The man from Dehra
Author Allan Sealy on the ghost of Akbar that inhabits his latest book Zelaldinus, the joys of baking bread and brick laying, and tending a garden in the Himalayan foothills
When Booker-nominated author Allan Sealy speaks of inhabiting two worlds — the tree-filled, mist-laden town of Dehradun and the lost-in-time, sandstone courtyards of Fatehpur Sikri — it is as if he speaks of his own Anglo-Indian heritage.
I’ve come to IIT-Madras armed with questions in tune with the workshop on Anglo-Indian Studies organised by its Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, New Zealand India Research Institute, and Anglo-Ink, Chennai, but the conversation traverses beyond the human legacy of colonialism in the subcontinent and the slowly vanishing world of Anglo-India.
In a soft, measured voice that was once heard at Calcutta’s Trincas, Sealy looks at his passions beyond writing. “I did play the guitar and sing in my dim, distant past,” laughs Sealy. This was decades before he published Zelaldinus — the jacket designed by Canadian artist Meera Sethi has a Mughal character in sneakers carrying a ghetto blaster on his shoulder, and a bio that describes the author as “apprenticed to a bricklayer”.
“I built my house in Dehradun,” says Sealy, who learnt from a bricklayer for 20 years. “The annexe where I live is the work of this man and me. It is a passion, not just a need. When I’m tired of sitting at my desk, I do ironwork. The pleasure of that is indescribable.”
With its Raj connections and beautiful buildings, Doon is where Sealy’s father, who had served with the UP Police, settled. “My parents were from Allahabad, the city I was born in. They moved to Australia, lasted a year and moved back to Doon, to this house, where I garden, bake my bread and write.”
More than home
But the city of his heart is Lucknow, where Sealy went to La Martiniere, a boarding school founded by a French soldier of fortune in India, but not of India. It is also the setting for his first novel, The Trotter-Nama, a seven-generation saga of an Anglo-Indian family’s fortunes and failures. “The hero of that book is the city of Lucknow,” says Sealy, who spent considerable time tracing his own history. “My family’s goes as far back as the 18th Century; up to 1798, the documentation is sure. The first Sealys — two British brothers, John and Charles, one a sea captain, the other a member of the Bengal judiciary — arrived in the 1770s, and the family could have descended from either one of them, who had an informal union with a ‘kept’ woman.”
This need for roots or the lack of them has propelled the Anglo-Indian community to be in constant motion, driving it to migrate across the globe. Sealy was among them. “I grew up in small-town UP, and lived abroad for 20 years, before I settled down in Doon,” says Sealy, who graduated in English Literature from St Stephen’s, with a generation that is at the forefront of Indian writing in English — Amitav Ghosh and Shashi Tharoor, among others. Sealy, who completed his doctoral thesis on the West Indian writer Wilson Harris, travelled across the US, and this became the subject of his book From Yukon to Yucatan.
Soon other books followed — Hero, a fable; the Booker-nominated The Everest Hotel, a calendar; and The Brainfever Bird, an illusion. “Each individual project seems to have its own logic, and I don’t impose a pattern. It is entirely possible that this discontinuous mode of narrative is part of my culture and heritage,” says Sealy, adding that the place of the Anglo-Indian in India has changed irrevocably. “When I started out in La Martiniere, they were in the majority. By the time I left, they were in the minority. The post-1947 migration was one of flight, the one in the 1960s was of economic opportunity, the same things that drive people that are not Anglo-Indians.”
“I don’t write consciously as an Anglo-Indian, but if I produce an Anglo-Indian character, it’s because I understand him from the inside. Percy in Zelaldinus, is Anglo-Indian,” says Sealy, of the book of verse that was born of an obsession for Fatehpur Sikri. “The title is from the Latin name given to Jalaluddin Akbar by the Jesuit priests at his court in the letters they wrote to Rome. It is the story of Percy, a man with a lover in Pakistan, who goes to Sikri and meets the ghost of Akbar, and they talk of the India of now. I’m grateful to the late Eunice D’Souza who reviewed it.”
Sealy claims he is no Trollope, who churns out thousands of pages of measured prose. “There are lots of unfinished projects, among them a comic book version of the India of today, set on the Nepal border, with a protagonist who’s looking at us.”
And, alongside bringing that to life, Sealy will continue to straddle many worlds, stopping only to bake bread.