books


You should, of course, be buying the India Construction Kit. But yes, here at the Zompist Fortressplex new plans are already afoot. Here’s a clue.

syntax books

Your first guess will undoubtedly be a Quechua grammar. And that’s still in the running!

But as the pile of syntax books next to my desk suggests, I’ve actually started on another language book, most probably called The Syntax Construction Kit.

Didn’t I cover syntax in the LCK?  Oh yes, more or less, but never to the satisfaction of my internal syntactician. I would really like to draw a bunch of syntactic trees, and explain why syntactic trees were so exciting in around 1980, and how to argue about syntax, and why Noam Chomsky is both brilliant and infuriating.

Syntax was my introduction to academic linguistics, and though it’s useful for conlanging, like knowing bones is useful for designing animals, what I want to get across is how much fun syntax was at that time. Generative syntax was a new field, so new things were being discovered— hell, your syntax class, or you yourself writing a paper, could discover a new fact about English syntax pretty much any time you wanted to. You could watch the big names in the field arguing with each other and not infrequently pausing to teach each other philosophy of science.

Now, only one of the books in the picture was published past 1990, and it’s possible that everything I learned is now completely outdated. I will take the opportunity to update my knowledge, but I’m guessing that I won’t have to change that much. The idea isn’t to teach a particular formalism so much as to teach the methods and findings of modern syntax.

You may be wondering, will there be another regional Construction Kit, after China and India? I certainly hope so! A Middle East Construction Kit is an attractive possibility. But the research load for these things is immense, and I need a little break.

Even less likely: you may be clamoring for more fiction, bless your heart. People who’ve bought my novels seem to like them, but unfortunately there’s just not enough of them. One encouraging sign, though: on my Kindle reports, I noticed that some lovely soul bought about fifty copies of Against Peace and Freedom in December, presumably to give to all their friends. That’s more than it usually sells all year. So I will probably dig out the sequel and keep working at it.

 

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I’ve always included Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker on my personal list of best sf books, though I hadn’t re-read it in years. I just re-read it, and it’s still up there, with quibbles. If you have a certain kind of mind, it’ll blow it.

andromeda

Stapledon for some reason seems little talked about these days, and yet he’s held up very well. His first major sf work was Last and First Men (1930), which is about nothing less than the two billion years of humanity, starting from now.  “Oh, he’s an optimist,” you’ll jest.  Not at all.  A lot of that two billion years is taken up with devastation and destruction, and the last of eighteen human species peter outs in a sad twilight on Neptune. (I read it, but long ago, so I don’t recall if he really thinks Neptune has a surface.)  His keen sense of the possible destruction of civilization made him a strange outlier in the gung-ho stage of classic sf, but seems more relevant than ever today.

That two-billion chunk of human history is briefly retold in Star Maker (1937), in about a page and a half: by the standards of Star Maker, that timespan and that story are a trifle. I can’t think of any other book with the scope of this one. Its structure is reminiscent of that amazing film Powers of Ten, in that each chapter takes a wider viewpoint than the last.

A man runs out of his house and up the hill, apparently after a quarrel with his wife, and lies down on a hill looking up at the stars. He starts imagining the Earth in space, and then his imagination becomes real— he finds himself a disembodied viewpoint in space, with the ability to move around at vast speeds, but unable to return to Earth.  He is a little alarmed at this— the quarrel wasn’t that serious— but decides he’d better keep going and see what there is to see.

The best scientific opinion of the 1930s was that planets were created when two stars approached each other, a rare event; thus it takes him a long time to find a star with planets. Fortunately he finds one that’s inhabited.  Later he realizes that this is no coincidence: he was led psychically to a world much like his own.  (I borrowed this idea in my meta-thinking about Almea.)

He sees an alien peasant working in a field, and eventually realizes that he can see through another mind’s senses, and even communicate telepathically.  He explores the planet this way, but the aliens are troubled by his communications.  One of them complains to a philosopher, whose name is Bvalltu.  Bvalltu “cures” the man by inviting the alien visitor to come with him instead, and the narrator gratefully accepts.  They get to know each other, become friends, and then learn to travel telepathically together.

But the characters of the book are not individual people; they’re species. Bvalltu’s planet gets a fairly thorough treatment, but the next planets they discover are covered more briefly.  Stapledon has some fun imagining more and more unusual forms of sapients.  There are avians, intelligent ships, a symbiosis between ichthyoids and arachnids, plant-men, and others. On each planet the group stays for awhile, studies and interacts, and then moves on, often joined by one of the locals.

