A Chronicle. A Fable. A (Western) Journey. A Calendar. An Illusion. An Alphabet. An Almanac. A Diary. And, now, A Masque. These are the subtitles of Irwin Allan Sealy’s literary output spanning three decades.
These “explanatory” subtitles of his carefully cultivated oeuvre – emblematic of Sealy’s rich arc of imagination and his inventiveness and enterprise as a writer – spell out a deep-rooted preoccupation with form, which the author has described to be “like a lattice through which the reader and the writer have to communicate.”
His latest, Zelaldinus: A Masque, a novel in verse, which straddles the “porous” borders between poetry and prose, is a lyrical and lustrous testament to Sealy’s virtuosity as a writer juggling multiple forms. Set in Fatehpur Sikri, it tells the story of Jalal-ud-din (Zelaldinus) Akbar, the great Mughal emperor.
At Fatehpur Sikri, in the inner court of Akbar’s palace, there is a broad stone terrace with a chequered pattern that resembles a game board. In his short introduction, Sealy writes, “Here, the emperor played a kind of chess using human pieces drawn from his harem of three hundred. Costumed in various guises, schooled perhaps by a mistress of ceremonies, his women would have presented lively masques upon this stage.”
Zelaldinus brings to life such a pageant where “past and present, nobles and commoners, history and fiction rub shoulders”. The dramatis personae include the ghost of Akbar, Zelaldinus, an Indian named Percival and the narrator, Irv (the author’s alter ego), a tourist visiting Fatehpur Sikri. The masque revisits Sealy’s trademark narrative style –discursive, extravagant and exuberant, dipping into inventive panoply of techniques and devices.
The book is a product of Sealy’s seven visits to Fatehpur Sikri, when he got to soak in its sights and sounds, its meditative calm, over summer, winter and spring. The sequence of poems in the book is accordingly divided into three sections named after the three seasons.
Sealy mounts the masque in all its glory, replete with the characteristics of a dramatic production once staged at royal courts, making it sing with strains of trumpets and kettledrums, infusing the narrative with the colour and feel of the place. However, beneath the colour of the redstone stage and the sound of royal music what breathes through the text is the glorious history of the Mughals and their unforgettable heritage.
As the plot within plot unfolds, it tells the story of Fatehpur Sikri – and retells the story of Akbar, not merely as a historical figure or an emperor, but as a person who helps a hapless lover refused a visa to visit Pakistan on a quest to meet his beloved across the border.
Form, in the hands of Sealy, is like dough in a child’s palm. He gives it any shape he chooses. The wide ambit of the masque’s themes – kingship, fatherhood, loyalty, love, valour and sacrifice – adds to the depth and dimension of the narrative, invariably making it resonate with a cross-section of readers.
The book opens in the Aravallis – “chain of red hills” – at Sikri hill in the imperial capital of Fatehpur, the city of victory. It’s summer. Action has already begun on the chequered terrace. Akbar has advanced “a half step to acknowledge the keys of the city”. Enter Irv, the narrator, in the very first poem. Staying at a hotel near Fatehpur, he speaks of “prickly heat and pain” but sees no reason to complain as Zelaldinus’s city is “hard by, straight up”.
In poems, paragraphs or pieces that follow page after page, the reader gets slowly sucked into the narrative. In three lines, we are told about Father Antonio Monserrate, a Spanish missionary to the court of Akbar, who was behind the first known Himalayan sketch map of some accuracy drawn up in 1590. In his letter to Rome, Monserrate writes: “While Zelaldinus was residing at Agra, he decided to move his court to Sikri in accordance with the advice of a certain philosopher who was then living in a small hut on this hill.”
We, of course, know this “philosopher” as Sheikh Salim Chishti, the Sufi saint who foretold the birth of Akbar’s son, Prince Salim, named after the saint.
Sealy also informs us how, until Attilio Petruccioli in the 1980s, nobody had cared to do a proper survey of Sikri. Petruccioli’s map “shows the whole length of Sikri hill – like a camel seen from above, with the citadel strung out along the spine – and the countryside round about, so you suddenly remember what everybody had forgotten, that there was a lake beyond and that was the front of Akbar’s city.”
