His Majesty and Me

Name: Zelaldinus: A Masque. Author: Irwin Allan Sealy Publisher: Aleph in association with Almost Island Pages: 155 Price: Rs 399

Allan Sealy is a restless, innovative, learned novelist. His latest book is his most ingenious and daring, although not necessarily his best. The new departure is signalised by the reappearance of his first name, Irwin (represented in the story by the writer “Irv”) usually ignored or abbreviated to the initial “I.” “Zelaldinus” is the great emperor Akbar, and the story consists of imagined events around Akbar and Irv during the novelist’s visit as a tourist to Fatehpur Sikri, where Akbar moved his palace from Agra. Sealy, the tourist, is intrigued by the chequered pattern on the stone terrace, where the emperor is said to have used his concubines as human chess pieces, and he imagines a pageant, or masque, which begins Irv’s narrative as he recognises a face he knows well from old school books, the great Mughal emperor Akbar. The spirit of dead Akbar is bored, being confined to the palace and appeals to Irv as a novelist to free him into a story where he can have new adventures. Most of the story — usually told in verse rather than prose — is a comedy of give and take between Irv and Akbar who seem to know each other well.

Supposedly, while Irv studied depictions of Akbar in school books, he was studied by the emperor. They know each other’s habits, and talk like old friends who unexpectedly encountered each other and are renewing their camaraderie through mockery. Various other tourists and personages from the past enter, until it is decided that Akbar can escape boredom through being part of a love story involving a young Parsi Indian, named Perc, seeking a Pakistani woman with whom he studied at university in Bombay and enjoyed one night at an international conference. He connects with her daily online, although they are kept apart by national boundaries and unromantic administrators who refuse him visas. Perc’s dangerous sneaking across the border with Akbar’s aid might be interpreted as symbolic reconciliation between India and its neighbour and a reminder that Akbar, the Mughal empires, and much of Indian history came from what is now Pakistan.

Just as Sealy amusingly mixes past with present, such as the internet and execution by the emperor’s elephant, there is a variety of Englishes ranging from globalised American to British working class and what appears to be mock Middle English. At times, I was not certain whether I should be looking up a strange word or assume it was a printing error. While verse is appropriate for masques — and Sealy has clearly studied such poetic forms as the villanelle, hemistich, and such techniques as inner rhyme, distant rhymes, visual shape, assonance, syntactical parallelism, repetition of word order — the self-conscious display distracts from the narrative. I found myself trying to name the stanzaic forms, counting syllables, and wondering whether I should be hearing accentual feet.

When contemporary poets move beyond the short lyric to larger narratives, they avoid conflict between engrossing the reader in the story and the distractions of stanzaic display. Although the varying kinds of narrative form in Zelaldinus demand attention, the long lines in Derek Walcott’s Omeros provide a continuous ground bass and the complex, amusing rhymed verse of Vikram Seth’s Golden Gate is normally silent. Passages of prose in Zelaldinus at times only differ from verse by lineation, which might be read as evidence of consistency, or that the poetry is really prose embellished as verse. While I was impressed and amused by Zelaldinus, I kept looking back to find my way in the story. Bravo for the performance but it should’ve been more enjoyable, less work.

Bruce King lives in Paris and is the author of, among other works, Modern Indian Poetry in English

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