“A history based on hurt pride is a piece of childishness”: An Interview with Irwin Allan Sealy

By Arvindar Singh | 16 May 2017

The acclaimed writer Irwin Allan Sealy’s first novel The Trotter-Nama was published in 1988. The book chronicled the history of an Anglo-Indian family—and by extension, the Anglo-Indian community—across seven generations. It went on to win the Commonwealth Writers Prize for the Best First Book in 1989 and the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1991. The books that Sealy has authored since then include Yukon to Yukatan: A Journey of Discovery in the Footsteps of America’s First Travellers, a travelogue published in 1994; Western Journey, The Everest Hotel, which was published in 1998 and short-listed for the Booker Prize that year; and The Small Wild Goose Pagoda: An Almanack, an autobiographical text that was published in 2015 (Sealy described it in an interview, as an “effort in introspection.”) Sealy is well-known for versatility: he writes about a range of subjects, and experiments with form. In an interview with the novelist Nilanjana Roy that was published in 2006, Sealy said of the writing process, “Your world for the duration of that book, the writing of it, is truly other. There’s no way of describing it to anybody, even anybody you live with. It’s a good feeling, the equivalent of the chemical high. Writers are addicted to that other world in the way that a drunk is to his booze.”

Sealy’s latest book, Zelaldinus: A Masque, is a novel written in verse, set in Fatehpur Sikri, the historic city that owes its existence to the Mughal emperor Akbar. It unpacks the story of the city and its architect through the encounters of its narrator, Irv—possibly the literary alter ego of Sealy himself—with the ghost of Akbar. Zelaldinus and its characters inhabit a contemporary world, within which the ghost of the Mughal emperor helps unite two lovers who are pining for each other across the Indo-Pak border: Percival of Kolkata and Naz of Karachi. On 10 May 2017, Arvindar Singh, an independent writer, met Sealy at his house in Dehradun’s Race Course Colony. During the interview, which was later continued over email, Singh spoke to Sealy about his decision to write on Akbar, the political narrative that surrounds the emperor now, and the dilemmas that consistently plague all rulers.

Arvindar Singh: Zelaldinus appears to be a quest for solitude.
Irwin Allan Sealy: I was certainly there [Fatehpur Sikri] on my own, despite the multitudes of tourists. Most visitors stay an hour or two and move on; I hung around after they were gone and over the rest of the week till the guards got to know me. And every time I went back to Sikri (I was there seven times), I felt one with the hill, so it was as much a nature retreat as a historical lodestone. I suppose I’m hooked to the place in a way.

There’s a famous saint, Shaikh Salim Chisti, who was there before Akbar; it was he who drew Akbar to the place, and still draws pilgrims to this day. I use him in the poem as a harbinger figure.

AS: What motivated you to write about Akbar and the Fatehpur Sikri?
IAS:
A friend dropped me off in Fatehpur Sikri one summer and I spent a couple of days mooning about the place; Akbar, I’ve mooned about all my life.

AS: What drew you to Akbar in particular?
IAS: As I sat on the hill I began to get a sense of the man as opposed to the king I had learnt about at school. I’m not a historian—though I did my homework on the Mughal period for this book—but anyway, with Akbar-the-man, you depend as much on your imagination as on the historical record.

AS: You devote a significant amount of text to Fatehpur Sikri in the book. Do you think the city runs the risk of fading away from public memory?
IAS: It has never been forgotten, and with good reason. There are many layers of history on that hill, even though what the tourists go to see is chiefly the Mughal monument, Akbar’s citadel with its grand gate, the Buland Darwaza, and the multitude of architectural curiosities including a fine set of waterworks that lifted water from wells at the foot of the hill to a tank up above.

AS: Is this the first published work that you’ve written chiefly in verse? Why did you adopt this form?
IAS:
It’s my first verse novel. It grew out of a couple of poems I wrote in the Zenana Garden of the king’s palace [in Fatehpur Sikri] that summer. The novella must have come later, as a story began to emerge. Such places breed stories.

