As the hours of midnight ticked by, the Vetaal, hanging upside down on
a branch of the coral tree in the graveyard, waited for the arrival of King
Vikramaditya. Vikramaditya will have to come, for the story is already written.
Jnanasheela, the false yogi, is waiting in the story to murder Vikramaditya; the
Vetaal has to save him from Jnanasheela. And when Vikramaditya is thus saved,
the Vetaal will get his liberation as well as salvation. In order to bring about all
this, several stories will have to be told. For the questions raised by all the
stories except one, Vikramaditya has to find the answers. Only then, can the
Vetaal reveal the secret that Jnanasheela is not a yogi, but an evil wizard. Only
then, can Vikramaditya kill the evil wizard and attain all the powers. Only then
can the Vetaal hope for his liberation that is to come after two thousand years.
See how everything depends on stories, on the answers to the riddles of the
stories! So Vikramaditya has to come to listen to the stories.
The story needs the Vetaal as well as Vikramaditya.
The characters of the stories that are already written are really helpless.
They cannot get out of the fixed pattern, however much, they may want to.
Many such characters long for some writer of the future generation to help
them by upsetting the story pattern, or by changing its direction by setting the
characters on a different route. In fact, that is the only hope they have.
The Vetaal, too, cherishes such a hope. A good day may come when he
can exchange his role for Vikramaditya’s through the postmodern experiment
of some aspiring writer. Then, he will escape from the thirty-year old graveyard
life, from the smoke rising from pyres, from the smell of burning flesh, from
the sound of bones that break in fire, from those who are enriched in
souls. Then he may be able to hold as slave King Vikramaditya himself, just as
the king is going to hold him a slave in this story. A good day may come when
he can put away the stories of Lord Shiva and tell his own stories – when he can
become the author of his own story.
It is never encouraging for a person who has a mind full of stories to live
in the graveyard, for he loses the opportunity to compose stories that smell of
life. The Vetaal is in such a plight now. So he, suppressing the stories inside,
waits for the arrival of Vikramaditya.
Though he is thus waiting for him, he will have to fight Vikramaditya
and resist him when at long last he may choose to come. Superhuman powers
are not supposed to yield that easily to worthless human beings. Though
Vikramaditya is not a worthless human being, the Vetaal will have to put a
show of resistance before submitting to him. There must be a fight during which
the branches of the trees have to break with uncanny sound, the restless souls
have to flutter in the sky in the form of bats and a single star has to stand
stunned in the vale of clouds in the sky. After the fight, the end of which is
already decided, the Vetaal will have to surrender to Vikramaditya. He will
have to tell stories to him, lying curled up on his shoulders. At the end of the
last story he will have to pretend to recognize the king.
Yes, the Vetaal knows every step by heart; he has repeated them so
many times for each reader of each age.
Vikramaditya:- You are fed up, aren’t you? I know how boring it is to
tread the same track again and again, knowing the story so well. When do we
escape from all these – from the journey to and fro the cemetery , from the
same answers to be given to the same stories, from the two thousand years of
life to be split equally between the kingdom and the forest, from the
Santaanavallies, Rasikaranjinies and the other hundreds of women waiting for
The Vetaal:- If you will allow me, we can perhaps try to reshape our
fates in a quite different way.
Vikramaditya:- How could that be possible? Remember, we ourselves
are the figments of someone else’s imagination.
The Vetaal:-Why don’t we exchange our roles on a mutual
understanding? I am actually tired of hanging head downwards mutual in this graveyard.
Fed up repeating all those stories that brought upon me this plight. So why
don’t you play my part for a change?
Vikramaditya:- I to play your role? Do you know who I am? The son of
Vidyasaagara, the famous scholar, born of Princess Kalaavati! The one, who
shocked the world at the time of birth itself by displaying the signs of the future.
Emperorhood! True that I crave for a change from the trodden track, but how
can I be you, the resident of the cemetery? I can’t hang upside down from the
tree and inhale the smoke rising from the burning pyres. Did you really think I
would give you my role as the Emperor and take upon myself your role of the
goblin? Excuse me, my friend, let us start the story proper. Let me fight with
you in the same old way, and make you surrender. I am sorry, there is no other
way, but to walk on the same old boring track.
With a sigh, the Vetaal slipped down from the tree to the shoulders of
Vikramaditya. Vikramaditya was taken aback at the lack of the usual show of
resistance, but started walking without showing his surprise. He could understand
that the Vetaal was annoyed. But who would want to be a Vetaal, even if, the
normal life is dull and monotonous? Vikramaditya was of the firm belief that
the exchanges he makes should be beneficial to himself.
The Vetaal lay silently on his shoulders thinking of the accursed moment
in the past, when he, as usual, had entered the kitchen of the temple to take
home the cooked rice that had been offered to the deity. It was then, that he
overheard the stories that Lord Shiva was narrating to Goddess Parvati. He renarrated
them to his wife, who, broadcast them to the whole world. This brought
upon him the wrath of Lord Shiva, who cursed him to be the Vetaal. But, coming
to think of it, what wrong has his wife done? Stories are meant to be told; they
need listeners / readers, as well as, critics. She had heard the inner cry of the
story, to be handed on to others, and had only helped in its propaganda. Lord
Shiva need not have become so angry about it; he could have seen it as the
good gesture of an ideal reader. It is said that in Kaliyuga each writer will have
his or her own means of propaganda— own literary agents, own managers, own
translators, even awards of their own, which they give themselves through others.
Anyway, his wife did not go to that extent. The stories, she propagated, were
not even the ones written by herself or her husband.
When all is said and done, the stories that the god of gods told his wife
were not that excellent. Even, a Vetaal, would hesitate to repeat some of them.
If the narrator of the stories felt the need to hide them from the world, the
reason must be his lack of self-confidence.
The Vetaal shuddered a bit. Whom does he dare to refer to as the narrator
sans self-confidence? Isn’t He the greatest of all the story-tellers?
Vikramaditya felt the Vetaal’s shudder on his own shoulders and asked
him:- “Why don’t you begin? Twenty stories have to be told. I have to run
twenty times to and fro the cemetery and catch you twenty times. And then I
have to listen to your story as the twenty-first one. Only then can I enter my
own story. Please don’t waste time”.
The First Story : Padmaavati
The Vetaal began the first story.
Lord, this story has taken place in recent times in an ordinary democratic
country. The country can be called by any name – for instance, Deavapuram.
Vikramaditya:- One second, Vetaal, why do you place the story in a
democratic set up, too advanced for us? Have you decided to be a modern
The Vetaal:- King Vikramaditya, we have come to the mutual agreement
that the trodden track is boring. But, you have made it clear that you will not
exchange your role for mine. So, please permit me, to make a harmless deviation
from the original story. Anyway, we have to go over all the stories again. Why
not try for a slight change, keeping the tangential connection with the original?
Vikramaditya:- ( Thoughtfully ) Well, I think it is okay. Let us see how
the first story turns out; the rest we will decide later.
The Vetaal:- With your permission I am taking the story to the latter half
of the twentieth century. Padmaavati, the heroine of the story, is the only daughter
of the Chief Minister of Devapuram. Let us say that she is studying in a women’s
college. When the story begins, she is in the Indian Coffee House with a friend,
having a second helping of strawberry ice cream. Slowly her eyes turn to a
young man and his friend at the next table. The young man, it must be mentioned,
had been trying out monkey-like pranks for a long time to get her attention.
Vikramaditya:- Wait a bit. See, to be in tune with the deviation in your
narrative style, I have shifted my reader- response to the twentieth century that
is brimming over with literary theories. So let me warn you, dear Vetaal, your
story is headed towards payinkili, sort of Mills and Boons style.
