The quintessential Greek was more than a character in a novel. Shyam G. Menon journeys with him through life, music, film and book.

Seen from far, a glass of Gold Coin apple juice and a glass of whisky are not all that different. I was just about in high school. Apple juice in hand I sat in the living room of my uncle's house in Kochi as he and my father shared a drink. On a shelf by the side, a turntable marked 33 rotations per minute. From the kitchen, the aroma of my aunt's cooking wafted in. I don't recall when the song was first played or what attracted me to it. But it was a request my uncle always obliged whenever we visited — Frank Purcell's orchestra playing “Zorba's Dance”.

The song opened haltingly, then picked up speed and exploded to madness. There was something masculine about it. Not in a gruff, rough fashion but in a demented sensitive way lost on today's competitive world. This song bothered about the person and universe. That seemed to be its attitude — to hell with everyone and everything! It wasn't long before my uncle spoke of Anthony Quinn and the film “Zorba the Greek”. He owned two versions of the title song — the Purcell and there was another energetic rendition with trumpets. I remained partial to Purcell. The original score was played with a plucked instrument, something I discovered much later.

Amazing transition

For several years thereafter I knew nothing more of Zorba. Then one of the video libraries back home began accumulating titles from the black and white past of cinema. That library is no more there in Thiruvananthapuram but I still remember my membership number. From there I got a VHS copy of “Zorba the Greek”. The transition from imagery inspired by music to the actual story was jolting. I had built up this notion of Zorba as a dancing, vivacious Greek but not factored in the ambience he lived in or the story told as interaction between the two. This was serious cinema, a story set in Crete, far off from the U.S. and its glamorous studios. I watched the film several times, burning into my head the mad face of Zorba; the writer Basil, played by Alan Bates and the pathos that surrounded Lila Kedrova's Madame Hortense. I was amazed by how striking Irene Papas looked on black and white film and touched by the story of the widow — it was a universal story of the lone woman and the scene of Mavrandoni killing her could have been from anywhere. Equally universal, I felt, was the decline of man when in a group as personified by the villagers' attitude towards the widow and the utter superficiality of human belonging as evidenced by the villagers stripping the Hortense residence of all things useful upon the lady's demise.

The film was a turning point for many of its cast. The role of the santuri-playing Zorba was reckoned to be the zenith of Anthony Quinn's career. It earned him an Oscar nomination although the two Oscars he got were as supporting actor in earlier films, “Viva Zapata” and “Lust for Life”. For Lila Kedrova, the role of Madame Hortense defined her Hollywood career. She won the best supporting actress Oscar. Alan Bates became much remembered as the gentle writer in the shadow of Quinn's eccentric Zorba. For Irene Papas, the 1964 film cemented her presence in international cinema following as it did her appearance in “The Guns of Navarone” three years earlier. The film was arguably the most important one in the career of director, Mihalis Kakogiannis, also known as Michael Cacoyannis. He was nominated in three categories, including best director but did not win an Oscar. Composer Mikis Theodorakis, a noted political figure in Greece, has to his credit a vast repertoire of music. “Zorba's Dance” remained his most memorable film score. That fantastic piece of music did not merit an Oscar nomination. However, two other Oscars did grace this unforgettable film — best art direction and cinematography. What I hadn't tasted as yet was the original creative work behind it all — the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis. This famous Greek writer, who narrowly missed out the 1957 Nobel Prize for literature to Albert Camus, had to await the release of the Kakogiannis film to be world renowned.

One more visitation

Several years went by. I was now journalist, probably as old as Basil (unfortunately not as rich to spare money for mining) and walking around Mumbai (an island like Crete), when I spotted a tattered copy of Kazantzakis' book with one of the second hand booksellers at Flora Fountain. It was musty yellow, had fallen apart and the previous owner had stuck it up with cello tape. It was published by Ballantine Books and likely hailing from the 14th edition of the novel printed in February 1969, for, right on top of the front cover, above a dancing Zorba, was the announcement, “the smash Broadway musical!” After its success on screen, Zorba had two runs on Broadway and the book's cover seemed to indicate the first from November 1968 to August 1969 with Herschel Bernardi as Zorba and Maria Karnilova as Madame Hortense. In the second avatar that ran from October 1983 to September 1984, Anthony Quinn and Lila Kedrova essayed on stage the characters made famous by them on celluloid. That old book was how I finally got around to reading the story of Alexis Zorba.

On the very first page was an abstract from Time magazine: “Who is Zorba? He is everyman with a Greek accent. He is Sinbad crossed with Sancho Panza. He is the Shavian Life Force poured into a long, lean, fierce-mustached Greek whose 65 years have neither dimmed his hawk eyes nor dulled his pagan laughter. Author Kazantzakis tried to kill him off in a letter. But he reckons without his own talent. He has created Zorba, but he cannot kill him.''

From The Nation: “Wonderfully moving, superbly written. Zorba belongs in the gallery of sainted rascals.''

And on the back cover, the Saturday Review said: “Alive with energy…Earthy and Rabelaisian — a strange journey into a haunting, wild and poetical conception of life.'' The book was a splendid read. A few more years lapsed before I picked up a VCD of the film. Later, I bought a brand new copy of the book just in case my vintage edition fragmented for good.

I wonder what attracts me to Zorba. Maybe it's that he broke free of people and became a person. Maybe it's the spectre of life laid bare. Madame Hortense and the widow — they are hauntingly that. They could be any of us despite changed times. Similar unchanged truth — the human insecurity that underlies man's ornate constructions, echoes in Zorba's irreverence for religion. Then there is Zorba's view of life at large from women to writing. I can't help liking Zorba. I love the music, the book and the film. Not to mention, that golden brown glow of apple juice in a glass long, long ago, among my first instances of being treated as a person.