Vikram and Vetal
Vikram and Vetal
Poile Sengupta's Vikram and Vetal is the story of King Vikramaditya retold for contemporary times. The stories have a modern feel and there is an attempt to do away with the mouldiness of the old Vikram-Vetal legend.
The choice of subject is important because every Vikram-Vetal story has a moral at the end, which is important for any children's book. Sengupta has made a commendable attempt at making the stories appealing for children. She has carefully chosen a little girl as the narrator of the stories, and it is through her eyes that the reader gets to travel through the dark and formidable forest.
The language is simple and engaging and has a contemporary touch but what is lost in Sengupta's effort is the awe that the original stories created.
So far as her narrative technique goes, the category of the teller of the stories is slightly amorphous. At one point it is the vetal, the old man dressed in black, or the little girl's grand mother at another, but it could be anyone - from the girl's cousin, Man, to her old neighbour. Given that it is a children's book this could be slightly confusing at times.
Poile Sengupta seems to have been very inspired by Jostein Gaarder's Sophie's World because the entire narrative strategy of keeping the reader in suspense about the storyteller is akin to the unknown philosopher who introduces Sophie to the metaphysical world through his letters.
The little girl in Vikram and Vetal, like Sophie, is intrigued by the stories but is nonetheless able to find solutions to all the problems.
Another interesting aspect of this legend's modern retelling lies in its language. For instance, in the story 'Right to Property' the elder brother, much enamoured by the beauty of his wife, sings couplets which go 'Her hair is like silk, her skin is satin; When she is near, I speak in Latin'. Another story has one of the kings telling his ministers that he was ' behaving like a hero in a bad romantic story' and yet another has a king telling his minister that he needs money for charity, which for him meant opening an old age home for lame ducks.
Some of the modern spicing does make you laugh but readers for whom the Vikram and Vetal stories have been representative of our age old tradition and culture, meant to be passed on to posterity in a way that it generated the same somberness and awe, and create for the young readers the magical world in the eerie forest, might be slightly disappointed.
Sengupta's Vikram and Vetal is no escapist world where only kings are brave and righteous. In blurring the distinction between the king and the little narrator of the tales the author is saying that Vikram-Vetal stories are as much a part of today - they are the here and now. The stories are about people like us and carry a universal message.
However, the tales are still different from the frightful yet mesmerizing world of King Vikramaditya wading through the dark forest, with a corpse slung across his back, that the original text created.
Nonetheless, an interesting read.