The Vetaal:- Lord, all stories will be payinkilies in the final assessment.
I shall compensate for it in the typical modern way with an occasional sprinkling
of politics or philosophy.
Vikramaditya:- Oh no! Don’t make me carry politics and philosophy,
too, on top of you. Already your weight is on the increase; you seem to be
having a nice time in the cemetery. Okay, let it be payinkili; please go on.
The Vetaal:- Padmaavati told her friend Sharadaamani thus : ‘ Look at
the next table. See the young rascal in the blue tee-shirt with the writing Love is
Dangerous ? He had been following me for a long while. I think he is struck by
the God of Love. Shall we play with him for a while?’ Sharadaamani replied:‘
Why don’t you set your daddy’s detectives on him to find out who he is; it
would be safer that way.’ Padmaavati retorted:-‘ I said play – not love. Just a
sport to kill time.’ Saying so, she scribbled something on the paper napkin of
the Coffee House and got up with it. As she walked by, swinging her voluptuous
hips, she looked at him through the dark glasses and carelessly put the napkin
on his lap. The young man took it, looked it over, and, not comprehending
anything, said with a throbbing heart to his friend:-‘ Ramadas, do you see what
she has written here? 432109305298. It is a code. What may it be? I am dying
to know what it is, the fool that I am.’ Ramadas, the wiser of the two, strained
his brain and solved the riddle. He said:-‘ See, today is 5th February. The last
digits 5298 can be 5-2-98. If so, the 930 before it may be an indicator of time—
9.30. Before confirming it we must find out what the first digits stand for.’ He
made the bearer bring the telephone directory and found that one of the residential
numbers of the Chief Minister was 43210. He told his friend:- ‘The message is
that you must get in touch with her at 9.30 tonight in the number 43210.’ The
eyes of Premachandran–that was the name of the young man–bulged out of
their sockets in surprise and he forgot the warning on his tee-shirt: Love is
Lord, why should I say more? Outwitting the gunman and the security
guards of the Chief Minister, Premachandran and Padmaavati had their amorous
meetings several times. Of course, they did not go round the trees singing duets,
but they did so many other mischiefs. Padmaavati exploited his love and good
nature to her benefit. When others started noticing their togetherness, they shifted
the venue of their meetings to the house of Sharadaamani. Since Sharadaamani’s
parents were employed, and since there was no servant in the house, they could
get the required privacy.
Ramadas did not like this relationship at all. He could never approve of
Premachandran’s servile attitude to her. Ramadas was a young man, who, had
taken life very seriously. He argued that Premachandran who hailed from an
ordinary family could never have a smooth relationship with a Minister’s
daughter. He even quoted from psychological texts to support his argument.
But, O King, love was blind even then.
Marriage was used even in old times to bring together opposing factions
or countries. One day, rather unexpectedly, the ministry of Devapuram fell.
Padmaavati’s father tried to form a new ministry retaining his own Chief
Ministership. He succeeded in his efforts; but one of the unwritten conditions
of his success was that Padmaavati, the sole heir to his immense wealth, should
be given in marriage to the son of the leader of another major party in the
coalition. Since the son was a very handsome medical practitioner in the United
States, Padmaavati did not see any reason why she should oppose her father’s
Vikramaditya:- After all, love is blind only for certain people!
The Vetaal:- Well Lord, you can talk with authority! Anyway, Padmaavati
was a lady full of worldly wisdom. She gave her consent to the marriage and
then sent for Premachandran. She told him:- ‘ Prem, my darling, true love is
sacrifice. A true lover, is one who, sacrifices even his own beloved. Let us
come to the practical matters. You must understand that the future of Devapuram
depends on my marriage to the Doctor. If I refuse to do so, the other party’s
leader, who in reality is my Daddy’s political rival, will withdraw his support to
the ministry. It will result in another general election. Think of the unnecessary
financial expenditure our country will have to incur! Prem, can’t we do a little
sacrifice and help our country? I shall tell you what you should do. Study well,
get a job and migrate to the United States, where love is a simple matter. We
shall be able to continue our love there.’
Premachandran, plunged into despair and frustration, took to drinks,
singing songs of separation in the cinematic way. Ramadas watched his fall
helplessly. He swore by the full glass of Premachandran that he would not let
Padmaavati be so over smart and that he would break the marriage. He discussed
his ideas with Premachandran and Sharadaamani, and formulated a plan. In
accordance, Premachandran approached Padmaavati, looking every inch a
broken-hearted lover, and requested her:- ‘You have denied me the great fortune
to be with you always. Why don’t you at least give me the honour of being the
first man to have known you? I shall live the rest of my life on the sweet memory
of those hours.’
Padmaavati’s heart melted at these words. Her clever brain told her that
her groom, who had been living in the States for so many years, may not hold
virginity to be auspicious, and also that a very personal and secret deed of hers
may not have any disastrous political consequence on Devapuram. Moreover,
she actually liked the healthy muscles of Premachandran. So she yielded to his
persuasion and the lovers became literally one.
Vikramaditya:- Vetaal, you don’t have to proceed in the documentary
manner with the story. Why don’t you add some details –er, I mean, descriptions?
The Vetaal:- I could have. But think of the twenty stories waiting to be
told. Twenty physical combats, twenty surrenders and my story as the twenty-first
one – don’t forget that all these are waiting for us. So let me proceed in the
matter-of-fact manner with this story.
In the bed-room of Sharadaamani, in the heights of ecstasy,
Premachandran made three bite-marks on the left breast of Padmaavati – of
course in accordance with the advice of Ramadas. It must be mentioned here
that Padmaavati did not even raise a cry in objection. She must have thought of
carrying the marks with her to the United States as everlasting tokens of love.
The rest is easy for us to imagine. Premachandran and Ramadas approach
the Doctor’s father with the story of the three dental marks. The father stubbornly
demands a medical examination of Padmaavati. Where even Lady Diana had
to yield, it was not possible for Padmaavati to wriggle out. Her Minister-father
had full faith that his daughter would pass any test, though it be by fire. We can
guess what happened! The Doctor, who was a lady, confirmed the story of the
dental marks and the result – the coalition ministry fell!
O King, tell me, which character in the story has the most practical
wisdom? This is my question to you. If you give the wrong answer, you will
end up as food to the Vetaal.
Vikramaditya:- (Thoughtfully) Well Vetaal, I would say that the one
full of practical wisdom in the story was Sharadaamani. Though she was involved
in the story, she was wise enough to stand away, not allowing the story to touch
The Vetaal guffawed loudly, rose from the shoulders of Vikramaditya
and flew back to the murikku tree in the cemetery. Vikramaditya ran after him,
cursing him, for he, unfortunately, did not know the art of flying.
The Second Story : Transposed Heads
The Vetaal surrendered to Vikramaditya after a very brief struggle, too
brief that it can safely be called a symbolic fight. He lay very submissively on
the shoulders of the King and told him the second story.
The Vetaal:- This story begins in a temple during the festival season. It
ends in the same temple when there is no festival. Amitraketu was one among
the thousands who frequent the temple grounds during the festival. Like the
father of Padmaavati, in the previous story, Amitraketu’s father, also was a
compound of a politician and a social reformer. Since Amitraketu was a
bachelor, he had a lot of spare time. It is natural for all young men to have a
hobby or two to kill excess time and Amitraketu’s was bird-watching. His quest
for variety among birds took him not only to the gates of Women’s Colleges,
but to the temples, too, in the festival seasons. He has made the interesting
discovery that the birds become happy and zealous after the fever of the
examination season and that then they become more responsive, too! Your
Highness, do you want to say anything?
