Not so long ago there lived a nausherwan in our midst. This immortal soul from Delhi built such a wondrous world of words around him that people came from far and wide to listen to the zephyr like narrative of this wizard of verbiage. Such was the power of his wit that even before the tale ended, listeners were drowned in irrationality and wanted nothing more out of life except a passport to the tilismic wonderland raised before them by this dazzling dastango.

His sack of stories was never empty. Like the age-old khanabadosh, this lover of tales even more than women, had wandered from place to place, gathering experiences of those he had charmed into sharing their secret view of the world with him. All the colourful experiences collected by him from one part of the world were woven into fabulous fables revolving around love, beauty, war and death and shared with those living in another part of the world.

This raconteur was quite a prince of chicanery as he appeared before the world sometimes as Kabir and sometimes as Khusro. He often pretended to be Rahim and a little later he would turn up as Dara Shikoh.

Ajeeb aadmi tha woh, such a strange man he was. Just 30 years old.

When his vagabondery directed his journey into Lucknow one day, it was the turn of the sorcerer to be bewitched. He was possessed by the experience he had in the city. He had never in his life met such human beings that befriended him in Lucknow. The words they whispered to him, touched his soul and inebriated him while his palate blushed at the feast-laden dastarkhan spread out for him morning, noon and night.

It was here on this side of the plains that the most powerful story was to be found, he felt. But the way to the heart of the most sensuous story was through a dark terrain laid with archaic language and craggy metaphors, strewn with ornate word puzzles that are a challenge to solve, he was also told. He discovered from Musharraf Ali Farooqi’s Hoshruba: The Land and the Tilism, the world’s first magical fantasy epic previously lost to time but now translated into English, that not many have gone across the terrain in the last hundred years even as the tale gets more and more greedy for listeners.

That realization made this lad born in 1987 to a Punjabi family want to dive deeper into the sea of stories, in search for the story of stories. His ancestors had migrated from Lahore during the partition of South Asia in 1947 and it is surely from his elders that he must have been first introduced to the Urdu language. But when he heard Urdu in Lucknow he was floored. The language spoken here made him feel that he was wedded to the city.

He returned as often as he could to the birthplace of Tilism-e-Hoshruba, that runs into 8000 pages and was written in Urdu between 1883 and 1893 in Lucknow. He came across many a similar text to this excerpt from the English translation of Tilism-e-Hoshruba by Farooqi:

As Mahrukh got busy with plans to ward off Bahar’s magic, a cold breeze like the breath of the messiah wafted in. Mahrukh’s entire camp broke into shouts of Spring is here! Spring is come! Mahrukh and the commanders of her army involuntarily came out of their pavilions. They saw Bahar’s magic peacock with emerald feathers preening outside the camp and the sorceress princess in the saddle.

When Mahrukh’s camp saw Princess Bahar fly on her peacock into the garden, all of them followed her inside. They beheld a luminous crystal platform that seemed to be made of light. A canopy of strung pearl rose over the platform. An ermine carpet was spread on the floor. Beautiful, moonlike cupbearers were gathered with goblets and ewers. They regarded Princess Bahar seated on a jewel-encrusted throne with lamps and bouquets placed before her. She wore a luxurious dress covered with jewels and held a jewel-enchased stick in her hand…Bahar’s beauty was so astonishing that even charming fairies were fit only to be her slave girls. Her hair was a net for the birds of lovers’ souls; it entrapped the hearts of her admirers helplessly in its locks.

In Lucknow he worked with Himanshu Bajpai, a local journalist and lover of poetry on the very romantic life and times of Majaz, one of the city’s most revolutionary Urdu poets from the 20th century. Once this dastan had ended he heard the audience cry, O’ dastango of our time, we admire you and are ready to sacrifice the self like moths on the burning taper of your resplendent aspect. Then he led one and all into one captive world of illusion then another. After doing that he vanished. Some say into the sea. Following in the footsteps of the story stories?

Since 9, May 2018 Ankit Chadha is not to be found anywhere. But the act of making up stories and reciting stories must go on irrespective of Ankit’s monumental absence. Therefore his admirers laid out a stage anyways at Lucknow’s Bewajah Cafe, and invited an audience.

In his non-presence, a charming photograph of Ankit was placed on the snow-white sheets of the masnad against a bolster, also in white cover. An earlier recording of Ankit’s voice played its part as Himanshu dressed in usual muslin finery sat beside the photograph. With tears shamelessly streaming down his face, Himanshu forced himself to recite his part for the stage performance of Daastaan-e-Aawaargi based on the life and times of Majaz. Even when the lines were meant to make listeners merry, the audience sobbed along with Himanshu despite Ankit having said in another show that death is not to be mourned. After all the soul remains here forever. It is only the body that goes away.

Such are the strange ways of the enchanted world. One minute here and the next minute moved to another enchantment, elsewhere.