Most kids growing up in India are likely to have some sort of familiarity with the stories of Vikram and Betal. Natasha Sharma’s Vikram and the Vampire is a humorous and somewhat simplified take of some of the stories from the Baital Pachisi. Given that there are numerous retellings of this particular tale, the author has tried to give it a fresh twist with her trademark humour.
King Vikram is promised untold riches and power by the tantric Shaitanish in exchange for fulfilling the latter’s one wish. The king, swayed by greed, agrees and Shaitanish sets him the task of retrieving a corpse from a tree. However, the corpse is possessed by a certain smart-mouth vampire, who insists on telling Vikram a story while he’s being carted to the tantric. At the end of the story, says the vampire, he will pose a question to Vikram. If he (Vikram) knows the answer, the vampire (along with its corpse abode) will return to the tree and they must start the trip all over again.
Thus begins a long night for poor King Vikram. But of course, we know this story, and how, eventually, Vikram is unable to answer one question, and manages to deliver the corpse to Shaitanish. However, the vampire has already let Vikram know of the tantric’s plan to kill him. With this inside info, Vikram is able to turn the tables on the evil Shaitanish (as if that name didn’t give the game away!) and learn an abject lesson about how destructive greed can be.
Unfortunately, the story of Vikram and Betal is too well-known for it to stand out just because it’s told in a funny way. The humour itself is erratic, jumping between the witty and the nonsensical. While the chatty tone of the book makes it an easy read, the funnies try a little too hard sometimes – for example, Vikram having to meet the tantric “on the sixteenth night of the dark moon in the third month after the royal elephant gives birth to her fifth calf”, the name of the tantric (Shaitanish) and the names of the characters in Betal’s stories. And, as someone who completely, absolutely, totally despises the use of nonsense words to make up songs and poems, especially for children, the less said about the song “Flee flit fly flum” the better.
Speaking of the characters, there are the Queens Touchmenot, Itsratherhot and Oohmyhead; three young men called Shri Ek, Shri Doh and Shri Teen; Princess Brillianto of Kingdom Amazing and her suitors Princes Starry, Brainy and Hunky; the clever man Samajhdaar with his four idiot sons Nin, Com, Poo and Oops; the kingdoms of Left and Right; and more. While they are referenced in the story as Betal coming up with idiotic names to annoy Vikram, they annoy the reader too!
The first chapter, about couriering vampires, is somewhat redundant, given that Vikram’s task later on is not to transport the vampire, but a corpse that happens to be possessed by a vampire. Its only saving grace is the hilarious illustrations. The book’s set-up too is long drawn out – it takes Betal five chapters to make an appearance. The stories are very simplistic to present any sort of suspense. The author possibly missed an opportunity to create fresh riddles or give the original stories a bit of a spin to add an element of mystery and a chance for the reader to solve the puzzles too.
The text is peppered with some fantastic illustrations – my favourite is the vomiting vampire! Sadly, this book is yet another example of a publisher ignoring the illustrator, who definitely deserved to go on the cover. One suspects the artist is Priya Kuriyan, given the cover image. There are some editorial oversights too, with British and American spellings mixed up, and at least one reference to “the fall” (the season), which sounds rather out of place in an Indian legend.
Humour is a great way to reach out to young readers, but a great disservice is done to them to assume that it must be simplistic. The story of Vikram and Betal is, of course, a timeless classic, but this collection fell somewhat short of standing out.
By Payal Dhar
Author: Natasha Sharma
Illustrator: Priya Kuriyan
Young Zubaan, 2015
Subject Category: Contemporary/Fiction