The story of King Vikram, who has to transport a storytelling Vetaal (a spirit who inhabits a corpse), and answer riddles at the end of each story is familiar to most Indians – we have encountered it in bedtime stories by grandparents, magazines like Chandamama, and television dramatisations. The challenge for Vikram is that if he knows the answer to the riddle, he is compelled to speak (or he risks death), but if he speaks, the Vetaal who insists on silent listenership escapes his grasp, and thus Vikram fails in his mission.

The conundrum is resolved only when Vikram is genuinely baffled by the riddle at the end of the Vetaal’s twenty-fourth story. But by now, Vikram is no longer just the listener, he is also a character and has to repeat the stories to the world – there is no other way out of this bind of stories. Originality is not a prerequisite for storytelling, but commitment is.

And this is how I came to write my own retelling of the Vetaal’s tales (Vetaal and Vikram). However, I came to all this via another storyteller from the nineteenth century who also fell under Vetaal’s storytelling spell: the scholar-explorer Richard Francis Burton. But more on that later.

Who’s telling and who’s listening?

In the magic box of storytelling, the frame narrative is the finest sleight of hand. This “tale within the tale” is a familiar pattern that helps create narrative texture, the blurring between storyteller, listener, and character. However, when nearly every story in the frame has a character who starts a new story with a character who starts another story (and so on for scores of stories) we have more than blurring – we have the exquisite storytelling labyrinth of the Kathasaritsagara (the ocean of stories), one of the world’s oldest and most ornate of frame narratives.

The Vetaal-Vikram adventures form one storytelling cycle (or one wave, to use the oceanic metaphor of the text) in the Kathasaritsagara. Written in Sanskrit in eleventh-century Kashmir by Somadeva, the Kathasaritsagara claims to be a retelling of an older text that was written with human blood, but in a non-human language, by a storyteller named Gunadhya. Then does this narrative belong to Gunadhya’s imagination? No.

He received it from someone else, who in turn was once a gana, serving in the house of Shiva. The story, as it turns out, originated from Shiva who tells it to amuse his consort Parvati. Kathasaritsagara demonstrates that listening is also storytelling, and to listen is to necessarily re-tell.

Of Vikram and the vampire

But retelling can never be innocent, especially in nineteenth-century India. Vetaal’s stories have by then moved from Sanskrit to Hindi (as Betaalpachisi) and become part of the syllabus for language examinations that young officers in the East India Company have to study. One of these exam-takers is an virtuosic young Englishman in his early twenties – Richard Francis Burton will go on to have a famed/notorious career, among other things, for journeying into Mecca in the garb of an Arab, for translating the Arabian Nights and the Kama Sutra, for going in search of the source of the Nile, and for a wife who makes a bonfire of his scholarship soon after he dies.

The Vetaal’s riddles stay with Burton for years after he leaves India, and he chooses eleven stories (from the set of twenty-four) to retell in English. While Burton was perfectly capable of a faithful translation, his version (easily available in bookstores in India even today and continuing to go into reprints without any contextualising) became instead a gothic and orientalist distortion, suitable for his Victorian audience. The title of his book speaks amply to this slant: Vikram and the Vampire: Tales of Hindu Devilry.

In 2008, when I came across Vikram and the Vampire and realised that countless people who love the Vetaal’s stories are reading Burton’s vampire version, it also struck me that none of the personages in this long lineage of storytellers had been women. Women listen to the story, or get written about – a lot.

Here, it is worth putting in a laudatory word about the nature of the stories in the Kathasaritsagara – they are so delightfully non-mythic and non-religious. They celebrate the delights of earthly life and the telling is whimsical, philosophical, laced with the phantasmagorical. But of course the stories (the pre-modern as well as the Burton versions) have all the conventional blind spots around gender and sexuality.

The pleasure and the obligation

From there began my retelling project – because I came to it through Burton, as happens with nearly every storyteller in the Kathasaritsagara, I turned him (and his wife Isabel who is more complex than her bonfire reputation) into characters. I also decided to stay with the eleven stories that Burton had selected, but I returned to Somadeva for inspiration and instantiation.

In my retelling, the riddles that Vetaal poses to Vikram do not change (nor does the world of righteous kings, dashing thieves and magical happenings) – but what changes is the tone, select plot points, the way a contemporary woman (with feminist and queer affinities) might spin her way onward.

For ten years, I dipped in and out of the text, never quite sure why it would not get done, till I understood this: as serious a business as storytelling is, listening involves a pact. One listens not only as an inhabitation of the ethical core of the story (that which needs comprehension and resolution), but also to become one with the story, to turn into a character who will be released from this storytelling world only if the listener tells a story too.

Storytelling may be pleasure, but it is obligation too. Like all the retellers before me (Gunadhya, Somadeva, Burton), I had to find a way to honour the spirit of Vetaal’s stories, to retain their playfulness, and yet to bring the sensibilities of my time and space, my voice to the telling. This is when the cycle of telling and listening closes, when both storyteller and listener are released, and when Vetaal leaves to find yet another sympathetic ear.