Books: New spin on old yarn

The Blue Bedspread by Raj Kamal Jha Picador, pounds 12.99, 228pp, When Dreams Travel by Githa Hariharan Picador, pounds 12.99, 276pp, It's as ancient as the millennium, and as modish as this season's fashions. Aamer Hussein looks at the revival of the oriental story-sequence - modern fiction's answer to the pashmina shawl a strange time-capsule that holds the secrets of the old East End and its changing peoples
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A vampire, from his place on a king's shoulder, tells him 25 stories during a night-long journey. A parrot recounts another 70 tales to keep a woman from being unfaithful to her absent husband. Summaries of the latest novels from Delhi, the new capital of WorldLit in English? The reader may be excused for the assumption. But the first is the story-sequence Vikram and the Vampire, from the 11th-century Sanskrit compendium, The Ocean of Story; the second, the Parrot's Tales from 14th-century Persia.

Such works, as Richard Burton wrote in the preface to his translation of Vikram and the Vampire, were the true precursors of the modern novel via their influence on, for example, Boccaccio and Chaucer. Not surprising, then, that increasing numbers of writers have been rediscovering the novel-as-treasury; and that Indian novelists in particular - given the heritage of such works in their native languages and 19th-century Orientalist translations - should be attracted to reviving the form. Raj Kamal Jha's The Blue Bedspread and Githa Hariharan's When Dreams Travel show us what intriguing forms the novel conceived as a chain of stories can take, when filtered through the imagination of two very different writers.

Jha's debut is the more elliptical and more consciously contemporary. When two pieces from it were published in the Indian journal Civil Lines a few years ago, the biographical note announced the author's forthcoming collection of short stories. This may be it - but Jha has made it a novel by resorting to the old device of a framing narrative. His plot remains fragmented. His fashionably spare, poetic prose often seems to be translated from French or German. His setting - Calcutta, the mother of all cities - is its only concession to Indian-ness or to conventional realism.

But Calcutta, too, in spite of diligently-mentioned locations, ultimately becomes every overcrowded metropolis, the memory-haunted backdrop of an alienated mind's musings. A solitary, unnamed narrator, middle-aged and burdened with paunch, spends one night writing stories (from his life, from hearsay or fantasy) to pass on to an infant niece from whom, at dawn, he is destined to be separated. Around him, several million silences sleep.

Slowly - very slowly - the reader is allowed to piece together his story (or a version of it, since chronology is hazy and bewildering). A child, sexually abused by his father, finds comfort in his slightly older sister's arms, on the blue bedspread. He does not, though, bother to protect his sister when she too is mistreated by their father. In the background, their abused mother hovers, signalling to a stranger across the street, celebrating the snowfall. She is written out of the narrative early.

The father continues to drink, drink, drink. The boy falls in lust (or maybe someone else does) but, when they cannot find an appropriate place to consummate their passion, his girlfriend blinds her mother so that they can get on with it at her place. (This may, though, be someone else's story.) His sister finally runs away to make a home with a lover, and allows her mother-in-law to make love to her. (This may be merely a tall tale.) Many years later, the sister finds her way back to her brother for a day and a half and walks away pregnant. (But the child she bears may be someone else's.) Later, the brother is summoned to a hospital to take the child from its dead mother. This is where the story begins - and ends when, after writing away the wounds of his life, he decides not only to keep the child but to announce his paternity in an enormous auditorium.

The Blue Bedspread is lyrical, oneiric, bleakly humorous. Its lack of cultural specificity or socio-political moorings is in occasionally refreshing contrast to those Indian novels which seem to be written to win prizes. However, it does - like the Sixties nouveaux romans which it resembles - privilege style over content. That is, in itself, no bad thing. But the final effect is one of ennui, of a postmodern impulse fatally diverted by its own relentless obsession with game-playing.

Githa Hariharan's third novel makes open use of a time-hallowed trope. Scheherazade herself, the Queen of Stories, is invoked (here as "Shahrzad"). We may well expect a package-tour to Angela Carter-land, with a compendium of tricks borrowed from Borges, Calvino, Tournier, Rushdie et al. The allusions are there, but Hariharan's trajectory is quite unique: a sly retake on Orientalism from within the Orient, a reclamation of the storyteller that begins with the semantics of her name (Shahrzad means "the city's daughter").

Hariharan's story begins some time after the Thousand and One Nights end. Dunyazad (the World's Daughter) arrives dressed in male garb, to search for her absent sister in Shahabad. Her brother-in-law is engaged in building a mammoth marble tomb in memory of his wife. Dunyazad befriends a storytelling slave, helps her nephew oust his father, who is then imprisoned in the monument he was constructing to his own ego.

By a sleight of hand, the legendary Shahryar (Friend of the City) fuses with the historical Shahjehan (King of the World), the actual builder of the Taj Mahal. So mystical Shahabad mirrors the real Mughal cities of Delhi and Agra; we are now in the domain of history, of male egos and female muses.

Then, over seven nights and seven days, three women play a grown-up version of a dangerous but exciting game, The Martyr's Walk. If you were talking (or writing) for your life, what would you say? Dunyazad, Dilshad and Satyasama take turns playing the woman who saves herself and others through her fiction.

Hariharan's question is, will they resurrect Shahrzad? A string of stories leads to an answer: funny and sad, political and private, one ("Nine Jewels for a Rani") reminiscent of Rushdie, another ("Rupavati's Breasts") of the Urdu writer Intizar Husain. To summarise the tales or enclose them in a radical feminist reading, although many will make it their academic duty to do so, is to denigrate their teller. Better to listen to Hariharan's tellings and retellings - in turn rich, supple, sensuous and cerebral, by the shores of her ocean of stories.

Aamer Hussein's stories, `This Other Salt', are published by Saqi Books