Sunday, June 30, 2019

Sex and Sin

Sex is arguably the most pernicious sin in Christianity given that most people don’t commit murder.  The first thing Adam and Eve did after eating the forbidden fruit was to hide themselves from God in shame.  They felt ashamed of their nakedness.  They felt ashamed of their sexuality. 

The Bible says that as soon as they ate the forbidden fruit Adam and Eve “knew things they had never known before.  They realised they were naked.  So they sewed together fig leaves and made clothes for themselves.” (Genesis 3:7)

What were the things that “they had never known”?  What led them to the realisation of their nakedness?  The Bible doesn’t explain that.  John Milton put it in brilliant poetry in his epic Paradise Lost.  Adam and Eve were intoxicated as if they had drunk new wine, sang Milton.  They swam in mirth and felt divinity taking wings within them.  Carnal desire enflamed both of them.  Milton says that they burnt in lust. 

Milton’s Adam tells Eve, “We have lost so much pleasure while we abstained from this delightful fruit…. If such pleasure lies in forbidden things, we might wish for ten such trees in place of one…. You look more beautiful now than ever.  Enflame my senses so that I enjoy you with greater ardour than ever, thanks to the bounty of this virtuous tree.”

Milton’s Adam and Eve then lie down on “a shady bank” with a “verdant roof” over them and with the pansies, violets, asphodels and hyacinths making the “earth’s freshest softest lap” for them.  They make love until “dewy sleep oppressed them, wearied with their amorous play.”

They are driven out of Paradise because of the sin of lust.

The Bible is the most confounding place to learn sexual morality from.  A few pages after the first couple is dispossessed of their paradise as punishment for drinking deep of their sexuality, we come across Lot who offers his virgin daughters to the homosexual mob of Sodom who wanted Lot’s two male guests for their sexual gratification.  “Behold,” Lot tells the men, “I have two daughters who have not known man; let me bring them out to you, and do to them as you please.”  Lot’s God comes to his rescue promptly.  Sodom, along with the other gay town of Gomorrah, is soon gutted by divine fires.  Lot is saved along with his family.  But his wife is turned into a salt pillar for the frivolous sin of looking back at the burning cities.  Lot’s offer of his virgin daughters to potential rapists is a virtue in the eyes of the biblical Lord while his wife’s skittish disobedience is a cardinal offence!

One more page down the holy book, we will discover the two daughters of Lot having sexual intercourse with their father taking turns in two consecutive nights.  The Lord blesses the women with sons and daughters who will eventually populate two tribes.

At the same time we find Abraham, the patriarch of all the three Semitic religions, offering his wife Sarah, projecting her as his sister, to Abimelech, king of Gerar, in order to save his own skin. “I thought this was a godless place and that they would kill me because of my wife,” he explains to the king when questioned about his heinous act.  The God of the Bible once again comes to the rescue of a man who had no qualms about saving himself by prostituting his wife. 

Earlier when Abraham was in Egypt he had committed the same cowardly act.  As they entered Egypt Abraham told his wife, “I know that you are a woman beautiful to behold; and when the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife’; then they will kill me…. Say you are my sister, that it may go well with me because of you, and that my life may be spared on your account.”  Sarah has no voice at all at any time.  She is just another possession of her husband’s which he may give away as he pleases.  Sarah is given to the Pharaoh in exchange for “sheep, oxen, he-asses, menservants, maidservants, she-asses, and camels.”  But Abraham’s God will intervene with His characteristic caprice, which sandwiches menservants and maidservants between he-asses and she-asses, and punish the Pharaoh with afflictions until Sarah is returned to the rightful owner.  

Abraham’s God will later issue the Ten Commandments to his chosen race.  The last commandment is: “You shall not covet your neighbour’s house; you shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, or his manservant, or his maidservant, or his ox, or his ass, or anything that is your neighbour’s.” [Exodus 20:17]  The place given to the neighbour’s wife is not at all enviable.

