In which King Vikramaditya finds the Betaal and agrees to listen to its stories.
The night of the new moon, Vikram got ready to go to the graveyard. His guards accompanied him, but he asked them to stop outside the graveyard and walked in all by himself. It was a perilous walk! It was easy to let your mind play tricks on you. Even in the absolute dark, you could make out different shadows wafting in the breeze. The trees themselves took on strange shapes. You didn’t know where the tree ended and where the creatures on it began. The drifting movements made it difficult to tell what was living and what wasn’t. Was King Vikrama bothered by it all? Legend says not, but I wonder!
There are many interesting facts about Betaals. We know that they can stay hanging on trees for centuries, that they love drumstick trees (I wonder if they like the drumstick too? Sambhaar or kootu Mr. Vedalam? I guess these spirits don’t need any food as they can live off the memories that keep them tied to the earth.
Vikrama combed the pitch-black night, going from one grove to another, looking for the peepal tree. Creatures of the night scurried around, brushing his foot. The stench of the living, mixed with that of the non-living, grew stronger and stronger. Bats hung on the branches, like clothes left to dry. They shrieked and flapped away from him as he went peering tree to tree.
“I will not give up,” he told himself, ‘I will not!” and he soldiered on.
A little while later, at a distance, under the low light of the dying embers of a fire, Vikram made out a tree, spreading out its branches like an open umbrella. In his haste to reach the tree, he stepped on something that made a loud clatter. He looked down. Were those sticks, branches, pots, or bones? He couldn’t tell. For a heart-pounding moment, some shapes stopped and then bustled about hurriedly as if to hide from whatever was waking up. But for all his exhaustion, Vikrama was excited. This must be the peepal tree! He ignored the agonizing creaking of the branches as something heavy swung this way and that in the wind. Was that a face? Two eyes were staring at him with a bemused look.
Vikram swallowed very hard. He couldn’t look away! The eyes held his, trying to see inside his mind. Then suddenly, it let go. Vikram reached over and grabbed the corpse. Putting it over his shoulder, he started his long journey back.
All was quiet for a while. Well, the wind was still rustling the branches. Ashes and reeds were still tossed about on the ground, and you could still hear the pitter-patter as jackals and rats ran around. But, there were no sounds made by humans. That was the quietness I was talking about.
The Betaal Speaks
And then a voice cut through it, making Vikram stop midstride. “Who are you? And Where are you taking me?” The chill of the voice nearly froze Vikram’s heart.
Vikram turned around, and of course, there was no one there.
He looked down at the hanging face. The Betaal looked out of the dead man’s face.
“I’m Vikramaditya, the king. I’m taking you to my court.”
“Oh, king! Why are you taking me there?”
“A hermit asked to bring you to him. Who are you, and what is special about you?
“Oh, I’m just the Betaal who lives in this corpse. Well, my king, I’ve heard about you. You are known to be brave and just. I am puzzled, though! Why would a wise and brave ruler agree to do a hermit’s bidding? Did you find out why he wanted you to bring me to him?
“The hermit needs your help for a special puja. Since the Puja is for the wellbeing of my people, I agreed to bring him to you.” Said Vikramaditya
“Oh! So you would do anything for the wellbeing of your people. Ok, I too will go with you for the wellbeing of your people — under one condition!”
“And what is that condition, Betaal?” asked King Vikram.
“I will tell you a story on the way to your court. You cannot speak at all, not even to ask questions. At the very end, I will ask you a question. If you know the answer, you must speak up and give me the answer. But if you speak, I will fly back to my tree. If you try to pretend that you don’t know, your head will shatter into pieces. In the unlikely event that you don’t know the answer, I will go all the way with you to the hermit. Do you agree?”
This is certainly not what I had in mind when I thought the hermit was bringing me an adventure,’ thought Vikram. Aloud, he said, “Betaal, I will listen to your story and answer your question if I can. Go ahead and tell me the story.”
“I will hold you to your promise,” said the Betaal and began his story.
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