Our society has always known the power of stories, and employed them in various roles from education, to propaganda, to teaching war strategy. A good exemplar of the first kind is the hikaayat, or parables, of Saadi from the Gulistan and Bustan, taught for hundreds of years to teach both language and a universal morality.
An example of propaganda literature is the regressive novels of Deputy Nazir Ahmad (1830-1912) who, in beautiful prose, pushed the ugly, anti-cultural propaganda funded by the British colonial regime.
Among works that teach war strategy, there is the Daastaan-i-Amir Hamza [The Adventures of Amir Hamza]. According to Khalil Ali Khan Ashk of the Fort William College in what is now Kolkata, India, Mahmud of Ghazna used to listen to the daastaan’s narration and it inspired him to formulate strategies for conquering fortresses. These strategies, by the trickster Amar Ayyar, can still be found in the text of Daastaan-i-Amir Hamza.
But it is yet another variety of stories, narrated to cure and heal people, that is the subject of this column.
In Mehr Chand Khatri Mehr’s Qissa Azar Shah-o-Saman Rukh Bano, translated into English as The Qissa of Azar Shah and Saman Rukh Bano, King Azar Shah’s new wife Saman Rukh Bano is poisoned by her rival, and medications and prayers fail to restore her to health.
Healers tell Azar Shah that a certain holy man called Sheikh Sanaan could possibly cure her through his ministrations. Sheikh Sanaan summons his disciples to narrate stories to Saman Rukh. The first disciple tells Saman Rukh the story of the adventurer Malik Muhammad and the pari [fairy] princess Giti Afroz, which unfolds in the human world and Paristan.
The pari Giti Afroz puts Malik Muhammad through many trials of loyalty, as punishment for transgressing the bounds set by her for their relationship. Despite these hardships, Malik Muhammad remains steadfast in his love.
As Saman Rukh listens to Malik Muhammad’s engrossing tale, she begins to recover and her faculties, which had declined from poisoning, are slowly restored.
But just as Saman Rukh becomes fully engaged with the qissa and yearns to know how Malik Muhammad’s story will end, Sheikh Sanaan orders a pause to its narration and asks his second disciple to narrate another tale of adventure.
This disciple tells the tale of Zarivand, a down-on-his-luck young man whose love and loyalty are tested through a great sacrifice asked of him.
While Saman Rukh longs to hear the end of Malik Muhammad’s tale, she listens with enough attention to Zarivand’s tale to point out a weakness in the plot. The narrator provides a perfectly good rationale, but the reader realises that the weak point was purposely planted, to check whether or not the person listening to the story had attained discernment enough to discover it.
Like a symphony conductor, Sheikh Sanaan orchestrates the delivery of the stories in a way that engages Saman Rukh’s mind and heart, and helps him diagnose the state of her faculties. Zarivand’s tale soon ends and Sheikh Sanaan finally allows the narration of Malik Muhammad’s adventures to resume, by the end of which Saman Rukh Bano is fully restored to health.
The Qissa of Azar Shah and Saman Rukh Bano is not the only qissa to be structured and narrated for healing.
Mir Amman, in his prefatory notes for the qissa Baagh-o-Bahaar [The Garden and the Spring] — a retelling of the Qissa Chahahr Dervish [Tale of the Four Dervishes] — writes that it was initially narrated by Amir Khusro when his master, Nizamuddin Auliya, fell ill.
Amir Khusro narrated Qissa Chahahr Dervish by his bedside to divert his mind. After a few days, Nizamuddin Auliya attained full health. On the day he took his bath of recovery, he blessed the qissa, declaring that whoever would listen to its narration would likewise find health.
A side note: The discovery of the weak point in the plot in The Qissa of Azar Shah and Saman Rukh Bano made me more aware as a student of classical literature.
The qissas which have come down to us through oral tradition have gone through numerous retellings and innovations at the hands of master storytellers, and we have yet to fully understand the many purposes to which they may have been employed during different periods in history. Before we criticise their structure, we must allow for the possibility of their still undocumented uses.
Another such text is the Qissa-i-Pur-Asar, Daafa-i-Dard-i-Nim-Sar [An Efficacious Qissa, the Dispeller of Migraines] compiled by Syed Amjad Husain in 1885. According to the compiler, sometime in the 19th century, an epidemic of migraine spread among the people and, although all manner of cures and invocations were employed, nothing brought relief.
Finally, one of Syed Amjad Husain’s aunts, who knew a qissa which cured migraine, was sent for and, with her narration, she healed everyone who listened to it.
The haunting qissa describes bird-like creatures called adh kapari [half-head] — a term also used for migraine — which make a nest in a raja’s palace. The rani invites trouble by killing the young of the adh kaparis, in retribution for which the royal offspring begin dying of migraine, until only one girl is left.
The parents marry off this underage daughter to a Brahmin to send her away from them and whatever curse had fallen upon their family. One day, the parents decide to visit their daughter, and set out on the journey bearing a gift. While the curse that had befallen them had not yet been lifted, we can imagine a happy ending, as the qissa comes to a stop after proposing the formula for the cure of migraine.
My friend Professor Abdur Rasheed has coined the term ilaaj bil qissa [cure by qissa] for this literary phenomenon. I would venture that, even if one is sound of body and mind, a book of qissas is the best restorative one could have.
After all — as recorded by Amjad Husain — where both medicine and supplications could not alleviate migraines, it was a qissa which brought the people relief.
The columnist is a novelist, author and translator.
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, December 4th, 2022