Writing a Retelling: A review of Vetaal and Vikram: Riddles of the Undead
Vetaal and Vikram: Riddles of the Undead is exemplary, in my opinion, because it is a retelling of a history of literature, blurring the edges between postmodern writing and the tradition of oral storytelling.
When I was a child, my grandfather used to tell me stories. Each one was either a part of his own story or another that he’d heard when he was my age. I remember looking forward to spending weekends with him just so that I could hear more of his stories and my love for them only grew with age. Gayathri Prabhu’s Vetaal and Vikram: Riddles of the Undead was for me both a solemn remembrance of that time and an exquisite insight into the very human need to tell stories and, moreover, to listen and once more begin the cycle of telling and retelling.
I find myself acutely aware that even as I write this review that I’m engaging, in part, in the practice of retelling and shaping the story once more. And I suppose that is the essence of the matter. Every text is an echo of an earlier one, some faithful renditions and others half-recollections, but inevitably each one retold bearing the weight of its context. One excerpt, in particular, stays with me as I write these words: “Because, story after story, redemption and transformation is not in the telling; it is in the listening. Only listening and repeating will release the curse. And the curse is now with you.” I can only hope that in my stumbling representation of the book, I might also find release.
On my first reading of the book, I was reminded of the first time that I read works such as Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveller and Alejandro Zambra’s Ways of Going Home. Like these works, Vetaal and Vikram evokes in me the same sense of wonder at just what can be done with literature when the boundaries of writing as a craft are pushed. The author is recounting the story of Vikram and Vetaal but at the same time, it is also the story of Vikram and the Vampire: Tales of Hindu Devilry by Richard Francis Burton as well as the story of all storytellers, and retellers. Each layer settles comfortably over the next only to be peeled back over time, but we are left dyed in its wake, absorbing all the layers over time.
The book also settles the reader into the cultural context of the Indian storytelling context immediately with the title. The stories of Vikram and Vetaal are stories that we grew up with. Our many epics are filled with the literary technique of telling stories within stories within stories, and the author beautifully captures the essence of that tradition through the nested nature of the novel as well as the stories themselves that paint the world with ascetics and palaces, princes and women, rajas and their honour.
To say that this book is narratively complex would be an understatement. The author has woven a multiplicity of stories, each one layered over the next giving the book a rich texture of perspectives, tones and styles. However, for me, what makes this book truly unique is its capacity to blend two distinct traditions and the finesse with which this meeting of horizons takes place. We, as readers, are comforted by the familiarity of the narrative while being made intensely conscious of what that familiarity entails, both in terms of narrative structure and gendered roles that dominate older retellings. I often found myself confronted by questions of where stories come from, who tells these stories and who these stories are about. The book navigates and negotiates these questions over and over again in each of the different layers, and it is within this back-and-forth that the overarching story of storytellers also emerges.
Vetaal and Vikram: Riddles of the Undead is exemplary, in my opinion, because it is a retelling of a history of literature, blurring the edges between postmodern writing and the tradition of oral storytelling. It is a renegotiation of what it means to tell stories and the lineage of stories that we draw from every time that we tell a story. It does all this and more while at the same time telling and retelling the story of Vikram and Vetaal, both the tale and its history. All of this is further aided by the fluidity of the writing itself and the book’s crisp pace which keeps the story going. I, for one, could not put the book down until I had finished all of it in one go.