Glimpses of 18th century Delhi through a ‘Storyteller’s Tale’

March 27th, 2009 - 1:47 pm ICT by IANS  

By Madhusree Chatterjee
New Delhi, March 27 (IANS) A storyteller and a begum swap tales and match their narrative wits in writer-journalist Omair Ahmad’s new book “The Storyteller’s Tale” - giving a glimpse of 18th century Delhi after Afghan warlord Ahmad Shah Abdali’s army plundered it.

“At the core of the story is a man and a woman exchanging stories. It is set in 18th century Delhi after massive raids by Ahmad Shah Abdali’s forces, which devastated the capital. A part of it is history while the other is what happened to the city, alongside history,” Ahmad told IANS following the release of the book at the American Centre.

In the 18th century, when Abdali’s forces had crushed the city of Delhi, a Muslim storyteller found himself in an isolated casbah (settlement), a day’s ride from the capital, on his way out of the city.

A begum in the casbah invites him to share a story. The storyteller, anguished by the destruction of Delhi, tells her a bitter tale of two brothers, Taka and Wara - a wolf and a boy - a story of love, loyalty, hurt and fear that came with unrequited love.

The begum responds with a story of her own - the story of Aresh and Barab, a friendship that transcended death. It leads to a chain of stories as the two match their narrative wits.

And with each story, the begum and the storyteller are drawn into a whirlpool of forbidden love.

“The book happened more by chance than by thought. I did not plan it. In fact, I wrote the first story in the ‘…Tale’ as a short story. I showed it to my friend Olivia, to whom the book is dedicated. And she said I had not been particularly kind to the woman. So, I wrote a second story. But I wasn’t convinced by the guy’s point of view and wrote the third story, and then the fourth,” said Ahmad, who has given up his job as a journalist to become a full-time writer.

Before becoming a journalist, Ahmad was a political adviser to the British government and had also worked for the Conservative Party on international security issues.

He has also advised the Indian government on several key issues and prepared the brief for the India-US nuclear deal.

Ahamad’s book, in a form reminiscent of “The Tales of Sinbad”, “One Thousand and One Nights (Arabian Nights)” and Salman Rushdie’s “Haroon and the Sea of Stories”, weaves the turbulent history of northern India in the 18th century with fables - most of which read like popular lores.

“I was inspired by the fables of Panchatantra, the Bible, the Quran, Japanese folklore from the ‘Tales of Genji’, the adventures of Hamza and the Sinbad tales. Story-telling in India is an ancient format. Between 900 and 1500 AD, a huge number of people came from West Asia bringing with them their own stories. Delhi then was largely populated by immigrants,” Ahmad said.

He also drew from the “Tota-Maina ki kahani” - the rural folk tales of northern India - and a combination of the Alif Laila traditions of story-telling and the Panchatantra.

“But I really don’t want to compare myself with Salman Rushdie. ‘Haroon and the Sea of stories’ is by far his best work which showcases his talent without getting political,” said Ahmad, an Aligarh Muslim University and Jawaharlal Nehru University alumnus.

Ahmad has now signed a four-book deal with Penguin.

“The first is a travelogue and a narrative history of Bhutan, a novella ‘Jimmy, The Terrorist’, which I will submit for the Man Asian shortlist, a book of interlinked short stories based on my dad’s city Gorakhpur in eastern UP (Uttar Pradesh) and a biography of my grand-dad’s brother, Pakistan’s high commissioner to India between 1948 and 1952, who retained his Indian citizenship,” Ahmad said.

The Delhi-based writer is often referred to as a “true Sufi”. “I can’t say I am not a Sufi,” says Ahmad, when asked about his faith.

(Madhusree Chatterjee can be contacted at

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