Padma Shri awardee Irwin Allan Sealy’s literary works are diverse but they smoothly segue into the mood of the theme to create a rich and riveting narrative.
Shortlisted for the Booker Prize for The Everest Hotel: A Calendar (titles of all his books have a colon) in 1998, the Allahabad-born litterateur, who has made Dehradun his home, digs out from himself the stories he tells.
For his latest book Asoca: A Sutra on the historical figure Emperor Ashoka, he liberated himself from the shackles of recorded history by creating his own man called Asoca.
The prolific writer will be in the state for the Goa Arts and Literature Festival (GALF) that kicks off February 15 and wraps up February 17 at the International Centre Goa (ICG).
Your repertoire of literary work is wide – from travelogue to drama, history and others – what motivates or inspires you to pick the subject of your book?
It can start with an image or a yearning or a picture or a building. An elegant little pavilion in the fort at Fatehpur Sikri turned into a book of poems on (Mughal emperor) Akbar. The novel Asoca started with a stone in my shoe, the actual rock of the emperor’s edicts standing in our valley these 2,000 years. My next book is a gazetteer of this valley that springs from a ruined well just around the corner here in Dehradun.
Emperor Asoka has been extensively written about, how difficult was it to offer something new to the reader in terms of content, perspective and style?
I created a man called Asoca, not Asoka. That set me free to invent a life for him and a host of other characters who surround the historical figures we know. The perspective is that of the king himself: he tells his own story. The style is willy-nilly my own, but I chose a flat Sutra-manner. Once you’ve done your homework – by which I don’t mean research: you do that of course – once you’ve dug into yourself, the book writes itself.
A lot of history is being viewed from a different lens today. Do you think there’s always an alternative perspective to a piece of history? How does a writer derive accuracy in the historical account he presents to his reader?
Every generation writes its own version of the past. There’s someone being born this minute who will overturn every piety being currently written into the schoolbooks. A writer can only hope to be true to life – the unchanging world of nature and humanity – not to the actual transactions of ancient history.
Which is the genre you are most comfortable writing in?
Currently the essay, because it’s the most rigorous while being open to whimsy.