Categories
Musings

The Magic Spell of Scheherazade’s Nights

Reflections of Sandhya Sinha (1928-2016), translated by Ratnottama Sengupta

Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. Courtesy: Wikicommons

Chiching Phank! “Open Sesame!” Two cock-n-bull words. But the spell of these two magical words released the rocky gates of a secret cave hidden by thorny bushes in the folds of a mountain, in front of Alibaba’s dazed eyes… 

The hideout was as mysterious as it was cavernous. With a pounding heart the impoverished woodcutter entered the cave — and froze. Diamonds and rubies, gold and silver filled every corner of the cave; silk and velvet and Persian carpets and God knows what else were stored there! He had never set eyes on so much glitter nor had he heard about such riches. This was the secret locker for the goods ill-begotten by the forty dacoits who had just galloped away on horseback.

By this time even the youngest reader of 1001 Arabian Nights would be wonderstruck by the astounding description of diamonds, rubies and gold coins. “Will Alibaba succeed in loading all these riches on the back of his three donkeys he has left hidden in the bushes and safely take off for his home?”  the reader would wonder, afraid to even imagine the consequences in case Alibaba failed.

If he was captured alive by those dacoits, they would bury Alibaba alive in that very cave and not even a crow would get to know of it. Such anxious moments! Each moment would weigh down the breath of the reader, until Alibaba emerged out of that zone of enchantment — all goods intact — and reached his shelter at sundown.

The spell binding excitement about ‘What Happens Next?’ in the Arabian Nights was planted in us readers by unknown storytellers — and the unreal harvest of curiosity has continued to cast its magic over centuries and across continents. The identity of the original creator of these stories is lost in the womb of time. What lived on were the characters which the author fleshed with dexterous imagination. It has been only three hundred years since the West got a taste of these adventures and became curious about the romance that is the Orient. Truth is these tales come out of the Arabian Nights but why ‘Nights’? The adventures are happening in broad daylight too. Ask, and the answer will lead you to a chatur nari — a very clever woman — and her hoshiyari — her quick thinking, alert mind. 

Scheherazade, painted in the 19th century by Sophie Andersen: Courtesy: Wiki

So, there was this very powerful Persian Badshah who found out that his Begum was carrying on an illicit affair. He not only snuffed out her life, he developed such immense hatred for the gender that every night he would procure a beauty to warm his bed and send her off to be beheaded at the break of daylight.

This went on for a while. The ministers were at their wit’s end: Who knew when their daughters would be sent for? One night, of her own free will, the prime minister’s daughter, the clever Scheherazade stepped forward and entered the Badshah’s bedroom, despite being well aware that the night ends in the certainty of death. The trusted matronly nurse of ample years was entrusted with the job of waking her up in the wee hours of the night. Thus, in the fading darkness, Scheherazade started narrating a bewitching story to the Badshah. Spellbound he listened, until the first ray of the sun interrupted the action at such a critical point in the story that the curiosity to know what happens next compelled the Badshah to postpone the beheading by one night.

By the sheer genius of her sharp wit, that young lady with the sword of death hanging over her head, went on with her storytelling for one thousand and one nights. So what if he was a brutal devil? The pulsating heart of a flesh and blood human entrapped him too:  after birthing three adorable babies Scheherazade became his Begum. And her head stayed firmly between her shoulders.

Centuries have passed since thirst-driven caravans on sandy roads immersed themselves in these stories as they sat around shallow wells to gather their breath or to warm themselves around fires under chilly starlit skies. By word of mouth, from one caravan to another, from one town to another, from a port to another land, these literary gems counted centuries before they were stilled in sentences and paragraphs.  Some parts of this literature, penned down in Arabic script during the 1st century after Christ, have been unearthed in Cairo as recently as the 20th century. These appear to be attempts to recount and record those captivating tales.

