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Updated: June 16, 2014 16:24 IST

Of toiling masses

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Having settled down in Dehradun, Allan Sealy wanted to write a book this time about the people he had worked with for several years — the gardener (Dhani), the master brick-layer and contractor (Habilis) and the labourer (Victor). Photo: V. Ganesan
The Hindu
Having settled down in Dehradun, Allan Sealy wanted to write a book this time about the people he had worked with for several years — the gardener (Dhani), the master brick-layer and contractor (Habilis) and the labourer (Victor). Photo: V. Ganesan

Through his latest book, “The Small Wild Goose Pagoda”, Irwin Allan Sealy highlights the contribution of all those connected with building his abode

There are several levels and layers which one unearths during the reading — not a casual one though — of Irwin Allan Sealy’s latest roll-out “The Small Wild Goose Pagoda” (Aleph). The jacket describes the book as “a natural and social history of 433 square yards of India” belonging to the Sealy family.

Having settled down in Dehradun, Sealy wanted to write a book this time about the people he had worked with for several years — the gardener (Dhani), the master brick-layer and contractor (Habilis) and the labourer (Victor). Meanwhile, a neighbour built a balcony which overlooked his house. Sealy, who had earlier visited China and was impressed with the Small Wild Goose Pagoda in the city of Xi’an (built between circa 707-709) during the Tang dynasty, decided to build it on his portico to block the balcony and regain his privacy.

“That set off building the pagoda,” he says during a conversation over the phone. “It is the pivot around which I worked the characters I intended to write a book on and in the process, I delimited the book to 433 square yards. Anybody who had contributed to this particular piece of land, including my wife, daughter, father, the labourers — not just the family but the extended and larger one — have been captured in the book, as they all are connected with the sorrows and joys associated with the piece of land.” Not only it changed the shape of the book but it produced the title too. He aptly sums the novel as a “gazette” of the land occupied by his family on which he is an authority.

Why did he admire this particular pagoda? Replies the author, “Its attitude about life is small, imploring one to try to know the self. The Giant Wild Goose Pagoda on the contrary reflects great grand historical gestures, representing those who claim to know everything about life.”

The character sketch of Dhani, Habilis and Victor is vivid and interspersed in the book. At times, the difference among the three is highlighted through a single attribute. For example, each has his own way of receiving money — Victor folds it into his fist to hide the embarrassment of it; Habilis tucks it casually into his shirt pocket and Dhani takes it in one seamless action.

Sealy refers to Dhani as his guru. “He taught me not only about gardening but also life — of being able to act irrespective of someone watching you or not.” The author elaborates thus, “He works for himself, for duty, for God. He is his own master answering to his conscience and dharma and a living embodiment of this aspect, though he has no formal education and drive in life.”

Habilis, on the other hand, is handsome, combative yet civil, even charming and professional, proficient, resourceful and painstaking. Describing him a “rogue”, Sealy refers to him as personification of the “skilled”. “He is very conscious about doing things well. A jack of all trades, he aims at perfection in everything he does though falling woefully short as one cannot be perfect in everything.” Overlooking his faults, the author confesses that he had learnt many valuable tips from him.

The character of Victor who incidentally died in 2014 due to cancer, has been drawn up as a person with a slight hunch, giving him a hesitant manner in life, both gentle and shrewd. He had a small man’s watchfulness and patience. Sealy says, “His life was unfulfilled in some ways though he lived it on his own terms. Earning next to nothing, he kept a dog and fed it well. He dressed and ate well.” The author calls him, representing the bulk of the humanity which remains happy despite all odds. The reader is touched when Victor, who doubled up as a waiter at wedding feasts, turns up at the author’s home with food and sweets received during his assignment. “I took them without inhibition. He shared it with his friends too, thus spreading goodness,” comments Sealy.

The author states that the two men alive and the one dead are blessed with unique, distinct and admirable qualities. “I am very privileged to have worked with them and learnt many lessons.”

Sealy’s novel has come after eight years. “I have been working with my hands — cutting stones, iron, doing manual labour — crucial jobs,” says Sealy when asked the reason for this long gap. He questions the austere view of people when he describes himself as an apprentice to a bricklayer. He feels that instead of mouthing grand vocabulary about democracy and labour, it is worth working with them to feel the palpability of the concept, adding a telling comment, “Nothing sets me apart from these people.”

There are some profound comments about several aspects of society in the story. For example, the scene at the labour market when Sealy goes to recruit a worker on daily wages is graphic and how they are treated by the people hiring them. Similarly, the innocence pervading in the past is brought out thus, “In those days the sight of a neighbour pegging out washing was not a scandal; inner garments on the line were not connected with the body they covered.” The narrator clarifies that “while dressing up an idea already in your brain with the best possible expression, a new idea is discovered. It is an interaction of thought and language — philosophy in action. Something new comes out of the expression of something old.” He further adds, “This is my book, baring my soul. I want the readers to know where I stand. The concepts in my mind are to be put across convincingly to sound not only true but also to persuade the reader and grip him.”

Sealy, the winner of Sahitya Akademi Award in 1991 and a Padma Shri in 2012, has written novels including “The Totter Nama”, “The Everest Hotel: A Calendar” among others. Interestingly, in “The Small Wild Goose Pagoda”, he mentions his intention to share the royalty with dramatis persona (the main characters) of the novel. Reiterating this, the author says, “I have to work out the amount and decide on how to transfer it. It is incumbent on me, whether people believe it or not.” A noble and unique gesture.

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