Irwin Allan Sealy’s Trotter-Nama comes alive for the third time. ♦
Originally published in India Today.
It’s hard to imagine that the author of a book as gargantuan, complex and exuberant as The Trotter-Nama ever suffered such a crisis of faith in his creation — which had been out of print for an extended period — that he took the 600-plus page manuscript and stuffed it into a pot-belly stove on a winter evening in Sydney. “It was a dark night of the soul and the smuts hung in the air of that basement, tormenting their murderer,” writes Irwin Allan Sealy in a new afterword to the recently issued 30th anniversary edition of his debut novel.
“Every author has this fear,” Sealy elaborates over email from his home in Dehradun, describing his worry that “the book had failed”. He adds, “At the same time, the messianic urge (which every author also shares) has a marvellous built-in blocker; it’s called history.” Luckily, Sealy didn’t destroy a reproduction copy. “India Ink rescued the book [in 1999], and now Penguin has stepped in: so it has had three lives,” Sealy says.
“An author’s style is a mask twice over.”
In any case, it would be a mistake to equate the doorstop size of The Trotter-Nama with Sealy’s ego — as the author points out, the book’s narrator is Eugene Aloysius Trotter, a miniature artist whose embonpoint is as expansive as his paintings petite. Eugene comes from a line of Anglo-Indians founded by the Great Trotter in the 18th century at the estate of Sans Souci near ‘Nakhlau’ (Lucknow). Adopting the form of a Mughal court chronicle, Eugene narrates the Trotter family nama through layers of generational history interspersed with technical asides, bits of verse, scraps of journals, recipes and so on.
“Don’t forget an author’s style is a mask twice over: there’s a narrator lurking in there who’s not to be confused with me,” writes Sealy. Yet, the language of Eugene’s chronicle — florid, fantastical, full of indiscriminate puns, winking allusions, onomatopoeia and excess verbiage-speaks to more than just his position as an Anglo-Indian, ‘the space between two stools,’ as Sealy wrote in the afterword. The Trotter-Nama still immerses the reader in an Anglo-Indian world, but reading it now is also a flashback to the audacity of Indian writers in English around the time it was first published.
Inevitably, any discussion of Trotter-Nama includes the fact that it was published in the same year as The Satanic Verses, and to some extent suffered from the public reception of Salman Rushdie’s book. These are very different novels, but there are overlapping echoes, sometimes uncannily resonant, between their themes of identity-forging and diaspora; their comic tone; and their self-referential, linguistic playfulness.
‘A tropical form must be not so much sweated over as sweated out: foreign and native, these contradictions are part of your being,’ Sealy wrote in the afterword. ‘It’s like the voice of the koel: you can never leave it behind. You cobble a language out of such sounds and patterns…’
Like the Great Trotter’s yellow silk balloon, The Trotter-Nama unfurls, fuelled in part by Eugene’s bombast and rhetoric, rising to ever-more dizzying heights. ‘In fact the book is preparing [Eugene’s] comeuppance,’ Sealy wrote in the afterword. ‘That comes at the very end when the windbag is deflated and discovered speaking plain Anglo, the Anglo-Indian demotic.’
“Today’s smartest operators use not English but English-medium.”
When I ask him about the tension between rhetoric and narrative, Sealy writes, “The good reader suspends disbelief and disorientation and trusts the book, and the good writer keeps faith with that contract language can provide some of the pleasure along the way but shouldn’t tip the balance.” While Sealy’s subsequent books play with form and style in completely different ways, in general, contemporary Indian novels in English tend not to touch linguistic inventiveness, let alone tip the balance. That they may use colloquial Hinglish to tell the tale only implies that it has gelled into its own literary vernacular. As Sealy writes, “Today’s smartest operators use not English but English-medium.”
But would today’s smartest readers have the patience for a novel like The Trotter-Nama? “The general reader’s attention span has dwindled: you don’t bother with him/her,” Sealy writes to me. “My faith in the good reader is intact.” He adds, with a typical dash of irony, “In fact, you invariably find yourself writing for that best of readers, yourself.”
Currently, Sealy is writing “a sutra, told by an emperor (in a cave after his abdication) from long ago. His name is Asoca.” It is “a straighter story than I’ve ever told”, he says, but that’s straight for Sealy; no doubt, the narrator will have his own unique voice.