On first glance, this is an easy book to like. It's all of 125 pages and we all like crisp, short reads, don't we. Also, this has to be one of the most elegant covers I've seen in a while, and prettily laid out text too.
Yet, this novel by journalist turned writer Omair Ahmad left me with mixed feeling. I liked the concept of the book, but I couldn't help feeling a bit non plussed at the end of it.
Set in the 18th century, the author recounts the tale of a weary, heart-broken storyteller who wants to escape from the misery of seeing his beloved city -Delhi - being plundered by Afghan Ahmad Shah Adbali. With pain in his heart and no one to talk to, he takes off to another place riding on a stolen horse. He finds himself before a casbah, where a Begam and her retinue of servants take him in. The begam's husband is away - probably looting Delhi, as the storyteller resentfully assumes. But he's enamoured by her looks and hence accepts the hospitality.
Soon there begins a game of wits between the begam and the storyteller, with each telling a story that mirrors their state of mind. The storyteller starts with a very dark story about a wolf and a boy. It's a tragic tale of mistrust resulting from unrequited love that leads to a violent end. The begam is startled by the cynicism of the tale and offers to recount another story of her own. Her story is about filial love that passes the test of time, in spite of the impossibility of their worlds.
The storyteller is thrilled. He's finally met his match - someone who he can talk to through stories. The storyteller's next story takes the begam's tale - a fable about two brothers, one rich and the other poor - and he infuses into it a part of his distraught world. The story brings out his angst at his city being destroyed, a beauty that can never be restored. He knows the tale is too close for comfort for the begam but he reasons, 'who else can one tell the truth to if not the one who you love'
The begam responds with a story of her own and their last few tales gently tether towards a kind of forbidden love, alluding to their own secret feelings. These two strangers make a connection, sharing their innermost thoughts, veiled in stories. The storyteller's tales convey pain and loss...and a desperate need to get things off his chest since he finds an intellegent and a sensitive listener in the begam. On the other hand, the begam's story touches on how love can transcend power equations, probably gently alluding to herself and the storyteller.
The whole 'story within a story' narrative is interesting, even if it's just a reworking of your fables in Panchatantra and Arabian Nights. But frankly, I found the stories a little tepid, and felt a certain 'disconnect' between the characters and the tales they narrate.
However, what this book ultimately testifies is the power of human imagination and expression in an atmosphere of terror and how it always manages to find an outlet in art.
A word about Ahmad's writing. It flows well and he keeps it very simple (almost sparse). For the kind of genre this is - a novella set in a period- it could have done with a little more ornate style of writing. I missed William Darlymple's eloquence here.
My final thoughts are that the book left me intrigued, even if I was not entirely entertained by it.
An alternative review from Abhishek Bandekar aka Abzee. A deeply insightful one at that!
You either have nothing, or you have your freedom’. That is the overriding theme of political journalist Omair Ahmad’s dark novella The Storyteller’s Tale. Fashioned as a fable-within-fables, the long and short of this short story is a sanguineous (in the blood-iest Spanish sense of the word) examination of that most written of human emotions- love. And while one may have certain reservations with some of his curiously bleak reading of the state of being in love (curious because the author wrote this, I’m told, while he was recovering from the end of an affair), one cannot dismiss them. In fact, in the opinion of this humble reader, Ahmad’s novella is one of the finest and terribly profound treatises on love, critiqued with the non-ornate aplomb of a Jacobean tragedy and the heartbreaking regret and acknowledgment of Edith Wharton’s The Age Of Innocence.
So, at a time just after Ahmad Shah Abdali’s men have plundered and destroyed Delhi, a storyteller sets out to a distant unknown. The city he once loved is not what he remembers it to be. The unknown spells freedom. Had Abdali’s men not invaded Delhi, the storyteller would’ve lived on there, in love with the city. Setting out thus, he can look back; ruefully and unexpectedly observe that during his days in Delhi, when he spoke of friendship and love and all those things, love was merely ‘a currency of exchange of looks and glances’. Now… he had nothing… or he had his freedom!
Freedom at once jeopardized when his eyes see the Begum of an isolated grand haveli- a haveli that was probably built from the wealth of the vestiges of many Delhis. And yet, the storyteller was in love, captured… in bondage. This is where Ahmad voices his first paradox of love- of it being something that you are scared of, yet reach for with open arms…giving your whole hearts. The Begum, in a beautiful allusion, becomes the mirage in the desert for our storyteller.
The storyteller is invited to stay at the haveli…and share a story. He starts out with a tale of unrecognized love, a story of two brothers- a wolf and a boy. To which the Begum responds with a story of her own- of a love between brothers that transcends death. And so begins a wonderful game of love, of recounting enlightening stories that overlap each other, revealing, as in a pantimento, all new layers beneath those that have already been bared. Ultimately, what is left is the sheer hopelessness of love and the hope that lives on in that hopelessness!
