The Abridged Excerpts from the Diary of a Corpse’, Naethan Pais

Illustrations © 2021 Naethan Pais



The following story is inspired by a popular folktale from India known as ‘Baital Pachisi’, originally written in Sanskrit and compiled in the 11th century.

 [ He threw me around his shoulders, © 2021 Naethan Pais ] 21st Magha, 57 BC
Ravivara
The Sixth Part of the Night

Dear Maya,

The dead aren’t supposed to have fun.

The dead are supposed to lend their hair for the raven’s roost, let the worms tunnel under their skin and wait for their bones to turn brittle and powder the soil.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not so different.

I’ve hung upside down, impaled by the same branch of the banyan tree for the better part of King Vikramāditya’s reign.

Nothing has changed.

My skin went soft and grey soon after the first monsoon showers, and the spotted eagle that hung about the graveyard worked its way through my ribcage all summer.

I was fortunate to have died a young man, for my hair still holds strong at the roots, though the smell of coconut oil has long worn off.

Between you and me, probably for the best.

Now, about four weeks back, the silence of the graveyard began to break. The vetalas who still remained in the graveyard—the ones who lived in the bones, at least—spoke in raspy whispers.

They told of a stranger cutting his way through the woods, covering three yojanas worth of land in a single day.

He rode no horse—choosing to wear a simple wooden sole beneath his feet, instead—and though he had a scabbard attached to his waist, it was barren.

I was the first to see him.

It was the seventh day of Pausha, in the dark half of the year.

He emerged from the woods, panting, with splintered branches still knotted in his thick hair. His body glistened with drops of sweat and blood, for he had just fought through the brambles, and the thorns were tough this time of year.

He circled the graveyard, running his hands across the tombstones, searching for something. And as soon as he felt the leathery roots of my banyan tree, his face broke into a knowing smile.

As the youngest vetala in the place, I recognised him immediately.

The noble King Vikramāditya, the envy of scholars of this land and the next. So great was his leadership, that in his kingdom, even paupers had at least two gold plates from which to eat. Legends are written long after the subjects have passed, and that bore true until Vikrama took the throne.

If I had a spine, I would have bowed.

Vikrama hauled my body off the branch, threw me around his shoulders and marched back into the woods.

“You’ve waded through thorns and pebbles to get to me, My King,” I said. “While I consider it an honour, I have no drink to offer you, no bed in which you can lay. The least I can do, is beg for you to rest. As soon as the sun breaks, I shall wake you myself.”

Mortals are not accustomed to the dead speaking, and mortal though Vikrama was, he never flinched.

“The sorcerer waits,” he said, twigs snapping beneath his feet. “I swore I would find your corpse and deliver you to him at the earliest.”

“Ah, is this one of your famed promises, Vikrama?” I said. “Your tales are told in this world as well as the next. Never was it known for you to break an oath.”

“And I intend to keep my winning streak.”


When I was ten years of age, my mother caught me with my hand in the earthenware pot, thick curd smeared across my hands.

I paid for it with three whips from the bamboo stick, all of them landing neatly on my knuckles.

That night, as my father applied a paste of turmeric and spittle onto the wound, he asked, “Did you take your whips in silence?”

I winced as the wound burned. “Screaming would have landed me three more.”

“Even the chickens scream as I slit their throat,” he laughed. “And when has that ever stopped my blade? What I mean is… did you never reason with your mother? With a clever tongue, you could have weaselled out of it.”

“How?”

“Maybe a mosquito fell into the pot,” my father said. “And you were merely fishing it out. You could have been a hero, Betaal. Instead, here you are. Bleeding out on my kitchen floor.”

He pulled me closer, hand on my shoulder. “Remember, Betaal, if you succeed in pulling a man by his ear, his head is sure to follow.”

And that’s how I got the idea for the stories.

We had trekked into the deepest part of the forest and a miasma of rotting bark hung in the air. Vikrama walked with one hand feeling the way in front of him, for the canopy overhead blocked even the thinnest ray of moonlight.

He had trouble drawing breath as he sunk from the weight of my body.

Fortunately for him, most of me had rotted away.

“My King, the woods ahead seem to stretch till Ujjain. And with the darkness around us, there is no sight that would soothe the eyes and ease your burden. Instead, let me amuse you with a story.”

