Comfortably Numb

Sheila Kumar's Storehouse

Published on: 08/14/15 11:00 AM

Book review: The Small Wild Goose Pagoda by Irwin Allan Sealy

This cannot, in all honesty, be a fair review of Irwin Allan Sealy’s The Small Wild Goose Pagoda. And that is because I have fallen in love with the book, its content, its style, its sardonic humour.

I had forgotten just how powerful a story teller Sealy is. His Trotternama, (1988?) in actual fact an Anglo-Indian nama, had blown me away. There are bits of that book in here.

In the awkwardly yet aptly named Wild Goose Pagoda, Sealy presents us with an eccentric almanac, or maybe an almanac recorded by an eccentric almanackist. It is filled with all sorts of information, some entertaining, some useful, others plain befuddling; it introduces us to people who well, people Sealy’s life in Dehra Dun, and side by side, it is a record of the continuous construction that Sealy seems to engage in.

Through this almanac, we get a close look at whatever Sealy wants us to get a close look at. His house is quaintly referred to as 433 (the size of the plot on which his house strands); in fact, the book carries a dedication to the aforementioned 433 square yards.

The house was built by his father but Sealy seems forever at work on the structure, adding something here, removing something there. An S- shaped free standing wall comes up, a swing seat set is put in place, a sun porch, a shade porch, a Venturi tunnel, and other such charms appear, almost as if by magic.

Sealy quotes an old Turkish proverb: When the house is built, death comes. You have to wonder if his latest project, the building of the small wild goose pagoda, is his way of staving off the Man with the Staff, the Bull Rider. Or a way of saying `yah-boo-sucks` to his immediate neighbours (in corners Sealy calls Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nepal…you get the idea), people who are forever throwing the oddest things into his compound or worse, pissing down his trees.

Whatever the reason, the idea for the pagoda takes root after Sealy’s trip to China, and he immediately enlists his tried and trusted (conversely, men who try and test him!) team: Habilis (for homo habilis, home- maker) the contractor, Victor the odd job man and other local labourers.

The pagoda doesn’t come up overnight, of course, but even as it slowly rises, willy-nilly the reader becomes thoroughly involved in the project, even if much of the building details will go over the layperson’s head.

We get to know the irreplaceable Dhani the `maliji` who wheels rather than rides his bicycle. We go on nocturnal junkets with the author who is something of an insomniac.

Sealy muses about writing, about the class divide, about Anglo-Indian food, about the importance of good starter yeast, old cars ( a deadbeat but loved Fiat) and new (a Volkswagen he names Virginia) about the language riots of 1967, about fruit trees, birds, (the passage on the cuckoo is sheer poetry). We are introduced to a whole new breed of Indian official, the wait-maker lording it over every queue in every public office…of course!

We read about the lion and the cow- mouthed plots that prevail in his part of town. We figure out how to decode the look a local in China might give us brown- skinned people. We learn about `dame schools,` started by educated Anglo-Indian women in their back verandahs.

We drown in descriptive language, coming across words like fossicking, of people who lark in, other people who hirple home. We smile appreciatively (or at least I did) at lines like `parrots swoop down, intent on villainy; sky yellow as an old dog`s teeth; wormcasts (that) Gaudi the shingle. Hawks skirl the sun up.`

Here, Sealy owns his Anglo- Indian heritage with more personal pride than he could inTrotter-nama. He traces his family tree online (praise be to search engines!), he tells us about Anglo-Indian food, and why the Anglo shied away from owning property in India, given that `back home` was somewhere else, across the water.

A true treasure of a book.

almanacIrwin Allan SealyThe Small Wild Goose Pagoda

Sheila Kumar • August 14, 2015

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