This is a charming book I listened to under a misimpression of its contents. I was told it was rather like British Goblins, which is a collection of Celtic faeries, but it is nothing of the kind. As it started to unfold, I thought “This sounds a lot like Vikram and the Vampire.” which is one of those books I’ve always meant to read and yet somehow not found time for. After finishing, I’ve checked and they are two translations of the same book (Baital Pachisi), although Vikram and the Vampire is far more creative with the original text.
The frame narrative for the stories is straightforward: a king has agreed to help a priest by carrying an evil spirit, residing in a corpse, to him. Each time the king lifts the corpse from a graveyard tree, and walks through the night with it, the spirit tells a story. The king is then charged that if he knows the solution of the puzzle, he must speak it. If he speaks, however, the spirit flees to the tree. This happens twenty-four times, with the frame narrative making a twenty-fifth story.
These medieval Indian stories are a sort of progenitor of other puzzle texts. This is the great-grandfather of those books of ethical questions we now have in the Library, where you are meant to liven up parties by asking your friends if they’d mind, once they are dead, being left to be eaten by wild animals. It’s also the ancestor, I’d argue, of some types of mystery fiction.
I enjoyed the book a great deal, after having shifted gear from my initial expectations. To give you a feel of the text, its simplest just to give some of the chapter titles:
The Girl who transposed the Heads of her Husband and Brother. Which combination of head and body is her husband?
The Brahman who died because Poison from a Snake in the Claws of a Hawk fell into a Dish of Food given him by a Charitable Woman. Who is to blame for his death?
The Four Brothers who brought a Dead Lion to Life. Which is to blame when he kills them all?
It’s an excellent book. It doesn’t have a deep emotional appeal, but it is tremendously cleverly written, and provides sharp insights in to the morality of the culture and time from which it comes. I’d write book club discussion points for it, but they write themselves: read the passages, and then just debate if the king’s solution is the right one, and why.
The Library Service does have this work, in an ebook version of the Burton translation, but I listened to the Librivox version. I actually volunteered to co-read it for LV, but one of the other readers wanted to solo it, and I’m glad he did, because he’s done fantastic work with it. The Librivox version is based on a free web text hosted at Project Gutenberg, suitable for most e-readers.