David who rises to be one of the most popular biblical kings after killing the mighty Philistine warrior Goliath could not control his sexual appetite on seeing Bathsheba bathing.  Once again, Bathsheba has no voice as she is led to David’s bed.  Her subsequent pregnancy prompts David to get her husband back from the warfront and sleep with her so that the child’s paternity won’t be suspected.  However, Uriah the husband is too good a warrior to abandon his duties in order to make love to his wife.  Hence David devices a strategy to get the exemplary warrior killed.

David prayed to his God, “Look away from me that I may know gladness before I depart and be no more” (Psalm 39:13).  The same God who kept too close a watch on the first man and woman whom He created personally looks away from much baser acts of Abraham and David and many others as it pleases Him.  The morality in the Old Testament is purely dependent on Yahweh’s caprices.  Nevertheless, sexuality remained the most reprehensible transgression in Christian morality.

Although Jesus endeavoured to rewrite the Old Testament morality, the religion that came to be founded in his name stuck to the old repressive codes.  The mercy shown by Jesus to the woman caught in the act of adultery did not seep into Christian dogmas. Saint Augustine (354-430 CE) established sexuality as the “original sin” which corrupted the entire human race.  When Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, the human nature was corrupted by what Augustine called concupiscence or libido. 

Augustine was a hedonist in his youth.  Like his contemporary young men, Augustine indulged in sexual delights which he boasted about.  But his sharp intellect craved for some higher meaning in life.  Like King David, Augustine is said to have prayed to his god: “Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet.”  After many years of struggles with both the flesh and the spirit, Augustine became a monk and cast sexuality into hellfire.

   In his Confessions, sexual desire is described by Augustine in terms of disease, disorder and corruption.  He equated sex with original sin.  Much before Augustine, Saint Paul, whose teachings form a major part of the New Testament, had declared that “It is good for a man not to touch a woman.” (1 Corinthians 7:1) Paul was a celibate and wished that “all were as I am.”  Paul and Augustine, along with quite many other lesser patriarchs of the Church, made sex a grievous sin.



PS. The above is an excerpt from my latest book, Autumn Shadows, available at Amazon.

Saturday, June 29, 2019

O Teacher!


“Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” One of Bernard Shaw’s characters said that with the typical Shavian piquancy. I have been a teacher by profession all my life and I am on the verge of retirement. When a fellow blogger suggests a topic like ‘Can teachers today be called “the untalented leftovers”?’ and it receives a record number of votes from bloggers, I am more amused than chagrined.

Well, to start with myself as an example, I think the blogger who suggested the topic has a point because I was an “untalented leftover”. I was not particularly good at anything. I failed to secure even a bank clerk’s job. A conspiracy of chromosomes contrived to make me a priest and I failed absolutely by ending up as an atheist.

The mother of a student of mine met me the other day and complained that her daughter opted for English literature at college because of me. I swelled with pride, only to have that bubble of pride punctured by her next statement: “Why did she have to struggle with all that math and science if she wanted to pursue literature of all things?”

I smiled sadly before saying that it was her destiny to be my student as much it was my destiny to be her teacher.

“She wants to be a teacher of all things,” the mother grieved. She was a teacher herself, ironically. Being a teacher myself, I could understand her grief.

“She will love the job,” I said. “University teachers are paid well too,” I added implying that the girl needn’t necessarily become a CBSE school teacher like her mother and me.

Why has teaching become such a discredited profession? Obviously, there is no money in it unless one is lucky enough to get into a university or something equivalent. Money determines the worth of a profession today.

Whenever a student of mine expresses a desire to pursue literature, I try my best to nip that desire by telling them explicitly that it won’t do them much good as far as career options are concerned. Yet a lot of my students shifted from science to literature after school and I hope they are doing well. I know a few of them at least who are doing wonderful jobs as journalists or media persons. A few are teachers too. Are they happy? I don’t know. How do you assess people’s happiness?

Are they “leftovers”? I hope not.

I know quite a lot of my students who became doctors and engineers. Many of them were very mediocre people at school and secured admission to medical or engineering colleges by paying enormous amounts under the table. Such people run the medical system today, a system which sucks blood worse than vampires. Such people construct flyovers which develop dangerous cracks within three years of construction. But such people are never “leftovers” because they have money and they have influence.