Even before he’s begun his first story, the storyteller feels that he must escape. While the Begum is out hunting, the storyteller contemplates running away before it’s too late. But he cannot. He’s zapped- unable to look away from the beauty that stands in front of him… like the stag which stands hesitatingly on one hoof as the Begum nocks an arrow to her bowstring. And just like that, the arrow had driven deep inside. The decision was made for the storyteller. It was written for the stag.
And yet, strangely, the Begum was unhappy. The joy of the hunt had given way to a sudden sadness. The stag that looked majestic, a vision of stately authority that she wished to conquer, was unrecognizable now. The vivacity had vanished, the primacy bested.
To the storyteller though, it was a joy to be bested… to be defeated. How traditionally odd the exchange of love is!
An exchange that is made known in its purest innocent state when the little kid in the first story generously gives his name Taka (meaning nameless), given to him by his mother for he was born out of a relationship undefined by love or lust and compounded by silence, to his wolf brother. The irony of course is that the mother fails to see the act as a harmless selfless one, that the ‘name’ is ‘nameless’…and instead allows within her to grow an emotion that is defined by love- the emotion of hate. The kid, very rightly, ‘free’ of this ‘knowledge’ is called Wara (meaning free). The transfer of the name becomes poignant, when the mother kills the wolf cub mistaking him to have harmed her ‘free’ son. The adopted cub never ‘belongs’… he remains ‘nameless’!
This story brings to the fore the anxiety of the storyteller, who like the woman of his story, has set away from the land he once knew… accepting that which is doled out to him. His freedom has been encroached by his new love- the Begum; an emotion that could trigger that other linked emotion, hate. Had the storyteller not chosen to stay and instead continued along into the unknown, he could either have had nothing (Taka)… or he could have had his freedom (Wara)!
The Begum sees through the coded wisdom of the storyteller’s tale- of the primal aspect of love in the story of the wolf and the boy. She chooses to respond by humanizing the primal emotion, almost as if trying to assuage the storyteller’s fear of being the stag. She knows she’ll need a different kind of an arrow- a story with words as her weapon. She too narrates story of two brothers, but both human yet separated by privilege. She subverts being human of the first story to a privilege of riches in her story. So the generous human child of the storyteller’s story is the son of an Amir named Aresh (meaning generous). And the adopted wolf, the son of a lowly woodcutter. But in the Begum’s story, the unprivileged is privileged by fate. So the son of the woodcutter, called Barab (meaning pillar), is fated to be known as a brave soldier who extends the boundaries of his kingdom and whose virtues are extolled by the people of the region. Aresh meanwhile is inescapably doomed to cause calumny to his family name. His generosity for all its worth is left unrecognized. Incongruously, Barab sees himself as a mere copy of Aresh, unable to come to terms with the bloodshed required of a soldier. Unlike the wolf of the storyteller’s tale, he realizes that his name is not his but that which has been generously given to him by Aresh.
The Begum, with her story, responds to the fears of the storyteller in the same coded wisdom as that of his story. She would like him to know that though she is privileged, it is she who is doomed to be defamed in this affair. The storyteller need not assume the ruthless role, for it would only be a mere copy of her. He should accept her generosity, else he might have his freedom… but also have nothing!
The Begum’s story had allayed the storyteller’s fear of being rejected. It had also trapped him, made him overjoyed that he was defeated, bested! And yet, he had to be the hunter again… to best her.
And so he begins with his subversion of the Begum’s tale. Of Aresh and Barab. We are told that Barab was intended to be named Taka by his mother. And Barab, despite not knowing this, senses the Taka within. So the unprivileged of the Begum’s story is also the nameless wolf. It is this acknowledgment of the Taka within that allows Barab to see the honour in Taka’s death when he’s told of Taka and Wara’s story. There’s honour in dying guiltless, in proving your love while it still exists.
In the storyteller’s tale, Barab had awarded honour to Taka’s death, but at the same time had trapped the others in guilt… guilty to harbouring hate born out of love. Even Wara wasn’t free. It was this realization which makes him connect with the Taka within and gives him the sobriquet of a Wolf in battle. But Barab knows that he must seek death while there’s still honour in it, while his love still exists.
The storyteller’s rejoinder had all but refused the Begum’s proposal of love. He couldn’t see her and her haveli (what it stood for), as separate from each other. She stood for destruction and he was unwilling to be destroyed in love. He had to escape, while his love still exists. He’d rather have nothing… and his freedom!
Omair Ahmad by way of his storyteller addresses the tragedy of being in love. Of how you wish to be only true in it, even if meant revealing your true self to the one you love. The storyteller, like the stag, had given no thought to his safety, and had fallen in love. And yet, it was this love, which had made him reveal his inner turmoil.
