PAUL ZACHARIA once wrote of a tired, doubt-wracked Jesus wandering out of the desert, afraid to look into a mirror and see that he was the Messiah. Zacharia‚Äôs tender, vulnerable Jesus enraged the church and those who love sending death threats to writers.
Zacharia, too, is coming out of a desert. For nearly a decade, major magazines in Kerala have refused to publish his stories. Defiantly, Zacharia continued to work eight hours a day, writing hundreds of columns, dozens of short stories. And now he has tried his hand at a new form ‚ÄĒ the novel ‚ÄĒ for its scale and possibilities. He has been working simultaneously on a novel in English and another in Malayalam. Why the novel in English? ‚ÄúI wanted to tell Malayalees to b****r off,‚ÄĚ says Zacharia, only half-joking.
Zacharia does not believe he is the Messiah, but he has an uncomfortably sharp insight into the Establishment. His thoughtful criticism never descends into meanness but is still too needle-sharp for comfort. Zacharia, therefore, deplores the media for its self-censorship. ‚ÄúThere is no magazine in Kerala which will let me write 10 words against Mata Amritanandamayi. I told people at¬†Malayala Manorama¬†that in their eagerness to not look Christian-owned they have replaced the RSS daily¬†Janmabhoomi.‚ÄĚ¬†His criticism can make aseptic ears bleed. At the festival he made audiences laugh and gasp as he blandly condemned both the Left and the Right as humourless dogma. ‚ÄúThe people of Kerala have been cheated and denied by religion and by the state. Mata Amritanandamayi is like a black hole sucking in people because they need to hope, they need to dream‚ÄĚ. In ‚ÄúAn End to Third-rate Literature‚ÄĚ, he had once anatomised the literary world, too. An untalented Christian writer makes a deal with the devil to sabotage his brilliant Ezhava rival, the Indian army shoots at the devil and high-jinks ensue.
Other Zacharia stories are far more spare. ‚ÄúI try to make sure no two stories sound alike.‚ÄĚ Zacharia is a strong believer in writing as hard-won craft (as opposed to divine revelation). ‚ÄúTrain Robbery‚ÄĚ, about an extremely impoverished man and his young son who plan to rob a train, has made thousands of people cry, but Zacharia is non-committal.
Unlike professional grandstanders, Zacharia is modest in manner and conversation. His greatest enthusiasm right now is Kerala‚Äôs newer writers, all writing from the margins, fresh, irreverent and comfortingly, bestsellers.