Too many stories can spell trouble, and not just from the here and now. The medieval Sanskrit story collection known as Kathasaritsagara—“The Ocean of the Stream of Stories”—is filled with stories, spilling into other stories, seeping around each other, sucking you down into another story.
“If stories are infectious,” writes the Indian novelist and memoirist, Gayathri Prabhu, “this is a pandemic that could mow down the entire human race.” In Vetaal and Vikram, which is part literary pastiche, part historical biography, she dredges up these ancient tales and winds them around the story of a Victorian explorer who was their most celebrated interpreter. In the process, Prabhu gives us a shimmering cover version that captures the strange magic of the original.
Heads are swapped, genders switched, immortal beings stuffed inside the rotting matter of the living, or the newly dead. The stories rush at the reader, sometimes only taking up a page, sometimes dozens, sometimes complete, at other times disrupted so you have to come back to them after you’ve crawled through several others, and the collection “folds into itself so many times that an atom seems as expansive as the cosmos.”
The storytellers themselves are not exempt: the first part of the Ocean meanders around the tale of a heavenly being cursed to dwell as a mortal on earth until he can broadcast a tale originally narrated by the Hindu god Shiva. After losing a wager about teaching grammar, Gunadhya is disallowed from using any of the languages he knows and has to spin this tale in the language of infernal beings known as “Paisachas”, and write it in his own blood. As Prabhu wryly notes, he may be “the first writer to call writing a bloody pain”.
But if storytelling itself is a curse, the curse is passed on. The most celebrated stories in the Ocean, and the ones on which Prabhu’s book focuses, are about a king obliged to carry an animated corpse for a sinister ascetic (the spirit occupying the corpse is known as a “Vetaal”), and answer riddles about the twenty-four stories the Vetaal narrates to him. If he gets it wrong, his head will split into a hundred pieces. Storytelling, we’re reminded, is dangerous, and none of us is exempt: “remember”, Prabhu warns us, “the only way to undo the curse is to pass them on to another listener, who then has to tell the same story to someone else.”
People have been passing these stories on for a millennium, at least. They were set down by a Kashmiri court poet called Somadeva in 1070, and a few centuries later we find curiously comparable stories by European luminaries such as Chaucer, Boccaccio and Giambattista Basile. But the routes of transmission are hard to pin down, and it is to a later redactor that Prabhu turns her spotlight. This is Richard Burton, the 19th-century explorer, trespasser-into-Mecca and translator of esoteric texts. In between bowdlerising the 1001 Nights and working on the erotic medieval treatise The Perfumed Garden, he spun out eleven tales from the Kathasaritsagara, publishing them as Vikram and the Vampire: Tales of Hindu Devilry. The brashly commercial title was a winner, and the book brought in plenty of cash.
For Prabhu, Burton’s wife Isabel is as interesting as her husband. We follow Isabel’s first sighting of her future husband, her loneliness when he’s chinwagging with fellow orientalists, her envy and admiration for the gung-ho adventurer Jane Digby El Mezrab (an English aristocrat who’d married a Bedouin Sheikh and lived in the Syrian desert). We’re shown a curious parallel between the tales of the Ocean and Isabel’s actions after her husband’s death: just as Gunadhya burns his tales, Isabel sets her husband’s last manuscript on a bonfire.
For all the pleasures of eavesdropping on the Burtons, however, it’s the stories themselves that seize the attention. They may be a thousand years old and more, yet they hardly need updating, with their themes of sexual consent, gender ambiguity, mistaken identity and class. A young man takes a pill that turns him into a woman; a man climbs into a young woman’s bedroom and tries to force himself upon her; a woman who has refused all her suitors falls in love with a convicted thief dragged past her window. Prabhu dredges these tales out of the Victorian gothic pit dug for them by Burton and his contemporaries, and in the process lights them up for the twenty-first century, with an extra coating of psychological depth. As she points out, “it is about time a living woman joined this messy author-character melee.”
In one arresting montage, Prabhu imagines the many “keepers of the thread”—the god Shiva, the cursed immortal Gunadhya, the Kashmiri poet Somadeva and Burton—all tweaking the stories in their own way, communing across different time periods and planes of reality. These stories have astonishing tenacity, so it’s no wonder they keep finding new interpreters. Which is why, if you want to avoid the curse, you can’t just read them—you have to find somebody else to share them with.
Nicholas Jubber is the author of Epic Continent: Adventures in the Great Stories of Europe (John Murray, 2019)