We are governed today by politicians who have fake degrees. They shape our attitudes and our future. I wish they had had good teachers.

Good teachers touch hearts. Miracles take place in classrooms if the teacher is good. Teaching is never a profession for the mediocre, let alone for the “leftovers”.

PS. Written for Indispire Edition 280.

xZx

Here's a detailed review of my latest book, Autumn Shadows, by Amit Misra.

I certainly wouldn't mind your ordering a copy of the book from Amazon.

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Coward



They hailed him a great nationalist
when he stopped writing politics
and turned to blogging about food and fad.
He had started donning a waistcoat of a particular cut.

Please, don’t insult me calling me a cultural leader:
His heart pleaded, silently.
What culture am I to lead?
Grabbing, raping and lynching?
Culture of hate that masquerades as patriotism?

When the TV channels were busy finding
accolades for the political leaders,
the cultural leader was forming
WhatsApp groups for neo nationalists.

The arrests of honest people didn’t disturb
the cultural leader’s devotion to WhatsApp.
Nor did the disappearance of hearts from writers.
Nor did the death of poetry on the wayside.
Nor did the rape of justice on the highway.

He knew the truth, however,
in the core of his heart.
That he was nothing more than a coward.



This article will throw light on the poem. 

Saturday, June 22, 2019

Happiness is free, you silly


 
Image from here
Who doesn’t want to be happy? I wasted almost an entire lifetime chasing happiness until life taught me that happiness is not something to be chased but accepted. It’s given freely. All around us. You just got to have a mind to choose it.

I feel like being a little textbookish today. So here it is:

Psychological researches consistently suggest that good relationships provide the strongest basis for satisfaction in life. Even introverts require a few close relationships if they are to be happy.

An effective way of creating happiness is making positive differences in the lives of others. It is not hard to find ways to be helpful to others and reach out to the less fortunate. When you do that, your sense of self-worth increases and you add a greater meaning to your life. Moreover, your relationship with those people whose lives you touch will deepen. Another advantage is that this will help put your own problems in perspective and direct your energies away from self-absorption.

Enjoying your work is of prime importance if you wish to be happy. If you don’t enjoy your work, you are in the wrong place; find your right place. Or else, learn to love what you do. You can never be a good doctor unless you love dealing with your patients. I will never be a good teacher unless I enjoy being with my students. This doesn’t mean you have to dedicate your entire time and being to your work. No one on his deathbed, so far, has expressed regret for not spending more time at workplace. It is a good idea to strike a balance between your career and your personal pursuits. I love blogging as much as I love teaching. The former gives me an additional sense of contentment while the latter brings my bread home.

Meaningful personal goals add tremendous happiness to our lives. Learning to play the violin or writing a new book or creating a garden on your terrace can all be personal goals. Many people make spiritual development their personal goal. Spirituality need not be about religion at all especially in a world where religion has become a loathsome thing that breeds hatred and violence. Genuine spirituality ennobles you and touches others positively.

Openness to new experiences is essential if you wish to be happy. Living in a fixed groove is the easiest thing to do. We keep doing the same thing again and again. Then we keep getting the same results again and again. Get out of the rut and breathe some fresh air. Sing a new song. Moreover, let new things happen to you. Clinging to traditions, however ancient and sanctified they may be, is not an ingredient of happiness in any research done in that field so far.

Count your blessings. Optimism is not very difficult even when life is an uphill task. There is something good happening in spite of all the pain we endure along the way. If nothing else, I choose to be happy today just because I don’t have a toothache. I’m sure we all have some much more than that to be happy about. How about the seat you managed to get today in the crowded metro train?

PS. I’m indebted to Michael W. Passer and Ronald E. Smith for all the highlighted points in this post. The points are plagiarised from their book, Psychology: The Science of Mind and Behavior.

PPS. This post was inspired by the latest prompt at Indispire: #happinessworthless. The hashtag is a little absurd. The blogger who suggested the prompt, Pranita Deshpande, intends to ask whether the present chase for wealth has hamstrung happiness. If wealth could provide happiness to people, Mukesh Ambani would have been the happiest person in India. Even Modi ji and Amit Shaji ji ji [multiple ji for him, he deserves it, sad man] should have been a lot happier by that logic. They are all caricatures instead. Maybe, Ms Deshpande’s hashtag is not all that absurd?


