain way, I was contemporary and on the edge. But, today, I have no clue where I stand,” he says. “I don’t know what people are looking for in a novel, and if that should be something to work towards. I don’t know. But one must take risks,” he says with a shrug.
His next venture is a novel in Malayalam. Why Malayalam now? Again, he gives that dismissive wave of the hand by way of an explanation. “These Malayalis, you know,” he says. “They’re a tricky lot. One book in English, and they’ll renounce me.” Would that bother him? He pauses, and confesses with a resigned smile, “Yes, unfortunately.”