Ali Baba and Aladdin, Abdullah the fisherman and Ali Khwaja the olive merchant—children have held their breath for centuries following the adventures of these intrepid characters, guided by the curiosity of the mercurial king Schariar, and the voice of fiction’s most famous storyteller, Scherezade. In their latest avatar, in Anushka Ravishankar’s The Storyteller, they also combine the moral significance of their stories with the sort of light-heartedness you really don’t expect from stories that involve thieves being fried in boiling oil. Ravishankar spoke to Lounge about the pleasures of retelling the stories. Edited excerpts:
What were the ‘Arabian Nights’ versions you read or heard when you were younger?
They were bowdlerized versions for children. I remember feeling something like fear and revulsion while reading Sinbad the Sailor, though I can’t remember why (probably the snakes!). That is why I didn’t choose to write those stories in my version.
The Storyteller—Tales from the Arabian Nights: Puffin, 172 pages, Rs 199.
How did you prepare to retell what are, quite possibly, the most retold stories in the world?
I read as many versions as I could get my hands on. I would have liked to read Galland, which I’m told is the best translation, but it’s French and I couldn’t get hold of it in English.
I did read the most famous English translation—Richard Burton. I didn’t have the stomach for it, because it’s very graphic and quite racist, but I made it a point to read it. Since every retelling is different, I did want to get familiar with as many versions as I could.
For an easy, child-friendly read which is not too far from the original, I’d say Andrew Lang was pretty good, but I also read some lovely retellings, including a picture book version of Aladdin (Aladdin and the Enchanted Lamp) by Philip Pullman.
I started with the intention of writing the lesser-known tales, but as I read the stories, I realized there’s a reason why they’re lesser known—most of them aren’t that good, or then, structurally depend on adultery and sex, which made them completely unsuitable for a children’s book. I had trouble enough with the frame story.
There’s often a solemn quality to the old translations of ‘Arabian Nights’, but your retellings are immensely playful.
One writes the kind of stories one likes to read. So it’s a matter of style, almost—I didn’t need to give it thought or decide that this was the tone I would strike.
‘The Storyteller’ has a wonderful feminist heroine: Scherezade. What was the process of developing her as a character like?
Scherezade is a strongly feminist heroine, but the times were sexist, so although her actions were of a strong character, her circumstances rendered her powerless. I deliberately give her more power, by making her character stronger and Scahriar’s character somewhat silly. It also always bothered me, when I read the Nights, that after all the threats and humiliation, she’s happy to have the man’s children and remain his wife. So I suspect that I wanted to convince myself that this was possible. Which is why there’s this slightly comical romantic connection between the two.