The largesse of Paul

I have been yarning on about Paul Zachariah with al_lude and telling him how I am a hopeless Zachariah groupie. There's a woman in Koshy's who was supposed to have had a little fling with Paul ( as well as AK Ramanujan!) who inspires pale malachite envy in me because what-a-man-what-a-man-what-a-mighty-good-man. It should have been galling then that Al_lude was the one to discover two (count'em!) copies of the voluptous, lust-inspiring Complete Works, the juicy collection of short stories that won the 2005 Sahatya Akademi award. But I am all grown-up now,

Possibly my second biggest favourite among all the Zachariah stories is 'The End of Third-rate Literature', a wicked wicked story that pokes fun at writers and literature . The story is built on two charming premises. One, that a sense of loss, exile, diaspora, longing for home can only result in bad writing or no writing at all. Two, that writers are irritating to live with. And Zacharia's evil insights are so deeply couched in glorious fiction that it never has the nasty edgy self-consciousness of satire. Instead there is the devil taking a post-prandial drive on a cloud above Palam Airport in Delhi and appearing in a soot-tinged angel costume to the third rate Christian writer Chrissa. There is the beautiful reporter from Hindustan Times who comes to interview the Eezhava writer Eesa and is startled to discover that Kerala is not in Madras. And there is the sweet heady smell of the toddy laced through the story.

My absolute favourite is 'Teevandi Kolla' (Train Robbery) a story that made me cry when I first read it in English a decade ago. In Malayalam it is as melancholy and moving as I remember it. Rajan, the poorest of the poor, 'forgotten by both revolution and planners' and his young son decide to hold up a train. Rajan, soft-hearted, gentle and polite is agonized by the idea of having to do something that creates inconvenience for anyone. But Rajan, his son and wife are hungry. Glumly they wrap a large papaya with newspaper to disguise it as a bomb. The hollow, rabid sounds of naara-loving uber political Kerala is the background to Rajan's musings as he wonders about the rights and wrongs of doing such an act to feed himself and his family.

In 1997 Zachariah's Kannadi kanmolavum (Until you see the mirror) a story inspired by Louis Bunuel's classic film The Milky Way caused wild controversy that Zachariah responded with a "they know not what they do" . The story is about the crisis faced by Jesus a few years before he becomes a prophet. He has just returned from his wanderings to Galilee where his family who had assumed he was dead is overjoyed to see him. He is used to living in places where water is plentiful and daily bathing is taken for granted. In dry, dusty Galilee the acrid notes of sweat have had to become erotic for men and women to continue to fall in love and copulate.

Jesus is itchy and uncomfortable and considers shaving his beard off. His mother and sister tell him that he is beautiful and that without his beard he would seem much less impressive. Jesus laughs, still all-too human though compassionate and inspiring love in everyone he meets. He decides to take a short trip to visit Mary, Martha and Lazarus, his friends who are sure to lend him some money.

The first shocking premonitions of immorality comes when he is chatting with the local barber who has just been gifted a mirror, a luxury that only rich Romans own. Zachariah's wonderful imagination steps in here adding detail to this ochre and gold story. How did the barber get this mirror? He was requested by the Roman commander to shave 'certain parts' of his wife so that he could watch. 'The Romans only think of one thing!' says the barber in scorn.

But Jesus is untouched by the sexual proclivities of the Romans. The mirror is calling to him. He who has seen his reflection only in the ripples of rivers and ponds now finally has the chance to see himself. But the simple act of taking two steps forward and looking in the mirror casts him into first terror and then despair. He hears the mirror asking him to take a look at himself, the face that is already touched by God and Heaven. He hears the mirror asking him to look at his beard before he shaves it off, to see the face that is going to be immortal. The mirror promises that he will find everything he wants. Jesus flees, not yet ready to accept his destiny. In Mary's house he weeps in her lap unable to explain what he is afraid of.

This is the story that Paul Zachariah calmly accepted death threats, threats of ex-communication and general fire-breathing from self-righteous Malayalees for. The story is perhaps the best example of Zachariah's ability to see humanity and compassion and flaws in everyone from the post-modernist writer, to the thief in the attic to the NRI Malayalee to Jesus.


Newer Post Older Post Home