Vikrama shook his head. “The sorcerer warned me of you and your schemes, vetala. You have a sharp tongue for such a rotten mouth.”

“Oh, it’s just a harmless tale, my King. If there is any scheme behind it, it is only that I wish to see your wisdom myself. For, at the end of my story, I have a riddle. If you fail to answer, I shall be happy to be your prisoner. And if you answer it correctly, I shall slither out of your arms and head back to my tree.”

“And what if I choose to remain silent?”

“Well, my King, if you know the answer and refuse to speak, your head shall erupt into a thousand pieces.”

And from that day on, I began my tales.

Some told of kings who severed noses as punishment, others sang of queens who could be burned alive by moonlight, another of boys who could craft lions out of scattered bones. Birdmen, warriors, poets and dacoits all played a role.

And at the end of each, I posed a question.

As legends of King Vikramāditya’s wisdom reach as far as Kanyakumari, he answered every single one.

And every answer was tinged with sadness, for as soon as it was spoken, I flew off his shoulders and back to my tree, leaving the mighty King a few steps away from delivering my corpse.

And the cycle was renewed the next day, for he always came back to retrieve me. So on and so forth, we sparred with words rather than scythes, and our battle raged for twenty-five days and twenty-five tales.

Vikrama’s will and wisdom is his curse, for he is prepared to repeat this pointless charade for the rest of his life, just as a gardener daily tends to a seed that has been boiled.

But, maybe, I’ve thought of a way to set him free.

And, I shall write of it tomorrow.

Yours truly,
Betaal


22nd Magha, 57 BC
Somvaar
The Fourth Part of the Night

Dear Maya,

Vikrama emerged back from the woods around the same time as he always did. He was clad in garments he had borrowed from a goatherd wandering the woods.

My previous story had been long and laden with detail, so much so that we had walked nearly nine yojanas. And after I flew back to my tree, Vikrama had to tread the same ground once more.

What always surprised me, no matter how many times I saw it, was Vikrama’s expression as he hoisted me on his shoulders once more. It was one of utter determination.

Like, he knew that this time…surely, this time was the last.

It would have struck me as naivety had it come from anyone else.

“My King, I have laboured all eight parts of the morning to prepare this tale,” I said. “It’s sure to best all the others. And I hope, for your sake, that the riddle at the end shall stump even you.”

Vikrama didn’t bother answering. He stepped delicately into the wet earth, his foot falling neatly into footprints that he had been making for the past four weeks.

And the twenty-sixth tale began just as the others.


In a land not so far removed from our own, there ruled King Vasudev. Never before was someone so deserving of the noble title of ‘Maharaj,’ for an aspect of his fame was his good virtue. Much like yourself, Vikramāditya, it was his custom to give three times more what a person asked of him, even up to half his kingdom.

This tale, however, involves a toll far greater.

One day, while he rested in his private chambers, a guard arrived.

“You have an unbidden visitor, Maharaj,” the guard said. “This man has arrived without giving us word of his coming.”

“Direct him to the court,” Vasudev said. “And let us receive him with the proper rites.”

The guard shook his head. “This man wishes to see you privately, Maharaj.”

A large man shambled into the chamber. He wore a grimy cotton dhoti and no other garment to cover his torso. His brow was slick with sweat, and his eyes studied the room in an erratic sweep, as if he expected dacoits to jump out from the curtains.

He held a small package wrapped in banana leaves.

As Vasudev bowed down to offer the traditional greeting, he noticed the colour of the man’s eyes were different from each other.

“Whatever your request may be, my good man,” Vasudev said, “it shall be yours. But, you must stay back so I may present you to my court. In all my travels, I have never seen eyes such as yours.”

The man gave a violent start as Vasudev spoke.

“Maharaj.” The man fell to his knees. “I’m afraid that isn’t possible. But, before you hear me, let me present to you my gift.”

He unwrapped the banana leaves, and an object as small as a berry tumbled out.

Vasudev gasped.

On the floor, there lay the most brilliant jewel he had ever beheld. It had an almost bewitching aura to it, changing colors in tandem with the light. Its beauty rivalled even that of the winter moon.

Vasudev quelled his desire to touch it, for it wasn’t his way to desire the property of others.

