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The Storyteller's Tale

by Omair Ahmad

The story of forbidden fruit is as old as Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden. It is told in English, Indian, Quranic, Biblical and many more tales. THE STORYTELLER'S TALE is a novella of 119 pages, and Omair Ahmad makes no secret of his debt to his childhood storytellers. But his telling of it is evocative and exquisite.

Twelve centuries after the prophet, and seventeen centuries after Christ, Delhi was destroyed by raiders with no understanding of the music and dance, poetry and literature that they devastated. They looted everywhere and brutalised everyone, and all who could leave were driven away, carrying what little they could. And so the greatest poet of the age found himself perched uncomfortably on a stolen horse too decrepit to be missed, with many hungry days' ride until he reached Awadh, where he would be obliged to accept the charity of a patron. For the fame of his poetry had rewarded him only meagrely, and his servants, too old to leave the city, had earned the pittance he was able to leave them. He was a poor horseman, and after riding all day, tired and thirsty, he rested his horse. He was surprised to see, in the valley below him, a haveli, or small estate, spread out peacefully in the afternoon sun. The poet was aware, however, that it probably belonged to a robber baron who was even now laying the poet's house and his city to waste. The poet remounted and would have urged his horse on, had not a rumble in his stomach and the sight of a beautiful woman in the grounds of the haveli not weakened his resolve. By the time her guards, her servants and her fierce maid had rushed out to protect her from this unprepossessing intruder, the beautiful woman was well aware of his presence, and she was intrigued. She was also extremely bored by her idle life as the wife of the robber baron. Custom forbade her to speak to him directly, and it would have been folly on his part to look directly at her. But the guards were obliged to challenge him.

'Declare yourself. Who are you to enter unannounced, the property of Mirza Azeem Jalal-ud-din Khan?'
'A storyteller', he answered.

Well, she couldn't resist and he was invited (through her maid) to stay the night and tell them a story. After he had bathed and eaten, the story began. The lamps had burned low and his audience - the Begum and her retinue - was in tears as his voice fell silent at the end of his tragic story of love cruelly misunderstood.

The maid spoke for the Begum. 'My lady says you know betrayal very well, storyteller'. But the Begum wishes to tell a tale of her own, and so begins a storytelling duel that secretly reveals that they have fallen in love with one another.

Although THE STORYTELLER'S TALE is set in the time of the twilight of the Moguls and wrapped in the folklore tradition of A Thousand and One Nights, the reader is reminded of the bitter sweetness of stories such as Brief Encounter.

Paula McMaster


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