Presenting the past

On a summer day few years ago, author Irwin Allan Sealy recalls being dropped off by a friend in Fatehpur Sikri. “I had been to Sikri before but never alone, and this time, the solitude wrung some poems. The next time I took a sketch book and spent a week on the hill, and after that I was a constant visitor,” says Sealy, whose visits to the 16th century city near Agra led to the birth of his book Zelaldinus: A Masque, wherein he brings the Mughal emperor Akbar alive through his ghost, and easefully marries history with fiction, past with present while presenting the story of love across the India-Pakistan border.

Zelaldinus: A Masque, Aleph Book Company, pp.168, Rs 399

“Talking to a ghost gives you all sorts of freedom. For one thing, you can inhabit either his time or yours — or both. In Zelaldinus, I range freely between the Mughal times and the present day. Then too you can deal with the ghost as a character in a novel and twist his arm a bit — here the Emperor of India gets to do my bidding and does so willingly because he wants me to story him out of Fatehpur Sikri. He’s sick of haunting that hill. So I give him a plot that will set him free, in a romantic intrigue — a cross-border love story —that takes him to the fence in the Rann of Kutch. He gets his wish and the payoff for me is I get to look at the question of India and Pakistan,” says the Padma Shri awardee, whose novel The Everest Hotel: A Calendar was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1998.

The Dehradun-based author says he was not interested in the ‘history-book Akbar’ but was looking at the man who dozed off during a lecture or was distracted by a fly or by another man’s wife. “Fiction gives you the liberty to imagine alternative realities,” Sealy explains.

As an author, who is known for letting his pen explore a multitude of writing styles, he has books like The Trotter-Nama: A Chronicle, which was termed as one of the greatest Indian novels of all time, Hero: A Fable and Red: An Alphabet to his credit. “A style of writing is a way of looking; you see things newly, but also you see new things,” he elaborates.

The 66-year-old writer calls himself a ‘hopeless plotter’ when it comes to his books. “A subject finds you; you don’t go fishing. Things happen to you and you respond, in that order. I wouldn’t want to give my life, over three or four years, to a project someone else assigned me, unless it seized my imagination. I’m a hopeless plotter at the best of times, but this time I think I found a story to tell in Zelaldinus.” 

When he’s not writing, Sealy says, he is sweeping, swabbing or baking. “I do the things people most often leave to their servants or tradesmen. It takes time and energy away from writing, but I don’t look at it that way. It’s a net gain,” he adds. Sealy is currently working on his next book set on the Nepal border.  

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