The year was 1998 when The Everest Hotel, a novel by I Allan Sealy, got short-listed for the Booker Prize.
What struck me most about the book, apart from the extremely moving story, was the way it was depicted. I saw the words as colours and the pages as canvases on which Allan the artist drew pictures with consummate skill, the way Orhan Pamuk had done in My Name Is Red or Kazuo Ishiguro in An Artist of the Floating World, helping the reader to go seamlessly beyond the words and see actual images.
Any literature enthusiast would instantly fall in love with these authors. I could not meet Pamuk or Ishiguro, but Allan I did, after my abortive first attempt. I wrote a letter asking if I could meet the author at his Dehradun residence sometime in March 1999. One month passed. There was no reply. I boarded the train anyway, so enamoured I was of the novel.
A couple of nights later I found myself in the heart of the posh Race Course area in Dehradun studded with palatial buildings of rich people. When I got to Sealys nook, it was so refreshingly different, as it was hidden among rare trees and plants. It seemed the garden patch inside and outside his residence covered more area than the actual space for living.
I knocked on the gate more than once. There was no response. Through the gap in the plants, I could see the closed front door. I waited for a while and rang his landline number (Sealys world is devoid of mobile phone, newspaper and TV). It went unanswered. I was caught in a quandary when one of his neighbours, a lady, came my way and told me Allan was out of station and likely to return within a week. There was a sinking feeling in my heart. But I put up a brave face and requested her to let him know about my visit.
Back home, I found a letter (the very first one) from Allan waiting for me: Im afraid I'll be away from Dehradun on the dates you mention. Even so Im sure you'll enjoy your visit to our valley. You've chosen a good time of year. The weathers just right perhaps a bit chill for someone from Hooghly, so pack your woolens!
Obviously it was a case of delayed delivery of snail mail. I immediately wrote back asking for another date to which he responded: Im sorry to have missed you last month. Sunday 2nd May sounds all right but as Im not in the best of health I must ask you to limit our talk to an hour. Would 11 AM be all right? This time Allan was alone in the house as his wife and daughter were in New Zealand (Sealys second home).
We sat at the spacious dining space doubled up as a drawing room. He instantly put me at ease asking about the journey and made tea for me.Then I got him into talking about The Everest Hotel and Allan spoke with a lovely lilt, his cadence sonorous, at a steady pace, weighing every word carefully. It was as if he knew the questions I would ask him.
Just as he is adored the world over for the poetic attributes in his written prose, in conversation he came across as a great architect who builds a fine structure step by step taking every aspect into consideration, and if anybody tinkers with it a bit and takes away a word or two and replaces them with some other, the structure will collapse. His inimitable oral prose just like his writings does not lend itself to any kind of editing, and this is one reason why I still impatiently wait for the beep on my Android a sign that his mail has arrived!
After the interview he took me to Moti Mahal restaurant for lunch and there I asked him whether he would care to respond if I wrote him letters from time to time. He broke into a smile and said: Certainly!
Returning home I dashed off a letter to him expressing my gratitude for the kind hospitality he extended to me, and the terrible time I had because of the blistering heat inside the first class compartment of Doon Express.
True to his word, his letter arrived a couple of weeks later: Im sorry to read of your gruelling journey: a railway carriage in summer is a beastly thing and anything longer than overnight an abomination. My sympathies. Hooghly to Haridwar, the book awaits the writing so there you go from pain to profit. The interview appeared in Impressions, the Sunday Statesman tabloid magazine (September 19, 1999), and since then Allan and I have been in touch.
Author I Allan Sealy is slated to be in Kolkata in the third week of this month to attend events at Jadavpur University, Calcutta University and Victoria Memorial.