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In Glimpses of Bengal, a selection of Rabindranath Tagore's letters included in The Definitive Tagore (Rupa Publications, 2017), Tagore summarises the following story (letter from 24 June 1894):

There is a Persian story which I was greatly taken with when I read it as a boy—I think I understood, even then, something of the underlying idea, though I was a mere child. To show the illusory character of time, a faquir put some magic water into a tub and asked the King to take a dip. The King no sooner dipped his head in than he found himself in a strange country by the sea, where he spent a good long time going through a variety of happenings and doings. He married, had children, his wife and children died, he lost all his wealth, and as he writhed under his sufferings he suddenly found himself back in the room, surrounded by his courtiers. On his proceeding to revile the faquir for his misfortunes, they said, 'But, sire, you have only just dipped your head in, and raised it out of the water!'

I have not been able to find a story that fits this description on the web. Since Tagore mentions in other letters that he read the stories of Sinbad the Sailor as a child, I cannot exclude the possibility that he is using "Persian" in a loose sense and actually remembering a story from One Thousand and One Nights. Is anyone sufficiently familiar with either Persian literature or One Thousand and One Nights to find out which story Tagore was referring to? (I don't recognise the story, but I have never read One Thousand and One Nights in its entirety. Nor am I familiar with Persian literature.)

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This story is "The History of Chec Chahabeddin," first printed in an anonymous 1708 volume called Turkish Tales. The full title of the book reads:

Turkiſh Tales; Conſiſting of ſeveral Extraordinary Adventures with the History of the Sultaness of Perſia and the Visiers. Written Originally in the Turkiſh Language, by Chec Zade, for the Uſe of Amurath II. And now done into Engliſh.

"Amurath II" is Murad II, the 15th C. Ottoman sultan. I have been unable to identify "Chec Zade," probably Sheikh Zaïd or Zayed. The preface to Turkish Tales says he was the tutor to the Sultan:

These Tales, which the Turks call in Deriſion The Malice of Women, are taken out of Mr. Petis Library, who ſome time ſince made a Tranſlation of them: They are not therefore the bare invention of ſome French-Man, deſigning to recommend his Fictions to the World under the Umbrage of a Foreign Title, but the Work of Chec Zade, Tutor to Amurath the Second.

As the preface reveals, this was one of the books written to capitalize on the immense popularity of Antoine Galland's pioneering French translation of the Arabian Nights, the first into any European language. Galland's twelve-volume edition appeared between 1704 and 1717, but by 1706 his early volumes had already appeared in English translation. The writer clearly attempts to place Turkish Tales as an authentic work while casting Galland's rendition of One Thousand Nights and One Night as spurious.

A summary of the first half of "The History of Chec Chahabeddin" appeared in The Spectator, a daily published by Joseph Addison and Richard Steele in 1711–1712. In Issue 94, Monday, June 18, 1711, Addison writes:

It is there said, That the Angel Gabriel took Mahomet Out of his Bed one Morning to give him a Sight of all things in the Seven Heavens, in Paradise, and in Hell, which the Prophet took a distinct View of; and after having held ninety thousand Conferences with God, was brought back again to his Bed. All this, says the Alcoran, was transacted in so small a space of Time, that Mahomet at his Return found his Bed still warm, and took up an Earthen Pitcher, (which was thrown down at the very Instant that the Angel Gabriel carried him away) before the Water was all spilt.

There is a very pretty Story in the Turkish Tales which relates to this Passage. ... A Sultan of Egypt, who was an Infidel, used to laugh at this Circumstance in Mahomet's Life, as what was altogether impossible and absurd: But conversing one Day with a great Doctor in the Law, who had the Gift of working Miracles, the Doctor told him he would quickly convince him of the Truth of this Passage in the History of Mahomet, if he would consent to do what he should desire of him. Upon this the Sultan was directed to place himself by an huge Tub of Water, which he did accordingly; and as he stood by the Tub amidst a Circle of his great Men, the holy Man bid him plunge his Head into the Water, and draw it up again: The King accordingly thrust his Head into the Water, and at the same time found himself at the Foot of a Mountain on a Sea-shore. The King immediately began to rage against his Doctor for this Piece of Treachery and Witchcraft; but at length, knowing it was in vain to be angry, he set himself to think on proper Methods for getting a Livelihood in this strange Country: Accordingly he applied himself to some People whom he saw at work in a Neighbouring Wood: these People conducted him to a Town that stood at a little Distance from the Wood, where, after some Adventures, he married a Woman of great Beauty and Fortune. He lived with this Woman so long till he had by her seven Sons and seven Daughters: He was afterwards reduced to great Want, and forced to think of plying in the Streets as a Porter for his Livelihood. One Day as he was walking alone by the Sea-side, being seized with many melancholy Reflections upon his former and his present State of Life, which had raised a Fit of Devotion in him, he threw off his Clothes with a Design to wash himself, according to the Custom of the Mahometans, before he said his Prayers.

