IANS BOOK REVIEW
Book: A Secret History of Compassion; Author: Paul Zacharia; Publisher: Westland; Price: Rs 699; Pages: 431
Paul Zacharia’s “A Secret History of Compassion” valiantly drags the two disparate worlds of fiction and fact to a busy crossroads without traffic signals and then allows readers to revel in the sheer chaos that ensues.
The book’s central character, Lord Spider, an extremely famous author of popular fiction has been commissionedAby the Communist Party to undertake what appears to be quite a straightforward task: Write an essay on compassion.
What seems like a relatively easy assignment for a prolific author turns in a full bodied dark comedy laced with bedlam, which forces Lord Spider to eventually change the rules of the game by coming up with an alternative meaning for the phenomenon of compassion itself.
In Zacharia’s search for his elusive subject, the readers get to meet some of the most bizarre characters which includes an ‘n’th re-incarnation of Jesus, a Gandhi doppelganger, a bull named after Tarzan and a string of other outlandish and intriguing hybrid personalities which blur the lines between fact and fiction. And, by the way, Stalin too makes an appearance and so does Satan, with an entirely new act.
In his quest to pen down the essay, Spider finds partners in crime, in the form of his wife and part-time philosopher Rosi and Jesus Lambodar Pillai, who is essentially a man of many diverse traits and exotic skills rolled in one.
In the complexity of the plot as well as the characters, the writer does away with the basic limitations of style and takes an irreverent look at philosophies, people, institutions, taking potshots at them, as the plot whizzes in and out of the realms of fact and fiction, with a few pauses.
The irreverence is illustrated in parts like the one where Spider, in his early teens, ‘suffers’ from an erection in Church during service, when he has visions comprising of an angel and aliens.
“He had heard that aliens have gooey sex things. The result was that he found himself with a big erection just as the priest as offering up the sacred host for transformation into Jesus’ body. Spider was shattered. oh, what a faux pas! What if Jesus found out? As a conscientious sinner, he had included this unfortunate event in his next confession. The priest told him that the erection was not worth writing home about, being a mere expression of carnal desire for a geological feature. Jesus had better things to do than keep count of idiotic erections of idiotic fellows. But snoozing during mass was deadly business”.
On a more realistic note, the novel, Zacharia’s first in English, after a string of short stories and essays in Malayalam also presents irreverent critique of the Left ideology, which is struggling to find relevance in contemporary India.
While his narrative does slip into flights of absolute fancy, there is a trace of regional earthiness, almost as if the ace author did suffer from a slight hangover from all the rich Malayalam prose which he dished out over the decades.
Definitely a work to read to book a passage on a flight of Zacharia’s fantasy.
(Mayabhushan Nagvenkar can be reached on [email protected])