When you read a good story about storytelling, a magic thing happens: the author of the story becomes invisible. Well, almost. Which is what happened when I read two slim books over the period of two days.
The fact that Omair Ahmad is the author of The Storyteller’s Tale and Buddhadeva Bose of My Kind of Girl sort of shuffles and disappears into the background, while characters telling the stories — that form the bulk of the book — become the people around whom the reader mills around listening with rapt attention.
Ahmed and Bose are separated by time, style and language. But both deal with the art of storytelling, an ancillary industry that specialises in manufacturing memories. And both deal with this ectoplasmic thing that runs about the house called love. That in both books, the stories involving love in its various disguises are told to a listening audience enhances the illusion that the reader is eavesdropping and the writer is a guilty accomplice to this invasive act.
First, Ahmed’s fabrication. Many readers of ‘storytelling’ tales should recognise the setting: it’s the ready medieval ‘Oriental’ landscape of Arabian Nights where one story springs from another, in which the narrator turns to digressions as a strategy. Ahmed’s storyteller is a forced journeyman, unused to travel but who has little choice as the forces of Ahmad Shah Abdali have destroyed his house, devastated his city — 18th century Delhi. But when this mendicant poet caught in unpoetic times passes a haveli when the forest path clears, he is drawn to this building that he recognises as the residence of one of the invading Afghans.
It is inside this haveli that he confronts the Begum of the house with whom a strange, shimmering bond is struck — the bond of stories that are tactful camouflaged set pieces that point to but never lead to their notions of love and its fragments.
The poet and the Begum are both master-tellers of tales — their stories echoing each others down to the characters. There is the story of Taka and Wara, the wolf and the boy, in which the poet deals with love and loyalty, mistrust and misunderstanding.
But Ahmed makes the Begum respond with her own take on the tale. She tells the poet — and us the readers — of Aresh and Barab, transmutated versions of Taka and Wara. By the time the poet responds with his own transformed version of the Begum’s version, we realise that Ahmed has his storytellers not exchanging tales but hurling the same subjects of love and longing and betrayal at each other in a covert war of narratives.
Buddhadeva Bose’s novella My Kind of Girl (Moner Moto Mey), first published in 1951, and translated superbly from Bengali by Arunava Sinha, also brings the reader to a familiar setting for a ‘storytelling’ story.
Four strangers are in a first class waiting room in a station trapped by the fact that their train to Calcutta is delayed and they will have to wait until the next morning in this middle of nowhere.
Within the first three pages, Bose establishes the characters — a gentle giant of a businessman, a bureaucrat, a doctor, and a writer — not only by their appearances and behaviour, but also by how they react to their condition on a bitterly cold December night.
It is the brief appearance of a young couple — “They were clearly newlyweds, maybe a couple of months in, maybe a year, but they were lost — still — in their love for each other” — that sets off the four travellers in stassis to tell each other stories about their memories of love.
So in this mutual experiment of how to tide over the night in a railway station — and dip into memories that have rusted over time — the four characters become tellers of stories of various aspects of love.
But as the opening story of Makhanlal the contractor most tellingly shows, experiences of love — which in this case comes in the form of asymmetrical war between two young neighbours — are backlit by the lives of the characters. The pathos of the opening story moves into a different gear in the tale of the bureaucrat, Gagan Baran Chatterjee, where he tells his listeners of an old love whose brief ‘return’ throws things momentarily out of order before everything settles down again.
Bose’s remarkable talent of throwing his characters’ voices and at the same time inhabiting their skin is on full display in this slim, moving book.
Both The Storyteller’s Tale and My Kind of Girl are masterful (re)tellings of stories. With love being different things for different people — even with the illusion that it can be shared — the poet in Ahmed’s tale and the four men in the waiting room in Bose’s story are representatives of all the people who remember by distorting, adding, subtracting, and engaging with the past to keep themselves warm and alive in the present.