AS: You sharply capture the dilemma of a ruler in one of the stanzas from the book: “Till the panicked mind, biting its own hook, set me hopping from inlaid square to square, now king, now queen, now knight, now saint, now rook.” This could be an apt description for present-day political rulers as well.
IAS: Certainly there’s a frightened little man inside every ruler, but by the same token there is a king inside every little man. One of the poems in the cycle is called “I am the emperor,” and it’s spoken by a commoner, an ordinary tourist—the young chap Akbar travels with across the Rann of Kutch to the border of Pakistan.

AS: At one point, Irv, the narrator, invokes the appearance of Akbar in history textbooks. Could you elaborate on this section?
IAS:
The narrator Irv, who looks a little like me, is crossing the flagstone court outside the palace in the mid-day sun when suddenly, the air in front of him begins to wrinkle—and there stands the very figure he remembers from his school history-book. He recognises Akbar at once from that series of engravings of Mughal emperors. The funny thing is that the king recognises Irv too.

All the time that Irv was pouring over that line drawing as a sweaty schoolboy, the king was studying him—out of the book! So you could say that two personalities, hundreds of years apart, understand each other.

AS: Could you tell me a little about the Jesuits from Rome, from whom the name “Zelaldinus” for Akbar originated?
IAS: Akbar loved religious discussions (as you know, he ended up founding his own faith, the Din-I-Ilahi) and the court at Fatehpur Sikri became a meeting point of several faiths. He would invite Jains, Hindus, Zoroastrians, and Christians to symposiums where he was the quietest and keenest listener. This group of Jesuit priests came up from Goa at his request. They spent a couple of years living in Fatehpur Skiri and writing letters to Rome in Latin. In those letters, the king’s name “Jalaluddin” was Latinised as “Zelaldinus.” Father Monserrate, who is a character in my masque, became a friend of Akbar’s and a tutor to his son.

AS: The contemporary narrative surrounding Akbar is highly polarised, and dismissive of this legacy.
IAS:
I’m familiar with the argument. The tenor of debate has become a little crude, especially on the Internet; you’re left thinking the web has enabled but not empowered. More than ever, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. A history based on hurt pride is a piece of childishness. Just when we need clear sight and self-criticism we long for villains and for easy praise (that hunger for praise is telling). Our standing in the world’s intellectual community has for sometime now been shaky, our higher education laughable, and the present revisionism will only make it worse.

AS: There is also a verse in the book in which Akbar chides the emperor Ashoka for appropriating his moniker, “…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, or was that the other guy?” Could you tell me a little about your research or thinking for this particular stanza?
IAS:
No research went into this. The “thinking” is just Akbar’s or rather me in Akbar’s head imagining his response to a challenge from that quarter. Remember, wit is an important part of Zelaldinus.

AS: You mention in the acknowledgements section of the book, that the historian Wayne Begley showed you a “personal Akbar” and your wife Cushla “tossed a small pierced coin.”
IAS:
Wayne was an American who made India his home. He married an Indian and lived in Dehradun and was an authority on the Mughals. We became friends and did a couple of explorations in this valley—whose history he knew better than anyone. His knowledge of the great Mughals was deep and intimate, and he would let fall little details that made me see them for the first time as persons rather than kings.

The “small, pierced coin” is a motif that reappears through the cycle of poems. In an early draft I thought of it as representing trust, another human element that transcends history. Now, I would be inclined to call it faith.

AS: Could you tell me about the experiences you had as you churned this volume out?
IAS:
Well, I think it wasn’t churned out; spun out perhaps, and then cut back drastically. Some of those lost poems I rather regret, but one late entry was ‘The china poets.’ On one of my visits, a group of us Indian writers took a group of Chinese writers to Fatehpur Sikri. We were lodged together in the government hotel, and one night we decided that we didn’t want the usual Punjabi Manchurian on the menu. So, our guests took over the kitchen and cooked us a superb Chinese meal with dishes from each one’s corner in China. I hope the cooks at Gulestan guest house remember that some of China’s finest poets sweated over their pots.

AS: You once said that your last work, The Small Wild Goose Pagoda Chase, dealt with a phase of your life in which you were looking inwards. How would you describe this book in that context?
IAS:
The pagoda book certainly concerns the forest-dwelling (vanaprastha) part of my life, but this poem actually predates that book. Zelaldinus is very much a book of the world. Both have their relevance in the literary world.

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

Arvindar Singh is an independent writer based in Delhi and Dehradun.

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