Many interpolations must have happened in the process of their journey from one narrator to another. Doubtless these are ancient treasures of the East that were presented to the world at the onset of the 19th century by French archaeologist Antoine Galland. He translated the stories from the Arabic manuscript unearthed in Aleppo and from the stories recounted to him by a Syrian. Not one or two but in twelve volumes he published his version of the tales and stormed the bastion of literary West between 1704 and 1717. Subsequently, it is believed that his work exerted significant influence on later European literature and attitudes towards the Islamic world. 

Since French was widespread then, England and the rest of Europe too could savour the romance embedded in these tales of adventure. But more than another hundred years passed before they were transcreated in English. It was Edward William Lane’s English version, Arabian Nights Entertainment, that amazed English readers globally.

It is logical to ask, from where were such captivating tales strung together? These tales do not belong to any particular tribe, nor are they rooted in any one soil. They have grown out of multifarious dialects and a multitude of emotions. They have been watered by inventiveness and mysticism. Man’s creative soul springs from them like an unchequered waterfall. The essence of India, Persia, Israel and Greece enrich this lexicon of mankind. Hence they unhesitatingly bear the robustness of an archaic tongue and of obscenity too. To ease the pain of a long day’s journey through unrelenting desert, or the rigours of relentless chores, the wayfarers would let loose the fertility of their mind in unimagined colours. Their panache would sketch even impossibly enchanted worlds. Perhaps it did not happen exactly so — but surely it could too! And if by chance or deus ex machina it did? Oh, what thrill that would spell!

Thus the tales crossed the boundaries of nature and politics. Thus they were nourished by the traditions of alien lands. Thus they came to flow as one river, fed by streams brown and blue and white. Since its origin, the human mind has seen little change in its dreams and desires, hopes and heartbreaks, greed and ambition, jealousy and suspicion, envy and enmity, doubts and fears. These make him oscillate from peaks of delight to the depths of despondency. Consequently, these stories have not faced wear and tear.

Magic lamp from Aladdin

The worthless, good-for-nothing son of a poverty stricken tailor, Aladdin spends his days imagining the impossible. It so happens that a magician takes a shine to him, and he arrives at a garden where trees are laden with rubies and emeralds. There he picks up a rusty little lamp. He rubs it, and a genie materialises out of thin air to fulfill every command of his. With his services and generosity, Aladdin gets the world in his fist. Soon as he becomes wealthy, he finds the Sultan’s daughter to be his wife. Then one day, through the machinations of the evil magician, womanly wisdom prompts her to trade off the rusty old lamp for the radiance of a brand new brass lamp. And in a jiffy his luxurious world evaporates before his very eyes. His wife is imprisoned by the trickster and he is tossed into the throes of endless suffering – until the clever Aladdin uses his wit, destroys the magician and retrieves his magic lamp. And when his father-in-law passes away, Aladdin wears the crown of the Sultan! How many minds and men are inspired by this little story to dream of the impossible coming true in their lives!

At the other end, simpleton Alibaba reaches home with the three donkeys laden with sacks full of gold coins. But how will he quieten his hyper-excited wife, Hasina Bibi? The destitute family did not own even a weighing scale. There was no other way but to borrow one from the haughty wife of his brother Cassem living on the other side of their partition wall.

“The family scrapes together barely two meals a day – now what has he brought home that compels him to borrow a scale at midnight?” – Cassem’s wife is not only curious, she is quick witted enough to paste some soft dough on the underside of the scale. A shining gold coin sticks to that and arrives in Cassem’s house, to declare what Alibaba and Hasina had come to own.

Spurred by greed, Cassem discreetly follows his brother at daybreak and unravels the mystery of the cave. And as soon as Alibaba exits the cave, Cassem utters “Open Sesame!” and enters the treasure trove. Things go wrong once he sees the riches stored inside. He goes berserk stuffing sack after sack and in the process totally forgets the two magic words. When he senses that he ought to leave, he realises the enormity of that one little mistake. He tears his hair in despair and keeps uttering “Open Potatoes!” “Open Brinjal!” “Open Cinnamon!” “Open World!”  Alas! The stone wall does not sway a hair’s breadth.