At this point, they are attracted to planets at a certain stage of crisis. In Stapledon’s terms, the crisis is always whether the species will be destroyed by individualism, or push through to a new form of community. When and where he was writing, in 1937 Britain, the choices were stark and unappetizing: uncompromising communism, reactionary fascism, or a weak and muddled liberal democracy. After WWII, this seemed outdated for awhile; sf futures were almost all a benign future ’50s America.  Today Stapledon (like Orwell) is looking better than ever. There’s no future in reactionary hatred and ecological destruction, and yet it seems to be terribly hard for our species to tear itself away from those paths.

Again, Stapledon is no optimist.  His view is that most species don’t make it; they collapse back into barbarity or destroy themselves. But some figure it out, and create utopias.  He posits that telepathy is used, or created, so that individuals can remain themselves, and yet contribute to a species-wide mind.

Ah, but we’re only halfway through; these are merely the players for later drama.  A species that reaches this stage will spend some happy centuries reorganizing itself, rearranging its genome and its stellar system to its liking, and developing in culture. Eventually it turns to the larger galaxy, and here conflict reappears.  Can it encounter other species as equals, or does it insist on absorbing them into its own system?

This leads to interstellar wars, and eventually the fighting empires merge into a galactic empire— still a utopia for its citizens, but intent on gobbling up every other entity in the galaxy. However, one of the Magellanic clouds has developed another way, advancing further on the way to community.  They are dominated, as it happens, by that symbiotic culture of ichthyoids and arachnids.  The symbionts intervene, telepathically undermining the imperials.  This leads to the emergence of a galactic society and an incipient galactic mind.

A mere side point in Stapledon: this is the first book to mention what were later called Dyson spheres, structures which capture all the output of a star for sapients’ use. (They do not have to be solid spheres.)

The galaxy now begins exploring the rest of the universe, but runs into a serious problem: the stars themselves are alive, and start roasting planets.  The world-minds, you see, had the idea of sending entire star-systems to other galaxies.  Being moved about by their own planets seems baffling and wrong to the sentient stars, who react with confused violence.  By the time this is sorted out, time is running out— the cosmos is growing old, and there is limited time left.  Still, it’s possible to proceed to the next stage, a cosmic soul.

There have been references throughout to the Star Maker, the ultimate creator; the narrator and his companions half expect that once the cosmic soul awakens, it will be able to perceive and respond to the creator, and be accepted as its companion.  That would be a little too dreamy: the cosmic soul does reach out to the Star Maker— but is rebuffed.  The Star Maker, in effect, perceives the soul of the cosmos, analyzes it and appreciates it… then puts it aside.  The cosmic soul persists as long as it can (the suns are going out, but fusion is prolonged in artificial stars; the typical surviving species are now intelligent swarms of worms or bugs living on the surface of these structures).

Finally Stapledon considers the Star Maker itself, from an extra-cosmic perspective, creating one universe after another, moving from simple to more complex creations. Our cosmos is neither early nor late, but is considered the first work of the creator’s mature period.

After all that, the narrator’s vision breaks off, and he finds himself back on the hill looking at the stars.

Whew.  You can probably see why this book has influenced most of the classic sf writers, but not been imitated. It’s not a book you could turn into a blockbuster movie, with a part for Harrison Ford and quips by Joss Whedon. Stapledon by no means forgets about individuals; he is always emphasizing that his world-minds are composed of individuals going about their daily lives, and concerned with their maximum happiness. But his focus is on entire worlds, and on ascending the dizzying scale of astronomical time and space.

On a re-reading, I think that Stapledon’s prose works, but is sometimes too academic. He can write passionately, and insert vivid details, but he doesn’t have the precision of Borges or the wit of Stanisław Lem (perhaps his closest peers). He spends a little too much time talking about how he can hardly describe the concerns of lofty super-intelligences or the cosmic soul… well, sure, who could? Fortunately he goes ahead and does it anyway, and it’s fine. You have to be bold with this sort of thing.

From Wikipedia, I learn that C.S. Lewis didn’t like Stapledon’s philosophy (though he admired his inventiveness), and partly wrote his Space Trilogy in response. More than half a century on, their quarrel seems slim. Lewis of course preferred the personal god of Christianity, who may be awe-inspiring but is still fuzzy and loving. If Lewis was here, however, I’d remind him that he’d written A Grief Observed and wondered if God was “a cosmic sadist”. Stapledon wonders the same thing.  They would disagree on whether “God is Love”, but Stapledon sees the attractiveness of the idea, and Lewis well understood why someone would be troubled by the suffering God permits in the world.

