Publishing Lives 11: Allan Sealy, Author

Why do we write? Is it to read or to be read? Is it to give voice to an ideology that we have either imbibed or constructed for ourselves, to consciously build a canon? Is it to tell our stories or of people who cannot tell their own? Is writing about bearing witness or is it about saying what we think needs to be said, regardless of time, space and reader? If these are the questions that a writer has to tackle before being a writer, writing cannot be an easy task.

In the last master class at the Seagull School of Publishing, where he came as a guest faculty, writer Allan Sealy made writing seem an easy task. Because for him writing is an honest, heartfelt task—not a vehicle for propaganda, for borrowed political or literary ideologies. So the beginnings and the ends of his works of literature, both fiction and non-fiction, are instinctive rather than calculated. For ‘What has to be written begs to be written.’

Facing a barrage of questions from the audience of curious students, Sealy spoke about his philosophy, his works and his interests with a conviction and sincerity that left us deeply moved. The sparkle in his eyes, the frequent little jokes and the complete lack of pomp and self-importance spoke volumes about his love for the art and about the man behind the ‘writer’.

Inspired by his family history and the hitherto stilted accounts of Anglo-Indian history in India, Sealy began work on The Trotter-Nama—a mock epic, written in the fashion of the great historical eulogies of India’s Mughal past—about the seven generations of the Trotter family. In an age where serious epics cannot escape being pretentious, and unwilling to write a dead and dry history, Sealy chose a form that would do justice to the miscellaneous bits of news and information, however quirky, that he collected for years about the Anglo-Indian communities across India and yet provide a truthful account. It was a form that would allow him to be ‘grand but not grandiose’, a form that would not be didactic but informative. Sealy feels that one cannot truthfully write for others or represent them—one can only write about one’s impression and interpretation of others. But now, having researched for years, he is ready to embark on a serious historical project.

A student of English literature, Sealy has garnered inspiration from Derozio and Gandhi and the great Russian masters of literature, but equally, if not more, from his travels across the world and his interactions with different climes and cultures. Over the years, he feels, his style has changed—‘It has become less literary.’ He has become ‘less a student of English literature’. Though it is dependent on genre, his language has grown simpler and his literature more sensory.

Asked what he was working on at present, Sealy spoke delightfully about his new non-fiction work—the history of a 433-square-yard piece of land, his garden in Dehradun. What began as the biography of his gardener and his mason, Sealy’s ‘gurus’ in life, has now become a travelogue across time, set in the form of an almanac. Inspired by the Small Wild Goose Pagoda at Xi’an in China, Sealy’s present preoccupations are the pagoda he is building in his garden and this book which weaves together personal history and history of others.

Statistics and demographics of reception by the marketplace are far less important to him than the ‘moment[s] of communion’ with discerning readers. For Sealy feels that one writes to oneself; readers are only mirrors that reflect a different face. And in those rare moments of communion, when the reader fully comprehends the author and undergoes the same paroxysms of delight or melancholy or fury, s/he validates this writing to the self. And as part of this process, the editor is perhaps the author’s first sincere reader with whom he has the first moment of communion. It is difficult, almost impossible, for the author to be objective about his creations and the dispassionate, panoptic view that is necessary to weed out mistakes and inconsistencies and to make the work more accessible has to be provided by the editor. And though he is not too fond of such intrusions, Sealy admitted to have benefitted from editorial interventions in the past. But after a point of time, when he has revised his work for the last time and it has gone out into the world, it becomes like the grown-up, absentee son or daughter, about whom one cares and worries but only subliminally.

The world of literature, as seen from the author’s perspective, and from the likes of Allan Sealy, a most wonderful independent man and author, brought to a fitting close this four-month-long publishing course, by providing a glimpse of the professional and yet equally human relations forged between lovers of literature across space and time, across ethnicities, religions and cultures.

Sohini Dey


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