February 18, 2020
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Looted Filigree

It isn't every day that one comes across a book that one can commend so unreservedly: a swift, elegant tale set in the badlands of Rohillakhand

Looted Filigree
The Storyteller
By Omair Ahmad
Penguin Pages: 122; Rs. 225
It isn’t every day that one comes across a book that one can commend so unreservedly. Omair Ahmad’s novella is a swift, elegant tale set in the badlands of Rohillakhand. It is early 18th century, in the aftermath of the sack of Delhi, first by Nadir Shah and then by Ahmad Shah Abdali. The poet Mir Taqi Mir, heartbroken, is among those who leave a ravaged Delhi to seek refuge in Avadh. Ahmad’s protagonist is a figure somewhat like Mir—thus, he quotes some Mir couplets, and enacts one of the iconic incidents associated with this journey: Mir is invited to converse by his fellow-travellers, but declines—it may help them to while away the hours, but his own speech would be corrupted! Surprisingly, Ahmad’s Mir doesn’t quote one couplet that is particularly apt because it conflates the devastations of the city and of the heart: Dil voh nagar nahin ki phir aabaad ho sakay/Pachhtaaogay, suno ho, yeh basti ujaad kay (The heart’s not some town that may be peopled once again/Know you, you will regret having devastated it once).

For Ahmad’s storyteller finds himself in a qasbah on the fringes of a haveli that soon reveals a beautiful begum. The poet is smitten, and gladly accepts an invitation to stay the night. The begum’s husband is away, participating in the loot of Delhi, an irony that is not lost on the poet. As befits their decorous times, they swap stories that cleverly weave in and out of each other, exploring the nuances of love and betrayal and revealing, inter alia, the magical power of narrative to configure and reconfigure the worlds in which we live.

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