A Writer’s Sole Recourse

I ALLAN SEALY, the Alchemist of Language

I Allan Sealy whose latest novel Asoca: A Sutra (Penguin Random House) fetched the Book of the Year Award last year (Tata Literature Live 2021), has now embarked on writing two more books, one, the Gazetteer of the Doon Valley, and another, a sequel to his Memoir ‘The Small Wild Goose Pagoda’ (Aleph 2014).

Allan and his wife Cushla have a house in Christchurch (NZ) and one in Dehradun (where I met him on several occasions) between which they shuttle often. In the second half of last year (2021) when the couple returned to India, they were in for a bitter surprise. They found their Race Course Road residence, which houses a lovely sprawling garden, wantonly ‘ravaged’ by burglars. And this was not the first time.

In a given year, Allan has to put the house under lock and key for weeks on end as he is required to visit other countries on writing engagements and this is the price he (a Padmashree Awardee and recipient of Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, Sahitya Akademi Award, Crossword Book Award) has to pay every time his back is turned. Thankfully, everything has since been smoothed out and put back to normal. The plants are thriving again. Sadly, the view of the hills from the roof of his residence is being increasingly restricted by the constructions coming up all around the house. But Allan makes it a point to shut out his neighbours and invite in the sky each time he sits at the pagoda-study upstairs for the inspiration to strike amid flowering frangipani and wisteria blooms clambering on one side of the roof and a grapevine on the other.

Excerpts from an e-mail interview:
There’s recently been a case of burglars breaking in at night into your house. What happened?

When we returned late last year from Christchurch, we found our house and the garden ravaged by burglars. We had to spend months restoring order to it.

You must be concerned about such burglaries. It mostly happens whenever you are out of station. These gangs have a network not only in Dehradun but in Mussoorie too. Some way must be found to keep them at bay when you are not at home…

Yes, the burglars will be milked for all they are worth in the sequel to the memoir (The Small Wild Goose Pagoda)—a writer’s sole recourse! The Chowkidars have failed me. I shall have to get a live-in remedy, next time. Perhaps you’d like a month-long holiday with your family some winter! Thus far there’s been no return of the intruders.

What are the books you are working on now?

I have begun to gather material for the sequel to the small wild goose pagoda but before that will come the gazetteer of the valley. I dare say there’ll be many unexpected turns along the way. The gazetteer is indeed upon me. It feels very good to be surrounded by it. Nowadays I’m busy with some revisions but mostly in the garden and of course, in the house which reminds me there are some greens to watch and lunch to cook. Work goes on up at four with a mug of Yunnan tea.

Is it difficult to concentrate when the world around threatens to fall apart?

My mentor Dan O’Connor (sometime of St. Stephen’s Delhi) in Scotland is almost blind and still rationing a chapter a day. Each morning I pull back the curtain, greet the new day and keep the pot boiling.

In our town Serampore the 232 year old Danish Tavern has recently been restored. Here board and lodging is now available. The quality is rather good. It’s a perfect spot for an artist. Right in front, flows the river Ganges. No heavy traffic on this side of the town. One can ferry across to Barrackpore at any time of the day and take a leisurely stroll on the Riverside Road which happens to be my favourite haunt. Maybe you can put the finishing touches to your book-in-progress here at Serampore of all places!

I must say your description of the Danish Tavern in Serampore is very tempting. Next time I come that way I shall make a point of booking that town, and its history sound fascinating.

I confess it’d be nicer if this 433 sq. yards (his Race Course Road residence) were a short way upstream from Rishikesh above Laxman Jhula and around the bend in the river called Phul Chatti, but then I’m thinking of the Phul Chatti of the sixties, the water green and white and clear and swift as rivers are in memory or in dream.

Your garden always features, sometime in subtle ways, in each of your books. Is the foliage in your garden now streaked with gold?

The garden is a lure and a distraction and a pain and a solace. It is now in full leaf. The China ginkgo and the poplar are indeed streaked with gold as you guessed. Peach and chikoo harvest day just gone by. The birds were getting too inquisitive for my pleasure. Left their share on the upper branches. Then there’s francisia. It has a short season barely a week but at its height its scent floods the house—not quite lavender or chamomile but more topical jasmine perhaps. [See the pics attached]

Cinnamon Leaf
Peach & Chikoo Fruits
Peach Blossoms
Francisia Flowers
Mango Blossoms
Do the vendors these days come to your doorstep selling colourful melons and the like?

Plenty of fruits and vegetables carts go by the gate but I miss the fish-wala of thirty years ago calling machchi, machchi.

How is the weather like in your part of the world, too much rain or too little of it?

The cloud curtain comes and goes here. This morning it chanced upon the sun as it rose up from behind the hill. A red ball you could rest your eyes on. All the time it struggled to get free, then immediately lost in the clouds two minutes later. Two minutes further along it’s too bright to watch.

Fortunately, washing dries quickly on the backyard line and the new Samsung machine is a hero / heroine. Thirty loads later I can vouch that life would have been grim without the Korean saviour!

Your latest novel was longlisted for the DCB prize for Literature 2021 and won the Book of the Year Award. Did it inspire you in any way?

One happy consequence of the Bombay festival was this award which generously offset the costs of the pagoda (on the roof) invasion.

Any plan to come to Kolkata this year-end?

It’d be nice to have Christmas in Calcutta and I have pleasant memories of an onward journey to a beach on the Bay of Bengal. A couple of years ago I was in Orissa in December and greatly enjoyed my week without any woollens. Konarak & Kalinga the highlights but cashew and coconut water playing their supporting roles with great address. I often enjoy the lights of Park Street vicariously.

First published in The Statesman Festival Issue (Sep 2022)

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