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Wednesday, December 01, 2021

A King Among the Ruins

In I Allan Sealy’s latest work, Akbar seeks a more corporeal afterlife — an iPod would be nice to have.

Written by Amrita Dutta |
Updated: April 30, 2017 12:00:25 am
His majesty’s Voice: Sealy.

“I tell you,” Jesus replied, “if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.” (Luke 19:40)

The plot of Irwin Allan Sealy’s last work was 433 square yards — the area of his home on Race Course Road, Dehradun. The Small Wild Goose Pagoda (2014) is “a natural and social history” of that patch of land, a feat of writing that turns a small brick house into an everywhere, alive with trees and birds, history and recipes, labour and love, soil and soul.

In his new work, he travels 450-odd kilometres on a juddering Uttar Pradesh Roadways bus to a larger expanse, a city summoned into being by Abu’l-Fath Jalaluddin Muhammad, a man who built, among other things, the Mughal Empire. A dead city is Fatehpur Sikri now, but here the stones still speak to Sealy (and his narrator, Irv) and there appears out of thin, crackling air the ghost of Jalaluddin Akbar.

…….come irv!
’E says
— just like that —
and we
fall in step
’Is Maj an’ me

“We all grow up with this figure, Akbar. In school history books we encounter line drawings based on miniatures and carry away certain impressions. But to write about the man you have to get closer, to the records certainly, but more, you have to climb into his head,” says Sealy, 66, in an email interview from New Zealand, where he is on holiday.

In Zelaldinus: A Masque (Aleph), His Majesty is not the emperor of tedious history books, or the bloodthirsty barbarian imagined by a petulant Hindutva. Akbar the Great is restless at the incorporeal life. He longs to get out of Fatehpur Sikri and see the world, he is curious about how an iPod works, and is royally displeased at Ashoka claiming his sobriquet.

…..ashoka
the great? Don’t make me laugh
graffiti artist. Planted six trees by
the roadside. Dug a watertank or two, and said love
one another

The novel in verse began many summers ago, when a friend dropped Sealy off in Fatehpur Sikri. In the zenana garden, all by himself, “the solitude wrung some poems”. He returned several times, and, eventually, a series of connected poems took the shape of a masque — it helped that “there was a real stage right there in the Diwan-i-khas,” he says.

Buland Darwaza at Fatehpur Sikri. (Source: Thinkstock Images)

Zelaldinus is not just fine poetry but also a rollicking good yarn. There is romance, adventure and a hail of bullets on the Line of Control, as the ghost of the great emperor helps reunite a star-crossed couple — Percival of Calcutta and Naz of Karachi.

Sealy is aware of the argument that Akbar is a part of 1,200 years of darkness and invasion that India ought to be ashamed of, but he is not impressed by it.

“Invasion is a simple fact of history. At the same time that the Arabs were invading India, the Angles were invading Britain; out of that invasion came England as we know it…A history based on hurt pride is a piece of childishness,” he says.

Sealy’s Zelaldinus would not deign to defend himself either. He says of “foreigners” like him:
I mean we Mughal crew
shook off that turki dust, dug in and ploughed this lea

“He would have listened very carefully to the argument. He wouldn’t have said very much, so I must speak for him. Akbar’s military campaigns, his alliances, including matrimonial alliances, his evolving administrative system, all show a high level of achievement. He had what it took to create a great empire and govern it; he was a shrewd statesman, could manage defeated and rebellious kings…his personal qualities show him as a rare specimen among the kings of India. He was tolerant, interested in the intellectual and religious views of others, he was a fearless (some say reckless) hunter and yet a vegetarian, a man who appreciated music and painting and architecture…he remained curious about life, loved nature and respected all creatures. He was an outstanding human being,” says Sealy.

“I wish to show you how History is made,” says a character in Sealy’s first book, The Trotter-Nama (1988), a rambunctious chronicle of seven generations of the Trotter family. Since then, Sealy has engaged with the past, but his imagination has “not lost its way into the dreary desert sand” of research.

As readers of his work would attest, Sealy has never been just a storyteller. Every Irwin Allan Sealy work is an experiment with form — from The Trotter-Nama, to Red (2006), an abecedary or a novel that was also an alphabet, The Everest Hotel (1998), shaped by the 12 months of a year, to The Small Wild Goose Pagoda, an almanac.

While The Trotter-Nama’s extravagance seemed to owe its lineage to GV Desani’s All About H. Hatterr and share its DNA with Midnight’s Children, Sealy’s writing has never conformed to the template of the Great Indian Novel. Every straight road he has not taken has cut a path for Indian-English writing, taken it a few miles away from mediocrity. “I’ve tried with every book to discover forms that belong here, so that the shape and the style of the artifact take on a local character. So, you’re not simply telling a local story but using local techniques. It should go beyond flavour, the way tea tastes different in a kulhar. The nama cup, for example, determines the nature of the history served up in it, so the choice of that form for my first novel, The Trotter-Nama, helped root the work in the literary soil of the continent. When I wrote The Brainfever Bird (2003), I had in mind the kathputli puppet shows of my childhood. The present offering has the gaudy palate of nautanki, transposed, of course, into a courtly setting,” he says.

The cover of Zelaldinus: A Masque.

But even if a “masque is public utterance, admitting no private voice”, Zelaldinus is also intimate history, less about battles lost than about the loss of fathers (Jalaluddin’s and Irv’s) — “a kind of psychohistory. I’m inseparable from my imagination,” says Sealy.

Like Sealy, whose works pay a great attention to the lay of the land, to the hewing of stones and turning of the soil, Akbar liked to get his hands dirty. He was a king so devoted “to building that he sometimes quarried stone along with other workmen.”

In Sealy’s writing, not just landscape, but the grain and texture of material life is vital. “Until you get a grip on reality — I mean literally: pick up a brick and see — you can’t hope to describe it convincingly. And remember, geography is prior to history. The world outlasts us; we had better look hard at it while we can,” he says.

The finest lines in Zelaldinus comes from such ways of seeing Fatehpur Sikri:

…… a pan of sweetened milk seethes on a redstone ledge
outside a halvai’s shop
above a drain where black water
stands and stinks
arbitrating heaven and hell

A sentence in a Sealy work is often like a burnished piece of wood, approaching perfection with every re-reading. Some of that beauty is effortless, he says. “The best things write themselves, others take days and sometimes years. I make notes all the time, especially at night, in the dark, to my wife’s great annoyance,” he says.

Perhaps, because he has steadfastly stayed away from the distractions of celebrity, and the demands of the market, Sealy’s admirers are few, but faithful. Nearly 30 years since his first novel, who does he write for? “Posterity and two or three friends.”

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