A journal of his life

Irwin Allan Sealy’s next book captures everyday accounts of how he built things with a strong sense of place interwoven in poetic form. Anupama Raju in conversation with the author.

Published - June 04, 2011 05:27 pm IST

Allan Sealy

Allan Sealy

Author Irwin Allan Sealy considers his gardener and mason as his gurus for many things. “I'm the mistri's mazdoor (mason's assistant),” he says. It is this charming relationship that forms the premise of his next book.

The writer (whose books have won the Commonwealth Best Book Prize, Sahitya Akademi award, etc.) was in Delhi to participate in the Almost Island literary conference “Dialogues”. We settle down in the lawn of the India International Centre for the conversation and he tells me, “Let us sit, facing the sun.”

This fondness for sun perhaps comes from years of labour spent in the garden of his home in Dehradun. And his forthcoming book captures everyday accounts of how he built things, how he and his mistri got a brick wall done or the way his mali tolerated him. “I have been learning steadily from them,” he says, stressing that his latest work is a record of details but more importantly, is a book of reflection — a journal of his 59{+t}{+h} year.

Understandably, he does not want to reveal more about this “journal” though he teases with a clue about the title — it comes from China, from a “particular, famous pagoda”.

The fact that his next book should be a journal is not coincidental. It is a deliberate attempt at not repeating a form he has used before: His path-breaking novel, The Trotter Nama was a chronicle; The Everest Hotel a calendar; From Yukon to Yukatan , a travelogue. In Red , his last novel, he used the alphabet format. The journal is an obvious choice perhaps because it is the most truthful way of rendering events as they happened.

For Sealy, form enables: It does the work for you. It sustains you and grows from line to line; it draws you along. The form, whatever comes out, “it's the shape of my life,” he says.

This shape quite often is infused with colour, literally and metaphorically. His last novel, Red , for instance is on painting. “Colour is part of the whole writing,” he explains. I realise that this is not just the literary or the aesthetic, but colour is part of his whole being. I recall references in other articles to Sealy's Dehradun home: The monkish yellow of his kitchen tiles, the aqua of his study, the red cafetiere on a table, the red pantry or his famous blue gate.

Sealy's work is characterised by a strong sense of place as well. Zelaldinus , another of his forthcoming works, a book-length sequence of poems, is set in the city of Fatehpur Sikri, near Agra. A work in progress, it reflects on the legacy of Akbar, the Great Mughal.

Reading the excerpt published in the online journal, "Almost Island", I am struck foremost by the variety of poetic form, tone and the sense of time and place the lines evoke in me. Sealy explains how he achieved this: “I went to Sikhri, a place I know very well. I pored over what seemed like blank space, trying to imagine what had happened.”

The poems are narrated by Irv, a tourist visiting Fatehpur Sikhri, the ghost of the emperor, aka Zelaldinus, and an Indian, Percival. Sealy spent time in history and got rooted there. “My way is to sit there and brood. I spent hours in the pavilion where the young Shahjahan used to spend time.”

Zelaldinus is also striking for its spellings and certain short forms — something readers would notice in Red as well. Sealy calls it ‘e-mailese', the language of the Internet. “It is what happens when technology leads literary style formation,” he adds.

Sense of place

As someone who writes poems, I'm very curious: How did the creator of novels and a travelogue choose poetry as a form? “I saw short lines appearing while I was in Sikhri,” smiles Sealy. So, perhaps, his sense of place also influences the choice of form?

Sealy believes that the form is like a lattice through which the reader and the writer have to communicate. As far as his forthcoming journal goes, he is constructing this lattice with his mason and his gardener. And I can't wait to see what is on the other side.

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