When stories BIND.

In the gentle garb of an eloquent story, many things may be conveyed. So, the medium has been used by many to cleverly match points or reveal the truth minus the sting. Ahmad's latest novel is a Coelho-esque ode to the genre

Jennifer Kishan Delhi

Who does not like a good story? One of the earliest forms of entertainment in the Indian subcontinent was storytelling. This intricate art has bewitched generations. Embedded in Indian history are countless fables, folklores, parables that have kept the audience riveted through the ages. And, when a string of stories form a narrative, like Amar Chitra Katha, Arabian Nights, Panchatantra, Akbar-Birbal or Vikram-Betal, the child in us is aroused.

But, entertainment is not the only value attached to this art. Often, stories have an ulterior purpose. In the gentle garb of an eloquent story, many things may be conveyed. So, the medium has been used by many to cleverly match points or reveal the truth minus the sting. Omair Ahmad's latest novel A Storyteller's Tale is a Coelho-esque ode to the genre. Set in 18th century Delhi, it offers enchanting tales which entertain and also reveal much.

On one hand, it's a simple tale. The story begins with a tale of two characters that have chanced upon each other. One, the vagrant poet, who has lost all in the pillage of Delhi, and is seeking a new home. He enters a casbah and then the haveli of a Mirza in Rohillakhand, where he looks for some rest after a wearisome journey. But, instead, finds himself in the presence of the Mirza's begum. This fortuitous meeting gets the poet a listener.

Unlike him, the begum with a "powerful surging energy" raging in her blood feels confined in her opulent haveli. She has no journey to take were it not for an inner soul searching. Unprepared though for the chance meeting, both are instantly attracted to the other. And, also find an audience in each other. What follows is a three-day storytelling session and an afterthought - epilogue - years after
the encounter.

Simple and clichéd as that may sound, the novel, however, delves into a web of narratives where innuendos abound. There are many stories that criss-cross the canvas. Ahmad's larger narrative is the poet's own tale of betrayal, war and devastation. The begum responds with her story of yearning and unrequited love. This intriguing mix enthralls the reader. The 18th century backdrop and the propriety it presupposes almost legitimises these conversations. Entangled with each other, the stories offer the characters a vent. What seems to be a harmless battle of wits, gets peppered with arguments and flirtations between the two protagonists. Their anxieties and anticipations imbue the prose with barbs they use to attack each other.

The reader can sense a mutual affinity developing between the two protagonists. They seem to be bound by some sort of a thread that sets them apart from their surroundings. While the archetypal character Mehrunnisa and the rest of the cast remain peripheral and are more of innocuous spectators. The response to each other's story, the muted feelings for each other and the climax open up for the reader. Ahmad, with his storytelling art, keeps his readers entranced.

Ahmad's novel does not merely entertain but gives purpose to this art. The characters share stories not so much to pass time but to buy time, to be with each other. They know the limitations of their meeting and exchange stories in order to spend the time together.
Ahmad's characters are assertive and pompous. They know their value and that of their audience. Their stories attack with irreverence each other's feelings. They hurt, they challenge, lock horns and passionately retort. They effectively use their guise to fool all conformists around them. Camouflaging their raw emotions of betrayal, anxiety, loss and love, through imaginary characters, they brandish their weapons trying to outdo one another.

But, there is also a strong sense of longing that permeates the narrative. The lonely begum with her repressed vitality needs the poet as a companion. The devastated poet while exorcising the madness of death and destruction needs the begum's ear for his life's stories of betrayal. So, the stories soothe them and act as a balm to their wounds. But, the reader recognises that the possibility of a union between the two characters is bleak. What gets reinforced is the transcendent quality of forbidden love and loss and a predictable sad ending.

Ahmad has used history cleverly as an effective medium to bolster the art of storytelling. He has chosen this duel of stories to carry the narrative forward and pitched it in the backdrop of the 18th century. The feudal propriety between genders and classes act as an invitation to veiled conversations. This allows the stories to unfold naturally and the reader to indulge in this interplay of feelings
and wit.

The novel, reminiscent of Paulo Coelho's writing style, begins at the beginning - when the poet embarks on his journey in search of solace. The poet sits at the start of an open road with choices to make and a voyage to pursue. "Now he had nothing or he had his freedom. It depended on how he looked at it he supposed...his stories, his freedom and the open road before him."

The novel ends with the everlasting image of the open road. Once again there is a choice. "After the end of love, there is the unloving...when you can fight against the new roads and try, futilely, to return to what you were before...half the story of love is the discovery of it as you put it behind you".

The discovery of an incomplete journey with changed maps and new horizons, and shifted continents. "However, the road is still open and there is much to see, but only if you have the courage to see that the first step is always a departure". Having learnt an invaluable lesson in leaving the object of one's love behind, the poet gains an insight and retrospects. The end of the story returns the reader to reality.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: MAY 2009