Unconventional in format and subject, The Storyteller’s Tale is a celebration of tales.
The Storyteller’s Tale, Omair Ahmad, Penguin India, p.122, Rs. 225
Every which way you look at it, The Storyteller’s Tale is an oddball. At just over 100 pages, it harks back to that near-extinct literary form, the novella. It is set defiantly in the 18th century, a period that that evokes no particular curiosity today. It does not touch on any of the “fashionable” literary subjects: not caste, or religion or poverty or oppression. By all current yardsticks of publishing, this book should have never seen its covers.
But it has, and the difference is to the reader: The Storyteller’s Tale is a brave venture, not only because of its unconventional format or subject matter but because, ultimately, it celebrates the story, the power of the imagination and its role as a game-changer in lives and loves. If there is a moral to this fable-like tale, it is this: The stories must live, for in them live our histories.
Weaving together familiar elements from folk narratives, mythologies, epics — the author acknowledges his debt to “Indian, Quranic, biblical and other tales” — in a supremely unselfconscious manner, The Storyteller’s Tale is perhaps as close as the printed word can get to the oral tradition. The historical setting could be almost accidental (were it not for the unmistakable contemporary parallels); Ahmad Shah Abdali’s raids on Delhi is merely a means of getting the Storyteller on the road to the haveli of the Begum. Both remain nameless as their words and imaginations duel and spar, feeding off each other, anticipating and second-guessing, and falling irrevocably in love.
The Storyteller goes first, with a simple story of the boy-child Wara and the wolf-cub Taka, who are brought up by a human mother. It is a story we have heard a hundred times and continue to hear in bits and pieces from the hinterlands: The wild animal that reciprocates human love and understands our ways, only to be undone by the very mortal flaws of fear and distrust.
As with the best stories, the implications are not lost on the audience. As the story ends, the Begum’s maid turns to the Storyteller: “My lady says that you know betrayal very well… and of the giving of pain to generous hearts.”
And then, in the genius traditions of orality, the focus shifts from the Storyteller to the Begum, as we learn her story — like his, one pockmarked by displacement and disorientation — and see through her eyes their momentous encounter and its consequences. The story of Aresh and Barab, with which she joins battle, has the same fabulist touch: The wealthy boy and the impoverished one, brought up as brothers, yet destined for different worlds. As the Amir, Aresh’s father, says, “…the elder son rules and the younger protects, that is how our world works.”
The Begum follows Aresh, “the elder son” as he journeys to the big city and, in a mirror image of the shifting narrative device, the Storyteller takes up the legend of Barab, coupling it with his first story of the wolf-boy. With the big picture changing hardly at all, the tales conjoin to present two sides of a story, an apt acknowledgement of simultaneous realities, multiple truths. The last word rests with the Begum, as she narrates the story of Nisia, the girl who touched both the boys’ lives, if fleetingly.
In the unimpassioned yet deeply personal manner of folk tales, the stories resonate with the audience as well as the readership, their philosophical and romantic underpinnings all the more poignant for being understated. Elegantly and sparsely told, epigrammatic in style, The Storyteller’s Tale is like aged wine in a new bottle, beguiling us with complexities and surprises that challenge the core of our beliefs.