Thursday, June 20, 2019

Madam, they're overdoing it!


Trees vanished from the forests that adjoined Sawan, thanks to the developmental activities of RSSB.

Gurinder Singh Dhillon, the godman of RSSB, visited Sawan only once. It was a couple of months after his people had taken over the school’s management. All the teachers and staff of the school were ordered to sit in the auditorium while the godman came with a retinue of policemen in many escort vehicles. The non-teaching staff like the gardeners and sweepers were all removed from the scene. Later on, Mr Tyagi told us that the godman was interested only in seeing how much area the campus covered. He refused to meet the students. When one of the little boys, unable to endure the suspense, succeeded in circumventing the teachers and prefects and moved out of the auditorium, he was chased back by a guarding policeman. I wondered why the godman was so afraid even of a little boy.

As trees vanished from the Asola-Bhatti forests, soon people started vanishing from Sawan too. Many members of both the teaching and the supporting staff were given quit orders on frivolous grounds. Many went to the court for justice. Others decided not to fight against such a monstrously powerful organisation as RSSB. Some searched for better alternatives in other schools and left on their own.

Even Ms Manimekalai chose to leave Sawan. She found a job in a better school. When she left Sawan, emotions choked me so much that I could not speak at the farewell function. I made some superficial utterances and ended my farewell speech quite uncharacteristically.

I chose to stay on. I chose to stay on recklessly in spite of all the bestiality I witnessed on the campus. The worst brutality I witnessed was an assault charge levelled against one of the house-assistants. A house-assistant looked after the hostel under his care. The house master, being a teacher, wouldn’t be able to pay attention to the details. So a house-assistant was appointed with fulltime duty in each hostel. This particular house-assistant had given a corporal punishment to a boy who was notorious for his recalcitrant behaviour. The boy was very shrewd and he knew one complaint from him was enough to get his house-assistant the sack because the new management was just waiting for some reason to fire any staff member. He rushed to none other than Ms Gurbuxani with his complaint. The grand dame asked him to give his complaint in writing which he did promptly. Within minutes the house-assistant got his marching orders.

The house-assistant was a man who had served the Indian navy for many years before retiring to take up a more relaxed job. He was good at the job as house-assistant though a bit harsh with his punishments. Notwithstanding the punishments, he loved students and would go out of his way to help when anyone of them was in genuine need of help. The punishments were his unique way of expressing his concern.

The boy who complained against him was quite a specimen. He was intelligent and had a rare interest in non-academic books of the kind which most students never took seriously. Because of that he had a cordial relationship with me. I counselled him to withdraw the complaint against the house-assistant. He evaded my counsel with a diplomacy that was sparse among students of his age. I understood that he had tremendous animosity toward the house-assistant.

When the house-assistant approached the manager with his explanation, the shrewd grand dame told him to give a written apology so that they could consider the repeal of his termination order. He gave the apology. The management instantly turned that apology against him. “You’ve admitted that you used corporal punishment and we have got the boy examined medically. He has serious injuries. We cannot keep a dangerous staff like you.”

RSSB had a close association with the Fortis hospital which was just a few kilometres away from Sawan. They owned the hospital partly. The boy had been taken there for a medical check-up and a medical certificate was produced to prove that he was seriously injured by the punishment. The house-assistant had no choice but to leave his job or go to jail. He decided to quit the job but requested for some time to vacate his staff quarters since his own house had to be renovated before he could return to it. The management refused to grant that request. But he continued to occupy the flat. One Sunday morning some women belonging to RSSB laid siege to his accommodation. They went inside and started throwing around his household properties. He called the police. When the police came, the women argued that he had tried to molest them and they were defending themselves. The police filed a non-bailable assault charge against him. He spent a couple of days in jail before his lawyer could prove to the magistrate that the whole thing was fabricated by RSSB. His daughter who happened to be at home on holiday from her engineering college had videographed the entire episode on her mobile phone. Later on, I watched that video clip and was shocked to hear our new principal, Mr Sanjeevan Bose, telling Ms Gurbuxani on phone, “Madam, they’re overdoing it.” That video clip saved the house-assistant. That video clip made me hate RSSB and all its staff including our new principal whom they had appointed.

