I first heard of the Anglo-Indian writer Irwin Allan Sealy about two years ago. He was born in 1951 in the north Indian city of Allahabad (Uttar Pradesh) and attended St. Stephen’s College, Delhi. Over the years, he has lived and worked in Canada, the USA, New Zealand and Australia. He is now based in Dehra Dun, Uttarakhand.
Known for his originality, Sealy is the author of the following books: The Trotter-Nama: A Chronicle (1990), Hero: A Fable (1991), From Yukon to Yucatan: a Western Journey (1994), Man Booker shortlisted The Everest Hotel: A Calendar (1998), The Brainfever Bird: An Illusion (2003) and Red: An Alphabet (2006). So after A Chronicle, A Fable, A Journey, A Calendar, An Illusion and An Alphabet, the author has written “A Masque” (the masque was a form of festive courtly entertainment that flourished in 16th- and early 17th-century Europe).
The book is Zelaldinus: A Masque, published by Aleph Book Company (I mentioned a book of theirs last year—the excellent collection of stories Swimmer Among the Stars by New York-based Kanishk Tharoor). The “Zelaldinus” of the title here is Abu’l-Fath Jalal-ud-din Muhammad Akbar (1542-1605)—simply known as Akbar the Great—the Mughal emperor who ruled over a huge part of the Indian subcontinent from 1556 to 1605. “Zelaldinus” was the Latinised version of Jalal-ud-din used by European Jesuits sending letters from the emperor’s court in India to Rome. (See this book The Commentary of Father Monserrate, Society of Jesus, on His Journey to the Court of Akbar.)
In Sealy’s magical book, a writer called Irv—an extension of Sealy himself—arrives as a tourist at Fatehpur Sikri, a small city just west of Agra that was founded by Akbar and served as his capital. The emperor appears as a ghost to Irv in this way:
when suddenly he gawps— / a mirage forming not ten feet off!—jaw drops / and as the ectoplasm coalesces (as ectoplasm can) / into neither palm nor camel but preexistent man / the air fair crackles in a preternatural breeze / so squirrels freeze with upright hackles. / and then he’s standing there / mild in His seersucker whites / the King of kings / light of the world / trampler of tyrants / etc / etc / Zelaldinus / Himself
Together Irv and Zelaldinus talk about the latter’s historical exploits (his victories, his wives) and discuss the state of contemporary India (references are made to GDP, the Archaeological Survey of India). The imagery is rich and intoxicating, made up of rose-scented quarters, marble lattices, icy streams, burning desert sands. Finally, the ghost of Zelaldinus asks Irv to “embody him in one of his stories”, and the writer thinks up the tale of Percival (an Anglo-Indian from Bombay) who has fallen in love with a Pakistani woman called Naz (a Parsi in Karachi) online. After having had his visa applications rejected 20 times, Percival must take the help of the emperor to cross the border. Percy and Zelaldinus (even Father Monserrate) come together in a plot within plot where history actively converses with fiction, the past and the present collapse into each other to create a glittering, dizzying account. Sealy relates the geographical diversity and the cultural complexity of India in a vivid, affectionate and simply unforgettable blend of poetry and prose.
Here is a part that I liked:
But tell me, Perce. What was the worst thing you ever did? the King breaks in on his reverie. And Perce thinks back and says, I signed a petition to impeach a man who never hurt me. I let myself be stampeded. And at the public hearing I sneered at a man who got up and spoke fearlessly in his defence.
Zelaldinus nods. Let go of him Perce, or he’ll haunt you harder than any ghost. Abul Wasim haunts Me that way. The man whose exquisite wife I stole. And that’s going back a way.
Learn more about the book in this interview with the author on Caravan Magazine.
Check out fiction from other contemporary Indian writers (based in India and abroad) featured on this blog: as already mentioned above Kanishk Tharoor (Swimmer Among the Stars), then Sharanya Manivannan (The High Priestess Never Marries), Karan Mahajan (The Association of Small Bombs), Janice Pariat (Boats on Land, Seahorse) and Torsa Ghosal (Open Couplets).