Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Readings: The Everest Hotel by Allan Sealy

Somewhere in the foothills of the Himalayas is a town called Drummondganj, where time is measured solely by the seasons and on the roof of a crumbling mansion lives a 90-year-old former mountaineer with a wandering mind. The mansion, once the  Everest Hotel, is now a shelter run by an order of nuns who also look after the old man- Immanuel Jed- and a motley crew of others.

Ritu, the newest nun, arrives at Everest when the town is in the midst of a political upheaval- the struggle for statehood so familiar in the Indian milieu. That’s not all the upheaval either: Ritu bears a resemblance to Jed’s late wife, and this causes the old man’s mind to come further unhinged. (However, Jed’s mental wanderings are erratic; some days, he is lucid, a great raconteur and quite a wit.) Then there is his young friend Brij, who is a part of the statehood struggle, and who visits him often. And who, on the roof of Everest, among Jed’s bathtubs and other paraphernalia, begins a doomed attraction to the young nun.

The rhythm of life at Everest is then further rippled by the arrival of a young German tourist, Inge, who is on a unique quest- to unearth the history of a dead uncle, a former poet who is buried in the cemetery adjoining Everest. Inge is the fulcrum of the story in some ways. Her mysterious, drug-fueled passions, her abrupt German sense of observation, and her skill at sculpting a new gravestone for her uncle, all intrigue and disturb Everest in ways deeper than the inhabitants realize.

Of these inhabitants, I could not pick a favorite. They all seemed so complete- flawed and unique. And the story itself seemed to fall naturally into three parts: the arrival of Ritu, the arrival of Inge, and the arrival of the child Shama. Three completely different entities with completely divergent reasons for coming to be at Everest. (Also, Ritu’s name in itself was a brilliant yet obvious device- it means ‘season’ in Hindi.)

And lastly, the writing. It is, simply put, brilliant. Sensual, heavy with imagery and perfect shades of sepia and blue. The poetic division of time into the Hindu seasons- Asadh, Jeth, Chait, Kartik, and so on- the lyrical descriptions of the mountains, the flowers (Ritu and Jed share an interest in botany) and the heartbreaking decline of Jed’s mind all flow across the page with flawless pacing and structure. I wonder why Allan Sealy is not more famous. The Everest Hotel was nominated for the Booker, after all. I would definitely love to read more from him and am now on a determined quest for his Trotter Nama and other works.
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