A secret history of compassion
By: Paul Zacharia
Price: Rs 699
Wafting in the breeze, the scent of sandalwood lingers in the air. Around Mysore, where ‘kings frolicked with their mistresses in sandal paste and made love in sandal-oil baths... the masala dosa dissolved beween your fingers before it could reach your lips. The sambar made you dream like a poet and feel like a prince…. The scent of the sandalwood grew stronger’.
Elsewhere in the book, the reader finds the art of lying reaching the zenith. There’s Lord Spider, famous author of popular fiction; J L Pillai, eminent executioner, aspiring writer, shape-shifter and meditative voyeur; and Rosi, Spider’s wife and freelance philosopher. All of them have come together to write an essay on ‘Compassion for the Communist Party’.
When Spider meets the scientist, he asks: ‘Are you a self-made Marxist or man-made?’
Confused, the scientist replies: ‘Oh, I think I’m a scientifically constituted Marxist. I’m also the founder-president of the Union of Coconut Researchers for Revolution.’ Into this magical world, God herself appears, and so does Stalin (whose real identity is now revealed). And Satan (whose true nature is finally discovered). As also a Gandhi doppelganger. And making a guest appearance in this pre-truth tale about a post-truth literary partnership is Jesus in a later incarnation.
Other characters who run riot through the plot are Brother Dog, the cynic of the household; Tarzan, a well-known stud bull; and Pretty Man, a snake-father. Even the wicked turn of phrase and unfailing irreverence for the ‘Establishment’, are of little help as the pitfalls of freefall translation confront one of India’s foremost writers. Reading the book, I found that the narrative falls into potholes as in ‘The Kalashnikov’, where ‘the crisis now is that you’ve chosen to expel yourself from the old paradigm without concretising effective plans for an afterlife.’
Just a page later, there’s the familiar bump again with more than a mouthful: ‘...I don’t think my ex-husband will give me a paisa more. He explained to me how the ready cash he has offered is just a token of the billions of rupees the rights to his discoveries are going to fetch me.’Of course, what to me anyway proves to be a bridge too far is the transition from Malayalam idiom to the English. It’s, at best, a formidable task—to capture the spirit of the original—without sacrificing the sense. After all, the two languages have an entirely different structure and background. The chances to fall in between are all too easy.
Imagine Spider’s disappointment when he finds that Mary unaware of ‘pure theory needs nurturing, patience, non-violence, and non-action’. She literally jumps the gun and says, ‘I’ve already obtained a Kalashnikov from my son in Washington DC, for protection when I am de-married.’ (The emphasis is mine).
This problem is further accentuated when Pillai reminds Spider that like bats fly better in pitch darkness and so is it with Her Holiness, Mata of the Sunglasses once told him ‘that black holes are the peepholes of the greatest brahmacharis. Through them, they see the whole universe in an unclothed condition.’ (Again, the emphasis is mine). I somehow believe that the word ‘naked’ would have sufficed or been more apt here. All in all, here’s a good read for those looking for a trip into the exotica of a fictional journey.