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It's a blazing hot afternoon just outside the gatehouse of Jodha Bai's palace in Fatehpur Sikri. Tourists throng the forecourt. The air above the red flagstones is so hot that it begins to wrinkle and there in the haze -- near enough to touch -- stands the ghost of Akbar.
This ethereal yet sublime narrative forms the backdrop of Irwin Allan Sealy's latest book "Zelaldinus", in which past and present, nobles and commoners, history and fiction rub shoulders.
"He looks exactly like the line drawing in my school history book; so he's easy enough to recognise. We get chatting and he shows me around his dead city. We talk about everything under the sun and naturally we don't neglect the state of India today. A plot develops, a story within a story, of romance and adventure that carries the emperor to the India-Pakistan border for a crackling climax," Sealy told IANS about his just-released book.
But Akbar has been a recurring personality in many recent books, both fiction and non-fiction. Most lately, Shazi Zaman's book on the Mughal emperor gained critical acclaim. And that is not all -- a number of books have even been written on Akbar's court at Fatehpur Sikri as well. What should the readers expect from this book?
The 66-year-old writer responded saying that there's a chequered stone terrace in the Diwan-i-khas at Sikri where, contemporary accounts say, Akbar used to play a kind of human chess that must have looked like a pageant. These books make one imagine costumes, perhaps music, in a kind of charade.
"My book is set up as a masque, that is to say a dramatic production of the kind once staged at royal courts, full of trumpets and kettledrums and incident and colour. At the same time it's not frivolous entertainment; I think the Mughal history that underwrites it breathes through the text. I hope the themes it tackles -- kingship, loyalty, fatherhood and sacrifice -- will be apparent to serious readers.
"And I made a deliberate effort to flesh out Akbar the man, rather than the king. The fact that this is poetry, a novel in verse, means you can't breeze through as you might with conventional historical fiction; much of the pleasure is literary, to be savoured line by line," he maintained.
The offering at hand is a classic mix of prose and poetry. Sealy said that they are actually the same substance, "like India and Pakistan", but each has become a little inflexible over time. It's time the barbed wire came down.
Asked about his effortless weaving together of poetry and prose, he said: "Poetry is more pared back, it's language under greater pressure, so naturally it's less readily achieved and appreciated, but prose too can be compressed, and it can contain vatic elements, so it's not always a simple expository medium. The weaving together you speak of came quite naturally, but I would like also to think there's a mingling."
The author, whose novel "The Everest Hotel: A Calendar" was shortlisted for the 1998 Booker prize, said that many years ago a friend had dropped him off at Fatehpur Sikri. It was one of the hottest days of the year but Sealy was unfazed by the extreme weather as he sat in a water garden on the hill and came under the spell of the place.
Recalling the day, the much-acclaimed writer went on to add that the place has a little pavilion with a fretted stone water race and a pool, where one can sit in the sunken garden in the heart of summer and be utterly content.
"I had been to Sikri before but never alone and this time the solitude wrung some poems. The next time I took a sketch book and spent a week on the hill, and after that I was a constant visitor," he elaborated on how the idea of this book came about.
Underlying the depiction of a rich and varied court life at Sikri in the book are reflections on kingship, a meditation on fathers and sons, and a plot within a plot that tells a crackling story of love across the Pakistan border -- while through it all strides the nimble ghost of Akbar himself. Jalaluddin (Zelaldinus) Akbar.
Sealy said he has tried -- with every book -- to discover forms that belong here, so that the shape and the style of the artefact take on a local character. He said that he did not believe in simply telling a local story but using local techniques. It should go beyond flavour, the way tea tastes different in a kulhar.
(Saket Suman can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)
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