Vikramaditya:- Yes. Please remember that I have transplanted my critical
abilities to the twentieth century to match your way of story-telling. Hence, it is
difficult for me to come to terms with a name like Amitraketu. Not only that,
Amitraketu and Women’s Colleges do not seem to go together.
The Vetaal:- You are right, my Lord. Shall we sever his head and tail
and rename him Mitra? We shall transplant the story to North India. The goddess
who plays a major role in the story can be the Kaali Maata of Ujjayini. Let me
foretell that this is a story that can take place in India or Germany, and that it
will even be dramatized.
Vikramaditya:- Instead of severing the head and the tail completely,
why don’t we call him A.K.Mitra?
The Vetaal:- Good! We have to find compatible names for the other
characters too. If Mitra’s lover is to be called Kalyaani Amma, there will be a
jarring note – unless it is a love across cultures –transcultural love!. Okay,
please, listen to the story. Mitra was roaming around in the temple-grounds
when his binoculars caught sight of a rare kingfisher of beautiful blue.
Vikramaditya:- I shall name the blue kingfisher. Let her be Poorabi !
The Vetaal:- So be it! She was an exquisite bird of the Padmini- class,
as classified by the great ornithologist, Vatsyayana, who wrote The Kaamasutra.
Mitra always had a soft corner for birds of the Padmini- class. But, what he felt
towards Poorabi was not a mere soft corner, but actual love. Yes, love at first
sight! Mitra felt the terrible surge of powerful emotions in his heart and realized
that he could not live without her. Mitra was dazed as one who recognizes
one’s mate of the previous births. He moved close to observe her better and
found that she was not alone. Her friend could not excel her in beauty, but was
attractive in her own way. She was a lesser beauty with her large eyes, even
teeth and narrow waist. Mitra classified her as the Shankhini- class. Your Majesty,
you had accused me of being too precise in the previous story; hence I am more
descriptive here— adding colour and flavour.
Vikramaditya:- This pace is alright. If you are over-descriptive, it will
upset the fixed time-pattern. I may not be able to take you to the yogi in time.
So proceed at this pace; I shall tell you where more description is needed. What
is the name of the lesser beauty?
The Vetaal:- I would like you to name the characters in this story.
Vikramaditya:- So kind of you. I wish all authors were like you. May I
name her Paarbati?
The Vetaal:- A really suitable name! As Mitra went near them and listened
to their talk, he understood that they were sisters – the daughters of a barber in
the next village. Mitra was shocked and terribly disappointed, for he knew that
being born in a high caste, his father will never give consent to marry a lowcaste
woman. In all the high castes there may not be a woman as beautiful as
this daughter of the barber. A pang of helplessness went through Mitra, for
having spent even his student days in bird-watching, he was entirely dependent
on his father. Yet, the blood –consciousness made him go to her and introduce
He said:- ‘ O pretty one, I have fallen head over heels in love with you at
the first sight itself. My name is . . .’ The pretty one said:- ‘ I know. A.K.Mitra.’
‘Er. . how did you. . .’, Mitra stammered in amazement. The younger one gave
him the answer:- ‘O respected one, I am Paarbati. She is Poorabi, my elder
sister. She was smitten by the God of Love when she saw you and so I collected
for her all your details. Since we are of the low-caste, I have asked her to give
up her desire.’ Poorabi responded in a tired, but firm voice:-“ And I have told
her that I would kill myself if I cannot fulfill my desire.”
Mitra stood stunned, overwhelmed by happiness and sorrow at the same
time. They moved away from the crowd and discussed what to do. Paarbati put
forward a good idea:-‘ Brother Mitra, the Kaali Maata of Ujjain is said to be
omnipotent. Why don’t you put the case before her? Amma will find a way for
us.’ Mitra stood in front of the fierce-looking idol in the sanctum sanctorum
and swore thus:- ‘ Kaali Maata, if I am not able to marry Poorabi, I will die
before you, beheading myself.’ Kaali Maata asked mischievously:- ‘ Suppose
you marry her?’ Mitra answered as a reflex action, without thinking:- ‘ Then
also I will behead myself.’
He was immediately shocked at the fatal slip of the tongue and decided
not to tell the girls about it.
Vikramaditya:- O Vetaal, I like the way you changed his vow. I could
never understand why the fool in the original version vowed to sacrifice his life
if he could marry his love. Had he been sensible enough to do it slightly early,
that girl would have been saved.
The Vetaal:- Yes, my Lord, I too, was prompted by such sensible thoughts.
It is only reasonable that people speak unreasonably in an emotional state. Let
me get on with the story.
Mitra roamed about with Poorabi all through the festival and enjoyed
himself; Paarbati helped them a lot by always keeping a discreet distance. After
the festival, they returned to their village taking with them the two gifts of
Mitra – a dozen red bangles and his word that he would marry Poorabi in 41
days. Back at home, he started losing weight, unable to eat or sleep well, thinking
of how to keep the word to Poorabi. He had no courage to tell his father about
her, for the father would only disinherit him and then he would have to beg,
borrow or steal in the traditional way to make a living. Poorabi had suggested
that if such a fate befell him, he should come to her village and take over her
father’s barber shop along with her. But how can an ornithologist be enamoured
of the barber’s knife, though he can be of the barber’s daughter? He tried to
forget Poorabi, but her gorgeous Padmini- structure refused to budge out of his
mind. He watched the days rolling by, quite helplessly and prayed to Kaali
Maata for some miracle to happen.
O King, incredible are the ways of the goddess! One fine day Mitra’s
father became the President of the All India Association for the Promotion of
Mixed Marriages and Secular Families. Since the Parliament elections were
drawing near, he was forced to project his leadership qualities and idealism
before the public. Mitra cleverly exploited the goddess-given opportunity and
After a long honeymoon of six months, the couple, accompanied by
Paarbati, left her village for Ujjain. When he alighted from the bus in front of
the Kaali temple, Mitra suddenly remembered his promise to the goddess. His
thoughts went to the several people who had incurred the terrible wrath of
Kaali and had suffered extreme tortures before dying in the most painful manner.
Especially, now, that Poorabi is pregnant, no one can say what form Kaali’s
wrath may take. Mitra called Poorabi aside and told her of the rash promise he
had made to the goddess. Poorabi thought for a while and said:- ‘Kaali had
been our family-goddess from time immemorial. We love her more than we
love our own mothers. No mother would ever make her daughter a widow. So
let me go inside the temple and pray to her. I shall liberate you from your
promise. Please stay here and buy a Pepsi or Cola for Paarbati. I shall be back
in a minute.’
Mitra took Paarbati to the nearby shop to buy her Pepsi, while Poorabi
hurried to the shrine. She stood before the fierce-looking idol and said thus:- ‘O
my Mother, my husband, who is a morally straightforward person is bent upon
keeping his word to you. But I cannot live without him. I cannot bring up a
child alone. So please accept my life in place of his.’ She took the sword from
the idol’s hands and cut off her head.
Paarbati, who came in to the temple, with the enthusiasm of the Pepsi
inside her, was shocked to see the corpse of Poorabi. She thought thus:- ‘ Brother
Mitra may think that I have killed my sister. It is shameful for a young girl to be
arrested by the police and to face public trial. Death is definitely better.’ She,
too, took the same sword and severed her head.
Mitra, impatient after a long wait, entered the temple to see the two dead
bodies. Upset and angry, he started to rave at the goddess:- ‘ You vicious one,
wasn’t I ready to appease your thirst for blood? Then why did you kill these
innocent women? Do you want me to be caught by the police for the double
murder? If my father’s political ambitions are thwarted by this, he would
disinherit me. You have ruined me! You chandaalikey , take away my life too!’