Today, however, visitors use the back entrance, by the Archeological Survey of India’s ticket gate. It is this gate through which Irv enters, in “quo vadis” sandals, with sketchbook and tepid bisleri water bottle. Akbar’s ghost, Zelaldinus, however, doesn’t need a gate to enter. It forms, “like a mirage”:
“and as the ectoplasm coalesces (as ectoplasm can)
into neither palm nor camel but preexistent man
the air fair crackles in a preternatural breeze
so squirrels freeze with upright hackles.
And then He’s standing there
Mild in His seersucker whites
this King of kings
light of the world
trampler of tyrants
Irv recognises Akbar, having spent “years studying Him.” And, as it turns out, Akbar recognises Irv too, leaving him wondering: “(so He was studying me too out of the book.)” Irv notices that Akbar has not changed “one bit”. They fall into step. And as they walk, Akbar starts off his reflections and recollections.
“one ghari long He laments the state of hind,
the lassitude, the sinning, the sinned
against. what’s justice, irv?
He asks. what does a man deserve?”
Later, continuing in the same vein, he tells Irv how “sin’s a function of One’s capacity to err” and how “great power is its own petard, its risks absolute, its dues limitless”. The ghost of the emperor, rambling and rambunctious, holds forth on his lineage – his grandfather Zahir-ud-din Muhammad Babur (1483-1530), founder of the Mughal dynasty, and father Nasir-ud-din Muhammad Khan Humayun (1508-1556) – his ascension to the throne, kingship, statecraft and much more. For example, he recounts how, when he was nine, he was “storm-tossed:”
dragged through mountain passes in my father’s thrall,
fugitive in Afghanistan, his kingdom lost
(my schooling too). I learnt to count with rukhs
I learnt to skip and run with cheetahs, crossed
icy streams, burning desert sands, made fishhooks
of nibs. an intellectual’s son who can’t hold a pen.”
Soon, summer gives way to winter. Sealy writes: “Winter in Sikri is no less cruel than summer. Smoke from a hundred braziers stings the pilgrim’s eye.” With another season, another encounter with Zilaldinus. Akbar’s ghost, upon discovering Irv is a storyteller, pleads: “Listen, you are a storyteller. You can embody me.”
But Irv has another task for the emperor. He introduces Zilaldinus to Percival of Calcutta and his crush from Delhi University days, Naz, from Karachi: “She’s stuck there, he’s stuck here. Karachi, Cal.” Percival’s applications for visa have been turned down twenty times. Zilaldinus suggests: “He can walk across.” Zilaldinus eventually helps Percival cross the border, but that doesn’t happen until Irv, the shrewd narrator, has told his tale about Akbar and Sikri, in prose and poetry.
Here, for example, he describes the exodus from Sikri: “They say Fatehpur Sikri ran out of water. But some claim the King lost interest in a city once new and intoxicating. Others speak of an epidemic that emptied its lanes. Some hint darkly at a crisis of faith. Still others say the death of Tansen left a gap through which the Emperor slipped away.”
The truth, according to Irv (Or Sealy?), is that a small brown coin disappeared from circulation. “A coin hardly noticeable in the palm. Yet it passed through every hand. Rake, godman and wick-trimmer, all at one time looked through the hole at its centre.”
Quoting from Amar Chitra Katha, Sealy writes: “Sikri was doomed. One by one its brightest jewels dimmed. Save one whose name for cunning will live forever. Far into the future, Birbal will survive.” To help him cross the border and sneak into Pakistan, Zelaldinus takes Percival to the Rann of Kutch. The ghost of the emperor gags and binds the sentry at the border, enabling Percival to escape, to reunite with his beloved, Naz.
Winter ends. And it’s spring. One last time, the narrator returns to Fatehpur Sikri:
“last assault on your citadel,
yourself no longer in to me
a death to report and that’s it
Zelaldinus: A Masque, Irwin Allan Sealy, Aleph
Shireen Quadri is a marketing and communications professional who has worked with several publishing houses. She is founder and publisher, The Punch Magazine. On Twitter and Instagram, her handle is @shireenquadri.