Yet I decided to stay on. Recklessly.


PS. This is an excerpt from my latest book, Autumn Shadows.



Top post on IndiBlogger, the biggest community of Indian Bloggers


Monday, June 17, 2019

Books for Young Students

Image courtesy

Many Boards of school education are trying to inculcate the habit of reading among students. CBSE, for instance, has introduced reading-based projects in the senior secondary section. At any rate, it is of vital importance to bring back the habit of reading among our students. Here is a list of books that can be recommended to students.

1. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum: The book narrates the adventures of a young girl named Dorothy in the magical land of Oz, after she and her dog Toto are swept away from home by a cyclone. Here are some quotes from the book:

·        It is such an uncomfortable feeling to know one is a fool.

·        I think you are wrong to want a heart. It makes most people unhappy. If you only knew it, you are in luck not to have a heart.

·        A heart is not judged by how much you love; but by how much you are loved by others.

2. The Lost World by Arthur Conan Doyle: Published in 1912, this science fiction tells about an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon basin where prehistoric animals such as dinosaurs still survive. This novel was converted into many movies of the same title. A few quotes:

·        There are times, young fellah, when every one of us must make a stand for human right and justice, or you never feel clean again.

·        There are strange red depths in the soul of the most commonplace man.

3. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain: This 19th century children’s classic is a masterpiece of American literature and deserves to be read by every student. Some quotes:

·        The less there is to justify a traditional custom, the harder it is to get rid of it.

·        “Well, everybody does it that way, Huck."
"Tom, I am not everybody.” 


·        “What's your name?"
"Becky Thatcher. What's yours? Oh, I know. It's Thomas Sawyer."
"That's the name they lick me by. I'm Tom when I'm good. You call me Tom, will you?"

4. Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret by Judy Blume: A little different from the usual children’s books, this tells the story of Margaret who is born to a Christian mother and Jewish father. She wonders which religion she should be, if any. There is much talk about boys, bras, bodies and friendship. Girls are likely to enjoy this more. Let’s look at some quotes:

·        “Are you there God? It’s me, Margaret. I just told my mother I want a bra. Please help me grow God. You know where.” 

·        “I like one hair, tuna fish, the smell of rain and things that are pink. I hate pimples, baked potatoes, when my mother's mad, and religious holidays.”

5. My Name is Aram by William Saroyan: This is a collection of short stories published in 1940. One of those stories is a prescribed lesson in class 11 of CBSE. The stories detail the exploits of Aram, a boy of Armenian descent growing up in California.

Here’s a quote: “How can you talk if you don’t say anything?” I said.
“You talk without words. We are always talking without words.”
“Well, what good are words, then?”
“Not very good, most of the time. Most of the time they’re only good to keep back what you really want to say, or something you don’t want known.” 

6. The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery: One of my favourites, this small book has sold millions and millions of copies. It tells the story of a young prince who visits the earth from another planet. Every line of this novella can make students think for hours. Look at some examples:

·        And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.

·        What makes the desert beautiful … that somewhere it hides a well.

·        It is the time you have wasted for your rose that makes your rose so important.
 
Image courtesy
7. Jonathan Livingstone Seagull by Richard Bach: This delightful novel is the story of a seagull that refused to accept the mundane life and hence learnt the great lessons of life. This was one of my favourite books for a few years of my youth and I have recommended it to students every year. Here are some quotes:

·        You have the freedom to be yourself, your true self, here and now, and nothing can stand in your way.

·        The price of being misunderstood, he thought. They call you devil or they call you god.

·        Heaven is not a place, and it is not a time. Heaven is being perfect. -And that isn't flying a thousand miles an hour, or a million, or flying at the speed of light. Because any number is a limit, and perfection doesn't have limits.

