“For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.” 

— James 3:16

In a selfish neo-liberal world, compassion is indeed a rare virtue. Modern ruthlessness hasn’t spared anyone, not even a country like India which claims to be close to its cultural traditions, in which compassion was clearly a fundamental constant. It’s this, perhaps, that prompted Paul Zacharia to write his debut novel, A Secret History of Compassion. Are we to judge this book by its cover? What is so secretive about this history? Right from the title, Zacharia marks a beginning to his magical style of storytelling.

The writer succeeds in the course of 431 pages at wrapping massive treatises in complex narratives that offer much more than meets the eye – unlike his usual style, which is known to tie the simple with the weird. The novel narrates the story of Lord Spider, a 40-year-old writer who has some 130 thrillers and fiction bestsellers to his name. We see him undertake the grand project of writing an essay on compassion for the Communist Party, which intends to use it to raise funds for an Old Comrades’ home.

The story is unpacked as Spider embarks on the journey of writing this essay, where he meets people like JL Pillai, a shape-changing executioner and thinker. As the story progresses (and so does the essay), he comes across numerous characters who bring in their own motives and simply barge into the narrative, complicating matters enormously. Is it surprising, then, that Zacharia has to break all boundaries of style to create an improbable universe?

From communism to religion

A Secret History of Compassion is Zacharia’s first novel in English. He carved his literary position with his novellas and short stories in Malayalam – for which he has won both national Sahitya Akademi and Kerala Sahitya Akademi awards – and his essays and columns in national periodicals like The Hindu and The Times of India. Jutting out ois the deeply satirical narrative of the novel are elements Zacharia defines his literary space with – communism, Christianity and critiques of the establishment.

One can indeed sense the presence of the Bible in this work, and yet, it seems to be one of Zacharia’s own version. “I thought there was no point talking about a bearded, wrathful god anymore. So, god is a woman; she is in her 20s and plays the guitar. This god is a compassionate one, but she is very forgetful, that’s true,” he says in an interview with The Indian Express.

Zacharia also explains in this interview how his idea of a Bible includes not just the one rather “restricting” Christian scripture, but also books that influenced his life as he grew up to be a thinker and intellect. He brings these influences in plenty to the novel, his longest work so far. His partnership with communism and the consequent relationship and struggle with his religion also come out in the novel through numerous references and metaphors.

These dispel any myths of the possibility of linearity, and add yet another layer to an already complex picture. This approach increases the number of entry points into the world of the story, which makes it accessible to readers across the globe.

Graceful disagreement

Zacharia also records the story of a writer as he struggles to switch from years of writing in fiction to non-fiction. As he said in the interview with The Indian Express, “Any human being, and especially a writer, should be free – of all possible influences upon his intellect and imagination, of religion, caste, ideology. He should be able to question everything. He should be able to stand as an outsider and look at the world.” This is indeed what happens in the story too: No one is above criticism.

The writer’s signature style of being affectionate towards an idea while gracefully critiquing it, not just in A Secret History of Compassion but also in his essays and columns, sets him apart. Satire, and the peculiar cosmos he creates, where championing of the weird is one of the cardinal rules, aid him in this task. This provides a reader with an honest viewpoint from a powerful writer, which is rare, but also hard to decipher and deal with.

Compassion is not forgotten, luckily, as Lord Spider finishes his essay after a rather strenuous journey. We witness the best of Zacharia’s magic here: Everything we, as readers, battled in his complex narratives comes through in this essay, where Lord Spider asks for one to be compassionate to one’s own body rather than society.

And then Zacharia pushes the reader from the frying pan into the fire, leaving them to find the secret to deciphering the mystery he has set up. The author might not be compassionate towards his readers – he weaves a web of stories which aesthetically traps them. But for the sheer weight of intellect alone in this book, it’s worth being trapped in it.

A Secret History Of Compassion

A Secret History Of Compassion, Paul Zacharia, Context.