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In Dehra Dun

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There is something about the book you stumble on by accident that gives it a special edge. A little sparkle of possession hangs over it, making you feel favoured, insightful and adventurous. It is like finding hidden treasure.

I found a copy of Allan Sealy’s The Everest Hotel in a small bookshop in Dehra Dun in northern India. It was the dust jacket that caught my eye – a pen-and-ink drawing of a pair of large gnarled feet in shabby sandals, crossed, and resting on a balcony rail. Irresistible. The bookseller peered over my shoulder. ‘He lives here,’ he said, with a wide smile of pride. ‘Did you know?’ I didn’t. I had never heard of Allan Sealy. But a local author writing about local matters, places, people? Whether it lived up to its cover or not, it was the right book to read then, and there.

Opening a book without the least idea what is in it, without any expectations, is wonderfully liberating. The onus is on the book to entertain or inform, not on the reader to appreciate or understand; and if it fails, you can abandon it without a qualm. The Everest Hotel did not fail. Reading it on the flower-festooned roof terrace of a borrowed house, just a couple of miles from the bookshop, was like being gifted an extra layer of sight. Its scenery was the flicker of an eyelid away, the hills were there, ‘draped in a gauze of mourning made up of dust and distance and the exhaust fumes of the traffic’ or ‘sweating a film of monsoon vapour into a clear sky’, the glossy leaves of the lychee trees stirred in the same fitful breeze, pye-dogs still scratched their sores against the tumble of broken headstones in the graveyard; the people were there, characters from the book, shouting, sighing, working, sleeping, driving the rickshaw, reading the paper, sweeping the dust from the doorstep. Any of the once elegant houses visible from the terrace could have been the eponymous Everest Hotel. One had a flat roof, reached by a fire

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There is something about the book you stumble on by accident that gives it a special edge. A little sparkle of possession hangs over it, making you feel favoured, insightful and adventurous. It is like finding hidden treasure.

I found a copy of Allan Sealy’s The Everest Hotel in a small bookshop in Dehra Dun in northern India. It was the dust jacket that caught my eye – a pen-and-ink drawing of a pair of large gnarled feet in shabby sandals, crossed, and resting on a balcony rail. Irresistible. The bookseller peered over my shoulder. ‘He lives here,’ he said, with a wide smile of pride. ‘Did you know?’ I didn’t. I had never heard of Allan Sealy. But a local author writing about local matters, places, people? Whether it lived up to its cover or not, it was the right book to read then, and there. Opening a book without the least idea what is in it, without any expectations, is wonderfully liberating. The onus is on the book to entertain or inform, not on the reader to appreciate or understand; and if it fails, you can abandon it without a qualm. The Everest Hotel did not fail. Reading it on the flower-festooned roof terrace of a borrowed house, just a couple of miles from the bookshop, was like being gifted an extra layer of sight. Its scenery was the flicker of an eyelid away, the hills were there, ‘draped in a gauze of mourning made up of dust and distance and the exhaust fumes of the traffic’ or ‘sweating a film of monsoon vapour into a clear sky’, the glossy leaves of the lychee trees stirred in the same fitful breeze, pye-dogs still scratched their sores against the tumble of broken headstones in the graveyard; the people were there, characters from the book, shouting, sighing, working, sleeping, driving the rickshaw, reading the paper, sweeping the dust from the doorstep. Any of the once elegant houses visible from the terrace could have been the eponymous Everest Hotel. One had a flat roof, reached by a fire escape and cluttered with rusting water tanks; was that where the nonagenarian Jed, flailing for words through the fog of dementia, dreamed of his plant-hunting past and tormented the shy little nun as she washed his urine-soaked sheets day after day after day? It could have been. Sealy is Anglo-Indian, a member of that unsung and disparate minority cold-shouldered for generations by Anglos and Indians alike. But he writes with neither rancour nor gloom. On the contrary, he is manifestly proud of his inheritance, which encourages the hope that both the discrimination and the isolation are fading into the past and that Anglo-Indians (or ‘Indo-Anglians’ as I have recently heard them called) have found a new confidence. The Everest Hotel is not an aggressively Anglo-Indian book, but the signs of dislocation are there. It is set in an outlying district of Dehra Dun, a town created by the British, not of the plains but yet not quite in the hills. The book is part memoir, part mystery, part romance. Its characters too are anomalous: a tiny community of Christian nuns doggedly worshipping their single God in the land of a thousand deities; the solitary Thapa, dancing with his kukri in the moonlight and pining for Nepal, yet tied by the habit of a lifetime to the service of a retired Major who is no longer part of his Army. There is a car with no wheels, a satellite dish with no television, a fountain with no water, each with a useful function to perform. Everything is a little apart, a little different, a little out of the ordinary. With the lightest of touches, Sealy weaves them into a functioning, funny, totally credible whole. His imagery is delightful – Thapa’s bare toes are like macaroni, Sister Cecilia’s like wooden chocks – and his sympathy for the misfit is immense. The angry, arthritic nun Perpetua, patrolling the faulty plumbing with a huge spanner; the voluptuous Mrs Puri, ‘clothed in flesh’, watering the pot of basil on her veranda; the epileptic deaf-mute performing her puja to a crumbling antheap; eccentric characters that could so easily be figures of fun – Sealy makes them comprehensible, estimable and endearing. Even Brij, the work-shy body-builder unable to pass a shop window without admiring his own reflection, is a hero of sorts, slinking away to protest meetings and agitating for the creation of a new state to be run by hill people for hill people without interference from the much-resented plains. Although so much about Dehra Dun was the same when I first read The Everest Hotel, this at least has now changed. The state has been achieved; the dozy hill-town of research institutes, ornithological societies and boarding-schools has become the new state capital of Uttaranchal, bustling, self-important and growing fast – but it is still Dehra Dun. Reading about a familiar place, it is hard to separate the images conjured up by the book from those already in the mind. Would they be as vivid to someone who had never been there? Is some of the joy just the joy of recognition? Would the book travel elsewhere? Impossible to tell. I gave my copy of The Everest Hotel to a friend who I knew would love it, but I felt I still owned a small piece of the treasure. Several years later, in another bookshop in another country, I found another copy. This was a paperback, and its cover was crammed with quotes from international critics, unanimously ecstatic. Somehow, while my back was turned, the secret had leaked out, my hidden treasure had become public property. And quite right too. It had never been mine in the first place – which diminished the pleasure of rereading it not the slightest.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 2 © Julia Keay 2004


About the contributor

Julia Keay’s latest book, Alexander the Corrector, was partly written in Dehra Dun during a working break from the long Scottish winter.

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