Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Five-and-Twenty Tales of the Genie by Sivadasa, translated by Chandra Rajan, reviewed by Vijay Krishna

Penguin Classic's "Five and Twenty Tales of the Genie" by Sivadasa translated from the Sanskrit and with an introduction by Chandra Rajan is an interesting and informing read. Penguin is to be commended for imaginatively adding value by the design of this book, starting from an excellent translator, to an exhaustive and learned introduction by said translator and an appendix containing 'bonus' stories.
Many of us (Indians) will have been exposed to these stories in one form or the other earlier. They are alternatively known to us as the tales of King Vikram and the vetaal (betaal). I read these stories (actually not these stories but other stories in the same format!) as part of the "New Tales of King Vikram and the Vampire" series of the Chandamama magazine, and many others of my generation will fondly remember this. Chandamama did a good job with those stories with questions and answers that honestly probed moral and ethical issues as well as encouraged reasoned thinking, a salutary experience probably for a young mind.
The construct, for those not in the know is as follows: as a consequence of of string of events, King Vikramaditya is set the task of bringing down a corpse hanging from a tree in a cemetery. The corpse is possessed by a genie which then tells King Vikram a story. At the end of the story a question pertinent to the story is asked by the genie. If the king answers the question correctly the corpse/genie flies back to the tree and the cycle starts again (if the king knows the answer but remains silent he will die -- but the reader never gets to know if this is an empty threat as this option is never exercised by the king in the story). "Now tell me O King.." is the genie's inevitable refrain at the end of each story. In this fashion the genie tells 24 stories, asks 24 questions and gets the right answer. The 25th time, something different happens and leads to the resolution of the story.
The structure then provides an opportunity for good storytelling, the potential of which is fully realized. The crown jewel in each story of course is the Q&A at the end. We are keen to challenge ourselves to answer the question too and see how we fare in comparison to the king.
To a modern reader the stories are amusingly long-winded and digressive. A conversation in the story will normally include a half-a-dozen poems and asides expounding on all manner of topics breathtakingly irrelevant, it would seem, to modern's mans mind, so boringly obsessed with sticking to the point and getting on with the story. In today's world, therefore, it takes a certain kind of mood to sit back, relax and appreciate the storyteller's efforts. But if one does, the rewards are there. There are thoughtprovoking discussions of human nature that resonote even today. This is also an authentic peep back into time to see how Indians of a bygone age lived. I found the actual stories inconsistent in quality but uniformly interesting. The Q&A at the end is also varied, sometimes the question is thoughtprovoking and the answer is insightful and satisfying, sometimes not so much.
The substantial introductory notes by Chandra Rajan are quite an impressive piece of scholarship. Chandra Rajan obviously cares a great deal (sometimes it seems a trifle more than justified) about her subject and more generally, ancient Indian literature. This is shown in her dedication of the book to Vyaasa, Vaamiki and Vishnu Sharma, "the three greatest storytellers of all times". She throws much light and useful context on the stories and the King Vikramaditya of history.
"Five and Twenty Tales of the Genie" is a set of stories within a 'framing' story. In fact some of the inside stories contain a further level of story within. This technique of stories within stories is seen very often in Indian literature (including the Ramayana, Mahabharata and Panchatantra), resulting in massive story complexes. The translator also introduces us to the idea of recensions which are different versions of a story or story-complex that arise in the course of oral transmission. The bonus stories alluded to in my first paragraph above, are stories from a different recension of this book, by Jambalabhatta.
Poetry forms a central part of the enjoyment of this book, so I will excerpt a few here.
Central to the framing story is the attempt by the villain to gain 8 great Siddhas or powers:
To be minute as an atom, or enormous as a mountain,
light as air or heavy as rock; to be invisible at will,
to have all one's desires fulfilled, to subject others to one's will;
and t have lordship of the world.
King Vikramaditya's actions are defended through the following statement of ethics:
Pay a man back in his own coin;
do harm unto him who has done harm to you;
I see no harm in that;
adopt foul means towards an evil man.
Sivadasa makes the following claim for the book:
A simple and straightforward narrative
pleases some learned readers;
some, wiser, delight in the figurative -
irony, ambiguity, metaphors,
while others love a tale filled with flavors
of fine sentiments plentiful and pleasing.
So there's something here to please every palate.
As Rajan says, it is a not unjustified claim.
The book is quite frank about sexuality:
Ha! For the enjoyment of a woman!
What can give greater pleasure in this world!
No, not even the Elixir of Life!
All senses, altogether, all at once,
find in it their perfect fulfilment!
At least one tale is disconcerting in its emphatic position that women are inferior to men:
Woman, and she alone deserves censure
here in this world of ours; not men, never,
for men are directed to, and instructed
in matters of good and evil.
Here is Sivadasa on secrecy:
Even if it be a trifling matter,
if to rulers of the earth it relates,
it should not be uttered, said Brhaspati,
in the open assembly.
Magic spells, medicines, matters of sex,
good works, cracks and flaws in one's house and home;
forbidden foods, slander, vital secrets:
a shrewd man does not broadcast these to the world.
Heard by six years, a secret breaks;
heard by four ears, it stays secure;
and not even the Creator himself
can get to the bottom of a secret
that is heard by two ears alone.
Climbing right up to the top of a hill,
going in secret to an open terrace;
in deep woods or in some spot desolate:
in such places is a secret disclosed.
An interesting aside from the translator is regarding her choice of the word 'genie' to translate 'vetaala'. The author gives a nice description of the word 'vetaala' and explains why she rejected various English words for its translation (including 'vampire' which was often used in the past) in favour of 'genie'.
A lot more could be written about the book, but let me stop here in the hope that I have accurately described the book and given some people reason to make a note to read it. This is a book that will not appeal to all, I had mixed feelings about it. But it justifies its selection as a Penguin Classic.

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