The sun has been sucked out of the Dehradun sky. Everything shivers in a grey haze; even the bright blue of the gate to Irwin Allan Sealy’s home — the 433 square yards of earth that are consecrated in the delicate, tensile prose of The Small Wild Goose Pagoda: An Almanack (2014, Aleph). Inside is warmth, from a roomful of books, a brisk hospitality — slices of sponge cake served with clotted cream, and hot coffee — and a clear voice reminiscing the stirrings of literary ambition: “I am maybe 24 or 25 years old. I am reading The Tin Drum (1959). I love this book so much. And it’s telling the story of the German people. What happened to them? How did they allow themselves to be misled in this way? And I say, yes, this is what I will do…,” says Sealy, 68.
Four decades ago, the literary journey of one of India’s finest writers began with the need to tell the story of his people, the Anglo-Indians, who he calls “the first modern Indians… who will speak the father’s tongue and yet eat the mother’s salt” (in the accompanying essay to Dileep Prakash’s The Anglo-Indians, 2007, Photoink). It began with his impatience at the prejudice in books such as John Masters’ Bhowani Junction (1954) or Nirad C Chaudhuri’s Continent of Circe (1965). “Some of it I found offensive, some of it inaccurate. That’s probably what made a writer out of me. This sense that I will show them,” he says. Sealy spent three-four years researching in libraries across the world, “sitting there, just squirrelling away facts”. His riposte, when it came, was a tome — The Trotter-Nama (1988) was a flamboyant comic chronicle of seven generations of the Trotter family. A couple of months ago, Penguin Random House brought out the 30th anniversary edition of the book, its third avatar so far.
Sealy’s inspirations were Günter Grass and Lawrence Sterne, but the form was native. “The nama falls into your lap, as it were. First, the Baburnama, and then the Akbarnama and the Ain-i-Akbari…They give you more scope to look this way and that. I had so much material, I needed a big bag. The nama was full of room. It gave me liberty and amplitude,” he says.
Sealy returned from New Zealand to Lucknow to write the book. “I probably wrote the first few pages in a cabin by the sea in New Zealand. The moment the narrative comes to Lucknow proper, I found I needed to be there. It was not a city I ever thought I’d go back to. I went to boarding school there, a prisoner for seven years,” he says. For the next three years, he banished those memories, as he wrote up his book in Hazratganj, surviving on the money earned in Canada as a PhD student.
Those were the 1980s, and it was to London that Indian writers had to proceed to find a publisher. His six months’ visa had almost run out before he found an agent. As he writes in the afterword to the 30th anniversary edition: “I [had] painted the first Trotter jacket: it shows the Great Trotter falling out of his balloon …[A few months later] the jacket of The Satanic Verses (1988) showed not one but two figures tumbling out an aircraft. Two big Indian books in the same year didn’t make sense to Penguin. Without a backer, The Trotter-Nama went into a free fall.”
The book was published, of course, but he recalls a damning, influential review in The New York Times — “by someone who had never been to India, who didn’t know what I was talking about.” In the home country, the reception was warm, though it was soon out of print. “The American edition got remaindered, which is very sad when it happens to a book. But this wily bookseller in Bombay (TN Shanbhag of the Strand) bought up everything, because he knew there was a market for it here,” he says.
The book, coming on the heels of Midnight’s Children (1981), was seen as that typical great Indian novel, a “baggy monster”. But, over the years, his finely-wrought oeuvre has only eluded labels — something achieved, in part, he says, by turning his back on the West, by digging his heels, here, in the soil. “It was liberating. You start to discover new stuff. The nama is one of them, the sutra is another. They are all here. Whereas that (the Western realist novel) has been done to death. I sit astride two traditions but there is all of this that I grew up with, which is underexplored. It’s crying out to be used, and that’s where we can go as a writing culture,” he says.
The result was a dazzling array of forms — a chronicle; a fable (Hero, 1991), a calendar (The Everest Hotel, 1998), an alphabet (Red, 2006), an almanack (The Small Wild Goose Pagoda) and a masque (Zelaldinus, 2017). “You try every time to shift, quite dramatically, from what you have just finished.” That path leads him to his newest novel, Asoca: A Sutra, “I have written my first realist novel.”
In Zelaldinus, his rollicking yarn of a poem about the great Mughal, Akbar had scoffed:
the great? Don’t make me laugh
graffiti artist. Planted six trees by
the roadside. Dug a watertank or two, and said love
“When I wrote those lines, at that point, I was in Akbar’s thrall,” he says with a laugh. “I wouldn’t have tossed it off so easily now. But I have dwelt inside him. Asoca is telling his story after he has abdicated. He is in a cave somewhere. There’s a sorrow to the man, which, possibly, wasn’t there in Akbar. That, in a way, chimes with the person that I have become. Perhaps, Akbar, with all his multifariousness, was more attractive to a man who is still in his 50s, which is what I was then, than he would be today,” he says. The manuscript, told in the emperor’s voice, sits in his laptop — the next day he leaves for Odisha, to see Kalinga for himself, “after which, I might even ditch the book,” he says.
A new Sealy work is an event, but there is more good news. “I am also doing a gazetteer of this valley, in which I will be using the form, playfully. Not the imperial gazetteer written by civil servants. It will be a new way of looking at this town, which is now my town. I can’t see myself living anywhere else. It will be like a travel book, but on my own terms,” he says.
Born in “Ilahabad”, Sealy, who calls himself a provincial, grew up in small towns — “Fatehpur, Hamirpur, Fatehgarh, Bareilly, Muzaffarnagar, Mirzapur, Saharanpur… (that’s) where I belong.” Twenty of his 68 years, though, were spent outside India. But he chose to return to the house at the foothills of the Himalayas, one that his father built. “In each of those places, I could have put down roots. Every place will call you. But it is overridden by your earliest experiences. Just the shape of trees, the sound of bird calls. You are two years old, lying in your cot and listening and the koel is calling. That goes much deeper,” he says.
The question of belonging ripples through The Small Wild Goose Pagoda, where the plot stands in for the nation. But it is an anxious one in contemporary India, roiled by contests over citizenship. “My papers are intact, my parents lie buried in this soil, as do theirs, and their forefathers back through six generations… Choice, not chance, brought our family back: my parents returned to Dehradun after a year in Australia. I returned here after many years abroad. Something was being said in these decisions. The current turmoil is not going to change that sense of belonging. An element of anxiety has entered the picture, in that for the first time the country is being colonised internally, by a minority in the name of the majority,” he says.
For Indian writing in English, Sealy’s work is a compass to new worlds, even if conventional literary stardom has passed him by. “I am grateful for this anonymity. The payload comes in terms of recognition when I meet a reader, not the mass. Not those who go into bookshops. Because my books are not there. They are somewhere with kabadis. But I know that there are good readers, close readers, and they are the ones who matter,” he says.
For those readers, glad tidings. A week later, Sealy emails to say he has returned from Kalinga, and decided not to ditch Asoca. “Allowing myself another month as king. Then back to commoner, wondering what it is about this valley. Perhaps, the gazetteer will answer that vexed question,” he says.
This article appeared in the print edition with the headline ‘The Sense of a Beginning’