(If you can’t stand the idea of a god at all… well, just take it as a possible advanced cosmology. The cosmic soul has to have something to think about.)

Stapledon tries to stay true to astronomy (e.g., he does not posit faster-than-light travel, though he does allow telepathy); but of course astronomy has changed since he wrote. His account of the stellar life cycle is wrong, for instance— he thinks that our star started as a “red giant” and cooled into a dwarf, whereas today’s prediction is that the sun will become a red giant in about 8 billion years.

He also places the formation of the universe 200 billion years ago, though he acknowledges that this might be an overestimate. It is; the current estimate is that the cosmos is 13.7 billion years old. On the other side, modern science allows far grander expanses of future time than Stapledon: he expects the stars to last for about 75 billion more years, while we now expect star formation to continue for between 1 and 100 trillion years. It’s interesting to speculate what Stapledon would have made of black holes, dark matter, and the possibility that our universe could generate new universes via quantum tunneling.

If this sounds like your cup of tea, it probably is.  It’s sf for geeks who like their sense of wonder expertly, scientifically frobbed. And these days it’s refreshing to find a classic sf work which veers purposefully away from Imperialism or Capitalism In Space.

 

The India Construction Kit is available on Kindle. It’s only $6.25. Here’s my page explaining the book.

India-Cover-Front

The paperback edition is coming soon. I’ve just ordered the second proof copy, and expect to fix final typos and send it to bed in the middle of next week.

I can’t think of much else to write that I didn’t already put on the other page, except that it’s ideal for everyone on your list for holiday shopping.

Oh, if you do buy the Kindle version, you will probably want to look on the web resources page (see the intro) for bigger maps.  They will be up in a day or two.

Edit: if you were waiting on tenterhooks… get off those tenterhooks, you could hurt yourself. Paperback is here.

The most important thing is done, I think: the cover!

India-Cover-Front

Who are these people?  Once you read the book, you will know!  Also the answer is on the back cover, but you won’t even need that clue.

The text is about done— I have at least one more book I want to read, but it’s about time to order the proof copy. I’m hoping to make the book available by the end of November. Make your family buy you a copy!

I could probably use another couple of readers for this draft. E-mail me if  you’re interested and you are pretty sure you can read it and make comments within the next 3-4 weeks. (Sorry for the rush… some other stuff has needed dealing with.)

By the way, does anyone know what that big tree in the center is?  The fruits look like mangos, but the leaves are nothing like mango leaves. Perhaps an Indian tulip tree?

I just finished Massacre at the Palace, by Jonathan Gregson, which focuses on the 2001 massacre of the royal family of Nepal by the crown prince, but retells the entire history of the Shah dynasty.  And good lord, the massacre is only of a piece with Nepali royal history.

The story starts in 1742 with the accession of Prithvi Narayan Shah to the kingdom of Gorkha. This was only one of sixty independent kingdoms in what is now Nepal, and by no means one of the major ones. Yet over the next quarter century, Prithvi ran a remarkable campaign of conquest, culminating in his overrunning the much more powerful kingdoms of the Kathmandu Valley in 1768. He and his successors kept on till they controlled the present-day territory of Nepal and quite a bit more.

In 1814-16, Gorkha ran afoul of the British, who defeated it and required it to take a British ambassador, and no others. Other than that, Gorkha retained its independence, and took on the role of Enthusiastic Ally. The British were impressed by the fighting spirit of the kingdom’s warriors, and recruited “Gurkhas” (their version of the name of the country) into their army. They were instrumental in putting down the 1857 revolt and served in large numbers in both world wars.

After that, the Shah dynasty had a big problem: minor kings.  For half a century after Prithvi’s death in 1775, there was almost never an adult king. That left regents in charge, and invited the family to indulge in some intense Game of Thrones style intrigue. The queens were particularly involved– not least because if their children didn’t win the throne, they could be forced to commit suicide.

By the 1830s, power was divided between king Rajendra, crown prince Surendra, and Rajya Laxmi, one of the king’s wives (not Surendra’s mother). Surendra was not popular, as he had a cruel streak: he liked to order subjects to jump down a well or ride a horse off a cliff, just to see if they’d die.

One relatively minor incident: the chief minister, a supporter of the queen, decided to switch his support to Surendra. Laxmi ordered a retainer, Jung Bahadur Konwar, to kill him– which he did, intensifying the palace intrigue. The next move was the king’s: he had his wife’s lover (another state minister) killed.