Mitra picked up the same sword and raised it to his neck. Before he
could strike, Goddess Kaali appeared before him. Annoyed greatly, she told
Mitra who stood stunned at the sight of her terrible figure:- ‘Hey, are you people
bent upon destroying my good name? I never desired the blood of these two
stupid women. They came here on their own and killed themselves— to disturb
my peace of mind. Since this incident may give rise to some misunderstandings
about me among the general public, I am prepared to bring them back to life
and liberate you from your promise to me. Put their heads on their trunks.’
Mitra, torn by a sense of guilt at having abused such a compromising
goddess, started to apologize:- ‘ O Mother, I have committed a heinous. . .’
‘Shut up!’ said Kaali in rage: ‘Don’t talk; I know you very well! If you don’t
want to be arrested for murder, obey me NOW!’
Mitra took Poorabi’s head in his hands and looked at her body, slightly
bulging with the child inside. His eyes went over Paarbati’s unkissed body with
the glaze of virginity. He felt that the Shankhini –class of birds are better than
the Padmini –class. With a mischievous smile he put the head of Poorabi to the
neck of Paarbati and the head of Paarbati to the neck of Poorabi. The pureminded
goddess, unused to the ways of the human world, sprinkled holy water
on them and disappeared. Both the women got up as if from sleep and were
confused at the change of heads. They started quarrelling between themselves,
each claiming that she was the wife of Mitra.
O King, here is the question to you. Whom should Mitra accept as wife?
If you give me the wrong answer I will have to eat you.
Vikramaditya:- (Thoughtfully) Vetaal, I don’t think it is a serious problem
at all! Mitra’s intentions are very clear. As far as Man is concerned, Woman’s
head does not merit any consideration; it is only the body that matters to them.
So, I would say that Mitra can accept the two women as his wives. I would have
done it had I been in his position. Moreover, the terrible life he would be forced
to lead, trying to please two wives at the same time, would be his ideal punishment
for having tricked Kaali Maata.
The Vetaal with his eerie laughter left the shoulders of Vikramaditya
and flew to the murikku tree. Vikramaditya ran after him, muttering inaudibly.
The Third Story : The Leopard
Again Vikramaditya started walking with the Vetaal on his shoulders
and the Vetaal began the third story.
The Vetaal:- Your Majesty, now I am going to tell you the story of a
leopard and three Brahmin youths.
Vikramaditya:- Good! It is a change from the stories of human beings
alone. But Vetaal, the previous story was a bit long. If the stories are long I
have to carry you for a longer time and run after you a longer distance. I am
getting old; cannot perform as I used to in my younger days. Since everything
has to be repeated so many times, please be kind to me.
The Vetaal:- I cannot understand these readers at all! They always find
fault with the writers. You told me that the first story was not descriptive enough;
so I made the second story more elaborate by including more details. And now,
you say that it is long. And you want me to make the next story shorter! It is
very difficult to please you!
Vikramaditya:- I can understand that it is too difficult for you. But it is
the extremely brief stories, known as mini-stories, that are in demand now.
Every one is busy; who has the time to read stories that are pages long? Be it
fiction or poetry, they want it brief – to be read and dismissed in two or five
The Vetaal:- I refuse to cater to popular tastes like that. Anyway, I shall
try to make this story short. Listen. The story takes place in a forest in Tamil
Nadu. The female hero of the story is a leopard of cruel beauty. When one
looks at her golden, silky skin with the black dots arranged in a perfect manner,
one would feel like offering tributes to the aesthetic sense of the Creator. No
other animal in that forest was as beautiful as she is. Extreme beauty is supposed
to co-exist with heartlessness. This leopard also was very cruel – more on the
darker side in her character. She used to kill even for sport, and the total number
of residents in the forest dwindled rather disastrously. The best way to prevent
theft, as you know, would be to entrust the keys with the thief. The animals
were great followers of this principle and, hoping for the best, made her the
ruler of the forest.
The leopard, proud and cruel, by birth itself, became drugged with power
and was soon surrounded by a caucus. The forest was literally ruined under her
rule. Those who dared to speak against her were never seen again. The animals,
exasperated, met secretly and planned to assassinate her. One night, as the leopard
was resting after dinner of the rock in front of her cave, the guerillas jumped
upon her and killed her. In a few minutes, only her skeleton was left on the
rock. The members of the caucus who were not killed, ran away. With the new
ruler, peace was re-established in the forest. The skeleton of the leopard lay on
the rock as a warning to future-rulers; no animal or bird, ever dared to go there.
One day, four Brahmin youths came to that place. They were welleducated
in the four Vedas and the six Shastras . Your highness, are you restless
or is it only my feeling that you are so?
Vikramaditya:- Your story simply floats away, Vetaal. In the old, old
The Vetaal:- I can modernize it any time you want. For instance, I can
give modern names to the four youths – Jayakar, Dinakar, Madhukar and
Kripaakar. If it is not enough, look at their topic of research –The Influence of
the Veda-Mantras on Genetic Physiology: A [De] Constructive Approach.
Vikramaditya:- Don’t modernize the story so radically, please.
The Vetaal:- Might be useful, my Lord, for all ages. Universality, you
know, and the rest of it. You get it by modernizing the names of the characters
in old stories.
Vikramaditya:- Okay,okay. Kindly proceed.
The Vetaal:- The Brahmin youths were attracted by the skeleton of the
leopard on the rock. They decided to try out the theories they had learnt at the
University and re-create the leopard. The cave of the leopard was turned into a
laboratory. The fourth one started making the veins, the third one the flesh, and
the second one the organs of the leopard. The news spread through the forest
and the animals were frightened. The radicals among them wanted to kill the
Brahmin youths. The moderates argued that someone should meet them and
convince them of the necessity of giving up their experiments. Thus, a
representative group of animals came to see them. They were overawed
by the smoke and smell that came out of the cave. The eldest of the Brahmin
youths met the representatives.
They explained to him all their hardships and how they finally were
able to kill the despot and end the totalitarian regime. They humbly requested
them not to precipitate a political crisis in the forest by bringing the leopard
back to life. The eldest one told them thus:- ‘My friends know only how to recreate
the body. I, alone, have mastered the mritasanjeevani- mantra to bestow
life on the re-created body. I shall help you on a mutual understanding. You
must agree to make me the King of the forest. If you accept this proposal, I can
assure you complete safety; if not, I will bestow life on the leopard’s body that
The representatives put their heads together to discuss the proposal. The
majority was of the opinion that death by the leopard was to be preferred to
being ruled by an alien. So they told the Brahmin youth:- ‘ We cannot accept
you as our King. You can do what you want.’
As the animals ran away, the Brahmin youth went to the laboratory in
the cave. He saw the body of the leopard – cruel and beautiful— stretched out
before him. He chanted the mritasanjeevani- mantra and blew life in to it. The
leopard got up as if from sleep, stretched itself and turned towards the Brahmin
youths with extreme hunger. The youths reminded her : ‘ We have brought you
back to life; don’t be ungrateful!’ But, the leopard pretended to be deaf, and
pounced at them. They ran in fear with the leopard after them.
O King, tell me, who among the four youths is responsible for the rebirth
of the leopard and the ensuing calamity?
Vikramaditya:- It is clear, that you don’t expect the answer that is selfevident
in the story. So let me tell you that the four youths are not guilty in this.
But, the modern system of education, that taught them all sorts of theories without
instructing them on the crises in practicing them, will have to bear all
The Vetaal, with a devilish laughter, got free and flew to the cemetery.