Fear of losing one’s life is so overwhelming that Cassem lost all desire for an iota of the wealth he had so lustily filled in his bags. How desperate he was to see the stone wall budge! And when it actually creaked open, Cassem’s eyes shone at the thought that now he could live to see the world outside. But the shine in his eyes lasted a mere second: the very next moment he was lying in a heap, his body chopped to pieces by the dacoit’s sword. They hung the severed body parts outside the cave and set off again.

Is there a moral lesson to be learnt from this story? The non-confronting, peaceable Alibaba could leave the cave in good time as he did not lose his equanimity, while the wily Cassem was so overcome by greed that he forgot the two magic words ‘Open Sesame’, lost his sense of time and consequently, his life too.

The thrill plays on in the heart and mind of those who watched Alibaba (1937), directed by Modhu Bose and featuring his danseuse wife Sadhana Bose. One of the songs went thus:

Aay bandi tui Begum hobi khwaab dekhechhi

(Hey slave girl! You’ll be a queen, I know that from my dreams)

Aami Badshah banechhi

(I have become the Badshah)

Ami begum banechhi

(I have become your Begum)

Badshah Begum jham jhama jham bajiye chalechhi

(Badshah Begum creating the jingle of coins wherever we go)

Oh, who can forget that fun sequence of song and dance!

Herding camels and goats was the culture of Bedouins, the nomadic Arab tribes who historically inhabited the desert regions of North Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, Upper Mesopotamia and Levant. They were neither burdened by heritage, nor did they boast a wealth of literature. Generation after generation, these startling stories became their oral co-travellers. That nomadic lot of humanity with behaviour and actions peculiar to their regions, their atheism and agnosticism, their songs and liturgy became one single flow. Almost 1250 years ago, when the cornerstone of Arab civilization was laid, gathering strength from the various languages, strifes and skills, these incomparable tales became a bulk of Arab literature — and effortlessly got dyed in the Islamic colours of the devotees of Allah. Friendship and affection, wisdom and respect for seniority, belief in destiny, surrender to Allah regardless of personal wealth or poverty — these are the keynotes of all the stories. The action could well be taking place in China or Persia, but the characters are all bound by the discipline of Prophet Muhammad. It is an astonishing harvest of Islam’s golden age.

However, Haroun Al Rashid, who is the protagonist of quite a few novellas, is not an imaginary character. Renowned in history as the fifth Abbasid Caliph who was the sole lord of every life and property in sweeping Mesopotamia — and owner of consequential wealth and splendid palaces, stately homes, chateaux and alquazar (al-qasr) – his rule between 786 and 809 AD saw Baghdad become Asia’s most chronicled trading post. 

The city would bustle with transactions in the most exquisite crafts. Gifted artistes and intuitive minds assembled here at a time when European civilization had yet to scale heights.  Haroun’s Baghdad can then verily be described as the poetic nursery of Arabian literature, a champion of architectural beauty, love, and other emotions of the human heart.

1001 Arabian Nights have gained recognition by learned critics as a truthful record of Islamic civilization at the turn of the 8th century. And not just that: Even today adventurers are amazed to find the wealth of traders being transported through the difficult terrain of the desert on the back of slow-moving camels — exactly as described in the Arabian Nights. It appears to be a breathtaking oral history whose contribution to the social science of the lettered world is immense.

It is impossible to classify this piece of literature as the product of sheer fantasy. The story of ace seafarer Sindbad is a hair-raising description of a new world that can be tallied with reality. None can doubt it as drug-induced hallucination.

During the glorious days of the Caliph, Arab seamen set out on courageous courses across the waters. The lush foliage and dense forests of the Far East repeatedly drew the desert dwellers — and they did not return empty handed. The heady fragrance of the tasty spices, the silk at South Indian ports, pearls — pink and purple, grey and milky; emeralds of the Lankan island and rubies of Burma along India’s east coast — they filled their bags with all this, and their memories with experiences galore. Had they not witnessed these with their very own eyes, the actions and gestures of cannibalistic tribes; the extraction of pearls from the shells wrested from the bottom of the ocean, and the enticing iridescence of gems– it would not be possible for sheer artistry to measure up to all these tasks.

