Real India: Novelist Paul Zacharia Shares His "Confusion"

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Paul Zacharia. (33 minutes, 15 mb mp3)

Paul Zacharia is a novelist and story writer eminent in the Malayalam language and in Trivandrum, the southernmost big city in India and the capital of the famously progressive state of Kerala. In our conversations, Paul Zacharia stands for the many beloved Indian sages who for one reason or another have escaped universal celebrity. At home he is acknowledged as “non-conformist and unorthodox to the core;” his fiction marked by “a deep sense of humor, experiments in craft and narrative techniques, and an unsentimental prose.” When I called to ask if we could talk some “about the new India,” he readily agreed to “share my confusion,” as he said, about what his country is going through.

In his downtown apartment, under a monsoon downpour, Paul Zacharia is a cheerful spirit with a dissident turn of mind and a variety of opinions he shares freely. The New India is more poor than rich, he noted at the outset, but the growth is real and the cultural shifts will endure. Though left of center of himself, he does not mourn the collapse of “Nehru Socialism” — “just a slogan,” he argues, long useful to a ruling clique, as in many Communist countries. The “Maoist” label on the tribal rebellion in the eastern states of India “doesn’t mean a thing — they could call themselves Christians, or Jesus men or whatever, but the cause is just.”

He turns both sweet and sour on his egalitarian, persistently Communist home state Kerala. It was blessed 50 years ago with a perfect storm of reform movements that ended “feudalism” in the region. But the Communists who took power became corrupt, inefficient, heartless — “like any other political party.” A certain stagnation in education as well as politics in Kerala is driving the best of the younger generations to work and grow in Europe, the Gulf and the U.S. Their remittances are what keeps Kerala afloat.

About Americans he is affectionate one moment, astringent another. Hemingway, T. S. Eliot and James Thurber are writers he keeps rereading, in his pantheon with Victor Hugo, Dostoevsky and Lewis Carroll. Barack Obama seems “just a puppet of all the people who pull the strings in the US.” The war on terror? A ruling-class “industry.”

Zacharia takes up my suggestion that India will never see a social revolution:

I think the last revolution we saw was Mahatma Gandhi mobilizing the people against the British. After that, there is no cause out there: a single point of belief, a single ideal, and a great man who can hold up that ideal and say ‘Look at me, I am truthful, I am honest, I am transparent, I have nothing to hide and this is the ideal we shall follow.’ There is no such person after Gandhi. I doubt such a person can come up in the present kind of politics — I’m sure there are individuals, hundreds, maybe thousands, lakhs of individuals in India who have that mind. But they will never be able to come to the top and lead the people in the political system that we right now have here. So the revolution is impossible. The Communist party attempted it and failed miserably, in fact shamefully.

I will say the only revolution that keeps occurring is the revolution the voter creates every five years. That keeps democracy intact. Every five years there is a revolution in India, and that is very close to half a billion people going to the polling booth and putting his vote in. That is a silent revolution and that keeps this whole place going.

The people we elect are indifferent, inefficient and useless. But they keep democracy in place.

Paul Zacharia in conversation with Chris Lydon in Trivandrum, India. July, 2010

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  • Dion Dennis

    As a whole, this “The Year of India” series, is a compelling set of portraits of the vitality, conumdrums and contested definitions (of the economy, politics, development, etc.) of East Indian life. Open-eyed, critical and yet deeply and warmly appreciative of this sprawling country and its people. For this listener, the composite result, as a listening and viewing experience, is among the best that has produced. Thanks!

  • Tom

    Thank you for a wonderful interview with a intelligent and good man

  • Potter

    He’s very articulate.. and I love his choice of reading and the inspiration he transmits from that as well.

    I think the critical difference between China and India regarding “high jumping” (fast progress in this century) is that the Chinese had a totalitarian system that did emphasize education at the lower levels as well. And then the Communists/totalitarians softened gradually and opened up economically. The Chinese have a deep history of spiritual evolution though in the 20th century that seemed lost- or buried or officially repressed. I don’t get that feeling listening to your Indian guests, they seem more spiritual, and wiser than our politicians and leaders. Zacharia sees right through Obama… and he knows the heart of Gandhi which makes me want Obama to elaborate on his imaginary dinner with Gandhi ( or maybe what he yearns to understand) and for that matter on his Christianity and the practical application.

    At one interesting point Zacharia takes issue with our attack and then occupation of Afghanistan and Chris gives the standard reason..which I bought and maybe still buy:a failed state that supported Al Qaeda. Zacharia makes some good points- there are many other havens for Al Qaeda- and what about forgiveness ( as opposed to revenge which does not work)?

    I get the feeling so far from these interviews that the Indian century will not be judged soley on high jumping- economic enterprise and technical advancement.

    Thank you so much for this perspective– on ourselves!