Short Story: Intizar Husain’s ‘The Death of Sheherzad’
Sheherzad told over a thousand stories and gave birth to three sons in a thousand and one nights. The listener prospered and so did the teller. The teller of the stories, Sheherzad, was granted life through her stories and, in turn, allowed countless virgins to live, virgins who would have been queen for a night and had their heads lopped off in the morning. The listeners, Duniyazad and the emperor Shaharyar, had their lives changed irrevocably by the stories. The ill will Shaharyar had borne towards all womankind was washed away by Sheherzad’s stories. He renounced his practice of marrying a girl for a night and having her head chopped off the next morning.
There was great rejoicing in the kingdom. The capital was bedecked and a grand feast organized. But Sheherzad was in such a state of befuddlement that she continued to look askance at the change in her situation. How could she forget those thousand and one nights when she had told her stories under the cloud of death? And when she began to accept that those nights were truly in the past, a great amazement overtook her. She could hardly believe that she had kept such a long vigil and spent so many sleepless nights, and spun such yarns that had caught the emperor’s fancy. How had she drummed up so many fables? They must have come from up above, through God’s Grace.
Finally, she could contain herself no longer. One night, she made Duniyazad sit beside her and said, ‘Dear sister, now when I think about it, my mind clouds over. I spent a thousand and one nights telling stories! Tell me, how did it happen?’
Duniyazad answered, ‘Sister, I myself am amazed that you had such a treasure trove of stories buried in your memory. Those nights were terrifying. My heart would beat with terror at what the new dawn would bring. I could see Death hovering close, always close by. But those dark and fearful nights were lit up, as though by lamps, by the stories you told. Once you started telling your stories, one never knew how much time passed and when the night slipped past. And the emperor … he would sit spellbound, listening to your tales.’
Sheherzad said, ‘Sister, I was lost to the world. All I could think of was that I had to tell a story and save my life each night. But once I began, I would get so engrossed in it that all thoughts of staying alive would recede. Then, the only thought that spurred me on was that I must bring my story to its conclusion.’
‘Your story did reach its conclusion. And what a conclusion! By the end of it, the emperor was a transformed man. From a misogynist who had a woman’s head axed every morning to a husband who is devoted to you – he is a new man!’
And the two sisters relived those nights of terror and uncertainty, and wept. Then they wiped their tears and offered thanksgiving to the Lord for ending their misfortune. God had given Sheherzad the strength and wisdom to tell those stories, the stories that helped save their lives.
Talking to her sister and sharing her sadness and fear made Sheherzad feel better. Soon, the festivities wound down. The kingdom slowly returned to normal and things continued as before. The thousand and one nights became a thing of the past. Sheherzad, as the Emperor Shaharyar’s favourite wife and the mother of three charming princes, reigned over the harem. Duniyazad decided to forsake marriage and motherhood and live in her sister’s shadow.
Sheherzad’s sons grew up. They were married with great pomp and festivity. Maidens as beautiful as the moon entered the palace as their brides. In due course, the wombs of each were blessed and flower-like little girls were born to them. As the girls grew up, Duniyazad noticed that they were more interested in listening to stories than in fun and games. She said to them, ‘Girls, if you are so interested in stories, get your grandmother to tell you some. There is no one in the whole wide world who can match her when it comes to storytelling.’
Upon hearing this, the three girls went to Sheherzad and insisted that she tell them stories. Sheherzad was taken aback at the children’s insistence. She had forgotten that once upon a time she had been a great teller of tales. She tried her best to dissuade her granddaughters, but the girls wouldn’t budge. Duniyazad reproached her sister, ‘Dear sister, I know it is not my place to speak between a grandmother and her granddaughters, but justice demands that I speak up. These girls are, after all, your granddaughters. They have a grandmother sitting at home who is a storyteller par excellence. Why then should these poor things be bereft of your great gift? Why should they go knocking on other people’s doors to hear stories?’
Sheherzad’s heart melted at her sister’s words. She said to her granddaughters, ‘My darlings, of course I will tell you stories; if not you, who will I tell stories to? But it is daytime now, and stories told in the day cause wayfarers to lose their way. Wait for the night, then I will tell you stories.’
How they waited for the night! As night fell, the three granddaughters surrounded their grandmother. Duniyazad came too. She would be listening to one of Sheherzad’s stories after such a long time.
But a strange thing happened. Sheherzad thought hard, racked her brains, tried desperately to remember a story, but she drew a blank. She couldn’t remember even one tale. Worried, she said to Duniyazad, ‘My memory has fogged over. I can’t remember a single story!’
‘What a thing to say!’ Duniyazad exclaimed. ‘You told so many stories to your husband. Why don’t you tell any one of them to these girls?’
‘But which one? I can’t seem to remember even one.’
‘What about the one you told on the very first night … the one about the merchant and the genie.’
‘The story of the merchant and the genie …’ Sheherzad muttered. She tried hard to recollect it. When she couldn’t remember a thing, she grew alarmed and said, ‘Duniyazad, I can’t recall what happened in the story about the merchant and the genie.’
‘You mean you have forgotten your own story? Don’t you remember … the merchant ate the date and spat out the stone, and the moment he spat the stone, a great cloud of mist arose and a genie appeared. The genie thundered that the merchant’s stone had hit his son in the chest and he had died on the spot. The genie swore, “I will make you pay. Be prepared to die!’”
