Book review: Irwin Allan Sealy’s book is a journey of introspection

  • Vrinda Nabar
  • Updated: Mar 14, 2015 14:43 IST

Irwin Allan Sealy’s latest book encompasses autobiography, history, social hierarchies, marriage, fatherhood, and even masonry with intellectual exuberance, wit and compassion.

The Small Wild Goose Pagoda (an almanack)
Irwin Allan Sealy;
Rs 595; PP289

Irwin Allan Sealy’s latest book comes several years after his last and has the kind of ‘explanatory’ sub-title which has almost become a Sealy attribute: his first novel The Trotter-Nama (1988) was “a chronicle”; Hero (1991) “a fable”; From Yukon to Yucatan (1994) “a Western journey”, and so on. In many ways this book takes one back to Sealy’s first novel. The Trotter-Nama had used the family tree motif to create a 200-year fictional saga which drew parallels between the Trotter family and the larger community of ‘Anglo-Indians’ to which Sealy belongs. Though described as an almanack (and it does ostensibly list the months, 17 of them beginning with March), The Small Wild Goose Pagoda becomes an introspective journey encompassing a multitude of themes: autobiography, history, social hierarchies, marriage, fatherhood, and even Sealy’s latest preoccupation — schooling himself in bricklaying and masonry as he prepares to construct (of all things) a pagoda at the end of his driveway on his former portico.

Nor is this a “conventional”, “traditional” pagoda, and its “idea” can be traced to the author’s visit to the Xi’an province of China. It’s “origin” goes back to the willow pattern on China plates remembered from childhood. This kind of energetic flip-flop through time zones is endemic to Sealy’s almanack, and can sometimes become irksome. Unlike his first book, the saga this time takes a more personal form as Sealy, at 60, prepares to cross over from Grihasthashrama (he uses “Householder”) to Vanaprasthashrama (“Forest Dweller”), the two middle phases in a man’s life as laid down in the sastras. The punch in the repeated use of these terms comes from the fact that Sealy is clearly no acolyte of orthodoxy, preferring instead to harness them to their truer, more humanistic sense and thereby reflect on their broader, related components of social roles and individual duties: “God, I left the hose on the seedlings!” the householder in Sealy interjects amidst an instructive outline of the four stages of “the ideal life in classical times”.

Sealy’s forte has been his ability to put together his material in atypical ways. His narrative is discursive, satirical, extravagant and rarely linear. The account of a house break-in moves on to a world wherein a “gateway” takes precedence over a mere “gate”, its panels filled in with “a wrought iron frieze depicting the six seasons of Sanskrit poetry”. The frieze gives Sealy a name for the house: “Ritusamhara” after Kalidasa’s poem of the seasons. It is a safeguard too, a protection against angry mobs should a Christian ever assassinate a prime minister, the subtle subtext in the lighthearted aside — “they might pass us by when they saw Sanskrit on the gate”— a grim reminder of what is becoming a global trend.

The pagoda seems almost a natural follow-up in such a domain, its wonderful architectural deviations eventually adding up to a principal motive behind its raison d’être: “wiping out Pak”, Sealy’s intrusive neighbour to the west. The other geographical boundaries of his “433 square yards” are similarly delineated with Pakistan, Bangladesh, Tibet casually slotted into their individual zones.

As the pagoda takes shape, so does Sealy’s “almanack”. The months follow their own whimsical patterns, interspersed with randomness in theme. If April surprises us with recipes for “Powercut Bread” and “Happenchance Soup”, May offers up “Poor Irv’s Shahi Pilaf, for when the fridge is bare”. It also reveals that neither “Delhi” nor “Rome” autocapitalise but Beijing does. Family is central to the narrative, whether it is Sealy’s memories of growing up, his dead mother, his ageing father, a holiday in Robinson Bay with his Kiwi partner Maeve, or his quirky descriptions of his “tochter”, Philomena / Filo. The complexities of social inequalities, a recurrent topic, clearly bother Sealy in the months that he manually works on building the pagoda alongside his labourers while remaining their master. As he wryly remarks of his gardener and faithful family retainer Dhani’s frequent references to “her [Sealy’s mother’s] time”, his own probably dates from when he began paying him. Returning home from China he is quick to assume that Dhani has been slacking, remorseful when he finds that he is ill. “When a house is built, Death comes” says the Tibetan proverb Sealy uses as an epigraph. Illness and death inevitably enter the almanack, and as Sealy prepares to leave for the UK, where his father has just died, the visa ordeal elicits this telling response which many of us have often experienced: “You hate them for presuming you want to disappear there, and you hate your countrymen who disappear there.”

At the end, the frequent, exasperating haphazardness appears insignificant. What remains with the reader is a kaleidoscope of details enriched by Sealy’s intellectual exuberance, wit, humanism, compassion and above all his ironic selfawareness. This is a book one will return to, if not always for the right reasons, because it offers a wealth of minutiae about life and living.

(Vrinda Nabar is an author, cultural theorist, and former chair of English, University of Mumbai)

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