And the Begum… she wanted to grasp this love before it slipped away. Was she to blame? Could she have resisted pulling the bowstring?
So, in one final retorting story, the Begum makes a case for herself. The story, though of Aresh and Barab, chooses to talk of those who do not make stories, but are only a part of it. A story nevertheless, where the seed of sin– a relationship undefined by love or lust and compounded by silence –is resolved.
Omair Ahmad closes out the novella with a moving revelation that finally, it is in the unloving that love truly triumphs. Until then, love is merely conquest. As the wise maid Mehrunnisa says to the Begum, “Eating another’s heart hardens one’s own!” In The Storyteller’s Tale and the tales within them, Ahmad familiarizes us with the darker facets of being in love. And like the cities left behind in ruins by their invaders, you can either choose to sift through the memories and futilely try to hold on to something or accept the new journey along altered maps. You can either have nothing… or you can have your freedom!
Interview with Omair Ahmad
1) You mentioned somewhere that just before you wrote The Storyteller's Tale, you suffered a heart break in real life. If I may ask, did that in any way have a bearing on the subject you chose. Is Delhi and its destruction in any way a personification of those feelings? In any case, how did the theme come about?
I'd like to avoid the first part of this question, if I may. The setting of the story came about when I was doing a short research project about the poets of Delhi, from Amir Khusro in the 12th century to Daag Dehlvi in the 19th, and how they dealt with the realities of
their city. One of them, Mir Taqi Mir, left Delhi in pretty much the circumstances I describe in the beginning of the book, and it is his poetry that I've used. He was a fascinating figure, the only poet that Ghalib ever praised, and who had deep feelings about his city, as well as being a great poet on the theme of unrequited love. I had initially written the story without a historical context, simply beginning with a storyteller coming out of the wilderness and seeing a beautiful house. There were no side characters, and the politics came in only later when I contextualised it in 18th century India.
2) Mindless violence is a central point of the book and also a recurrent motif in all the stories. Does that aspect pertain to the period alone or were you conscious about the theme resonating with our current crisis --- with wars and human rights violation in Pakistan, India, Afganistan and now Sri Lanka.
Was that the point where you "became" the storyteller in the book in a more pronounced way?
Oh yes, I certainly wanted to highlight the theme of violence, and the fact that it is also a contemporary feature of our life even today. As I said I only contextualised it in South Asia later, but it's amazing that Ahmad Shah Abdali (or Ahmad baba) is considered the
founder of the modern Afghani state, while to us he is the personification of violence. These contradictions are still with us, and I think that humanity will always contain this seed of destruction.
Hard to say where I 'became' the storytller more, but I have worked on international politics and militancy for a major part of my life, and so violence is something that I've had to confront and think about.
3) While the stories allude to the deep pain that the storyteller feels on account of his beloved city burning, the narratives in between have both the lead characters (the begam and the storyteller) pleasuring the thought of having a new 'lover' in their lives. Their stories are meant to offer a hint into their inner feelings. But the choices of the characters in the stories are queer. One is about a wolf and a boy, the others are about two brothers. Did you wonder if this could make it difficult for the reader to draw a metaphorical association to the central characters?
I'm not sure that it was meant to be a conventional love story. And really I was only writing this for myself when I started out -- I didn't think about it geing published. So no I really didn't think about the audience, I was only exploring old ideas of pain in various fables, myths and stories I'd heard as a child.
4)What prompted you to use fables as stories?
Well I think that fables are very powerful. Sometimes there are ways of something very powerfully in a fable that we can't in any other way. Think of Karna's rejection by Kunti and his relations with the other Pandava brothers, in the Mahabharata and how powerful that idea is. I was powerfully moved by fables when I was a child, so when I sat down to write the first of these stories I retold a fable that had affected me in my own way.
5) Both the stories are about two brothers, one more privileged than the other. Can you elaborate on this motif? Also, while the stories seem to carry a definite political overtone, the private narration (by the begam and storyteller) seems to mitigate it somewhat, making it appear that it’s really about the matters of the heart. How were you approaching this as a writer?
Yes, a lot of the book is about privilege and power, and how that affects love. Whether it is power that is the overriding principle or love, and who pays the price? In the first the wolf is the weaker one, and pays the price, in the second the Amir's son is the powerful one and yet he pays the price, and so on. I'm not sure, by the way, whether we can divide the political and personal so easily. How we deal with power, in a relationship that has to do with love or with politics, is a constant.
6) If you can tell us about what you’re currently working on…
I'm currently working on a novel, "Jimmy the Terrorist" dealing with issues of alienation, radicalisation, religion and politics in eastern Uttar Pradesh from the 70s to the 90s. That, and a non-fiction book on Bhutan, partly a travelogue and historical narrative about the country emerging into the world and its push towards democracy.