Friday, June 14, 2019

Indiblogger



Flipkart gift vouchers poured like the soothing showers in Delhi’s July. That was the heyday of Indiblogger. Apart from the plentiful gift vouchers were the blogger’s meets organised in many cities and all the hectic activity at the community’s digital site itself. My blog won hundreds of readers.  Indiblogger built my reputation as a blogger. I earned many friends.

Gone are those days. Indiblogger has threatened to wrap up because “the industry’s requirements have changed.” Did Indiblogger fall into a trap of its own making?

It is an arduous task to maintain standards when anything is popularised. Indiblogger popularised blogging like no other blogger community did. It brought thousands of bloggers together without any discrimination whatever.  Into that quaint marketplace of immense commercial potential jumped quite a lot of traders for obvious reasons. Gift vouchers as well as occasional bumper prizes rained like manna from a featureless heaven.  

Manna cannot continue to fall from any heaven incessantly. Commercial heavens are the least benign anyway. The gods who supplied the manna realised sooner than later that they were on quite a wrong turf. Commerce and writing seldom go hand in hand.

Indiblogger tried to evolve into video blogging. I cannot judge the outcome of that since I never ventured into that field. Nor did I take interest in those bloggers who did. My passion has been writing and I chose to stick to it. I have been lucky to retain the same number of readers for years now. I admit humbly that the number has not increased much from the daily average of 200 plus views of my blog in the last many years. But in a world where the habit of reading seems to be on a slippery slope, I consider myself blessed to be able at least to retain the numbers.
 
Happy Numbers: Page views of my blog posts
Popularity and personal integrity are at loggerheads with each other in today’s social media including blogging. I choose integrity. The political situation in India has undergone such a sea change that personal integrity is perceived more often than not as prejudice or even antinational stance. Many bloggers chose to abandon blogging. Some others avoided political themes. Quite many embraced expediency.

It is not quite feasible to run a commercially viable blogger community in such an environment. Indiblogger may not agree with my assessment. Many bloggers won’t too, I know. I’m used to witnessing peripeteia and anagnorisis.

I started blogging at the turn of the millennium. The platforms changed a few times until I stuck to the present one, namely blogger, a couple of years after Indiblogger took its toddler steps in the virtual world. I have travelled with Indiblogger quite a long way now. Merrily. If Indiblogger does wrap up, I will be a big loser. I hope that the community will find a new way ahead instead of wrapping up. I’m grateful anyway for whatever Indiblogger has been for me so far.

PS. Written for Indispire Edition 278: #Indibloggerforever

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Silly Romantics



When my neighbour complained that my cat, Kittu, steals into their kitchen occasionally, I decided to leave a window of my house open so that Kittu could sleep inside the room even if Maggie and I were not at home. I left some branded cat food too inside the room so that hunger wouldn’t drive Kittu to neighbourhood kitchens. When I returned home from school, however, Kittu was sleeping as usual on one of the chairs outside the house. Ants were feasting on the branded cat food inside. I decided to confront Kittu after dinner as we both sat outside the house with a galaxy of stars winking at us.

“Did you go gallivanting today too?” I asked.

“What else do you expect me to do the whole day?” He asked with unconcealed scorn. “Sleep on your carpet and eat the tasteless stuff you bring from the hypermarket?”

“So you went and stole your favourite sardines from the Mathais today too?”

Stole? What do you mean by that?”

“Taking anything that is not yours is stealing, Kittu,” I said sounding like a moral science teacher.

“What is yours and mine?” Kittu looked genuinely perplexed. I didn’t answer him. After a brief silence, he asked, “Is the river which supplies your garden water yours? Is the air you breathe yours? What about the sky and all those stars there?”

Kittu stood up on his chair, stretched himself showing me his claws, scratched his ear, and then stepped on to my lap where he made himself comfortable within seconds. I patted his head which he always loved.

“Humans, so possessive!” Kittue purred rubbing his cheek against my belly as if he owned me.

“I’m your fan, Kittu,” I said pampering his ego. He always pretends that he doesn’t like my pampering.

“I don’t want you to be my fan,” he protested. “I want you to be mine.”

“What’s yours and mine?” I threw his words back to him mimicking him as well as I could.

