24 Feb 2024  |   04:19am IST

Upriver with Irwin Allan Sealy

Upriver with Irwin Allan Sealy

Vivek Menezes

It’s not enough to write about India,” says Irwin Allan Sealy, in the elegant afterword to the 30th anniversary edition of The Trotternama, his 1988 masterpiece of a novel that laid the foundation for an extraordinary oeuvre that is second to none in our contemporary literature. This great ustad of the Indo-Anglians (and the Anglo-Indians) explains how he commenced his writing career with an overarching realization: “Orientation shows. Posed simply, my question was: Which way do I face?”

Sealy says, “I grew up with this worry. Anglo-Indians embodied the dilemma in their very persons. For the longest time they were laughed at because they spoke of Home, which was to say England, without ever having been there. Then, just as diaspora solved their problem, a new group stepped into their shoes: Indians who choose to write in English. The baba-log are not the only ones with colonized heads, but they invite an 

easy disparagement at home, and a certain puzzlement abroad: you think like a Westerner, you look like a wog. This too was an old Anglo-Indian dilemma, and this too has passed to the new Anglo-Indians. But you have something to say and say it you will. You begin to explain. A baba-log book is packed with explanations, information of a curious and gazetteer sort, meant for strangers, inhabitants of the West. Being understood and being known there is crucial. It’s a form of tribute, and you pay it in conscience, for in your deepest being, and sometimes in plain fact, you live there. That is Home.”

But there is another option: “Face the other way you are suddenly, rapturously free. Free to not be understood by strangers, free to preserve every natural strangeness, because here it is not strange. Who you write for determines not just what you leave out but what you put in. Here is true independence, not that semblance we inherited in 1947. Write with your head turned away then. And, if at all possible, write from here.” That is what Sealy knuckled down to after college in Canada in frugal Lucknow years – he describes them as “heaven, and not Europe’s heaven” - to complete The Trotternama precisely 40 years ago, followed by an array of books in different forms: a fable, an alphabet, a calendar, Zelaldinus: A Masque, Asoca: A Sutra, and my personal favourite The Small Wild Goose Pagoda: An Almanack.

The Trotternama was initially scuppered into “free fall” by bad timing, but Sealy’s bold debut “refused to sink. Hailed by critics in the first stirrings of an independent literary culture – I like to think it enabled that culture – it kept its head above water. The Great Trotter fell into the Ganda Nala but he’s managed very well. Revived at the end of the last century, here he is again. His fate…mirrors that of his progeny. Migrating or staying on, Anglo-Indians would remain poised between the heaven of imagined refuges around the world and the earth of their nurturing here.”

This is of, course, also the Goan condition (mostly but not exclusively amongst Catholics), and despite some differences in how each community defines itself there has always been considerable overlap and assimilation with Anglo-Indians since they first encountered each other during the Raj. There are complex reasons why this happened, but much that Sealy writes about his ancestors has identical implication for Goans: [They] are the first modern Indians…a heterodox community who will speak the father’s tongue and yet eat the mother’s salt.” It is an undeniable fact – albeit regularly denied – that an important substratum of contemporary Goan identity came from the hundreds of marriages between Muslim women and European conquistadors after Albuquerque’s epochal victory. 

Sealy’s assertions about “the first modern Indians” first came to my attention in his 2007 essay accompanying the photobook The Anglo-Indians by Dileep Prakash. Many insights resonated deeply: “They were foreign and yet native, native and yet foreign, and in that vexed identity lay their double fate.” But he also outlines how Anglo-Indians experienced history very differently: after the 1857 mutiny “they find reserved employment in government services [and that] protection will lighten their burden but perversely it will also rob the community of its enterprise: from now on until reservations cease in a hundred years, these guarantees of employment will shape their character, fostering a sense of dependency during the British Raj and occasioning the flight of half the community at Independence.” The sorrowful conclusion: “Once too scattered to combine they are now too few to matter.”

That degree of displacement and dispersal may well happen for the Goans at some future juncture, but wandering up the Mandovi with Sealy earlier this week was an unforgettable reminder to count our blessings. A lot has been lost, and there is an undeniably clear and present danger to everything that remains, but Goa’s treasure trove of cultural history and heritage remains largely intact. Decolonization has unfolded remarkably positively, so that 63 years afterwards Portugal is one of India’s best and most reliable allies, and Goans have an official homeland in the form of a democratic state, with Konkani enshrined in the Indian Constitution. This is something Sealy pointed out to me at our first meeting in the garden of his home in Dehradun, where I outlined our prevailing conditions – misgovernance, criminality, loss – and was surprised to observe him more wistful than sympathetic. Finally, he told me “you don’t know how lucky you are!” 

Others may not need that kind of reminder, but it turns out I did. That conversation in Dehradun somehow liberated me to revel in being Goan in Goa like never before, which includes co-curating the quirky little jewel of the Goa Arts + Literature Festival, alongside our beloved Jnanpith Award winner Damodar “Bhai” Mauzo. This year, we were delighted Sealy accepted our invitation to attend. GALF2024 was stacked with books and authors of the moment, including several veritable national literary treasures, yet Sealy stood out with two astonishing readings of heart-stopping beauty and power. One was the four-part prose poem Bionic – please read it online at almostisland.com – and another was his magisterial delivery from Zelaldinus in fading light overlooking the confluence of rivers at Cabo Raj Nivas, in a dream-team lineup of poets: Ranjit Hoskote, Mamang Dai, Robin Ngangom, Anjum Hasan, Goa’s own Mamata Verlekar and Ramesh Ghadi. 

I was blown away by that incredible, indelible evening above the Aguada Bay, and reached out via email to get the impressions from a couple of the other poets who were present. “Zelaldinus is a delight,” responded Hasan, “this slim, impudent book about Akbar as more man than king has all the classic Sealy elements. One was clear in his readings: no holds barred reimagining. In one poem, a new Sikri is being raised to replace the old one stone for stone, all there and yet all gone for it’s just rebuilt, not conceived anew. In another poem, Akbar is shown how to speak himself into a new life. Say it and the enactment becomes existence. What better way for a poet to infiltrate the history book and rescue its fusty heroes?” Hoskote said that “Sealy read beautifully from his 2017 book of poems, Zelaldinus, which is billed as a ‘masque’. The figure that dominates this book is the great Mughal emperor Akbar. Sealy read the poems like an actor, doing voices, shifting tone, tempo and register, playing various personae, establishing an admirable rapport with the audience. His reading was a relay of humour and melancholia, shock and delight, very necessary history lesson and an education in sensibility. It was a rare and substantial treat!”


Iddhar Udhar