Death of the Author and the Reader: Comparing Arabian Nights and Baital Pachisi

I find ‘meta’ books fascinating: books about narrative, meaning, reading, storytelling, and writing. Which is one of the reasons I’m a big fan of Jorge Louis Borges. I love The Book of Sand, the Library of Babel, and many other works by him. For the same reason, I also love Umberto Eco and Italo Calvino. But I’ll write about these writers and the works that most appealed to me another day.

Where did my love for this type of fiction and writing in general come from? I think it comes from an amazing insight my father shared when I was young, where he drew a parallel between the narrative structures of The Baital Pachisi and the Arabian Nights.

Both are very well-known, popular works, but depending on where you are located you are probably more familiar with one or the other. Just to be safe, let me therefore introduce each of these works briefly.

One Thousand and One Nights

The origin of the work is relatively obscure. Translated first into French at the start of the 18th century, the work was certainly around for centuries already, and was probably composed somewhere between the 9th century CE and the 13th century CE. Written/composed originally in Arabic, and containing some of the most popular stories and characters around the world, including Aladdin, the work is typically associated with the Islamic golden age.

More commonly known as Arabian Nights, this is a classic multi-layered work using the ‘story within story’ structure. The frame story is about a king, Shahryār, who is disillusioned after his (first) wife has been unfaithful to him, and has since been on a nasty, vengeful path: he marries a new woman every day, and has her executed in the morning, before she has a chance to betray him. His latest bride, Scheherazade, who is the daughter of his own vizier (minister or chief administrator), comes up with a novel approach when faced with death: she starts telling him a story. Crucially, though, the tale is unfinished when the sun rises, and the king decides to postpone her execution, since he wants to know how the story ends.

In the course of a thousand and one nights, then, Scheherazade employs a clever structure to weave a complex web of tales. Like the famous sequence from the movie Inception, there are stories within stories that go multiple layers deep. The stories are full of magic, adventure, romance, and fantasy. And they’re of course captivating, which explains why the book has endured for so long, and is known so well globally.

Baital Pachisi

Popular even today in India, this work, originally composed in Sanskrit, has similarly obscure origins. Somadev’s famous work, Kathasaritsagara composed in the 11th century CE, probably contains the first recorded version of Baital Pachisi, although the work almost certainly goes back a few centuries.

(I use the term ‘work’ rather loosely when referring to _ Baital Pachisi_ as well as Arabian Nights. For oral literature that’s composed over centuries by an entire society rather than a specific individual author, to some extent the concepts of versions and editions are rather hard to apply, as is the term ‘work’ which denotes a singular well-defined entity.)

The narrative structure of Baital Pachisi is again interesting. The frame story is simple: A powerful sorcerer needs to capture a particular spirit, a pishach (similar to a demon) in order to carry out an important ritual. He goes to king Vikramāditya for help, and the king promises that he will himself capture Baital and bring him back. Baital is a powerful spirit that hangs upside down in a tree in a remote place, and the king has to march there each time, capture the spirit, lift him onto his back, and then march back to the kingdom.

Baital takes advantage of this opportunity, and starts telling Vikramāditya a new story each day. But there’s a trap: each story ends in a riddle, and the rules are fascinating. To quote from the wikipedia:

If Vikrama cannot answer the question correctly, the vampire consents to remain in captivity. If the king knows the answer but still keeps quiet, then his head shall burst into thousand pieces. And if King Vikrama answers the question correctly, the vampire would escape and return to his tree.

I’d correct the term ‘vampire’ to (at a minimum) ‘spirit’ in that quote, but moving on.

Comparison of Narrative Structures

So if we now consider the two works together, it’s easy to immediately draw some insights. First of all, both of these books have a few things in common:

  1. The structure of the frame story itself uses simple, relatable units of time to measure progression. In Baital Pachisi, each story told in the course of a walk that is repeated, and between two locations that are known to the reader, while in Arabian Nights each storytelling session takes place from night to dawn.

  2. Both stories are told orally. This isn’t just a reflection of the time in which these works were composed. I think both works send the message that that the act of telling the story and engaging the listener is as important as coming up with a story.

  3. In both the works, the storyteller and the listener —or writer and reader in our contemporary parlance—are alone. As in, this is an intimate, close relationship that cuts them off from the rest of the world. Any voracious reader I think would attest to how genuine this feels: the intimate, private relationship between the reader and the writer is a universe of its own, and it is no accident that both of these works make this central to the narrative structure.

  4. In both cases, there is a lot at stake. In Arabian Nights, the life of the author is at stake, while in Baital Pachisi the life of the reader is at stake.

  5. n Arabian Nights, the author only lives as long as the reader is interested. If the reader loses interest, the author dies. This is a powerful metaphor for the the relationship between the the author and the reader.

  6. In Baital Pachisi, the focus is on the reader’s comprehension. The reader must understand the story and the message, and, most importantly, be honest about the understanding and not be silent. Baital Pachisi demands active participation from the reader.

While Arabian Nights is bit more straightforward at the frame story level, Baital Pachisi in comparison has complex layers: Is Baital telling the King stories with easy riddles to start with? The king is smart, and is able to answer each riddle, each day. Baital then escapes, and the whole thing is repeated the next day. Is Vikram being penalised for his comprehension as a reader, and for being able to answer correctly? Or is it actually a reward, in the sense that he now gets to hear another story the next day?

Compared to Baital Pachisi, Arabian Nights offers far more complexity in terms of narrative layers. While Baital Pachisi doesn’t rely on the interlocked, layered stories method, Arabian Nights takes this technique to a whole new level.

The Big Stakes: Death of the Author and Reader

It’s important to note that both the readers—Vikramāditya in Baital Pachisi and Shahryār in Arabian Nights—work perfectly as proxies for the actual reader.

In Baital Pachisi, if YOU, the reader, fail to understand the story, you fail as a reader, and there are no more stories for you. As reader, you die. But if you do understand, you must be honest, and the reward is that you live—for a little bit longer—as the reader. And you get to listen to one more story.

Similarly, when you are reading Arabian Nights, whether Scheherazade lives to see another sunrise depends on whether you are hooked as a reader. If you lose interest, close the book, and never pick it up again, she dies. This is a big responsibility. And it’s on you, the reader, as much as it is on Scheherazade, the writer.

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I write about technology, user experience, product design, and more. I also review some (not all) of the books I read.