Sheharzaad realized that a story a night is not enough to survive. Shahryar’s lust for blood had become insatiable. “Stories are good but their affect dies with the night,” he would often argue. “I want to see heads rolling.” Every evening when Dunyazade would urge Sheharzaad to tell another story, Shahryar would say: “Fine, but this is the last story. Tomorrow, I want to see your head on the ground.” Outside too people were turning against the two sisters. What everybody called “eve-teasing”, but the two sisters and other victims saw as brutal attacks on women, had become so common that they no longer felt safe in Alif Laila’s Baghdad. So they bid farewell to “One Thousand and One Nights” and spread out, multiplying rapidly despite the beheadings. But they confronted Shahryar wherever they went. In New Delhi, Hindustan, Sheharzaad found herself in a half-lit street where a man stopped a vehicle and offered to take her to her destination (destination?). Once she was inside the vehicle, the soldier who came to protect her was knocked unconscious. Then six men took turns to rape and beat her. “What’s worse, to get beheaded or to get raped and die a long, agonising death?” she thought as she was preparing to die again. This was not the first time she had been raped or murdered. “Will not be the last either,” she was told before she died. “As if I did not know,” she thought. What Sheharzaad feared more than death was rebirth and she knew she will be born again, in Hindustan, Baghdad, Rome or in Steubenville, Ohio, where an entire school came forward to protect her rapists. And the same story will be repeated, again and again. “Why, O why are daughters born?” Shahryar’s vizier asked his wife. “Ask yourself,” she replied. “I can’t even say why sons are born because I love them both.” And this was Sheharzaad’s tragedy. She carries in her womb, the creature that will grow up to torture, rape and behead her. She brings him up, loves him and protects him until he is strong enough to turn on her. Sheharzaad’s mother urged her husband to go and see a shrink. But the shrink was eyeing another Sheharzaad, the daughter of the grocer next door. “How can I persuade her to come to my bedroom?” he asked. Horrified, the vizier ran away and knocked many a doors for an explanation. Found none. For he was not looking where he should have: inside his mind, in a dark, stuffy and stinking basement where hides the monster which needs no provocation to wake up and pounce on his unsuspecting victims. While the vizier searched for an explanation, Shahryar too was growing old and now he could see that it’s not only the victim who dies. Death spares no one, not even a king. People were dying all around Shahryar. This invoked fear, not regret, in him, the fear of death. “How do these deaths affect me?” he asked the vizier who was still mourning Sheharzaad. “Every time one of us dies, a part of us dies with him or her. We do not always feel it. But this erosion happens all the time,” said the vizier. “That means I have already had a hundred deaths,” said Shahryar, thinking of the 100 women he had beheaded. “No, more than that,” said the vizier, thinking of countless others killed on Shahryar’s orders or those who just died, before anyone could order their death. “Remember the man who made snacks for you at your old school? If you go back to the school, you will discover that he died many years ago. And a part of you, your childhood also died with him,” said the vizier. “And the old woman who knew all the fairy tales by heart, she is dead too. And she took away all those stories with her.” “The teacher who taught you alphabets, isn’t he dead too?” “And what impact do all these deaths have on me?” Shahryar asked again. “Not the same that Sheharzaad’s death had on me, but each death weakens you too” said the vizier. “Everybody we meet contributes to making us what we are. See how a certain poem, a particular song, or a painting captures our imagination. It stays with us till the very end. It softens us, toughens us, and shapes us.” “But humans are not poem, songs or paintings,” observed Shahryar. “No, they are stronger,” said the vizier. “They always revive and reinvent themselves.” The vizier spoke again, trying to make the king realise that he too will not be spared. “There are deaths that we feel strongly – of our parents, grandparents, siblings. Others we do not but they weaken us too, pushing us towards the ultimate destination when we will also be among ‘yesterday’s seven thousand years.’” The vizier’s words moved Shahryar. “Poor man, you should join Sheharzaad,” said the king, overcome with grief. And he had the vizier beheaded. When others in the vizier’s clan started complaining, he had them killed as well. But little did he know that a mass murder is even worse. Killing so many people in one go is more brutalizing than a simple murder, if there is such a thing as a simple murder. It creates a vacuum that is never filled. As long as this remains un-avenged, it keeps seeking an explanation, a conclusion. The gaping wound stays with us till the very end and is often passed on to the coming generations. So this happened to Shahryar as well. He fell on his own sword and like Sheharzaad he too is condemned to be born again and again, each birth prolonging his agony. And the biggest irony is that each time he has to be born out of a woman’s womb.
The author is a correspondent for Dawn, based in Washington, DC.