“My man, why do you give this to me?” he asked. “You could sell it in the market for much coin and provide not only for yourself, but for your next three generations.”

The man offered up the jewel in his cupped hands. “Maharaj, in return for this jewel, I only ask for your protection. I am in grave danger, and fear for my life. I wish to remain in complete solitude, such that no other person could ever recognize me.”

“Certainly,” Vasudev said. “From this moment on, I shall remain the only person to have looked upon your face. The royal guard itself shall be tasked with your protection.”

Satisfied, the man kissed the Maharaj’s feet.

Vasudev peered into the man’s eyes for one last time, marvelling at their different colors, and bid goodbye.

The jewel was placed in the very centre of the Maharaj’s turban, and Vasudev ruled for many months, his virtue increasing tenfold.

Until one day, another visitor—a mendicant wearing garments that had more holes than cloth—arrived at the court of Vasudev.

“Maharaj,” the mendicant cried. “I have travelled many hard months to come here, and myths of your goodwill are spoken on every lip along the road.”

Vasudev, swayed by flattery as easily as any other mortal, declared. “Anything within my power shall be given to you.”

The mendicant, his eyes still latched to Vasudev’s feet, cried out, “Though my family owns little, we have a family heirloom, given by fathers to their sons since the time of King Chanayana.” The mendicant wept, and went on in dry raspy coughs. “However, a few months ago, my hut was ravaged by a thief. By the morning, the space beneath my bed—where our prized possessions are kept—was empty, and the heirloom gone.”

“Describe your heirloom to me, my friend, and I shall deploy my guards—a hundred times hundred, if necessary—to search the land.”

“Your entire Kingsguard would be useless to me, Maharaj,” the mendicant said. “For, I require only you.”

He sniffled, and continued, “My family seeks a boon, which we can only acquire by practicing a certain ritual. One of the components of the ritual involves an object—worth the weight of two dog’s eyes—for it to bear fruit. My heirloom weighed exactly the same, and though it pained my family to part with it, we were to use it in the ritual before it was stolen.”

The mendicant’s forehead touched the floor as he began to convulse.

“Maharaj,” he said. “And you wear my heirloom at the top of your head this very moment.”

He pointed a shuddering finger at Vasudev’s turban. The jewel embedded in it glimmered, the light refracting within.

“My jewel?” Vasudev said, shocked.

“Yes, Maharaj,” the mendicant said. “The man who gave it to you is likely to be the very same thief who robbed me. I only ask for it to be returned to me.”

Vasudev slumped back into this throne. “But this jewel was given to me as a gift, a symbol of my promise to a man who sought my protection. It is not my right to give away what has been gifted. I shall give you my entire treasury, but not this jewel.”

“Maharaj, all the gold in the world is of no use,” the mendicant said. “For, that jewel weighs the same as two dog’s eyes. And that is the requirement for the ritual.”

The King refused and the mendicant begged. On and on, they reasoned, their argument lasting from the first sight of the moon to its last.

At last, the mendicant stood up, defiant. “If you will not give me back my jewel, at least identify the thief, so that I may confront him myself.”

Vasudev caressed the jewel in his turban, as unease settled in his chest.

“It seems all I can do today is refuse your requests,” he said. “For the thief sought my protection. And I took an oath, that till his last day, and the days after that, I shall remain the only person who can identify him.”

The mendicant beat his chest in frustration.

“I’m sorry, my friend,” Vasudev said. “I cannot hand him over to you.”


By the time I finished the story, we had walked over 2 yojanas and the sky began to tell of the first part of the day.

Vikrama had maintained his stony silence throughout the tale and marched on as steadfast as before. Though he tired like any other mortal, not once did his feet linger.

“I trust that you were amused, my King,” I said. “And now, using the wit that your poets sing about, let me ask you a few questions. The first:

How would you solve the problem of the thief and the mendicant, so as to satisfy them both?”

“Sometimes,” Vikrama said between breaths, “my mind half-slips and I think it would be better if you smashed my head against this tree. My mind is already in a thousand pieces if not my head.”

“Come now,” I said, “You swore to bring my body to the sorcerer, did you not?”

Vikrama sighed, “I see only one way in which to satisfy both the thief and the mendicant. And it goes like this:

 [ He threw me around his shoulders, © 2021 Naethan Pais ] “Maharaj Vasudev, if he is as his true to his word as you claim him to be, must gouge out both his eyes and offer it to the mendicant.”