After his first Plunge into the Sea, he no sooner raised his Head above the Water but he found himself standing by the Side of the Tub, with the great Men of his Court about him, and the holy Man at his Side. He immediately upbraided his Teacher for having sent him on such a Course of Adventures, and betrayed him into so long a State of Misery and Servitude; but was wonderfully surprised when he heard that the State he talked of was only a Dream and Delusion; that he had not stirred from the Place where he then stood; and that he had only dipped his Head into the Water, and immediately taken it out again.

The Mahometan Doctor took this Occasion of instructing the Sultan, that nothing was impossible with God; and that He, with whom a Thousand Years are but as one Day, can, if he pleases, make a single Day, nay a single Moment, appear to any of his Creatures as a Thousand Years.     (pp. 346–348)

More than a century later, Gustav Weil's 1839–1842 translation of One Thousand and One Nights into German includes a story called "The Story of Shaykh Shahâb al-Dîn." I have been unable to track down an English translation, but its description in Marzolph et al.'s The Arabian Nights Encyclopedia makes clear that this is the same story as that in Turkish Tales (p. 369). Ignoring, or perhaps unaware of, this earlier source, the encyclopædists say that this particular story is found only in Weil's translation, and that his manuscript source is unknown.

I have not been able to determine where Tagore came across this story. Since Tagore, like Addison, ignores the second half of "Chec Chahabeddin," wherein the sheikh uses the basin to escape the sultan's wrath and himself leads an alternative existence, it's tempting to assume that Tagore got the story from Addison. Henry Morley's edition of The Spectator's entire print run appeared in 1891, three years before Tagore wrote his letter. Tagore may have read Addison's retelling of this story via Morley. On the other hand, Tagore says he read the story "as a boy," which makes the Morley edition too recent. Versions of the story may have circulated widely in many different languages. Tagore's father, Debendranath, knew Persian and used to read Persian literature to his sons; Tagore may indeed have come across a Persian version of the story when young.

The wide currency of this tale can be gauged by Leo Tolstoy's 1903 fable "Esarhaddon, King of Assyria," which connects this to the Biblical king. The night before Esarheddon is to execute his prisoner Lailie, a mysterious old man persuades him to enter a font and pours water over his head, with the result that Esarheddon finds himself living Lailie's life. In his preface, Tolstoy writes:

The idea of the tale Esarhaddon, King of Assyria, is not my own, but was borrowed by me from a tale by an anonymous author, printed in the German magazine Theosophischer Wegweiser, No. 5, 1903, and entitled Das best Du. (p. 21)

The "anonymous author" in turn might very likely have got the story from a long article entitled "Dreams" by C. W. Leadbeater that appeared in two parts in the November and December 1895 issues of Lucifer, an English-language publication associated with the Theosophical Society. Leadbeater himself credits his version of the story to Addison (pp. 274–275).

Marzolph et al. note that The Tale of The Two Lives of Sultān Mahmūd closely resembles the first half of "The Story of Shaykh Shahâb al-Dîn." This story appeared in J. C. Mardrus's twelve-volume 1898–1904 French translation, which was in turn translated into English by Edward Powys Mathers in 1923.

References (not including Wikipedia)

  • Addison, Joseph, and Richard Steele. The Spectator: A New Edition, ed. Henry Morley. Vol. 1. London: Routledge, 1891. Archive.org. Accessed 30 March 2021.
  • "The History of Chec Chahabeddin." Turkish Tales. Pp. 18–48. London: Jacob Tonson, 1708. Archive.org. Accessed 30 March 2021.
  • Leadbeater, C. W. "Dreams." Lucifer, vol. XVII nos. 99–100, November–December 1895, pp. 229–244, 273–287. Google Books. Accessed 30 March 2021.
  • Mathers, Powys. The Book of the Thousand Nights and One Night. Vol. IV. 1923. New York: St Martin's, 1972. pp. 14–19. Archive.org. Accessed 30 March 2021.
  • Marzolph, Ulrich, Richard van Leeuwen, and Hassan Wassouf. The Arabian Nights Encyclopedia. Vol. 1. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2004. Google Books. Accessed 30 March 2021.
  • Tolstoy, Leo. Esarhaddon and Other Tales. Trans. Louise and Alymer Maude. New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1903. Google Books. Accessed 30 March 2021.
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  • 1
    Brilliant! How did you find it? By searching, or did you recognise the story? I tried searching for it online before, but maybe didn't find the best search terms.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Mar 30 at 15:14
  • @Randal'Thor I invoked the google with the incantation "king dips head in basin of water." That brought up a bunch of irrelevant results but also the Lucifer/Theosophical Review article, which mentioned Addison. Addison in turn says "Turkish Tales" so that led to further searches. Basically it was a bunch of Googling, and I wasted entirely too much time on this answer. Hopefully Tsundoku can track down the two German sources that my lack of German prevents me from looking up.
    – verbose
    Mar 30 at 22:09

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