Vikramaditya walked back with the relief that he has only a short distance to
The Fourth Story : The Statue and the Prince
Vikramaditya was thoughtful as he walked with the Vetaal on his
shoulders. He was thinking of the unlimited scope of narratology. One story
can be said in several ways. If you change the beginning and the end of a story,
it becomes another. If you exchange the characters of one story with another’s
or the situations in one story with another’s, you get two stories completely
different from the original ones. Assessed like that, there is only one story in
the whole world ; it is told by several writers, in several languages, in several
ways. He thought of discussing these views with the Vetaal, but gave up the
idea. The Vetaal is a mere fiction-writer. What does a writer know about
narratology? Listening to stories all his life, it had been Vikramaditya’s long-cherished
dream to write a critical book on narratology, including all his daringly
original views. But he was not sure whether it would be possible, for his main
task, at all times, is to increase the number of his wives; in every half- year in
the forest, as well as in the other half, in the kingdom, he gets into adventures
and ends up with more women in the harem. Women always seemed to be
waiting for him! These women can really be pests; they never allow a man to
do anything serious!
The Vetaal:- What are you thinking, Your Majesty? Are you bored with
Vikramaditya:- Not with the stories, but with the fights and the races for
stories. Why don’t we think of a compromise to do away with such physical
barriers that stand in the way of literary appreciation? Instead of the twenty
stories narrated by you in our original story, let us settle down for four. The
story you are going to tell me now shall be the last. Then, you can tell me your
life-story, as it is imperative that I hear it. And then we can rest till it is time to
go to the yogi. Do you agree to this mild adjustment? In these busy days, who
has time to listen to twenty stories?
The Vetaal:- But, if we cut short the number of stories to be told, won’t
we be going against the intentions of our writer?
Vikramaditya:- Are you not going against his intentions now, by
deviating from the stories written by him? Dear Vetaal, please exercise your
brain, if you have any. He has created you only to be my slave! I have made
you tell me so many stories, sometimes in an obnoxious manner! Do you
remember the beautiful princess, Peshaamadanta who at present is waiting for
me in the future? To make her speak three words, our author will make me
order you to sit on the shawl covering her breasts! Shameful for a man, isn’t it?
The Vetaal:- O my King, that was not shameful at all! In fact no other
story-teller would have got a better seat! It was so ecstatic and blissful! Alas!
Had it been possible for Vetaals to have gooseflesh, you could have seen my
Vikramaditya:- ( Laughing aloud) You are right! Peshaamadanta was the
most beautiful of all my brides that thronged the harem. It was to win her that I
worked the hardest; but believe me, every minute was worth it!
The Vetaal:- The story, in which we are acting now, hasn’t reached
anywhere near that chapter. All these are only going to happen!
Vikramaditya:- Vetaal, all that has happened earlier, all that is happening
now and all that will happen in the future, are all a part of a continuity. We are
acting the same roles in all the stories. In fact, the characters of all the writers
are going to discover that rebirths do not actually matter.
The Vetaal:- My Lord, I cannot understand what you say.
Vikramaditya:- Writers are not supposed to understand these scholarly
theories. O Vetaal, you have disturbed my mind by talking about Peshaamadanta.
Will you tell me any one of the stories you are going to say in her presence?
The Vetaal:- Correction! It was not I, but you, who talked about
Peshaamadanta and her breasts – I mean, the shawl on them. I remember saying
three stories to trick her into speaking. But, Your Majesty, those three belong to
a totally different series.
Vikramaditya:- Let us step over the series. Since she is so far away in
the future, let me at least hear a story I listened to, in her company. I know you
are tired; if you want, we can even take a break after this story.
The Vetaal:- Okay. I shall tell you the story of The Statue and the Prince.
The one I narrated, keeping myself hidden in the cloth-screen between you and
her. The prince of that story is re-named here as Madan Varma. His friend can
be Pradeep. Madan lives fulfilling the meaning of his name as lustful. Because
of his love-pranks, Pradeep has often got into trouble, but, being a true friend,
he has endured them all.
One day, they went hiking in the forest and lost their way. Wandering
about in the woods, Madan became thirsty and tired. As he sat under a tree,
Pradeep went in search of water. He saw a temple in the distance and walked
towards it. It was a Shiva temple. He was surprised to see a very pretty girl in
the temple-yard standing alone with a lotus in her hands. Suspecting her to be a
yakshi, he stealthily moved closer and was thrown back in surprise. Dear Lord,
it was only a statue! Pradeep, struck by the beauty of the life-like statue, thought
thus: ‘My friend Madan, who goes even after a stick if it is clad in woman’s
garb, will go mad if he sees this statue. It will be difficult to control him once he
is in rut. I must not let him come here.’
He collected water from the temple-tank in a bowl of lotus-leaf and
came out of the temple, but by then Madan was coming towards the temple.
After drinking the water, Madan became enthusiastic and wanted to enter the
temple. Pradeep tried to prevent him, but Madan instinctively became suspicious
of his motives. Lord, why should I say more? Madan stood stunned before the
statue, ensnared by its expressive eyes— like a deer caught in the hunter’s trap.
He stretched his hands towards her and asked in a trembling voice: ‘Will you
give me the flower?’ He refused to move from that posture and Pradeep became
enraged at his foolishness. He scolded Madan thus: ‘ Aren’t you ashamed to
stand in front of a statue made of stone and behave like a clown? Do you think
this statue is alive? Do you think it will come to you and give you the flower?
You are a prince; yet how can you behave like this? Come, let us go. We have
to get out of the forest before it gets dark.’
Madan replied in a voice trembling with lust:- ‘I cannot come away
from here, Pradeep. I cannot leave my precious one. I cannot live without her.
You are free to go back. I am going to do tapasya in front of her till the God of
Love kills me with his arrows.’
Pradeep had witnessed several loony pranks of his friend, but never one
so fierce. As he was trying to dissuade Madan, the Poojaari or the priest of the
temple arrived for the traditional ritual worship in the twilight hour. Pradeep
introduced himself and asked him :- ‘My friend is caught in the beauty of this
statue like a beetle in a lotus and I would like to save him. Can you please tell
me who made the statue and who served as model for him? Also, do you know
where I can find her?’
The Poojaari told him thus:- ‘ Raajarathinam, a Tamil sculptor who
came here for some solitude after his graduation from the Fine Arts College,
had carved this statue. He took about a year to complete it. Then he donated it
to the temple and left. No, he did not bring any model with him. I don’t know
whether he had any model in mind. Anyway my daughter has his address. She
is also very much interested in art and sculpture. Why don’t you go to my house
and ask her?’
Pradeep went along the woods, guided by his instructions, and found
his house. The daughter of the Poojaari , a plain girl, showed him the sculptor’s
address scribbled on the last page of an old two-hundred page note-book. Pradeep
saw his autograph also there :- ‘ For my dear Nymph, with love from your
Gypsy’. Pradeep laughed at the aesthetic sense of the sculptor who could see in
a homely girl a pretty nymph. He entrusted Madan to their care and left for
At Chozhamandala, he could find Raajarathinam very easily. When
asked about the statue, the sculptor said :- ‘It was a work that has given me the
greatest satisfaction so far. No, it did not have an actual model. To tell
you the truth, it was inspired by my imagination which, in turn, was spurred by
this !’ He opened his purse and took out something covered in blue velvet.
When taken out, it glittered like a diamond. Pradeep found it, on closer observation,
to be a small piece of a nail.
Vikramaditya:- O, I remember my beloved, Peshaamadanta, all the more!
Her nails also glittered like diamonds. O, O, I am so eager to reach that moment
in the future!
