Published on 13th February, 2022, in Mid-day.
For nearly 2,000 years, Arab traders used the monsoon winds to travel across the sea to India. Along the Western coasts, in Kerala, Karnataka and Goa, they met people who allowed them to marry their daughters, but did not let them take these wives back home. These were matrilineal communities, where the son-in-law lived with the wife in her house. She gave him shelter while he was at the port. He gave her children, who belonged to her, not him.
From India, the Arabs took cotton, sugar and spices to be sold in the Mediterranean. They also took the idea of the placeholder zero, the decimal system, concepts such as infinity and calculus. Indian merchants had invented the remittance system known as Hundi, by which you could deposit money with one banker in one port and collect money from another banker in another port. In the Islamic world, this came to be known as the Hawala system, which enabled merchants to take money across the sea, without fearing pirates. Stories were exchanged too and retold as they were narrated in India: big stories located within bigger stories.
Here is the frame story of Suka Saptati, a Sanskrit collection of 70 erotic tales told by a parrot to a bored merchant’s wife.
The merchant was going on a long voyage across the sea and feared his young and beautiful wife would be unfaithful. So he begged his old friend, a parrot, to stop his wife from breaking the marriage laws. Every evening, the bored wife would want to step out of the house and find a lover for herself, the parrot would tell her an entertaining erotic story until she fell asleep. In this way, it told her 70 stories, until the merchant returned from his voyage, carrying gifts and love for his bored wife.
Now, here is a similar frame story from the Arabian Nights, involving a king who doubts the faithfulness of wives.
The king found out that his wife was unfaithful. So he decided he would marry a virgin every evening, enjoy the night with her and kill her at dawn. That way he would not give his wife the chance to be unfaithful. Finally, he married an intelligent girl who figured out a way to protect herself. At night, when the king lay in her arms, she would tell him a story but never complete it the same night, forcing the king to keep her alive the next day till he heard the end of the story. But when night came, the intelligent girl, now the queen, would end one story and start several more, so delightful that in order to know the ending of those stories, the king would spare her for another night. Thus, a thousand and one nights were spent listening to stories, by the end of which the king learnt to trust and love his wife.
Both stories capture the anxiety of sea-faring merchants wondering if their wives back home had other lovers. Maybe this is why Hindu merchants stopped crossing the sea. Those who did lost their caste. Travelling was outsourced to Arabs who controlled the Indian Ocean until the arrival of the Portuguese 500 years ago.