Do you remember any of the stories from Vikram-Betal series? The millennials I asked knew them only from the memes that float around on social media — the latest one featuring Uddhav Thackeray and Sharad Pawar. Maybe I asked the wrong millennials. The above-30 janata knows them because of the popular TV show of the ’90s starring Arun Govil as Vikram and Sajjan in hideous lipstick-wig combo as Betal.
But do they remember the stories that Betal narrated to Vikram? Nope. So there! You have a good enough reason to pick up Vetaal and Vikram: Riddles of the Undead. And you will not regret it. For a book that celebrates storytelling and listening, the author has nailed the narrative by indeed keeping the reader thoroughly engaged. It helps that the reader here is an adult and the book is seasoned with eroticism for good measure.
This Vetaal, as the author Gayathri Prabhu chooses to spell him, is a fan of stories that talk about love, lust, adultery and has a very liberal view about same-sex relationships. Very suggestive titles fan the enigma surrounding the stories. Vetaal is a spirit that inhabits corpses, can talk and has some magical powers but is mostly a harmless inhabitant of the dead. In pursuit of one such Vetaal, our valiant king Vikram sets out on a moonless night in the jungle. He finds the Vetaal, overpowers him, and starts his journey back to the ascetic (a yogi or tapasvee) who had instructed the king to bring him for a tantric ritual. To while the time away, or so he says, the Vetaal decides to tell Vikram a story on one condition — there is a riddle at the end of the story. ‘If you know the answer but remain silent, your head will explode. If you speak up, I will be free!’ And so the storytelling saga begins.
In the absence of a ‘table of contents’, a quick manual count would reveal that there are 11 stories in this book from the original Betal Pacchisi — don’t count the two off-shoot stories from the Tota-Myna story, and those based on the British author Richard F Burton’s works. Burton has the credit of translating 11 stories from Betal Pacchisi, which is a part of the Kathasaritsagara, an 11th century collection of stories in Sanskrit. Every story is a riddle. Something to do with morals, justice, logic, the prevalent social structure...and love!
Vikram, the upright and honest king, knows the answer to almost every story and just can’t keep quiet when the Vetaal prods him for it. He speaks. And Vetaal flies back to the tree he was hanging on, like a bat. Vikram goes back to capture him. Another story. Another riddle. The cycle goes on.
Until Vetaal narrates a story about a mother-daughter and father-son duo. Mother marries the son. Daughter marries the father. What is their relationship? Vetaal asks. A flummoxed Vikram stays silent. And that’s how the cycle ends.
Prabhu’s ‘playful’ retelling is indeed a fresh way of presenting folklore. She has explained the origin of Vetaal and Vikram quite gleefully. A life-like caricature of the Burton is a welcome change from the raja-rani stories. Why the preference to Vetaal in the title? Read it to crack this riddle!