Writer: Sivadasa, , retold by Deepa Agarwal
Publisher: Puffin Classics
Listen, O King is a retelling of the Baital Pachisi, or Vikram Vetal stories, for children. It consists of a frame story, within which there are 25 short tales. Each of these ends with a question being asked. The answer to that question is not an easy one.
The legendary King Vikramāditya makes a promise to a tantric, to capture a corpse and bring it to him for his rituals. Unknown to King Vikram, the corpse has been inhabited by a Vetala, a mischievous spirit. Every time Vikram captures the Vetala, it tells him a story that ends with a riddle. If the king can solve the riddle but remains silent, his head shall burst into pieces. If he answers correctly, the Vetala would escape and return to his tree. Only if he does not know the answer, will the Vetala agree to being taken to the tantric. Since Vikram knows the answer every time, the cycle of catching the Vetala and having him escape continues twenty-four times. Each of the 24 stories are meant to be conundrums that have no easy answer.
Unfortunately, most of the riddles left me cold, and I think the average 8 year old today would find them completely outdated.
Take the first story. A princess decides to ‘convey her feelings through gestures’ to communicate with a besotted suitor. The interpretation of the gestures makes no sense whatsoever. One of the gestures involves the repeated slapping of an old woman, an action that is not condemned in any way.
All the stories are similarly behind the times. They are casually sexist and casteist – a shockingly high number of them end with the supposedly ideal king Vikram making pronouncements such as ‘Women have a greater propensity to perform evil deeds, as they are not taught to discriminate between good and evil the way men are’ or a suitor for a princess being chosen on the basis of his caste.
I do realise that these stories were originally written in a different day and age, but that is exactly my point – in my opinion, they are not suitable to be read to today’s kids, who are likely to find them strange and silly.
If the riddles had solutions that were logical, or showed children how to think out of the box, I might have mentioned that as a point in their favour. But no – several of the solutions seem completely illogical. In one story, a particular character is described as ‘being born again and again on this earth, to sacrifice himself for others’ in the solution given by Vikram. But this fact is not mentioned in the preceding riddle, so how it was arrived at remains a mystery.
Neither does the writing evoke a sense of atmosphere – the dark, dangerous forest into which the king ventures out of a sense of duty, or the cackling, cunning Vetala, do not get their fair share of attention.
After reading this book I thought of it as an opportunity lost. No doubt the storyteller has had to work with the material she had been given, and well, there are the baital paachisi stories. But I think this could have worked better with a complete reworking of the individual stories, taking into consideration the many dilemmas, moral conundrums and pithy puzzles that a child today might be faced with.
What are the world’s concerns today? Pollution, corruption, gender inequality, environmental damage, poverty, racism… what if the stories were to focus on some of these relevant issues? I think the book would have been better for having completely jettisoned the irrelevant and illogical stories from yesteryear and replacing them with interesting and relevant puzzles for the child of today.