KOCHI: When writer Paul Zacharia was studying in Class IX in a Malayalam medium school in Urulikkunnam in Kottayam district, his older brother Joseph presented him with a simplified version of Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’.
“This was the first book in English that I attempted to read,” he says. Despite struggling through ‘Alice’ and understanding only a part of the story, it gave Zacharia the confidence to move on to other books.
Among the many books that he read in his formative years the one which had the most impact on him was C V Raman Pillai’s classic novel, ‘Marthandavarma’.
“It is a very visual book. I gained the ability to imagine a scene, how to show the contrast between light and shade, the nuances between the characters and the atmosphere in which the action takes place.” It was at this time that he won the first prize in essay and short story writing in school. But he had no inkling he would be a writer.
Zacharia’s turning point came when he went to Mysore to do his BA in English at St Philomena’s College. He studied under Dr Gopalkrishna Adiga, one of the greatest poets of Karnataka. He was also a superb teacher of poetry, fiction and drama.
Thanks to Adiga, Zacharia got passionately interested in poetry and began translating the ‘Preludes’ by T S Eliot into Malayalam. One day he wrote a story about his childhood, a mix of memory and nostalgia.
He sent the story to Mathrubhumi weekly.
M T Vasudevan Nair, the editor, liked it and showed it to chief editor N V Krishna Warrier who also enjoyed reading it.
“Soon, I got a letter from Warrier saying that they had accepted my story for publication. It was a turning point in my life. I was out of my mind with excitement.” In January 1964, for the Republic Day issue, the weekly published one story from every South Indian language. “My contribution was chosen for Malayalam and it was a big honour. You cannot enter Malayalam literary fiction in a better way.” Soon he began writing regularly. And after every two or three months, his stories would get published in the weekly.
Meanwhile, Zacharia began his postgraduate studies at Central College in Bangalore.
A voracious reader, he was a regular visitor to The Select second-hand bookshop on M G Road. And whenever he went, Zachariah would notice a man who sat on a chair wearing the white headgear – peta – worn by Karnataka men.
The man would smile and ask, “So what are you reading, young man?” Then he would look at the books that Zacharia bought. “I did not bother much about him,” says Zacharia. It was only much later that Zacharia realised that the man was none other than the great physicist and Nobel Laureate, Sir C V Raman. “He was a former classmate of the owner, Dr C N Rao, and would frequently drop in,” says Zacharia.
After a brief stint as an English teacher in MES College, Zacharia moved to Kanjirapally where he taught English at St Dominic’s College. In 1968, his first book of short stories, ‘Kunnu’ was published by Current Books, Thrissur. One day he had to go to a press in Changanacherry to do some work for a college magazine.
There he saw a magazine called ‘Kerala Digest’ lying around. He flipped through it and came across an article which talked about emerging writers.
“There were the names of M Mukundan and Sethu, and suddenly I saw my name, Zacharia. I was shocked! I realised for the first time that thanks to the regular publication in the Mathrubhumi weekly I had been making a name of my own.
It was a great boost to my self-confidence.” The short stories, novels, essays, travelogues and film scripts came out regularly as Zacharia moved to Delhi in 1972, and spent several years in publishing.
He returned to Thiruvananthapuram in 1992, became a part of the founding team of the Asianet television channel, wrote columns for magazines like India Today, and once had a famous spat with Adoor Gopalakrishnan over the way the director filmed his novella ‘Bhaskara Pattelarum Ente Jeevithavum’.
But all this is behind him. At his home, a fifth floor apartment in Thiruvananthapuram, Zacharia, 64, reclines on a chair and speaks with his eyes closed most of the time. There is a large photo of Mahatma Gandhi on a wall near the dining table, which was presented to him by his wife. Soon, the stalwart author has guests; translator A J Thomas and family have come on a visit.
But that does not deter Zacharia from speaking about his philosophy of life.
“I don’t believe in God,” he says. “Man is a biological mechanism. Our bodies will age and come to an end one day.
There is nothing beyond death.”