The Vetaal:- Lord, we are proceeding to the future. Please control
yourself, and listen to the rest of the story. Raajarathinam told Pradeep how he
got that extraordinary piece of nail. He said:-‘ I was going to the woods in the
Sahya mountains for a spell of solitude. I had my favourite breakfast of puttu
and kadala from a tea shop at the borders, and stood outside gazing at the
distant mountain peaks. Suddenly, a ray of light, like sun-beam flashed on my
left eye. I found that it was coming from the ground on the left side and turned
to look. On top of the garbage piled on the road-side I found an object shining
like a diamond. I stole towards it like a thief and took it, hoping that nobody
had seen me, but I was greeted by the guffaw of the owner of the tea shop, who,
by the way, had tied a scarf round his forehead. He told me :-‘ Don’t feel bad,
Sir, several others were also tricked thus. It is only a piece of nail. Sometimes,
they are found in the garbage emptied by the van from the city.’ Every one
laughed at me, but I did not throw it away. The dazzling beauty of the piece of
nail made me reflect on the more dazzling beauty of the body of its owner! In
the bus, that was taking me to the mountain ranges, I kept on looking at the
nail-piece, trying to draw up the figure of the lady. Slowly her figure came to
my mind, part by part. That was how I carved that statue. I had carved two
similar ones after coming here; both of them, were purchased immediately by
foreigners at unbelievably high prices.’
Pradeep wanted that piece of nail, but Raajarathinam refused to part
with it. He had come to look upon it as a mascot, for it was after coming into
possession of it that, that he got two awards and had gone on a foreign trip. Not
only that, he said that he had been living in the fervent hope that one day the
dream-girl would appear before him! He was keeping the piece of nail to show
it to her then, as a token of his everlasting love.
Pradeep left him and proceeded to the tea-shop at the borders of the
Sahya mountains. The owner of the shop with the scarf tied round his forehead
told him:- ‘ All the people who live in this area dump their garbage here. Once
a week the garbage-van comes from the city, too. How can I tell you from
where the piece of nail has come?’ Pradeep made some enquiries and discovered
that the shining nails were found in the garbage on the days that immediately
followed the arrival of the garbage van from the city. But for the past few days
they were not seen at all. Pradeep questioned the driver of the van and he said:‘
Yes, I had seen such shining objects in the garbage collected from a beautyparlour
in the housing colony. At first, I used to take them in hand to see what
they were. But after recognizing them to be nails, I have never even looked at
them. I wonder why they are not seen now-a-days.’
Pradeep went to that beauty-parlour; the fair, stout lady who owned it
told him:- ‘ It is not so surprising to have nails that shine. You come to my
beauty-parlour regularly, do manicure and pedicure, and your nails, too, will
shine like diamonds.’
Vikramaditya:- Without any of these, my Peshaamadanta, had crescent
nails that shone like diamonds. O, how cute. . .
The Vetaal :- Please, O King, put away Peshaamadanta’s teeth and nails
out of your mind for some time and listen to the story. Don’t forget that you
have to answer the question in the end.
Vikramaditya:- Not that I wasn’t listening. When I heard the strange
modern names of aids to beauty, I just thought of the traditional means of our
times. Proceed Vetaal. What else did the woman say?
The Vetaal:- She continued :-‘ The nails of extreme beauty that you
look for can belong to any of my customers; and they range somewhere between
three hundred and four hundred. How can I tell you which one of them is the
object of your search without even seeing the nail?’ Pradeep felt the dead end
of his quest, when suddenly the main assistant in the beauty-parlour came to
the scene with a shining object. She said :-‘ Madam, I had kept this piece of the
nail just as a curio. May this be what he is looking for?’ Pradeep forgot himself
in happiness :-‘ Yes, yes, it is! Can you tell me whose it is?’ The girl said :-‘
Yes, it is Meera’s. She used to come here before, but of late she hasn’t. She is
the only child of the City Police Commissioner.’
Pradeep shuddered a bit, but the thoughts of Madan Varma goaded him
on with the search. He learned that the Police Commissioner had retired from
service and had gone to Ootty to spend the rest of his life in blissful luxury.
Since by this time he had spent all his money, Pradeep had to sell his wristwatch
to find means to go to Ootty. He easily located the bungalow of the ex-Police
Commissioner and saw the gorgeous girl reclining in the garden chair
on the lawns, listening to music from a Walkman. To say, Pradeep was stunned
would be saying the least; her charm simply sent him reeling towards the skies
As if brought to life from the statue in front of the Shiva temple in the
forest, she was really startling in her beauty. For a moment Pradeep’s reverent
thoughts went to the sculptor too, who could envisage her whole figure from a
mere piece of her nail.
Since entry in to the building was forbidden, Pradeep decided to resort
to crooked ways. He sold his gold ring to buy a bottle of Scotch whisky for the
security guard which loosened the latter’s tongue. He told Pradeep that he had
serious doubts about the sanity of Meera, the only daughter of the Commissioner
Saab .Would any sane girl refuse to marry a business tycoon from the Gulf
Countries, just because she dreamt of an anonymous Prince waiting in an
unknown land for her? A strange dream, and a stranger girl! The Saab, the
watchman told Pradeep, would humour her along till the prospective groom
landed in India. The Saab had attributed Meera’s weird fancy to the Malayalam
fiction that she liked to read, and had banished all the vernacular weeklies and
books from the bungalow.
Pradeep sent a message to Meera through the watchman that there was a
Shiva temple in the forest where an unknown sculptor had carved her statue ,
and that a prince , lost in her beauty, was doing tapasya in front of it. Pradeep
was right in assuming that the romantic story would set fire to her imaginative
mind. At midnight, when every one was asleep, she came out fearlessly to be
taken to her dream-prince. Pradeep set out with that extremely beautiful maiden
to the forest. He noticed that not only her nails, but her whole body was literally
bright and found it difficult to keep his self-control. Needless to say, he resisted
temptation without yielding to it. But he was careful not to tell her how
Rajarathinam had recreated her image from a nail, lest that may prove
disastrously more romantic than Madan Varma’s tapasya.
After a long journey, they reached the forest. The Poojaari’s daughter
informed them that Madan Varma had refused to come away from the statue
and that he was still in front of it, asking for the flower. Pradeep went to the
temple with Meera and the Poojari’s daughter . He plucked a lotus flower from
the pond, gave it to Meera and said :- ‘ Go to the prince, who, is yearning for
you and give him this flower. If he asks for me, tell him I am dead.’
Pradeep hid himself as Meera went in slow motion to Madan Varma,
holding the lotus. He watched the couple locking themselves in an embrace
after the initial bewilderment on the part of Madan. Then, they, locked thus,
moved away, singing a duet and disappeared from view.
Pradeep was too shocked for words; but, having understood that the
story no longer needed him, decided to end his life. The Poojaari’s daughter,
who was a witness to the whole episode, tried to prevent him from committing
suicide and said :-‘ I understand and appreciate all the sacrifices you have done
for your friend. Please, don’t put an end to your life just because your friend
was ungrateful. I love you. Come with me, let us begin a new life.’
Pradeep looked at her for a minute and laughed loud. Then, he drove his
dagger into his heart and fell down dead. O, King, why did he laugh at the
Poojaari’s daughter and then kill himself ? I hope you remember what would
ensue if your answer is wrong.
Vikramaditya :- He understood the sub-text of what the girl said. When
she asked him not to kill himself for ingratitude, and invited him to share her
life, the implication was that she would give him a better reason for committing
suicide later. Remember, she was nymph to the sculptor. Hence he laughed
aloud. Since her suggestion was not acceptable, he returned to the ingratitude
of his friend and committed suicide.
The Vetaal’s laughter resounded in the sky as he flew back to the
cemetery. Vikramaditya ran after him shouting :- Hey, stop! Don’t you want to
rest? Have you forgotten the plans we made?
The Fifth Story : Screenplay
Vikramaditya was greatly annoyed as he caught the Vetaal again, and
walked with him on the shoulders. He kept on scolding the Vetaal.
