Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Storyteller's Tale by Omair Ahmad

Explaining the significance of storytelling, Anant Nath, the managing editor of The Caravan, a narrative journalism magazine from India, invokes the celebrated Iranian storyteller Scheherazade in its recent re-launch issue. He writes: “The greatest storyteller of all was Scheherazade, legendary Persian queen and narrator of One Hundred and One Nights. The title refers to the thousand and one nights that Scheherazade kept telling stories to the Persian king Shahryar — who would marry a virgin every day only to have her beheaded the next — and thus kept death at bay.”

Omair Ahmad’s novella The Storyteller’s Tale clearly falls into this tradition of storytelling. Indeed, the author has acknowledged the influences of Indian, Quranic, Biblical, and other tales. Like many of us, he had heard several stories of the old as a child. It’s another story that this tradition now seems on the verge of extinction.

A former features correspondent of Outlook magazine and now a freelance writer, Ahmad’s story unfolds in the backdrop of a war: it is 1700 and the forces of Ahmad Shah Abdali, the Afghan ruler, have destroyed Delhi, the beloved city of the unnamed poet and storyteller. He is devastated by the ruins and violence. He laments the loss of lives and the destruction of culture and civilisation. While staying with some merchants in ‘the badlands of Rohillakhand’, he steals a horse and sidles away. But he carries with him a burning need to talk about the devastation he saw firsthand.

On his way, he bumps into the haveli of a Begum whose husband is pillaging Delhi. At the haveli, he is given refuge and invited to tell a story. The Begum turns out to be a storytelling connoisseur. In a meta-fictional mould, the two take turn in telling stories, and retelling them with different angles and improvisations. Gradually, a slippery slope of stories emerges, adding new dimension to an already intricate plot.

Upon the Begum’s request, the storyteller first tells the story of two brothers, Taka and Wara. In a village by a forest lives the unwed daughter of the village headman. She gives birth to a child but refuses to disclose his father’s name. The entire village gathers to punish her. But her father saves her by sending her into the jungle, an act which costs him his life. In the desolation and wilderness of the forest, the child bonds with a wolf cub that was rescued by his mother. The cub is named Taka and the son Wara. They grow up together. The tale goes: “A year passed since the woman entered the forest, and it treated her well. She made a small home for herself by a lake filled with fish. She taught herself to make bows and arrows, and although her first experiments were failures, by the end of her first year, she managed to kill a deer.”

One evening when she is away from home, she has a hunch that her son is in danger. She rushes home. She hears the wolf’s howl and decides instinctively that Wara is under attack, possibly by Taka. She finds blood on his jaws. And, with a swing of an axe, she kills Taka. But it was Taka who saved Wara from two wild dogs. There’s a similar tale in Nepali folk lore- Nyauri Mari Pachhuto, which tells of the regret experienced by the family after killing their faithful mongoose.

The tale of betrayal, anguish, loyalty, friendship, and loss strikes a chord in Begum, who then replies with a tale of Aresh and Barab, the two friends whose faith for each other is boundless. The story goes thus: The queen of Thakir dies after giving birth to her son Aresh. The Amir of Thakir learns about the birth of a baby boy on his vicinity and summons the maid and her husband and tasks them with rearing his son along with theirs. Aresh and Barab grow up to become inseperable, until Aresh is sent to Yasurat at a magistrate's to further his education. As he learns the trick of the trade, Aresh’s reputation grows. But in a twist of events, the magistrate’s young and beautiful wife, who secretly loves him, accuses him of trying to rape after he rejects her advances. He is instantly arrested. In his solitary confinement, Aresh remembers his brother and friend Barab and the promise they made to meet each other again. Gradually, the magistrate comes upon the truth and Aresh is released and reunited with Barab.

The storyteller is stunned by the Begum’s storytelling, and goes on to weave her story into his own. In the retelling of the story, a mélange of characters — Barab, Aresh , Wara, the magistrate’s wife, and Nisia, a girl who at age 15 had visited Thakir and fallen in love with Aresh come together.

Thus the characters in the novel meta-fictionally add to the characters in the stories they tell, creating a never-ending pattern that always leaves room for further exploration. Deeply evocative with exquisite prose, The Storyteller’s Tale is a testament to our belief in the stories that never fail to fascinate us.

Originally published at The Kathmandu Post

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