The novella is undoubtedly the neglected child in fiction writing. Authors from Franz Kafka to John Steinbeck have experimented with the form, but sandwiched between novels and short stories, academics and critics rarely take note of it.
It’s a pleasant surprise then to see author Omair Ahmad’s second book The Storyteller’s Tale being promoted aggressively. It even seemed to surprise the author who, in his acknowledgements, thanked his editor at Penguin, who “made the extraordinary offer of publishing ‘The Storyteller’s Tale’ as a novella”.
Despite its small size—just 122 pages—the story unfurls slowly through one cascading tale after another, almost as if the reader is opening a Russian nesting doll, each tale intricate and handcrafted in itself.
The Storyteller’s Tale: Penguin India, 122 pages, Rs225.
Ostensibly, the tale follows a nameless storyteller fleeing emperor Ahmad Shah Abdali’s forces after they have ravaged Delhi. The rather dotty, self-centred hero arrives at the doors of a beautiful begum, who gives him refuge in her house. He offers her a story to pay for her hospitality. When she counters with one of her own, the storyteller begins to be drawn to the enchanting begum.
Their exchanged tales follow the lives of two brothers. As we move from story to story, the perspectives change Roshomon-style, examining the same event from new points of view. It’s as if the same gem is turned over and over in the author’s hands, the changing light showing different degrees of irradiance.
In the gentle manner of narrating a folk tale, Ahmad is able to explore the valiant—yet ultimately vain—attempt to connect despite the chasm that keeps us all separate from one another.
The only drawback is that the power of these tales overshadows the main story: The tale of the begum and the storyteller is too flimsy a structure for such a compelling take on unrequited love. It’s a distraction from the power of the book’s central narrative.
Despite this minor flaw, this novella heralds great promise for the author—and for the genre.