Retelling by Surendra Prakash

‘A bird in cage sings no more, Hits hard against the door’

While writing this poem, I suddenly remembered a story, ‘Retelling’, written in Urdu by Surendra Prakash, that I read a few months back. The story, just like my poem stresses on the importance of freedom. Be it a bird, animal or man, liberty is indeed a cherished possession. All of us need a free flow of energy for our physical and mental well being and any obstruction can play havoc with our lives.

But, what would happen if an entire nation is suppressed under the tyrannical paws of a mighty dictator, expression of thoughts denied, freedom of movement restricted. Understandably, the frustration of citizens squirming under the tortures of such an oppressive regime would attempt to find out a whole new way of expressing themselves. And, perhaps, that’s why the Emergency imposed in India in 1970s spurred a number of fictional literary experiments, trying to capture the spirit of people, providing a well deserved outlet to their bottled up emotions.

Retelling is one such creative attempt, that I read sometime ago. The story struck me with its unique approach of creating a clever plot, that effortlessly switched from one era to other, drawing a parallel between the so called modern Democracies and the infamous Slave era of Eyptian Autocracies.

Retelling begins with the narrator chancing upon a rare edifice in the museum, written in Ancient ‘Misr’ language, that no one has been able to decipher till date. But, the narrator, a modern day journalist, can make perfect sense out of the strange symbols engraved on the edifice. He remembers a long forgotten tale about a slave Tilqarmus, presumably himself in an earlier birth.

The story, unveiled by narrator, is set in Ujaneer in Egypt and begins with the description of a caravan man Farid-ibn-e-Saeed, who saves Tilqarmus from die hard slavery and gives him a place in his caravan as a musician. Soon, the caravan lands in Ujaneer, the country of benevolent King Bazfadi, who believes in superior principles of hospitality and honor, and provides businessmen with all the paraphernalia essential for trade.

Ujaneer is rich, its citizens are happy and treasuries overflow with money. But, the Queen Shabrozi is not content with sitting on one side of the throne. She wants to claim it fully as her own, and murders the King with the help of a corrupt minister.

Soon, serenity of land is replaced with mad mayhem. The Queen bewitches young Tilqarmus and carries out a perfect dictatorial regime while following all the diktats of democratic constitution. To appease people, she even places the poor slave on the throne as a puppet king. The Queen bears the stamp of destruction, while Tilqarmus wiggles under her thumb.

Retelling aptly describes constitution as the holy grail, supporting devils and gods alike. Be it a Hero or a villain, all draw power from the same source, it is the energy of their supporters that sustains them. Be it a relationship or a political arena, everyone fights to claim the best berth and often ends up sacrificing others for his own guilty pleasures.

I liked Retelling for its ability to expose tyrannical tantrums of a person spoilt with power. I had an eerie feeling that the plot had similarities with the Emergency era in India and can be easily termed as a social and political satire. It resonates with a potent combination of history and politics set against the basic human instinct to garner power.

Surendra Prakash effortlessly creates a worthy satire oscillating between myth and reality. However, at times, I felt that lust element was forced into the story and it does take away some of its beauty. Further, a story spanning across more than 40 pages can hardly be termed as a short story. For me, it was quite long, bordering on the threshold of a novella.

But, all said and done, Retelling is indeed a good one time read and would not disappoint a reader who loves intermingling of legends in modern setting.

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