Laxmi was incensed, and summoned all the senior officers of the realm to an assembly ground known as the Kot, one night in 1846.  Konwar took the precaution of arriving with his brothers as well as a backup force.  Laxmi demanded to know who had been responsible for killing her minister; when no one replied she accused some wretch of doing it and ordered him immediately executed.  When people balked at this, she ran at him herself with a sword, but Konwar restrained her and escorted her back to the balcony. (The king slipped out and escaped the country.)

Once she was safely there, Konwar’s men opened fire on the assembled nobles.  Over thirty were killed, and an unknown number of soldiers and retainers.

The queen rewarded him with the position of chief minister and commander in chief. She expected that in return her own son would be named crown prince, but Konwar refused. She attempted to have him assassinated, but the plot was discovered; Konwar killed another couple dozen of her supporters and exiled her.  With both Laxmi and Rajendra out of the country, he could have the incapable Surendra proclaimed king.  More importantly, he could assume absolute power himself. He was granted a semi-royal title, Rana, and made the prime ministership hereditary.  The Ranas governed for the next century… not without an intra-dynastic shakeup or two of their own. The Shah family was essentially confined as prisoners in their own palace.

So things stood till 1950.  (The country began to be called Nepal in the 1930s, by the way. Previously this had been a name for the Kathmandu Valley only.)  Nepal remained one of the most regressive and poorest countries in Asia, but there was a new factor: there were now three embassies in Kathmandu: the UK, the US, and newly independent India.

King Tribhuvan saw an opportunity, and it was carefully negotiated by his sons, who had more freedom of movement. He requested from the Rana prime minister permission to hold an outdoor picnic. This was granted– as the army would accompany him, it seemed harmless.  The king and his sons each drove their own cars. As the motorcade passed the Indian Embassy, the doors opened and they drove in. It happened so fast that the army escort had no chance to react.  Immediately the king applied for political asylum.

In brief, the Rana ministers were now put in an impossible position, and had to negotiate a return to royal rule.  This was supposed to be democratic, but the Shah kings rarely had much patience for parliamentary rule, and things were only slightly better than under the Ranas. In the 1990s, a Maoist insurgency rose up in the countryside and soon controlled a quarter of the country.

The 2001 massacre was dramatic, but seems more an instance of insanity than power politics. The crown prince, Dipendra, wanted to get married; in a typical instance of arrogant royal interference, his mother refused to let him marry his chosen partner. That, at least, seems to be the underlying grievance.  Dipendra also enjoyed guns and had quite a collection of automatic rifles; he also had an alcohol and drug problem.

In June 2001 he snapped– or saw his opportunity. He was host for the royal family’s weekly dinner together.   He behaved strangely throughout the evening, at one point passing out.  He returned with a gun and shot up his family: his parents, his siblings, some aunts and uncles.  One wonders if he had some idea of bullshitting his way through to the throne– but if so, he reconsidered it, and instead shot himself.

One uncle survived, and became the new king. But he was never very popular, and the public seems to have finally had enough of royal rule. He was forced to return to parliamentary rule, and then, in 2008, parliament declared an end to the monarchy. Since then Nepal has had one of the most unusual political landscapes in the world: power has alternated between two communist parties (one Maoist, one Marxist-Leninist) and a center-left one.

All this makes a great story, but I should emphasize, the moral of the story is that kings suck. I’m reminded of a terrible passage in C.S. Lewis’s The Horse and His Boy, where a king explains that the lot of a king is one of service and hardship and is nothing to be envied… bullshit, C.S.  Where kings have real power, they are absolute bastards… not least because if they aren’t, they will be the puppets of someone who is.

The usual (bare) justification for monarchy is that it avoid succession struggles: you don’t have a civil war upon the death of each leader.  Even this low standard is violated in large swaths of history (see: the Roman Empire).  Though reflecting on Nepal’s history, perhaps a modified version of this claim could be defended: monarchy doesn’t avoid succession disputes, but it does make it a little more likely that they will be handled by nasty and murderous political intrigue, rather than by civil war. Even the Kot massacre was better than all-out war.

Still, the tradeoff is pretty terrible. The Ranas and the Shahs made out well, but the country remained miserably poor and undeveloped, and unequipped to deal with modern problems. (And the British deserve some share of the blame as well.  They were perfectly happy with Nepal as a backwards buffer state on their border, and they implicitly supported Rana misrule for over a century.)

