Delhi has been a raconteurs’ delight, replete with dastangohs and their yarns of love and pilgrimage

The International Storytellers’ Festival, Kathakar at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, which ended recently, reminded one of the dastangohs who lived and passed away in anonymity. There was Nazir Ustad, the opium addict who sat on the southern steps of the Jama Masjid and woke up as though from a trance when someone called him by name. No one ever saw him eating. Morning, noon and night he took out a little tin box from his soiled kurta pocket and put something in his mouth that looked like wet supari (betel nut). It was actually opium which brought him back to life, or so it seemed. Once thus aroused, he would start entertaining a group of men, either retired or off duty shopkeepers, with stories. The favourite one was about Anar di Badshahzadi (Pomegranate Princess), who had been turned into a pomegranate by her wicked stepmother.

One day a prince, who was passing by, broke the treasured pomegranate in the royal garden and ended the spell. The princess reassumed her beauteous form and married the handsome prince. The king only then came to know about the witch who had become his second queen and banished her from his kingdom. “The young couple lived happily ever after,” concluded Nazir Mian, trying to open his eyes wide and getting some money from the hearers, which he spent in buying opium from the licensed Government shop on D.B. Gupta Road, until he could tell the tale of the Baramasi Aam (all-season mango).

That was about one local storyteller. Among the well-known international ones were such greats as R.L. Stevenson, Somerset Maugham and Ernest Hemingway. When as a child Stevenson was punished and asked to stand in a dark corner at night, he shrugged off his nurse’s attempts to keep him from getting frightened, by blurting out, “Shut up ma’am, I’m telling myself a story”. Maugham claimed in later life that he could spin a yarn about nearly every one he met on the street. Hemingway’s stories about the fisherfolk on the sea shore still strike a deep chord in the heart, something that the Bard of Avon did with superb felicity. The same thing was manifest in the parables of Christ, like The Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son and Dives & Lazarus.

Nearer home there was Asghar Sahib, who related Mutiny yarns while Salim Pehalwan, who sat under the peepul tree at Delhi Gate, stopped passers-by to tell a tale which sent them home with their ears buzzing. It was an almost incoherent recital of something that happened in the 1940s, when he fell in love with a Kothawali (nautch girl), who in turn was fascinated by him. Then came a day when Salim lost all the money he had earned while working at the Nawab’s kothi and was kicked out from the kotha (brothel). It made him lose his mental balance and he always ended his story by pointing to a tin lying under the peepul, “Dar se dibba, dar he dar hai” (That dibba or empty tin denotes fear and only fear).

Lame Rasool was invariably found at Hare Bhare’s mazaar and drew a crowd every afternoon, telling tales like that of Dildar Khan, a eunuch who was a chamberlain in the Red Fort and had fallen in love with a girl residing near his house in Chawri Bazar. One night they were found in a compromising position on the roof of the girl’s house by her brother, who slew both with a sword. They say the two still wander about on moonlit nights. Rasool’s tales brought him enough to buy lunch and dinner too at Gharib Hotel. Dastangohs like Mir Baqar Ali of Ballimaran have passed into legend but not so Mianji of Azad Park’s Kalimullah shrine. Mianji’s tale was about how he went on a Hawai Haj (flying not in a plane but on the shoulders of a Jinn) while the wife of his old age thought he was fast asleep for three days. Many aspiring Hajis were among those who flocked to hear him, for his description of Mecca and Medina was absolutely true, something amazing for someone who had ostensibly never been out of Delhi.

Among the modern storytellers, Vijay Shankar is very impressive. One of his stories is about a Khan Sahib, who lived in arrears at a hotel in Jama Masjid’s fish market, away from his family, and when lucky supplied liquor to Delhi’s embassies on a commission basis. Fond of the stuff himself, Khan Sahib often shared a bottle with his companions, who then had to stand him dinner at Karim’s. One night he saw a girl under a lamppost. Amorous as he was despite his age, he hurried to her, thinking he had found someone. But when he saw her face, he turned away in disgust. It was his daughter who, unknown to him, had become a streetwalker to help run the household. That’s how true tales end and its for the storyteller to bring out the pathos. One realized this abundantly at the Kathakar festival.

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