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

16 May 2017
Irwin Allan Sealy

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.

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

Keywords: Akbar Indian English literature Irwin Allan Sealy Zelaldinus Masque
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