Oh, I guess I should say something about Gregson’s book, eh?  Well, it’s really good, not least because he has such rich material to work with.  It’s well told, and it’s not a bad introduction to recent Nepalese history as well.

 

 

 

 

 

One reason I can tell my India book is almost done is that I keep finding things that are interesting, but too detailed or particular to go in the book. But they can go in this blog!

I’m reading Colleen Taylor Sen’s Feasts and Fasts: A History of Food in India, which is pretty good. At one point she writes

The Sanskrit names of several Indian foods contain the element china, indicating their Chinese origin, including peaches (chinani), pears (chinarajaputra), lettuce (chinasalit), and cinnamon (dalchini, or Chinese bark).

Sounds good, except when I checked a Sanskrit dictionary to get more scholarly transliterations. None of these words appears there. Other words are given for all but ‘lettuce’.

Time for some Googling.  I find Sen’s claim repeated in several places. But then I find an old book which has this to say:

The Sanskrit names here given for the peach and the pear seem to be known only from this narrative. Later authorities tell us that these fruits are indigenous in the country, and the whole story of the hostage is possibly invention.

What hostage?  Well, it’s too good a story not to repeat.

When Kanishka was reigning the fear of his name spread to many regions so far even as to the outlying vassals of China to the west of the Yellow River. One of these vassal states being in fear sent a hostage to the court of king Kanishka… The king treated the hostage with great kindness and consideration. …The pilgrim proceeds to relate how Peaches and Pears were unknown in this district and the part of India beyond until they were introduced by the “China hostage”.

The story is not impossible, but we should be extremely skeptical, not least because this is precisely the kind of story people love: tracing a cultural change not to some nameless trader, but to a colorful celebrity, here the son of a far ruler with an inexplicable fear of an Indian monarch. Plus we have the non-confirmation from the lexicons.

All this is a good reminder to approach sources with caution, and to wonder how many normal-sounding statements in history books are based on things as shaky as this. However, it doesn’t affect my book at all— it takes too much space to explain what turns out not to be a fact at all.

Still, there’s more to say! The “old book” I found is called On Yuan Chwang’s Travels in India, 629-645 A.D., by Thomas Watters, 1904.  Yuan Chwang is the “pilgrim” referred to in the cite above.

But who is he?  Turns out he’s none other than 玄奘 Xuánzàng, who some readers may remember from my China Construction Kit, and whose trip to India inspired the Míng novel Journey to the West. I’m tempted to read Watters’ book, because I’m curious to know more about Xuánzàng’s actual trip, as opposed to the mythological joyride of Journey to the West. Bookmarked for later!

It’s a great thing, by the way, that scholars have finally standardized on pinyin, because Chinese names used to be murder for scholars. Not a few historians of India didn’t get the memo, as they still refer to “Hiuen Tsang”. Other variants include Hiouen Thsang, Hsüan Chwang, Hhüen Kwân, and Shuen Shang. What a mess. Contrariwise, it’s very nice that even a century-old book like Watters uses a Sanskrit transliteration almost identical to what we use today.

Oh, what’s that about Chinese mangoes?  That’s the literal translation of chinarajaputra. (Well, rajaputra literally means ‘prince’, but it’s also a word for mango, so if you did need a word for ‘pear’, ‘Chinese mango’ makes more sense than ‘Chinese prince’.) (But the real Sanskrit word for ‘pear’ seems to be amritaphala.)

 

 

 

I just finished the Kathāsaritsāgara (The Ocean of Story), by Somadeva, written in Kashmīr in the 11C. Or, well, an abridgment of it, in Arshia Sattar’s very readable modern translation.

vidyadhara

A vidyādhara. Nice booties!

The original Kathāsaritsāgara is about six times longer, and claims to be itself an abridgment of a book called the Brihatkathā, written by a celestial being named Guṇāḍhya in his own blood, in Paiśācī, the language of the piśācas, the lowest class of demons. Rather too much scholarly time has been spent on the trail of this mythical book in a mythical language— even some modern scholars are convinced that Paiśācī was a real language, though there exists not a scrap of it nor the Brihatkathā.

