Legend has it that Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was so impressed with an aerobics display by school students in Korea that he came back and ordered it to be replicated in Pakistan. This show was successfully staged in Islamabad on 14th August, 1976 which motivated Bhutto to ask Punjab’s Education Secretary to hold a similar affair in the provincial capital. The whopping estimate of 3 crore for the Lahore event, to be staged on 23rd March, 1977 involving 20,000 school children put the Punjab Education Ministry in a unique quandary since it did not have the legal right to spend more than a crore on an event of this nature. The Secretary’s consternation trickled down to his staff, one of whom –Dr. Kibriya, Chairman Punjab Text Book Board – assured him that 3 crores was an exorbitant amount and entrusted with the task he could do it within 50 lakhs. The Secretary looked skeptical and the subject was dropped. A few weeks later, however, he handed the Chairman a cheque of Rs. 1 crore from the Chief Minister’s Office along with a letter making him in-charge of the event. Dr. Kibriya reiterated his pledge of working within 50 lakhs upon which the Secretary transferred 59 lakhs of the total amount to the Chairman’s personal account. The show was staged impeccably on Pakistan Day as promised at a total cost of 34 lakhs. The burden of a surplus 25 lakhs of taxpayers’ money in his account weighed heavily on my taaya, Dr. Kibriya’s conscience. He wrote a letter to the Secretariat requesting them to return this money to the national exchequer but his letter was taken as a joke and dismissed. Soon the Education Secretary got transferred and a new one took his place. Dr. Kibriya kept sending reminders to every subsequent Secretary till such time as he retired from his post with the amount still lying in his National Bank account at the Secretariat. Finally one Secretary who knew him personally paid heed to his queries and relieved him by taking the money off his hands.
These and other such legends were told with great relish on occasions my father’s family got together. My father and uncles— the first daastaan-go I heard growing up—delighted in the stories they weaved of their lives, planting themselves unabashedly in the center as swashbuckling slayers of authority, deadly-honest romantic ideologues and achievers against all odds, who prided themselves not on their proximity with the rich and powerful but in taking them on. These central narratives collided with my father’s own fight as a young man against his eldest brother’s disdain for the humanities as a suitable career for a boy born in poverty, complicating the overarching central daastaan of my family, immediate and extended.
A wish to rediscover these oral narratives (having passed from my life since my taaya’s death and due to a lifestyle revolving increasingly around the keyboard) took me to the aptly titled ‘Daastaan Goi—The Lost Art of Urdu Storytelling’ on two consecutive days last weekend. Following closely on the heels of Naseeruddin Shah’s packed ‘Ismat Apa Ke Naam’, the country’s ‘cultural capital’ seemed to be suffering from theatre-goers’ fatigue, or maybe bragging rights of attendance at the Rahat Fateh Ali concert at Lahore Gymkhana trumped these relative unknowns from Delhi. Whatever the case may be I walked into a half-full Hall II presenting a stark contrast to the capacity crowds Shah and co had attracted at double the ticket price just a week ago. Interestingly, Daastaan Goi’s ethos turned out to be quite similar to Shah’s Motley Theatre group – same sparse set, similar focus on theatrics of the spoken word and a comparable fervour for bringing Urdu’s dying heritage to a larger audience.
The invitation cards stated that daastaan-gos Mahmood Farooqui and Danish Husain would present Daastaan-e-Ameer Hamza and Daastaan-e-Chouboli that evening. The debonair Mahmood Farooqi walked on to the stage in regular attire beforehand, however, to clarify that they would only recite the Rajasthani Daastaan-e-Chouboli that evening, a tale that he promised would fill us with nostalgia for the land it had sprung from. Before going offstage to change into his performing gear Farooqui instructed the audience on the adaab of the mehfil—the audience were to express appreciation only with waah waahs. Clapping would be considered the equivalent of tomato throwing in certain other traditions. This marked out the evening as magical and distinctly Eastern even before it started. A short while later, now dressed in white kurta pyjama with a traditional white cap and a similarly attired Daanish Husain by his side, Mahmood Farooqui unfurled Daastaan-e-Chouboli.
Instead of evoking any special feel for Rajasthan the daastaan seemed to be set in an Eastern Neverland of cheerful polygamy that could be situated anywhere from Baghdad to Delhi to the fervent sexual fantasies of male story tellers who must have helped hone this daastaan over the ages. Despite this, Thakur, the male figure who sets the tale in motion becomes progressively marginal as the story moves forward, almost ending up as the fool, while increasingly the women surrounding him arouse sympathy, awe and romantic desire. In the grand tradition of heroines who escape the limitations of their fate through male disguise, the female protagonist of Daastaan-e-Chouboli dresses up as a fresh, appealing young man who endeavours to make the stubborn but beautiful princess Chouboli speak four times in one night to win her hand in marriage. Twenty four virile young men have tried before her but none has had the wherewithal to crack Chouboli’s cool emotional exterior with the weapon of storytelling. Enter our protagonist, combining Rosalind’s heart and Scheherzade’s wit to reaffirm within the daastaan the importance of being able to tell a gripping daastaan. She narrates such fascinating tales with endings so contentious that Chouboli cannot help but speak up to set the narrative straight.
This emphasis on stories as the most effective weapon in the armory of the romancer reminded me of a paragraph from Tarun Tejpal’s The Alchemy of Desire. I came back home and looked it up to find that it reflected exactly the spirit of both Daastaan-e-Chouboli and the art of Daastaan-Goi:
“Passionate love has nothing to do with any obvious attributes of the lover – class, intellect, looks, character. It has everything to do with the stories the lover can tell. When the stories are stirring, complex, profound – like great fiction they need never be crudely true – then so is the love.
The stories lovers tell each other are tales about themselves, their past, their future, their uniqueness, their inevitability, their invincibility. Stories about their dreams, fantasies, the nooks and crannies of their fears and perversions. Those who can tell their stories with power create powerful love. Those who can’t never know the emotion.”