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Illustration by Shaikh Sarfaraz Ahmed
Illustration by Shaikh Sarfaraz Ahmed

Although this appears to be a self-published debut, Khaled Saeed’s Storyteller’s Tales provides a pleasant means by which to while away a few hours of this exceedingly hot summer. Twenty-eight brief stories, some that read more like musings and essays than actual tales, are bracketed between a prologue and an epilogue. In the prologue, the narrator finds himself being hosted by a kindly and curious Bedouin who, in return for his hospitality, expects his honoured guest to sing for his supper. What follows is a spectrum of entertaining tales consisting of a series of brief vignettes that range from the philosophical to the humorous.

It would be unfair to give a thumbnail sketch of each and every tale since, given their brevity, that would give away much of the content of the book, thus depriving the reader of the pleasure of the experience. I shall therefore simply mention some of the more memorable stories, underscoring what makes them special, both individually and collectively.

One of the more detailed tales, that follows a fairly traditional narrative format, is titled ‘Just Another Superman’. Much to one’s surprise, it quite literally dwells on the comic book and film icon Superman, except that he has now aged and it is clear that his heyday has passed. Nevertheless, he still retains some of his magic and strength, and one cannot figure out whether to laugh or cry at his ‘retiree’ status. The scene where he claims that he can fly — and then effortlessly takes to the skies with the astounded narrator in tow — is nothing short of priceless. Equally priceless is the humane grace with which the aging Superman is placed in a senior citizens’ centre.

A new collection of short stories prioritises quality over quantity and the result is nothing short of heartwarming

But though Saeed is skilled at depicting the fantastical, several of his stories are grounded in reality, focusing on diverse topics ranging from nature to homeless shelters. In ‘The Sapling and the Tree’, a mighty tree tenderly protects a young sprout from the myriad natural dangers that surround her; the story is both anthropomorphically touching as well as precisely scientific in its portrayal of the phenomenon of natural selection.

Saeed prioritises quality over quantity, implicitly emphasising that a story does not need to be lengthy in order to carry an effective message. In ‘Abbottonian’, about a man reminiscing about the halcyon days he spent at his elite boarding school — most likely a prestigious cadet college — just as Picasso with a few swift strokes of brush or pencil could adequately capture an entire mood or moment, Saeed demonstrates a similar facility with words. The discipline, homesickness, lovely natural surroundings and athletic skills of the experience are all described within a couple of pages. The story ends on a poignant scene where the narrator’s young daughter runs across a hockey field in a manner that strikingly reminds her father of how he did the same during his childhood, ignoring his housemaster’s command to stop just as his daughter ignores her father’s injunction that she slow down.

Saeed is also as comfortable with complex metaphysical personifications as he is with the mundane trivialities of life. Although many writers tend to give their short stories obscure titles, I was struck by how specifically literal Saeed’s titles are. For example, ‘The Devil and I’ is about the narrator and a trickster figure who is none other than Satan himself. Similarly, ‘Timeless Times’ focuses on the personification of Father Time, though intriguingly enough, instead of old and venerable he is depicted as a swaggering and saucy young man.

Touching moments abound throughout the book. A particularly memorable one shows how a dull day in the narrator’s life is effectively transformed by the love and affection of a puppy named Onyx. Even otherworldly figures appear to have distinctly human aspects to them; in ‘Genie and the Lamp’ the narrator is bequeathed an ancient walking stick and lamp by his grandfather and finds, much to his consternation, that the lamp houses a genuine genie. Although the genie has the ability to wield powerful magic, he is himself enslaved by the constraints of his calling as well as his desire to touch base with his family every time he has to run an errand for his master.

The genie may operate under certain constraints, but it is clear that Saeed himself has no such limitations. Neither geography nor theme bind his talent in any appreciable way; indeed, some stories, such as ‘Intimate Encounters’, do not appear to have earthly limits and it would not be far-fetched to say that there is an X-Files quality to some of the vignettes. At times Saeed even comes across as being as poetic and philosophical as the great Khalil Gibran. Occasionally wryly humorous, always concerned with humanity, the writer succeeds in transporting his audience to a literary world that is both highly original yet achingly human. One of the most moving stories, ‘Revisiting Humanity’, tells of a mountain climber who rests in the cottage of a man who provides him with kindness and succour until the climber is ready to take his place and help future climbers. The beauty of the tale is that this encounter is entirely unplanned and the climber’s decision purely voluntary.

Perhaps the real genius of the author lies in his ability to give an authentic voice to everything in his collection, both animate and inanimate. Bricks, blood and trees speak with as much feeling as people. One striking aspect of Storyteller’s Tales is that the writer appears to be enjoying every moment of his endeavour, and this delight is contagious enough that most readers will undoubtedly experience an equal sense of enjoyment on reading the stories. Our culture has long prided itself on having preserved the tradition of storytelling — indeed, the history of this redoubtable tradition precedes the advent of the written and printed word. To see Saeed add to this tradition with spirit and sincerity in the 21st century is nothing short of heartwarming.

The reviewer is assistant professor of social sciences and liberal arts at the Institute of Business Administration, Karachi

Storyteller’s Tales
By Khalid Saeed
Morven, Rawalpindi
141pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, June 15th, 2018