“Legends are often half-truths,” I said, “But maybe not yours. And why must the Maharaj do that, Vikrama?”

“As Vasudev remains the only person to have seen the thief, his blindness will now make it impossible to identify him, even if his oath forces his hand. And in giving his eyes to the mendicant, the ritual which required an object worth the weight of two dog’s eyes is now fulfilled. In such a way, he satisfies both his promises.”

“His Majesty does it again,” I said. “Well don—”

Vikrama jerked my body off his shoulder and set it gently on the mud. Kicking the gravel off a patch of land with his feet, he sat down, resting his back on the bark of a tree.

And he whispered, with a voice so low that the Lord of the wind would have been hard-pressed to hear, “Every day you narrated stories of crows and their carrion, thieves and their loot, warriors and their sacrifices. But, today you speak of this… Vasudev. Did you think it would slip me, vetala? That I wouldn’t notice? For you never narrated the story of Vasudev…” He leaned closer, his voice lower still. “…but of me.”

The thick canopy overhead broke, letting in a wandering ray of moonlight. They bathed us in a pale semi-circle of brightness. But it was enough to see Vikrama’s eyes. The skin around his empty eye sockets was still pink and swollen, deep furrows dug out from where he had wedged the blade in. He had washed out the area with neem water, and covered it with silk patches.

“I’ve answered your question, vetala” he said. “Fly back to your tree, and we shall continue this tomorrow.”

“Not yet, O King,” I said. “For there is still one question remaining. The thief who sought your protection had eyes of two different colours. Pray tell…what were they?”

Vikrama threw his head back and laughed. The sound bounced off the trees and shot off in the distance, the echoes sounding demonic.

“Oh, they were beautiful indeed, vetala,” Vikrama said. “A pity you could not see it.”

“You were the only one in the land fortunate to see them, Vikrama,” I said, “You need only tell me the two colours and we shall begin again tomorrow. Lest you forget, your silence will o—”

“Yes, yes,” Vikrama sighed, “A thousand pieces. Even the ravens shall not care for my remains.”

“Go on then, my King.”

Vikrama opened his mouth as if to speak, but closed again, as if his tongue thought better of it.

“If I fail to bring you to the sorcerer,” he said, “Won’t he just send another man? One as damned as I?”

“Probably.”

“Then,” Vikrama said, with a teasing smile, “Won’t you entertain him with your tales?”

“And my riddles, yes.”

Vikrama touched his face, letting his fingers linger around his eye sockets, “Tell me, vetala. Won’t I be in your stories, then? I have no doubt this very night will make an appearance.”

“Of course, my King.”

“So, when you speak about me,” Vikrama said, a hard edge in his voice, “May you never say that King Vikramāditya traded the life of a thief to save his own. For telling you the colour of his eyes would betray my oath.”

“You refuse to answer?

“I’ve been your keen listener over the month, vetala. And for it, I only have one request,” Vikrama said, “If I must die, let my head not erupt into a thousand pieces. Allow my people the honour of seeing their king one last time.”

“Though it is not in the nature of a vetala to heed wishes, maybe I can learn from your generosity,” I said, “It shall be done as you wish.”

Vikrama lay his head against the tree, and turned his face toward the heavens. The moon shone.

I, myself, am a witness to a thousand moonrises. But, never once have I seen it glow as it did that night.

“And Vikrama?” I said, “The thief’s right eye was blue and his left brown.”

Vikrama’s mouth dropped open in surprise, “How?”

“Don’t you expect a man to know his own eye color?” I said.

Vikrama started forward, “But, the Kingsguard? I thought I—”

“Don’t blame yourself, O King,” I said, gently, “Nor find fault with your Kingsguard. I resided in a little shed by your palace—and by your grace—no eyes ever beheld me, not even the birds. It was a fever that took me in my thirtieth year.”

He relaxed again, satisfied that it was no mistake of his that led to my death.


“Now, swear to me your last promise, Vikrama…” I said, “…that you will finally rest.”

Vikrama gave a short nod, and lowered his head until his chin beat his chest.

And history tells us no more of the noble King Vikramāditya, save for his honour.

Yours truly,
Betaal


© 2021 Naethan Pais

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