(adaptation by Deepa Agarwal)
This in so many ways felt like a read that fit this season. I wanted to include some traditional stories in my reading this month since this is the time we’re celebrating Dusshera which is all about Rama defeating the demon king Ravana, about the goddess defeating a demon, and so basically about good defeating evil. While these stories aren’t about good and evil as such but about various qualities that ideal kings, and ideal humans must have (as well as I guess about human folly), but still they are traditional tales, this version being a translation of one dating back to the twelfth-thirteenth century. This is also Halloween month, and this book fits that theme as well, the main adventure leading the king to a fairly spooky cremation ground, with ghouls and corpses very much around. The vetal himself is a spirit who occupies a corpse. The cover of this one (the Puffin Classics ed) is quite perfect (and partly what attracted me to this version), King Vikramaditya with the Vetal on his back, the sinsipa tree which the vetal inhabits, an owl, a fire, skulls and bones, all done in three colours.
This story is basically about King Vikram who is charged by an ascetic with fetching a spirit, the Vetal back to him so as to conduct some rituals which will give him some extraordinary powers. Vikram sets off to do this, and after some effort in a terriifying place full of skulls and blood, body parts, and bloodcurdling shrieks, manages to catch hold of the vetal who hangs on a sinsipa (Indian rosewood/sheesham tree). No sooner does he start on his journey back, the vetal begins to recite a story, which ends with a puzzle. He tells Vikram that if he doesn’t answer the puzzle despite knowing the answer, his head will shatter to pieces. But as soon as Vikram gives an answer, the Vetal heads right back to the cremation ground, and his sinsipa tree, the process starting all over again. Vikram is patient and brave, and repeats the process, not merely one or two but twenty-four times, until finally there comes a puzzle that he can’t answer. But that isn’t the end of the adventure.
These are a fairly interesting read for me, mainly because while I was aware of the basic Vikram-Vetal storyline (from stories and TV adaptations), I had no idea how the story ended. The final riddle that Vikram really couldn’t answer, and how the consequences connected up with Vikram’s own story were the most interesting bits for me. The various stories that the Vetal narrates to Vikram, as I said, are to do with morality, and with folly—the characters are always perfect specimens in terms of looks, sometimes even qualities, or full of vice, and the riddle that is posed to Vikram is to do with who is the perfect embodiment of a particular quality or of a vice/folly. There is a lot of what people would describe as ‘insta-love’ to an extent that people are prepared to commit suicide merely after having set their eyes on someone, and a few more exaggerations, but a lot of these stories/collections that are intended to ‘teach’ are formatted in that way. Also every story pretty much begins with the place that the story is set in and its ruler, even if the ruler may not be the main character. The language that the translator/author has used to adapt the stories (this is a children’s version) also gives one a flavour of the kind of language and style of speech that the original stories would have used, which I liked. The stories that the vetal narrates I think would have probably been better had I read them one or two at a time rather than back-to-back else they begin to feel a little repetitive (even though the themes are not). And there is no answer to that final puzzle—they can’t really be, but I still would have liked to know what the thought-process would have been in that period. Still these were an interesting read for me overall, and would be a great introduction for anyone who wants to read the original at some point.