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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