Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Speaking Volumes: The Great Trotter

(Published in the Business Standard, January 2012. Re-reading The Trotternama after years, it struck me that Allan had anticipated the Tumblr generation-that book was made to be read on a Tumblr in little doses. Someone should start one in his honour.)


In the 1970s, the Cellar in Delhi’s Connaught Place and Trinca’s in Park Street had sizzlers and live music, and for those old enough to remember that age, you might remember a guitarist by the name of Sealy who was often seen at jam sessions.

I Allan Sealy, who was on the list of Padma Shri awardees this year, was fresh out of St Stephens’ College then, part of a generation of writers called, with gentle mockery, the “Babalog School”, by Ira Pande. His contemporaries included Amitav Ghosh, Shashi Tharoor, Vikram Seth and the publisher Rukun Advani. What they had in common was the love of reading (and music) more than the burning urge to be writers.

“Even in your twenties, you know that life is short, you know that you're never going to read everything you want to read,” said Sealy in a 2006 interview. “So you're always sifting. You're trying to get at the very best from the very beginning. If you're actually looking at yourself as a writer, you're looking at all the possible books you could ever write, even if you don't live to write them.”

Fame was not the point; it wasn’t available for Indian writers in English in that era anyway. Politicians, godmen and businessmen traded in the open market of success; writers queued up with other artists at the ration shop, happy to be doled out a few readers, the promise of publication. Permanently inoculated against celebrity, Allan Sealy popped up to survey early Indian literary festivals with an anthropological eye and disappeared as rapidly as he could to his natural habitat—his small home in Dehradun and the garden where he knew the name and personal history of every tree.

The Trotternama, Sealy’s first novel, is a mock epic that replaces the grand historical figures of the old “namahs” with Justin Aloysius, the Great Trotter, officer and inventor who lives on the sprawling grounds of Sans Souci in Naklau. Like one of its predecessors, GV Desani’s All About H Hatterr, The Trotternama is both elusive and immortal—reports of its death are usually proved to be exaggerated, though it’s only a handful of readers in each generation who respond to the slightly manic history of the Great Trotter. Running through its exuberance is a sadder and now almost-buried history—the story of the decline of the Anglo-Indian community, the carefully culled biographies scattered through the book no match for oblivion. “I wish to show you how History is made,” a character says. “Understand first, good adept, that there are no sides to it… Front and back there be, certainly, which the vulgar call past and future… But sides, no.”

The Trotternama, first published in 1988, stands at the crossroads. For the next two decades, Indian publishing (if not all Indian writers in English) would be in the grip of the marketplace, which exerts a kind of dictatorship of success on writing today. The Trotternama was also the last true successor to Hatterr and Midnight’s Children—with a few scattered exceptions, the Indian novel in English took a much more conventional and far less experimental narrative direction in the 1990s.

Sealy wrote against the grain of the marketplace, giving up early on commercial success, looking instead for the freedom to experiment—he moved closer and closer to poetry, for instance, including several of his poems in his last published novel, Red. Landscape is crucial to his books; just as a writer like Annie Proulx sculpts the raw material of a place like Wyoming into her stories and novels, Sealy works best with places like Dehradun, making occasional forays into Delhi (“a good lover,” he says of the city, “but a bad wife”).

From Yukon To Yucatan was an early example of what he could do in other genres—Sealy turned a sharp eye on America, allowing himself to see the US as an exotic, unknown country, in just the way most travel writing outside of Europe and America explains the unfamiliar. His novels overlap without ever returning to the same terrain; The Everest Hotel, set in Dehradun, explored political and personal fault lines, betrayal and friendship; Red came back to a fictionalized Dun, but was an exploration into art and creativity. Nestled in between the two was Brain Fever Bird, an unusual love story that brought a Russian expat together with an Indian artist, in Delhi, a city defined by puppets, theatre and the relentless pulling of strings.

None of these descriptions do the brilliance and the intelligent inventiveness of Sealy’s work justice, nor is the Padma Shri likely to change his life. “Part of me thinks, what's the point of writing if you're only going to write for 12 bright readers,” he had said back in 2006. “But with every book, maybe one per cent you think of the reader, ninety nine you're thinking of yourself, what you want to say."

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