Personable and prudent Sindbad had gone around the ocean full seven times. Then comes the mishap: monstrous roc birds attack and destroy his ship. When she sinks, Sindbad stays afloat by hanging on to a plank of wood and using it like a raft, he arrives at an island. Here, an emaciated old man perches on his shoulder and with his dangling skinny legs he grasps his neck in a pincer-like hold.  The exhausted Sindbad has no choice but to eat and sleep carrying on his back the old man (perhaps like the men who followed the African custom of riding on slaves).

This makes me think of the Indian Panchatantra Tales, which in 550 AD, are said to have been extremely popular in Persian translations. Did the Arabian storyteller adorn the Betaal Panchavimsati tales with further fictional details to create this particular old man of the sea?

A flying carpet

Metaphorically speaking, endless greed and lust can get the better of man and ride him, slave like. Men in those days had to walk for days to their destinations. The Arabian tales are woven from a zillion life situations, narratives and religious beliefs — an effortless journey undertaken on a daily basis. In the garb of fantasy many a historical fact has been jotted down by the fanciful chronicler — a timeless tapestry of fact and fiction. The experiences and realisations of everyman have orally arrived at the horizons of many an imaginary land and have been disbursed to untrod shores. Who on earth can suppress the desire to scour the globe and the heavens too, astride an Uran Khatola — a flying carpet? In practical terms it may not be possible but where is the harm in dreaming of the impossible?

Sir Richard Burton had visited Mecca to witness for himself the glory of the Haj. On this journey full of hardships, he heard the thousand and one incredible stories spun out by Scheherazade, just before dawn. He translated the tales word for word, and published them in English in the first half of Queen Victoria’s rule. The recording of experiences of human head and heart, unadulterated by any critical or moral judgment, opened possibilities of altering the prudish values then prevailing in England. That a vision stretching out into the horizon, the romance of adventure and the thrill of luxuriating in untold wealth can captivate all, is best exemplified by Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver’s Travels — tales of adventure that have immortalised Daniel Defoe and Jonathan Swift.

Literature of no land can ever become popular unless it correlates the head with the heart. Unbeknownst to himself Shahryar, that wrathful Sultan who hated every woman, has enshrined his Scheherazade. He may have got a scribe to put into script the tales he had heard in the melting darkness of his bedroom. It added a glorious chapter to the literature of the world. The opportunity to dive deep into the ocean of fantasy, and experience unadulterated joy and thrill became everlasting for generations of readers all over the world.

Sandhya Sinha (1928-2016) resumed studies 17 years after marriage, completed her Masters in English, embarked on a teaching career and retired as a senior English teacher from a women’s college.Many of her articles were published in the magazine of the Bangiya Sahitya Samaj in Lucknow, of which Sucheta Kripalani was a founder member. At the age of 75, she embarked on a career of authorship, having successfully played the roles of a mother, a social worker, mentor, community leader and spiritual aspirant.

Ratnottama Senguptaformerly Arts Editor of The Times of India, teaches mass communication and film appreciation, curates film festivals and art exhibitions, and translates and write books. She has been a member of CBFC, served on the National Film Awards jury and has herself won a National Award. 

(Published with permission of family)

PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

One reply on “The Magic Spell of Scheherazade’s Nights”

Completely bowled over by the inticacies woven into the story of Alibaba n The 40 Thieves. The nuances n the subtle details woven into the tale is spellbinding…And ofcourse the vast knowledge of literary historical connections leaves me awestruck…Is it truly my Mothers work..Three cheers Ma its a wonderfully told tale…Fantastic..indeed !
And hats off to Tillotson.. Superbly translated …So impressed y your work !

Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s