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Visitations in a small town

"PRAISE THE LORD" is one of those stories where the Malayali imagination and the sense of laughter are allowed free rein. It's a story about an idle but contented plantation owner completely satisfied with his lot, his riches, his pretty wife and normal children when two young lovers suddenly visit him from Delhi. The girl is a radical from the Jawaharlal Nehru University but curiously some kind of spiritualist and the boy, while sharing her otherworldly pursuits, is terrified of his father and brothers. It is a visitation from Delhi upon a sleepy small town.

"All I know about Delhi is from what I've read in the newspapers. I've read that it's both very cold and very hot there, and that Clinton and Gorbachev and such like visit there. Then I've seen the Republic Day parade and its dust raising displays on the television. I'm absolutely fed up with watching these. In spite of all these parades and things, the number of beggars coming to our house has only gone up not come down. And when I see the arrogance of these Delhi walas, I turn off the television and go out to sit in the verandah. Will the poor folk here get enough to eat just because these fellows shout and hoot in some alien language?" Then his friend Sunny, a lawyer who usually speaks "the measured language of a lawyer" asks him to hide the two lovers from Delhi. "I fell for that. In all my life I'd never seen a pair of lovers face to face. I've seen them in the movies. But movies are not real. And I've read about them in novels. Those are not real either. But I knew for a fact that there is this tribe called lovers. Because there are always so many reports in the papers about lovers committing suicide. And so much more about them getting married in police stations! But I'd never seen such people in the flesh."

Then our prosaic and contented Christian from Kerala recounts how he lost his best rubber producing tree because two illicit lovers chose to hang from there. "I had that rubber tree cut down. Just think! It was a tree that gave me three coconut shells full of sap before eight every morning. My question is: is it for this that people become lovers? How much better it is to be married, like me, to keep your wife in good humour, and to live a good life with children, than to rush into death in the cause of love."

That night however he fantasises in his sleep and says "Madamme, Vat is Yuvar nayme, come hee-yar, I love you". His wife teases him mercilessly and is finally bought off. "Ansy tortured me no end and then finally struck a deal — silence in return for a stone-studded three sovereign necklace."

The matter of the lovers keeps reopening. The boy's family who had "27 acres of prime RRIM 105 grade rubber" is extremely traditional and violent. The couple had to be hidden, lies would have to be told. Why was his friend the lawyer involved in all this? "The girl's paternal uncle is a big gun in the Kerala Secretariat. He's on their side. And my application for appointment as Public Prosecutor is lying on his table." But the lawyer cannot hide them at home because if the police turn up there he would not be Public Prosecutor. The story goes on in hilarious fashion and the function of translation is well celebrated here — ideas, smells, food, relationships, time, the house and yard as cosmos — Zachariah handles it well.

The second story, "What news, Pilate" is more heavy handed. It deals with the problem of the historical Christ in a very clumsy style, fusing the narrative style of theatre script with "silent" monologues (whatever that is). The reader will have to make sense of a sensual Pilate with a wandering eye, a Jewish wife and a young secretary. The latter connives virtuously with an old man's lust in some tacit underhand way without getting dirty, but is always running away from work to look for Yeshu, to hear him, speak to him, touch him. In the end Yeshu appears rather like an underground Marxist coming to the surface for air. Somewhere Zachariah's intentions are honorable but they don't quite hang together. It leaves you with the same feeling that you got listening to "Romans" (American actors) speaking in the film "Quo Vadis" — helpless laughter over excessive sentiment.

Two Novellas: Praise the Lord, and What News Pilate, Paul Zachariah, translated by Gita Krishnakutty, Katha, Delhi, 2001.

SUSAN VISVANATHAN

The writer is the author of

Something Barely Remembered

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