“Relationship,” pat came the reply. “Relationship without borders. Without fences and windows.”

“I never knew you were so romantic,” I said with genuine surprise.

“Would I be lying in your lap like this if you were not jejunely romantic?” He chuckled.

The question annoyed me as much as the chuckle. I pinched his ear gently. He loved that. He always loves it when I pinch his ears.

“Why can’t the world be a little more romantic, Kittu?” I asked.

“You’ve stolen all the romance,” said Kittu, “that’s why. You’ve infected me with it too.”


xZx

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Compassion in a post-truth world


Book Review

We live in a topsy-turvy world. Mass murderers get acclaimed as messiahs, hard-core criminals are apotheosised as yogis and sadhvis, and absolute ignoramuses are elevated as dignified gurus of ancient wisdom. On the other hand, sane voices are being muffled, if not silenced altogether. How does one create credible fiction with conventional heroes and plots in such an inverted world? Impossible. What does writing amount to in such a situation? Paul Zacharia answers that question and does much more in his debut English novel, A Secret History of Compassion.

Zacharia is a renowned Malayalam writer. His stories and longer writings provide refreshing peeps into human affairs. He can be funny and serious at once, spiritual and irreverent, mystical and cynical. In his first English novel, he is most of all that, yet much different from his usual self.  A Secret History is a baffling novel. None of the characters is realistic. The whole setting of the novel is a dream world. The narrative is post-truth.

The protagonist, Lord Spider (who has a few other pseudonyms too), is a popular writer whose annual income from his thrillers and mysteries is a mind-blowing sum. He has been entrusted with the job of writing an essay, his first non-fiction work, by the Communist Party with which he has more than friendly associations. The transition from fiction to non-fiction is quite arduous for him. Fortunately, Jesus Lambodara Pillai who is a hangman by profession in addition to being a mystical voyeur and aspiring writer offers his assistance. The essay which is completed towards the end of the novel is a product of the hangman and Spider’s wife Rosi. Rosi is a freelance philosopher. Lord Spider’s contribution to the essay is almost nothing though he claims the authorship.

The essay which begins with the futuristic claim that “The time is not far off when robot armies, interstellar ships and AI units controlling WMDs and slaughterhouse machinery run by EI will be programmed with Compassion” is really not the central theme of the novel. What the three writers of the essay say and do is what makes up the bizarrely absurd phantasmagoria of the novel.

God and Stalin are women in that world. Jesus flies about in the sky and J L Pillai meets him occasionally since the latter can alter his shape into a bird or whatever he chooses. Pillai has a blood relationship with Jesus too. Satan turns out to be quite different from what we know about him.

Everything from God to Satan, compassion to communism, fiction to truth is different in that world. Patriotism is a multipurpose strategy which has nothing to do with love for one’s nation. Religious martyrdom is an act of folly on the part of both the martyr and his torturers. Lovemaking is fiction. God shares the profession of the fiction writer. “We share the same profession,” God says when Spider tells her about his profession. “Only, I don’t write fiction. I make it happen,” God elaborates.

Before meeting god, however, Spider was of the opinion that “gods simply don’t get any sleep” because they suffer from insecurity feelings about whether they will be replaced “tomorrow” by other gods since “replacements were aplenty”.

What we should beware, according to the essay on Compassion, is “the shroud of silence that hides History’s unending massacres of the Body’s Uprisings – the brutal extermination of the Revolution of Passion. O! Beware the silence masking the tragic History of love and lovemaking. Listen, if you can, to the fearsome last rites of orgasms, to the inconsolable whimpers from the annihilated universe of sweet lust…. Ask: Who expelled Compassion from the paradise of love?” [Emphasis added]

During its convoluted course, the narrative mocks the usual elements of popular fiction: “terror, horror, pathos and salvation.” Zacharia’s novel does not offer these; it offers more – it offers the “fear in a handful of dust” of a bewildering Eliotean Waste Land.

The novel is replete with literary and historical allusions. There is also much religion and philosophy interspersing it. Only those readers who have some literary finesse are likely to enjoy this novel. Even they may not wish to read the book more than once unlike much of the other works of the author.
A page from the novel


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