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The Small Wild Goose Pagoda (an almanac):
Irwin Allan Sealy


There are many possible ways and places to read this book: at a retreat where life steps at the pace of a bud unfurling and you need a book that doesn’t demand you read it at break-neck speed; in the middle of a frantic house renovation when you need the solace of knowing someone else is battling the same demons; or simply in an armchair with a tumbler of a peaty single malt at hand as you reflect, ponder, and let your mind go wherever the writer leads you. For The Small Wild Goose Pagoda is that sort of a book. A book that establishes a bond with the reader in less than the first ten pages. (C’mon reader, this isn’t a crime novel or lad-lit for you to be hooked by para 1. Persevere and you shall be rewarded. For its every line is a gem.)

It is seldom that I have been so enchanted by a book and even though Sealy is one among my literary greats ever since The Everest Hotel, and I had known that The Small Wild Goose Pagoda would be way superior to a lot of self indulgent tripe masquerading as literary prose, I hadn’t expected to be so captivated by everything the book dwells on. And that is its true charm. The defying of all established arms of literary peregrinations.In Sealy’s own words this is a Shastra, and an Analect, a Workbook, a Handbook, the Anatomy of the 433 sq. yards the book dwells on mostly, and ‘a Meditation, on housing, the sort of book where you could include both a recipe and reflections on a septic tank’

Sealy owns 433 sq. yards in the foothills of the Himalayas and on it is the Sealy family home: a small brick house with a one-and-a-half bedrooms, two-and-a-half-gardens, an old Fiat, internet link and a terrace roof for gazing at the stars. The book begins with the description of a burglary. But very soon it becomes apparent that The Small Wild Goose Pagoda is as much an account of the flora of the 433 sq. yards as it is about the extra ordinary characters who have walk on parts to cameo roles to meatey supporting roles. But the hero is, and that is how it should be, is Irwin Allan Sealy and his glorious, and sadly not-as-sung-about-as-it-should-be mind.

Sealy is bricklayer and stone dresser, tree loper and gate designer. He bakes, collect tools, breaks clods of earth with an axle shaft, fires catapults at parrots, restores an old almirah, goes on midnight rides in his old Fiat, lolls in his bathtub, and travels to China in the period the book is written. Calendars are for nit pickers – Sealy writes but on the 10th of August as he walks on his roof, he realizes there is a way to block an offending balcony from a neighbouring building that eats into the privacy of 433 sq. yards. And thus The Small Wild Goose Pagoda is born.

In simplistic terms, the rest of the book is about what goes into the building of it. But perish the thought if you think this is Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence. Sealy doesn’t play to the gallery. Instead he invites you to be with him to cantilever, to walk on air, to gallivant. Sealy isn’t yet an ascetic and so he knows ‘The Forest Dweller still has room in his heart for beauty.’ And he isn’t shy about your seeing him as he sees himself. Self deprecating, wry, curmudgeonly at times. You put the book down and think what a nice man to know. And a writer whose prose has the luminescence of a firefly as it darts through the night. Making your heart still ever so often with the sheer poetry of its path of light.

Each chapter of the book begins with a Sealy illustration. There is a sparseness to the lines and it echoes the concept of “Kalpana swaram” in Carnatic music. A raga improvisation within a specific tala that in a non-specific way leads upto what comes next. The illustrations do the same for the chapters that follow. There are few things to fault this beautifully produced book. I only wish the font size had been a point bigger and that a copy editor had taken the trouble to fact check. For instance, The Old Victoria Hotel wasn’t in Madras but Bangalore and its Byzantine breakfasts are a thing of the past too. For it was pulled down some years ago to make way for a monstrosity called Bangalore Central. And I only state this for Sealy is an admirer of Defoe and his devotion to fact.

Sealy looks back on his life as he turns sixty. There is a tectonic shift from the Grihastha stage to the Vanaprastha. However this isn’t a shift that happens overnight. The question of morality looms everywhere. From the pigs who will break in and kill a frangipani just as its putting out its first deep red flowers to a metastasis that had planted itself in Victor’s throat. Sealy allows us glimpses of all that speckles his personal life. But only enough so our curiosity about ‘who is this man?’ is stilled. He is after all not Kim Kardashian who cannot boil an egg without a camera recording it.

The Small Wild Goose Pagoda is a tower that Sealy builds as a statement for himself. It is a bolt hole, a writing space and a celebration of perhaps everything that gives him a sense of joy. And the joy shows in the writing even when he is vexed or furious, sad or meditative. As Sealy’s mother would have said, 'I don’t know about y’all,' I loved it. And there’s so much more, for each reader to discover for The Small Wild Goose Pagoda has ‘ mince cutlets and I don’t know whatall in the doolie.’

 

 


Publishers: Aleph Book Company

Pages: 290

Reviewed in: Sunday Express 2014

 

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