“Vikram and Vetal stories are popular all over India. Originally, there are only twenty five, but they became so popular that people began to come up with their own. The first story starts off like this – the brave and clever king Vikramaditya, identified later on simply as Vikram, is summoned by a tantrik (sorcerer) in order to bring back a corpse which has been possessed by a vetala (malevolent spirit, sometimes translated as ‘vampire’), in order for the sorcerer to exorcise the spirit and perform the last rites of the corpse. So Vikram, courageous as he is, ventures into the haunted, creepy forest and finally finds the tree from which the animated corpse is hanging. Vetal, as the spirit calls himself, is an incredibly sharp-witted individual, and offers King Vikram a trade – he will tell Vikram a long story and end it with a question. If Vikram answers the question correctly, then Vetal will return to the tree. If he stays silent, his head will explode into a thousand pieces. So, Vetal starts to tell a story – ‘Two young men named Suryamal and Chandrasen travel to a town one day to visit a temple nearby. When they arrive there, Suryamal sees a beautiful young woman praying to the Devi (goddess). He falls in love with her straightaway, predictably. And so, excited by this, he goes to tell his friend Chandrasen. The latter young man advises Suryamal to speak to her parents if he’s serious. So he does, and they say that the only condition of the marriage would be that the young woman has to return to her town every so often to pray to the Devi, of whom she is an ardent devotee. Suryamal agrees readily, and gets married to the young woman. Her parents ask him to stay longer,but he and his friend are required to return to their hometown because of some urgent matter. On their way back through the forest, however, they are attacked by a gang of bandits, who behead them and leave them there. The bride, on her way to perform her prayers to the Devi, stumbles across her dead husband and his friend. Devastated, she prays to the Devi, who answers her prayers and tells her to fix the heads back onto the bodies of the two men and sprinkle some amrita (nectar) over the corpses to reanimate them. She obeys, but in the process accidentally puts the heads on the wrong bodies – Suryamal’s head ends up on Chandrasen’s body and vice versa. Which one should she marry? Remember, if you do not answer my question, your head will burst into a thousand pieces!’ Vikram takes a moment to think about it before speaking but finally responds – ‘Since the brain is the most important organ of the body and makes all the decisions, stores all the memories, then she should marry the man who has Suryamal’s head, of course!’ Vetal is satisfied with this answer, but alas! Vikram spoke, so Vetal flew away.”
The interviewee explained her memories of these stories – “Every month, we would get a children’s magazine known as Chandamama (Uncle Moon). In these magazines, the most popular read was the Vikram and Vetal story. I used to devour these stories and fight over them with my older sister. This one stuck in my head because it was the first one that I had ever read, and because the problem posed in the riddle was pretty intriguing to me. If I was in the bride’s shoes, I wouldn’t know which one to marry!”
The Vikram and Vetal series of stories is extremely interesting because not only does it contain an embedded narrative, but the inner narrative takes the form of a sort of neck riddle. Now, in the original series, King Vikram has to try twenty five times before Vetal comes up with a complicated enough question to stump him. Upon the king’s confusion, Vetal at last decides to accompany him back to the tantrik. Within these twenty five tries, the story opens in much the same way every time – ‘Once again, the undaunted King Vikram arrived at the tree and carried Vetal away with him, and once again Vetal began a story.’ and also ends the same way every time – ‘Vetal was satisfied with his answer, but alas! Vikram spoke, and so Vetal flew away.’ This almost unchanging structure is demonstrative of the Parry-Lord Oral Formulaic Theory. What is interesting, however, is that much like the format of the many versions of the Arabian Nights, the neck riddle stories embedded in the narrative are not restricted only to the original twenty five. In fact, as with the magazine, youngsters all over India and within the Indian diaspora who are familiar with the stories come with their own neck riddles all the time, creating an infinite wealth of Vikram and Vetal folklore. The riddle in itself takes the form of an anecdote ended with a question, which is never straightforward. This story in particular stresses the importance of the mind over the body, which corresponds with the traditional Hindu view that the body is nothing but a vessel for the soul and the mind. Therefore, as Vikram concludes, the bride would be better served to marry the man with Suryamal’s head/brain rather than the one with his body.