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  • The Death of Sheherzad
  • Intizar Husain
    Translated by Rakhshanda Jalil (bio)

Sheherzad told over a thousand stories and gave birth to three sons in a thousand and one nights. The listener prospered and so did the teller. The teller of these stories was Sheherzad, who was granted life through her stories and, in turn, allowed countless virgins to live—virgins who would have been queen for a night and had their heads lopped off in the morning. The listeners were Duniyazad and Emperor Shaharyar, whose life was changed irrevocably by these stories. The ill will he bore towards all womankind was washed away by Sheherzad’s stories. He renounced his practice of marrying a girl for a night and having her head chopped off the morning after.

There was great rejoicing in the kingdom. The capital was bedecked and a grand feast was organised. But Sheherzad was in such a state of befuddlement that she continued to look askance at the change in her situation. How could she forget those thousand and one nights when she had told her stories under the cloud of death? And when she began to accept that those nights were truly a thing of the past, a great amazement overtook her. She could hardly believe how she had kept such a long vigil and spent so many sleepless nights and spun such yarns that had caught the emperor’s fancy. How did she dream up so many fables? They must have come from up above, by God’s grace. Finally, she could contain herself no longer. One night, she made Duniyazad sit beside her and said, “Dear sister, now when I think about it, my mind clouds over. I spent a thousand and one nights telling stories! Tell me, how did it happen?”

Duniyazad answered, “Sister, I myself am amazed that you had such a treasure trove of stories buried in your memory. Those nights were terrifying. My heart would beat with terror at what the new dawn would bring. I could see Death hovering close, always close by. But those dark and fearful nights were lit up, as though by lamps, by the stories you told. Once you started telling your stories, one never knew how time passed and the night slipped by. And the emperor . . . He would sit spellbound, listening to your tales.”

Sheherzad said, “Sister, I was lost to the world. All I could think was that I had to tell a story and save my life each night. But once I began, I would get so engrossed in it that all thoughts of staying alive would recede. Then, the only thought that spurred me on was that I must bring my story to its conclusion.” [End Page 123]

“Your story did reach its conclusion. And what a conclusion! By the end of it, the emperor was a transformed man. From a misogynist who had a woman’s head axed every morning to a husband who is devoted to you— he is a new man!”

And the two sisters relived those nights of terror and uncertainty, weeping with sadness. Then they wiped their tears and offered thanksgiving to the Lord for ending their misfortune. God had given Sheherzad the strength and wisdom to tell those stories, those stories that helped save their lives.

Talking to her sister and sharing her sadness and fear made Sheherzad feel better. Soon, the festivities wound down. The kingdom slowly returned to normal, and things continued as before. The thousand and one nights became a thing of the past. Sheherzad, as Emperor Shaharyar’s favourite wife and the mother of three charming princes, reigned over the harem. Duniyazad decided to forsake marriage and motherhood, and to live in her sister’s shadow.

Sheherzad’s sons grew up. They were married with great pomp and festivity. Maidens as beautiful as the moon entered the palace as their brides. In due course, the womb of each was blessed, and flower-like little girls were born to them. As the girls grew up, Duniyazad noticed that they were more interested in listening to stories than in fun and games. She said to them, “Girls, if you are so interested in...


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pp. 123-127
Launched on MUSE
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