Vikramaditya:- How many times did I tell you to stop your damn stories
so that we can rest? It is not enough if you transplant your narrative art to the
twentieth century, but, you should learn to behave like the twentieth century
people, too. Which reader in the twentieth century will ever run after a writer
like this? Who has patience to listen to twenty stories? THIS WILL BE THE
LAST STORY. I refuse to listen to anymore after this. After all, the stories you
narrate are not even original; you are only repeating what Lord Shiva had said
The Vetaal:- O, King, do you know the seriousness of what you are
saying in anger? I strongly object to your accusation that I have never said
original stories. The umpteen stories I had narrated to enable you to get your
several brides, including Peshaamadanta, were highly original. The writer, when
he begins his career, is under the anxiety of influence from his predecessors.
That has happened to me, too. I don’t think it is a grave error.
Vikramaditya :- Whatever, that may be, I have neither the patience nor
the tolerance to listen to twenty stories now. If it is to be, we must go
back to our own age. There you will get readers who will sit and listen patiently
to even epics. In the twentieth century, readers do not allow the writers to test
The Vetaal:- But, it is written in our story that you have to listen to
twenty stories, and must stand perplexed on hearing the last story.
Vikramaditya :- Nonsense! Are you telling me the stories that were
written in our story? If you can change those stories, I can change the structure
of your narrative world. That is the relationship between the writer and his
modern readership. Okay, here ends the tales of Vikramaditya. I am going to
throw you back in the cemetery, and go my way.
The Vetaal:- No, Lord, no please! I don’t want to return to the smoke of
the pyres so soon. If you don’t mind, let us reach a compromise. I have to say
the story to which you cannot find the answer. No compromise is possible
there. So I shall narrate it now. Then I shall tell you my story; that is also a
must. After that you can kill Jnaanasheela and go to your life proper.
Vikramaditya :- You won’t run to the cemetery again, and make me run
The Vetaal:- No, noble one, I swear.
Vikramaditya :- Okay, but one condition. This story must be abbreviated.
Don’t over-nourish it as you have done the previous one. Make discreet use of
The Vetaal:- I agree to everything you say, my Lord! But, please,
remember not to answer the question at the end of the story. I am supposed to
recognize you, only when you stand confused, not knowing the answer. So
don’t be in a hurry to answer.
Vikramaditya :- Thank you for reminding me. Don’t waste more time.
I just want to put down your weight and take rest.
The Vetaal:- I am taking this story to the cine-field. It can be either
Hollywood or Bollywood. There are only four characters in the story. Since I
have to use words discreetly, I am not giving them names. The first character is
an actress, who in the prime of her youth, was the nucleus round whom the
entire filmdom revolved. Keeping a heavily painted face on a slim body, she is
content now with the roles of mothers, that she occasionally gets. In real life,
she has only one daughter who had entered the field as a child-actress and who
now, in her sixteenth year, holds the whole of the cine-field under her big toe.
Appearing almost daily in the gossip columns, she bestows sleepless nights on
the youth of the country. There is a similar pair in the cine-field: a father and
his son. The father reigned the field once, as a monarch of all he surveyed; the
son has just started his journey up the ladder. Like four stars whose paths
converged in the sky, they came together. O, King, I am tempted to add more
Vikramaditya :- Resist your temptation and proceed.
The Vetaal :- Oh, alright! One day, the morning papers came out with a
news that shocked the world, especially the movie-world. The two inverted
marriages in the two families! Inverted because –— the star- mother married
the star-son and the star- father married the star- daughter. The papers published
in the front page itself the photograph of the two couple, carrying bouquets in
hands, with garlands round their necks grinning from ear to ear. It might have
provoked several suicides on that day!
Now the question to you. Please don’t give the answer. When this mother
and daughter have children, what kinship-term should they use to address each
Vikramaditya :- ( Pretending to be confused ) Oh, I can’t find the answer
to this question. Those two poor kids caught in the labyrinth of entangled
relationships – what can they call themselves?
The Vetaal :- ( Gets down from the shoulders of Vikramaditya and bows
before him) You are the great Emperor Vikramaditya! Lord Shiva had predicted
that we would meet thus and that I would be liberated from my curse. I shall be
with you for two thousand years as your slave; only after that will I be completely
liberated. Oh, Lord, accept my humble salutations!
Vikramaditya :- Oh, cut out the drama! Since we know each other, you
can skip all the histrionics.
The Vetaal :-But stories do have certain rules. You must have noticed
that I have addressed you till now as the King, not as the Emperor.
Vikramaditya :- Yeah, I did notice. Was it for the story? I thought it was
because you had become haughty in the twentieth- century- way and were
The Vetaal :- Oh, such a thought never even crossed my mind, Your
Vikramaditya :- I t is this, ‘ Yours Faithfully’ role that suits you best .I
wish all writers were like you so that several of the literary problems would not
have arisen. Now let me rest awhile .
The Vetaal :- Please, be seated in the shade of this tree, my Lord. I shall
summon up for you food and drinks. Relax, and listen to my story.
Vikramaditya :- Oh, your story remains to be heard! Okay, tell me
Vetaal, where did you meet Lord Shiva? Why did he put the curse on you
first and then tell you the way to get out of it?
The Vetaal :- O Mighty Emperor, kindly listen to my story. By birth I was
an Ambalavaasi, that is, one who makes a living by doing work related to temples.
The temple where I worked was the temple of Kaalighat. It was my usual practice
to make a disappearing act from the temple after preparing everything for the
evening worship. But, I used to promptly return in time to collect my share of the
rice-offering to the deity. Please, don’t ask me where I used to go during the
interim. I was not a vetaal, then; I was a man of flesh and desire – naturally full of
human weaknesses. One night I was late to get back; the poojaari had left by
then. On such days he used to keep my portion of the rice in a vessel, cover it
with plantain-leaf and leave it on the verandah of the kitchen. I climbed over the
wall and went to the verandah where I saw the vessel at the usual place. But from
inside the temple, I could hear voices – a man and a woman speaking. I peeped
through the key-hole, and found a man of unworldly luster fondling a lady,
equally lustrous, relaxing on his lap. From their dress and paraphernalia, I could
see that they were Lord Shiva and his spouse Devi Parvati. I heard the Lord
entertaining her with twenty stories. He asked her questions at the end of each
story and the Devi answered all of them except the last one, which the Lord
called The Unanswerable Story. I listened to them all, and, being engrossed in
them, did not notice that the night had gone and the dawn had come.
Esteemed Emperor, let me share with you the secret desire of my heart. I
had always cherished the dream of becoming a writer – a writer of stories, to be
precise. Even while performing routine tasks at home or in the temple, stories
used to swim about in my heart. During my leisure hours, I used to lie on my
back on the rock near the pond and search for words to express my ideas. Lord,
you must understand that my entire life was a longing for the creative agony
Vikramaditya :- I can understand your agony and sympathize with it,
too. One of my brothers also suffered from the same neurotic ailment. He ran
away from home, losing his mental balance. We are yet to hear of him!
The Vetaal :- I, too, was goaded by the same desire as your brother,
Your Majesty , to go out into the wide world all alone and walk to the horizon
that receded endlessly. But, invisible chains held me in check and . . .
vikramaditya :- Vetaal, it does not seem nice to make an autobiography
too romantic. Let us come back to the point, where you, engrossed in Lord
Shiva’s stories, did not notice the night departing and dawn approaching. Proceed
The Vetaal :- I digressed just to tell you that it was the creative agony
inside that made me pause to listen to a fellow story-teller. But, to tell you the
truth, several of the stories He said were disappointing. You may be a god, but
that won’t make you a good story-teller. For, story-telling is an art that needs
divine blessing; you can’t simply inherit it as your godly right. Am I not right,
my Lord? At least a few of the twenty stories must have disappointed you too.
