Academic journal article Marvels & Tales

When Dreams Travel: Mirrors, Frames, and Storyseekers in Githa Hariharan's Retelling of the Arabian Nights

Academic journal article Marvels & Tales

When Dreams Travel: Mirrors, Frames, and Storyseekers in Githa Hariharan's Retelling of the Arabian Nights

Article excerpt

"Through all the twists and turns, metamorphoses and transmogrifications The Arabian Nights has undergone," Marina Warner points out, "the central theme remains and remains known to every hearer and every reader" (Signs and Wonders 368). She speaks of the frame narrative of The Arabian Nights (henceforth Nights): Shahrazad telling stories to Sultan Shahryar every night till dawn, to save her life. In her novel When Dreams Travel (1999), the contemporary Indian writer Githa Hariharan has one of her characters exclaim in response to a similarly well-traversed narrative situation, "Is there no way out of this old story?" (231). The voice belongs to the slave girl Dilshad, who is lost, as the story she tells of herself goes, in the forest - another familiar, fairy-tale scenario. Yet as soon as she says these words, she sees the way out of the forest. It is her search for adventure and the desire for "unmapped territory" that have led her here (226). What instigates this question that magically delivers her from the forest is her realization that she is living a script. In the forest she has met, successively, two men - the first deceives her into marrying him with the promise that he will help her find her way, and the second, a strange, graceful, deer-man, is, in turn, seduced by her. Her story of herself has unwittingly followed two contrasting but related formulas - in her words: "the king seizes a virgin girl, the courtesan seduces a virgin boy" (231).

It is this persistent rigidity of preexisting scripts - of fairy tales, of myths, of fictions about women - that is explored in Hariharan's retelling of The Arabian Nights. Old stories continue to slip into her storytellers' tales and remain the worlds that their characters are forced to inhabit. It is, however, precisely the text's awareness of, and even complicity with, such scenarios that becomes subversive in the text. The strongest claim on the characters' dreams and fictions is posited by the frame architecture of the Nights, which serves as the structuring principle of When Dreams Travel. The novel offers a chronologically complicated frame that circles from the time of the first night, through the day after the thousand-and-first night, to years after that, and back again. This "temporal eclecticism," to borrow Stephen Benson's term ("Introduction" 4), is achieved through the use of mirrors and dreams, whether reminiscent, prophetic, or speculative, as instruments of time travel.

As Stephanie Jones points out, the novel belongs to a genealogy of contemporary reworkings of the Nights diat "embolden" Dinarzad, or Dunyazad, Shahrazad's sister.1 In these texts she is given body, voice, and agency, thus being released from her role of "audience, prompter, chorus, and heckler" (130), forever at the foot of the Sultan's bed, urging Shahrazad, "Sister, if you are not sleepy tell us one of your lovely little tales to while away the night" (Nights 39). The dynamics of Hariharan's novel denies the very possibility of Dinarzad's position - "the empty place," somehow both within and outside the text, which Western readers of the Nights found convenient to occupy and from which they could both "listen in" to Shahrazad's stories and observe an Eastern despotism "from the sidelines" (Ballister 90-91).

In Hariharan's novel we encounter a middle-aged Dunyazad, who has married Shahryar's brother, Shahzaman (as happens in longer versions of the Nights), and has lived with him in Samarkand for years but is now a widow. We see her arriving at the palace of Shahryar, who has recently become a widower himself, to discover the reasons for Shahrzad's unexpected death. There, in the fictional city of Shahabad, she assists the Sultan's son, Prince Umar, in taking over the throne to institute what is described as "a new order of things" (98), but which is only, as Dunyazad comments, another "regime" with "a tyrannical god at the head of the palace" (103). She is aided by the slave girl Dilshad, who has served Shahrzad and Shahryar, witnessed Shahrzad's death, and has intimate knowledge of the palace's structure and secrets. …

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