I(rwin) Allan Sealy Biography
Nationality: Indian. Born: Allahabad, India, 1951. Education: La Martiniere College; Delhi University, B.A. (with honors) in English 1971; Western Michigan University, B.A. (with honors) in English 1972, M.A. 1974. Career: Writer. Award: Commonwealth Writers' prize for best first book, 1989, for The Trotter-Nama. Agent: A.P. Watt, 20 John St., London WC1N 2DR, England.
The Trotter-Nama: A Chronicle. New York, Knopf, and London, Viking, 1988.
Hero: A Fable. New Delhi, Viking, 1990; London, Secker and Warburg, 1991.
The Everest Hotel: A Calendar. New Delhi, IndiaInk, 1998.
From Yukon to Yucatan: A Western Journey. London, Secker and Warburg, 1994.
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Although I. Allan Sealy divides his time between India and New Zealand, he remains very much an Indian-English writer. Each of his novels to date, The Trotter-Nama: A Chronicle, Hero: A Fable, and The Everest Hotel: A Calendar, bring something distinctly Indian to what is, after all, a European literary form. In The Trotter-Nama Sealy adapts the Indian epic nama form (a form once used to flatter emperors, and ideally suited to Sealy's expansive and digressive style), whereas in Hero he transfers the formulaic "masala movie" of India's popular and prodigious film industry from celluloid to paper. In The Everest Hotel he continues his interest in the form of the novel (those colons are significant!) but leaves behind some of the more irksome postmodernist games that marked the earlier novels. What clearly links these three apparently disparate novels is Sealy's gift for storytelling.
In The Trotter-Nama, Sealy presents a history of India unreliably narrated by Eugene, the Seventh Trotter, a painter, and a chronicler of his Anglo-Indian family history, from its founding by the Great Trotter (a French mercenary soldier) in the eighteenth century through to the present day. Significantly, Eugene paints in a mock-Mughal style—a style in which perspective is often distorted, reflected in his role as historian. His story (and history) is centered on the predictably-named Trotter family seat of Sans Souci near Nakhlau (another name for Lucknow, and notably the one used by Kipling in his magnum opus, Kim); but as the Trotter family branches out across India and the world, Sealy is able to introduce postcolonial concerns such as identity, exile, and the diaspora into his fiction. Eugene Trotter's riotous chronicle, which recalls the work of both Sterne and Rabelais as well as recent postmodernist fictions, playfully flexes the boundaries of the novel to encompass maps, a family tree, and numerous digressions, interpolations, sections of verse, letters, recipes, household bills, authorial intrusions, and, on the cover, a miniaturist painting (by the author) which portrays all the major events of the novel.
In his second novel, Hero, Sealy moves away from the expansive style of The Trotter-Nama and directs his narrowed lens on India's pop-culture film world in an attempt to interpret the sub-continent through the unlikely, but surprisingly common Indian mix of politics and the cinema. Indeed, the novel borrows its structure from the masala movie mix—which is clearly outlined on the contents page. Again Sealy's interest in postmodernist games is evident from the outset. There is, for example, a skilled parody of structuralist theory in the opening section of the novel, which challenges theory as another tool of colonization. Literary allusions abound, as in the opening line of the novel: "He stood six feet tall but it was his slouch that made him a hero," which clearly echoes the opening sentence of Joseph Conrad's Lord Jim; authorial intrusions are legion, and the many instructions which direct the gaze of the camera once more test the boundaries of the genre. Via the trope of the Bombay cinema, Sealy explores the nature of image, the portrayal of "real life" through image, and the relationship between "reality" and "fiction." The novel is also a penetrating discourse on the nature of power, and an exposé of the corruption that has dogged recent Indian politics. All this is achieved through the story of Hero, a film superstar-cum-prime minister, whose story in many ways resembles that of Tamil Nadu's superstar of the popular cinema and erstwhile Chief Minister, M.G. Ramachandran. Hero's tale is told by his long-time sidekick, Zero, a Bombay scriptwriter, and, later, Hero's political speechwriter, whose presence (among other things) challenges any notion about the death of the author. In fact Sealy himself appears in the "ENTRANCE," "INTERMISSION," and "EXIT" sections of the novel, where he instructs the reader on how to read this fabulous novel (which is subtitled a fable).
The Everest Hotel begins with the arrival by train of Ritu, a young nun who has been sent "for humbling" to the small town of Drummondganj in the foothills of the Himalayas, and ends with her departure, again by train, exactly a year later (hence the subtitle). What we have in between is a slice of life and death: human experience explored in microcosm. Sealy's hotel is a perfect device for gathering together a small group of people in a limited space where human experience can be intensified. Along with four other nuns, Ritu is charged with looking after the geriatric inhabitants of the now faded Everest Hotel, including the lecherous ninety-year-old owner Jed, former mountaineer and collector of rare flowers who is now, in his more lucid moments, writing his own version of The Book of the Dead. The routine of the Hotel is interrupted on a number of occasions: first by the arrival of Ritu, then by the arrival of the German neo-Nazi Inge, and finally by the arrival of the enigmatic orphan girl Masha, who is the catalyst for Ritu's departure. And all along there are the irregular visits of Jed's admirer, Brij, who brings a political dimension to the novel, as well as a challenge to Ritu's vocation.
Sealy has also written a work of nonfiction, From Yukon to Yucatan: A Western Journey, which recounts his journey across the North American continent following in the footsteps of its first people—from their landing place on the shores of the Arctic Sea down to the Gulf of Mexico. Of particular interest is his focus on the displaced people he meets along the way—Spaniards, Malaysians, and more.
Sealy is a writer to watch. His first two novels show that he is a writer who likes to challenge the borders of his preferred genre, and while his literary games may at times be distracting, for the most part he carries them off with consummate skill. His most recent novel, and most assured work to date, shows that he has found his form.
—Ralph J. Crane
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