I discovered – via a lucky google search – the full pdf of Richard Burton's Vikram and the Vampire in the Nalanda Digital Library. This book, which may be unfamiliar to most Western readers, is based on the Betal Pachisi (Twenty five tales of a vampire) a collection of Sanskrit apologues featuring the good king Vikramaditya of Ujjain, who – the preface informs us – could be considered as a King Arthur-like figure in Indian mythology. This is fun for me, because I had never read the unabridged version of Burton's book.
Coming back to them after so many years, the stories seem wonderful, even bizarre. Here is a very brief introduction to the book: King Vikram is entrusted with the task of fetching a vampire that hangs from a mimosa tree. Having brought down the vampire and slung it onto his back, Vikram is on his way, when the treacherous creature begins to speak. He tells Vikram a story (25 stories in all, eleven of which appear in Burton's book) and asks him a question at the end of each. The conditions are that if the king opens his mouth to answer either from vanity, or conceit, or from the vampire's treachery or from a moral duty, the vampire would leave him and go back to hang upside down from his tree. Only if the king remained silent out of humility or ignorance would the vampire accompany him to his destination. And so the tales begin. Time after time, Vikramaditya cannot help but answer the vampire's mischieviously designed queries. Time after time, the vampire, in an explosion of triumphant laughter, gives him the slip. Time after time, Vikramaditya pulls him down again and sets off on another journey, on another story.
As a child, I had read at least two abridged English versions of the stories, one in an illustrated storybook form and the other as a comic book. And most people in India are familiar with Vikram Aur Baital (Vikram and the Vampire), one of the most engaging TV serials of the 1980s. We watched it in the afternoons and scurried to our storybooks. For at least three generations and in many languages, a periodical story magazine named Chandamama (The Moon) continued to run the story of Vikram and the Ghost with the familiar words:
Dark was the night and fearsome the atmosphere…. but King Vikram swerved not.
And then, there followed one more story from the Betal Pachisi. I hear that Chandamama still carries the stories today, as it did when we were children, as it did when our parents were children themselves.