Vikramaditya :- Don’t expect too much from the people at the zenith of
fame and glory.
The Vetaal :- Thank you, I shall remember it. Anyway, He stopped the
pastime at dawn and disappeared with the Devi. I ran home with the vessel of
rice. My wife, who had been waiting for me the whole night worked herself
into a tantrum on seeing me. She was under the impression that I spent the night
with a woman who lives near the temple.
Vikramaditya :- Is there any reason for her to think so? I remember you
mentioning human weaknesses.
The Vetaal :- O Mighty Emperor, I was just like any other member of
our species. May I point out the main difference between men and women?
The man will try to ensnare a good-looking woman whenever he gets a chance.
But, to whomsoever he goes, he would always return to his wife. But the women
are not like us. It is very difficult to catch them in our trap and to tame them;
but, once they are tamed, they become a nuisance. They will not leave us alone.
They would even be prepared to leave their happy families to come and live
with us. The poor man, would be as helpless as if a millstone were around his
neck. So I am very careful in my dealings with women. The minute I suspect
that a relationship is slipping to love, I abandon it.
Vikramaditya :- Clever! I have to learn so many things from you. We
will be together for two thousand years. You must give me useful tips like this,
in addition to what our creator had written down.
The Vetaal :- My wife used to quarrel with me about a woman called
Raajaraajeswari who lived near the temple. The foolish lady did not know that
I had left Raajaraajeswari long back, and had five affairs after that!
Vikramaditya :- You are simply marvellous! I mean, were ! Okay, back
to story, please.
The Vetaal :- Writers tend to forget the story, when it comes to their
story. To convince my wife that I was not with Raajaraajeswari that night, I had
to tell her the twenty stories that Lord Shiva had narrated to the Devi. I told her
that the copyright of all the stories was with Lord Shiva, and so they should not
be reproduced in any manner. But, she immediately relayed them to her friends
who came to draw water from our well. These women, in turn, relayed them to
their husbands and they, in their turn, to their friends. Before noon, the news
spread all through the village. That evening the entire village crowded at the
temple; they did not allow the poojaari to close the shrine, for they wanted to
see the god and goddess.
Lord Shiva, angry at having lost his privacy, appeared at my house
long past the midnight hour and cursed me to be the Vetaal. I explained to him
that my wife was the one who had done the wrong, but he seemed to consider it
below his dignity to curse a woman. Moreover, He held me morally responsible
for the whole thing. But He was kind enough to tell me a means to work out my
salvation with diligence. He said :- ‘ Go, hang head downwards, for thirty years
on the murikku tree in the cemetery, as Vetaals do. Jnaanasheela, the pseudoyogi
will conduct a sacrificial yajna on the thirty-first year. He will kill nine
hundred and ninety-nine kings, and offer their heads as sacrifice in the fire. The
final head has to be Emperor Vikramaditya’s, and he will be deputed to bring
you to the place of the yajna . Tell Vikramaditya all the twenty stories you have
learned from me and ask him the questions, too. Recognize him to be
Vikramaditya when he answers all the questions, except the last one. Serve
him for two thousand years after that. And then you will get your salvation.’
Lord, this is my story. But, there is a riddle that I have failed to find the
answer for, even now. When He had all the worlds at his command, why did
Lord Shiva come to the temple at Kaalighat to tell stories to the Devi ? If they
could not get enough privacy at Kailasa, their abode where they lived with
their children and spectre-servants, they could have gone to some beautiful,
solitary place. But they had to come to that particular temple – to make me
suffer like this!
Vikramaditya :- Vetaal, no one can escape from the fruits of their actions.
Lord Shiva, Devi Paarvati, and the woman who caused your late arrival at the
temple are all mere causes.
The Vetaal :- May be, you are right. Your Majesty, the story commands
me to give you the warning about Jnaanasheelan. Beware of that pseudo yogi.
Before he tries to kill you, you must. . .
Vikramaditya :- O, cut it out! Don’t I know the story? But, I would like
to give the answer to the question of the Unanswerable Story now. May I? The
moving finger has written it, and moved off. Would it be wrong if I give an
The Vetaal :- As you like, Your Highness.
Vikramaditya :- The father, of whose son the mother married, was married
to her daughter. How will their children address each other? Wasn’t that the
question? Well, why do we need kinship terms? Can’t they address each other
by their names? Was it such a complex problem?
The Vetaal :- You are able to give this answer because we are in the
twentieth century now. I remember how you stood stunned when I asked the
same question in our original story. It was a time when relationships had sanctity.
Vikramaditya :- O, what a dull age it was! See, how we have reduced the
number of stories and the number of combats that our Creator put on us by
means of a secret compromise! The spirit of the present century is characterized
by such adjustments and compromises. We have saved a lot of time, too. Till it
is time to go to Jnaanasheela, I am going to rest here thinking of Peshaamadanta
and Rasikaranjini. You are free to do whatever you like, except tell stories.
The Vetaal bowed his head in respect. What else can writers do, if the
readers prove too stubborn for them?
As Vikramaditya went in to his world of fantasy, the Vetaal stood
wondering what to do with the time gained by the secret compromise. Fantasizing
on Rajaraajeswari or his wife or any other woman was not possible with his
Vetaal-figure. He thought of relaxing by hanging upside down from the branch
of the nearby tree, but the idea was not very enticing. So, he stood in a state of
inertia that comes upon writers intermittently.
The Vetaal has to wait like this till it is time to rouse Vikramaditya from
his fantasy. Till it is time, Jnaanasheela has also to wait with the drawn sword
near the blazing sacrificial platform.
For, the story is already written. There are restrictions on the freedom of
the characters in the written stories. If one does anything to the written texts of
fiction, without keeping this in mind, it may cause friction.
Translated from Malayalam by the author
Author / Translator’s Note
The stories of Emperor Vikramaaditya and the Vetaal are part of the
rich Indian tradition of story-telling and are found in Kathasaritsaagara ,
Vetaalapanchavimshika and several vernacular books of the tales of old . The
stories associated with Vikramaaditya are full of fantasy, hyper-reality and magic
realism. Emperor Vikramaaditya is presented as a man of extreme valour and
the cynosure of the eyes of ladies, none of whom he disappointed. He is supposed
to have lived for more than 2000 years, served by the Vetaal, a faithful spirit
whom he liberated from a curse. Vikramaaditya tamed the Vetaal by listening
to the 20 stories he narrated in the same way in which Scherezad tamed the
Sultan in the Tales of the Arabian Nights and answering the questions he was
asked at the end, all except the last one. My short fiction is a reworking of some
of those stories. You are free to call it a retelling, a subversion or even a
deconstruction of the original. I have tried to adapt these ancient stories to take
into account the present times too. The story took a surprising turn for me when
it started including a critique of the process of creative / critical writing while
unfolding itself, amounting to a self-criticism by the author. The translation is
not literal, but literary. The slight variations are for the target-language reader
who is essentially a non- Malayali. The liberty I have taken with the original in
transcreating it is one of the advantages a translator gets when s/he is the author
B. CHANDRIKA. Reader, Department of English, All Saints’ College, Thiruvananthapuram. Writes stories, poems and articles in Malayalam in the pen name Chandramathi. She has to her credit four critical books in English and eight books in Malayalam. Is the recipient of several awards that include Katha National Awards for fiction and translation, Odakkuzhal Award and the Kerala Sahithya Akademi Award. Has published several research papers in national and international journals, participated in seminars in India and abroad, and has been honoured with The Most Outstanding Teacher Award.