Omair Ahmad’s “The Storyteller’s Tale” opens with a poet in front of an open road. Behind him is a city he loved. One that was known for its beauty and now it is burning, ravaged, destroyed. A city that can no longer afford indulgences like poetry and poets. The poet, who speaks some of Ghalib‘s lilting words but doesn’t identify himself by name, cannot forget how the glorious capital was brought to ruin for the sake of a military victory. As he makes his way to safety, he realises he is consumed by the need to talk to someone about what he has seen and he finds his audience at a haveli in the middle of Rohillakand. The audience is a maid, her husband, a few soldiers and a beautiful Begum whose husband the Mirza is among those ransacking Delhi. Between the poet and the Begum there begins a duel of stories. He tells her a tale and she recounts it to him from another angle, turning one set of events into an intricate tapestry of possibilities and shifting truths. The story is the poet’s way of accusing the Begum for being complicit in the destruction of the city he loved. It is also the Begum’s apology and a treatise into the nature of loyalty and love. By the end of it, the poet and the Begum have found new beginnings for themselves. The ugliness of sieges and warfare has been fashioned into something tender and poignant by their words and imagination. Meanwhile, not so far away, Delhi is still burning. The bazaars and havelis are gone. The city is a military camp, tumescent with soot, blood, disease and victory.
Omair Ahmad is a wonderful writer. His language is simple and elegant. He tells his stories with courtly grace, skilfully changing the style to suit the voice of the storyteller whether it is the Begum or the poet. But it isn’t just the fact that Ahmad has written a beautiful little novel that makes “The Storyteller’s Tale” a gripping read. It’s also the knowledge that as you read about a injured, spreadeagled city being struck by marauding soldiers fuelled by a mindless mania, there is an army full of similar frenzy reportedly standing just 60 miles from Islamabad, Pakistan. They are the Taliban and they don’t care for the city that was so lovingly sculpted in the 1960s to be a fitting capital to a proud, young country.
Hilary Clinton said the Pakistani government was “abdicating to the Taliban“, in her opinion (Al Jazeera had that up on its website almost 12 hours before Reuters reported it). Not quite what General Pervez Musharraf said when he appeared On the Couch with Koël (HARDtalk was so nineties; in India of the noughties, we have a red, shaggy couch). He asserted repeatedly that Pakistan is a moderate country and that it wouldn’t be party to the kind of extremism being advocated by the Taliban. Apparently, in the Swat what has happened isn’t an imposition of Sharia law but a slight legal amendment to bring about speedy justice. With modern sentences like stoning, public flogging and the like, naturally. Meanwhile, bombs went off in Islamabad and the Taliban shuffled a little closer to the capital. Whether Asif Ali Zardari called British Airways to reconfirm that he can board any flight with his open ticket to London, we’ll never know.
Reading the news and “The Storyteller’s Tale” over yesterday and today has been unsettling. I wish I knew what is really happening in Pakistan and whether an old group of friends – Amna, Saima, Miriam and Aziz – live in Pakistan. They went to school with me for a few years. The five of us were the only non-white people in the little school. There was pretty, pretty Amna, who had dimples in her fair cheeks, thick dark lashes, a Sadhna fringe and two plaits that came down to her hips because her mother wanted a daughter with long, long hair. Saima, with her hat-like short hair, gruff voice and peach-fuzz moustache; who was so tall and hefty that she would have been mistaken for a boy, had she not been wearing the dress that was the girls’ school uniform. Miriam, who was much older than us, dark (but not as dark as me) and ate only Pringles because she was on a diet. Aziz who had droopy eyes and danced to “Hawa Hawa” in the performance that the Pakistanis put up for International Day at school. There was no Indian event at International Day. I was the only Indian, so it didn’t make sense.
They were all very nice to me, even though there were certain distances between us. I was on the swim team (Amna was a bit of a disaster in the pool and Saima walked underwater, like the pirates from Pirates of the Caribbean, to hide her body which seemed to get bigger when it ripped its way out of the modest swimming suit). I had a circle of white friends who had hot dogs and ham sandwiches in their lunchboxes, which they shared with me. I made friends with boys, like the twins Daniel and Simon from New Zealand, Jarkko from Finland and Tejas from America who had an Indian name but was not brown like me or Saima. He was even fairer than Amna. Then there was that awkward moment when we were all sitting around during a break and someone asked if anyone hated a country. Saima, Amna, Miriam and Aziz said “India” in unison. Of course they looked embarrassedly at me immediately after saying so but they didn’t take back their word. I think Aziz said, “You can say Pakistan. I won’t be offended.”
We often sat at the same table for lunch and Miriam cheated on her Pringles diet by having the lunch my mum packed me. I’d eat Amna and Saima’s lunch. Saima invited me home once for her brother’s birthday and her mother made a vegetarian version of every non-vegetarian dish, just for me. I’m not sure whether she was miffed or relieved when I ambushed the tray of kebabs. I remember I wanted to be as pretty as Amna and as tall as Saima. I also thought I would be friends with Saima forever, come what may. Then my father was transferred out of that little island state and I never saw or heard from Saima again. She also left after a while. We tried letters but once my father was posted back to India, I remember my mother flatly refused to post letters to Pakistan.
Today I have no idea where she is, what she looks like, what she does. Maybe her father got all of them out of Pakistan before the Taliban took over Swat. Perhaps she had gone to that posh little market in Islamabad where a bomb killed some 20 people a few weeks ago. I wonder if India is still the country she hates the most. Musharraf said to Koël Purie that he didn’t think there was any hate campaign against India in Pakistan (insert snort here) but every politician in India railed about Pakistan to get a mass following. I wonder if that’s true. Are hundreds of thousands of Indians coming out to vote because they don’t want to turn into Pakistan? Will they vote in a right wing government because their anxieties prompt them to believe that veiled Hindu fundamentalism is the only defence against the encroaching Taliban? I wonder if Saima hears about India’s peaceful polls in Assam and disturbances in Jharkhand, while the Taliban come closer to the Pakistani capital. If they do reach her, do they make it easier for her to hate India as she used to when she was 12 years old? If only there was a poet like in “The Storyteller’s Tale”, who was running away from the brutality and could spend a little time telling Saima stories about love, change and that obscured thing called destiny.