Sheherzad listened attentively. She tried hard to remember what had happened next, but when nothing emerged from the haze of her mind, she said, ‘My dear sister, Duniyazad, I seem to have clean forgotten the story, but you have it at your fingertips. Why don’t you tell the story to the girls?’
Duniyazad thought for a moment, then said, ‘You are the Nightingale of a Thousand and One Tales. I can’t match the magic you can create in your storytelling. If you insist, I can tell the story now in my rough-and-ready fashion, but on the condition that tomorrow you will tell the next story in your own inimitable style.’
Sheherzad agreed to her sister’s condition. And Duniyazad told the story of the merchant and the genie with great relish to the three little girls. The girls were delighted. Duniyazad said, ‘Girls, my tongue does not have the magic of Sheherzad’s. Tomorrow, when your grandmother tells you the next story, you will enjoy it much more.’
A great tumult arose in Sheherzad’s mind after listening to Duniyazad’s tale. All the tales she had told in the past rose up in great swarms in the coils of her memory, but not one story was complete. Bits and pieces of stories swirled and eddied in the recesses of her mind. Well, never mind, Sheherzad consoled herself. At least my memory has been jogged. Tomorrow, when I sit down to tell a story, God willing, all will be well. I will remember the whole story.
And so the following night, she sat down with her granddaughters with complete assurance. Duniyazad, too, came and sat close beside her. But all that Sheherzad could recall was that the next story she had told Shaharyar had been about the fisherman and the genie. Beyond that, she couldn’t remember a thing. Duniyazad prompted, ‘Sister, once upon a time, a fisherman cast his net in a river. When the net grew heavy, he thought he had caught a big, fat fish. But when he pulled out the net, he found a sealed brass pot caught in it. The seal belonged to King Solomon. When he broke the seal and opened the pot, a dense black cloud engulfed the day and turned it into night. Out of that black cloud came an immensely tall and huge genie.’
Sheherzad spoke wonderingly, ‘It seems to me, Duniyazad, that you will do a better job telling this story as you remember it so well. You might as well tell the rest of the story since I can’t recall what happens next!’
With God’s grace, Duniyazad was in full flow and fine fettle. She began the story of the fisherman and the genie with all of Sheherzad’s aplomb and by morning had told the entire story. Sheherzad heard Duniyazad’s story as though it were her sister’s creation, and not her own. She was among the listeners now. And the three little girls were absolutely entranced.
The following night, Sheherzad was confident that she would remember the third story in the chain. When she couldn’t remember that particular story, she tried to recollect some other. She managed to drum up the one about Aladdin and the magic lamp, but in that too, she couldn’t quite get the chain of events right. Again, Duniyazad had to be called to tell the story.
Now Sheherzad was like a woman possessed. She would try feverishly to recollect the stories she had once told with such elan. But nothing would rise from the fog of oblivion. At her request, Duniyazad would tell the stories till, one by one, all the stories were told.
Sheherzad heard the stories with great wonder. ‘Did I tell all these stories?’ she thought in amazement.
Gradually, the surprise was replaced by sadness. She had told these stories over a thousand and one nights. And during those thousand and one nights, she had thought each night would be her last one. But now, after all these years, she felt those nights had been the sum total of her life. They spread over her being like a magic spell. I had been fully alive only on those nights, she thought ruefully. Once again, those forgotten, dormant nights rose up and swirled around her. As the night progressed, she wandered far and wide – across unknown islands, oceans and deserts – with the characters that had once peopled her stories. She strayed so far in her ramblings that all the fears and apprehensions of life and death were left far, far behind. And when day had broken and the cock crowed to herald a new dawn, the certitude with which she postponed the story to the following night had made Death take a timorous step back.
Sheherzad remained lost in the enchantment of those story-filled nights. And when she emerged from the trance into the darkness of her present and its empty nights, she thought, ‘Now my nights are desolate. They are only long and dark. The magic has fled from them. They have become barren.’ She sighed and sank into a deep sadness.
When the emperor came to the harem, he found Sheherzad unnaturally quiet. Despondency dripped from her face. He kept quiet that day, but when he saw that her state was not getting any better and she remained steeped in sorrow, he grew anxious. Finally, he could contain himself no longer and asked, ‘I have noticed for many days now that you no longer sparkle with happiness. You don’t smile, or talk. Your face looks drawn and pale and sad. What is the matter with you? What is it that is gnawing away at you?’
On hearing these words, Sheherzad abandoned all attempts at restraint and composure. She wept and said, ‘O dear husband, which Sheherzad are you referring to? The chirping, chattering, storytelling Sheherzad who entered your palace died a long time ago.’
The emperor was astounded by these words. Perplexed, he said, ‘What is this I hear? If something is weighing on your heart, there must be some reason for it.’
‘O my emperor and dear husband,’ Sheherzad spoke in a tearful voice, ‘you granted me life but snatched away my stories from me. I lived only in my stories. When my stories ended, my own story ended with them.’
Translated from the Urdu by Rakhshanda Jalil. Excerpted with permission from Intizar Husain’s The Death of Sheherzad, a collection of short stories published by HarperCollins India. You can purchase a copy of the book online. Click here: http://amzn.to/2gRalzb