Daily life & musing

Allan Sealy has employed a very unusual style of writing, as the book initially comes through as diary notes about everyday living. The focus of this book of narrative non-fiction is Sealy’s small brick house, located in Dehradun, at the foothill of the Himalayas.

The reader is introduced to this house of 433 square yards comprising “one-and-a-half bedrooms and two-and-a-half gardens.” The author decides to build a small wild goose pagoda on its roof, influenced by the one that he has seen and admired when visiting the city of Xian in China.

At the heart of the novel is the construction of this pagoda, from which it gets its title. As the work progresses, Allan makes jottings of this and his observations on the workers whom he uses for the purpose. The most important characters are Dhani, the gardener, Habilis, the master brick-layer and wannabe contractor, and his assistant, Victor, whose death in 2014 is recorded like an obituary mention at the end of this book.

Sealy muses at length on the lives of these people who work for him and tries to look at the world through their eyes. Strangely, his wife, daughter and father appear peripheral in this book which Sealy wrote after a hiatus of nearly 10 years.

The author refers to an unsuccessful attempt at immigration, but without any hint of regret. Though the book touches upon Sealy’s many travels outside the country, the book is very Indian in its approach to life and its deeper implications.

The author, having hit age 60 when embarking on this book, goes into imaginary dialogues between the student, the householder, the forest dweller and the ascetic; a clear reference to the four stages of life in Hinduism. At the end of the book, the author wisely concludes that whilst the forest dweller “still has room in his heart for beauty,” the ascetic can sagaciously walk away “even from, especially from, a pagoda.”


The idea of the need to cultivate detachment at some point in one’s life clearly comes through in the course of the author’s many observations, which often seem like he is talking to himself.

A good part of the book is devoted to the building of the pagoda, which anybody who has been involved with any form of construction will completely relate to. The author’s respect for those who work with their hands is clearly evident in the way he humanises each of the workers, despite the knowledge that they may, on occasion, be short-changing him.

It is interesting that Sealy is one who believes in striking the perfect balance between labour and the use of one’s head, as he chips in with the physical work, even as he documents the process.

Using the internet as a reference point for putting up a lintel or a roof appears refreshing, even in this digital age! The author’s Socialist leanings come to light in the doling of loans that Dhani, Habilis and Victor periodically touch him for. He also reveals the guilt that the more sensitive middle-class suffers from with regard to exploitation of labour. In this context, Sealy speaks of sharing the royalties that may accrue from this book, though he is not too sure of how he will go about this.

The book may need a second read to understand some of the esoteric references, and a quick turn to the dictionary, as Sealy employs a very powerful vocabulary. For example: “Land is no plot, simply earth. Stand on this ground and ponder its past and you sort by glacial degrees through shales and upheaved Gondwana seabed to the stony soil Dhani and I still work.”

The author uses the ‘stream of consciousness’ technique, as he wanders off in several directions and touches upon various subjects. These may range from thoughts on the poet Basho (the English translation of whose book he carries with him on his travels), the history of his family and its Anglo-Indian origins, the implications of climate change in India, or the latest dependency on mobile phone, including the risks emanating from the unregulated mobile towers. There is a certain charm in Sealy’s celebration of the mundane, since there is a measure of it in everyone’s lives.

A re-read also brings one to the conclusion that there is a thread of continuity running through all that has been written here.

As a daily record of happenings, there is nothing in the form of a denouement in this book. Yet, there is a sense of joy in reading about the simple pleasures of life, like birds that come to feast from fruit-bearing trees and the sight of a moon rising from the roof of the wild goose pagoda, and perhaps regret that one can only enjoy these in a book.

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