View From the Mountain

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MEENAKSHI GANGULYNovelists have found much to write about in schizophrenic India. Some talk of the empty glitter of the rich, others describe the tedium of the middle-class and many find their subjects in the oppressive social structure. The nationalist's dream of a vibrant nation-on-the-move, a nuclear power, no less, is seldom reflected in fiction. The most consistent theme is lingering, eternal sadness.Writer I. Allen Sealy's India too is forlorn and defeated--and very real. At the outset of his new book, The Everest Hotel, are the dregs of the British Raj: the once-loved dead left behind in weed-choked graveyards along with a still subsisting generation of Anglo-Indians who cling to their chipped china for tea and cakes. Surrounding them is the freshly unshackled but ineffectual voice of discontent. A hated dam is bombed, but the rebels achieve nothing but a crack. There are strikes to demand more administrative power, but they produce more noise than results. A bunch of lepers fight off timber merchants to protect their home in the woods, but only for the time being.Sealy's tale is built around Anglo-Indian Jed, 90, racy owner of the Everest, a hotel-turned-missionary shelter, and manager of Ever-Rest, the adjoining graveyard. Though he was once an adventurous mountaineer and botanical collector, senility, both real and put-on, now allows him to indulge a wicked humor and occasional spite. In the end, he is left alone. The man that he loved as his son is dead; the woman, a nun, who nursed Jed, has left, snatching up the only happy thing that entered their lives: a laughing little girl who was bequeathed to the holy sisters with a note pinned on her frock.The Everest Hotel is an ethereal book, lovingly written, but has to be read slowly because too many themes don't quite tie together. In fact, there is no need to rush because there is no mystery that will be resolved in the end, no sides to take. The characters remain overly elusive, and none seems friendly enough--or tragic enough--to win sympathy. Sealy dwells at length on the mood of a season or the joyous soaring of a kite, but he is sparse with conversation and explanation.One condition runs through the book: death and dying. Sealy, 47, claims wryly that his earlier novels had died young, banished from bookstores because they didn't sell. But this one, brought out by IndiaInk, the local publisher of Arundhati Roy's wildly successful The God of Small Things, has prompted a spate of interviews, readings and fan mail--all the symptoms of life, not death.