I’ve talked about the nested stories in the Hitopadeśabut Somadeva has them beat. Navigating one particular part of the ocean:

  • Śiva is asked by his wife Parvātī to tell a story no one has heard before.  He tells the story of the vidyādharas, celestial beings with magical powers such as flight and shape-changing. He tells it in a locked room. One of their attendants is curious about this and uses his own powers to enter invisibly; he listens to the story and tells it to his wife, who tells it to Parvātī.  Parvātī is angry at Śiva, since it appears everyone knows this story! Śiva divines what happened and explains, whereupon Parvātī punishes the attendant to live as a mortal.
  • This attendant, now living as a mortal, is Guṇāḍhya. He has a whole book’s worth of adventures; one consequence is that he takes a vow not to use Sanskrit, which is why when he writes the Brihatkathā he uses an ignoble language. His curse will end when he spreads this story to the world. To accomplish this, he sends it to a king, who rejects it because it is written in Paiśācī. Sadly, Guṇāḍhya begins to read and burn the manuscript. Finally the king happens to come to the place where Guṇāḍhya is reading, and is enchanted with the stories. Guṇāḍhya has burned 6 of the 7 books, but he gives the last book to the king, ending his curse.
  • Now we come to the story told in that book, which is the framing device for the rest of the stories: the story of the human prince Naravāhanadatta, how he accumulated an impressive harem of human and celestial wives, and finally became a vidyādhara himself and emperor of the vidyādharas. Most of the other stories are told to him to amuse or distract him, or because they relate to some of his problems.
  • One of the these stories, related by his minister Gomukha, concerns the king Sumanas.  One day a tribal woman arrives, a stunning beauty, who has a parrot. The parrot can talk, and is asked for his story.
  • The parrot tells about growing up in a tree, until hunters come by and kill the parrots there, including his father.  A brahmin rescues the young parrot and takes him to his guru, who laughs.  He laughs because he knows the story of the parrot’s previous birth.
  • The guru tells the story of the prince Somaprabha, who does what valorous princes do— conquers the surrounding lands. Far from home, he comes to a lake where a beautiful vidyādhara woman is singing.
  • She tells him her story. She is Manorathaprabhā, the daughter of a vidyādhara king. She used her powers of flight to wander the world, and fell in love with an ascetic. They are briefly separated, and unable to bear this, the ascetic kills himself. The voice of a god prevents Manorathaprabhā from doing the same. Her friend Makarandikā now arrives and falls in love with Somaprabha…

Eventually Somadeva clears the stack and finishes each of these stories appropriately. (If you’re curious, the parrot is Makarandikā’s father under a curse.)

As you can imagine, this structure allows Somadeva to include pretty much any story he’s heard. There are animal stories overlapping with the Hitopadeśa, and jātaka stories (which are stories of the Buddha’s previous births), and vampire stories, and a tiny little retelling of the Rāmāyaṇa. There’s a whole book devoted to stories of the wickedness of women, and to balance them, stories of virtuous women triumphing over wicked men. There’s even an amusing libel about Pāṇini, author of the great, definitive Sanskrit grammar: that he was a dull scholar who only received his grammar from the gods as a reward for austerities.

I have my doubts about the spiritual value of the doctrine of saṃsāra— the endless cycle of rebirth— it’s too easy a solution to the problem of pain. It seems like a copout to blame present suffering on misdeeds in a past life. But the Indian storytellers show the real value of saṃsāra: as a narrative device. Neil Gaiman has noted that stories, if prolonged too far, always end in death. But with saṃsāra, death is only a temporary milestone, a chance for a story to change gears. In these stories, celestial beings are constantly being cursed to be mortals or animals, wives and lovers recur as in a cosmic dance, and stories dash madly from the heavens to the bottom of the ocean to all across historical India.

Malice is usually punished, and virtue is often rewarded… but so is a certain roguish opportunism. There are plenty of ascetics here, and people who tire of the pleasure of the world and go off to meditate in the forest— but Somadeva doesn’t seem to really believe in mokṣa. Here, asceticism too may only be a phase, perhaps ended by falling in love with a vidyādhara, or some other contrivance.

The Ten Princes had a certain unity of theme— men rising from nothing to find wives and become kings— and the Hitopadeśa is all animal stories, so this book is much more miscellaneous. But that’s a virtue in its own way: if one set of stories doesn’t quite thrill you, the next might.

I think my favorite stories are the stories of the vetāla, more or less the Indian equivalent of the vampire. They are spirits who reanimate dead bodies. A king, Vikrama, is visited by a beggar every day for ten years, and given a fruit. He gives the fruits to his treasurer, but one day he instead gives it to a passing monkey, and a jewel comes out. He asks the treasurer about the other fruits, and the honest man answers that he has simply thrown them into the treasury through a window. They go to look, and find that the fruits all rotted away, leaving an immense treasure.

This naturally makes the king ask the beggar what’s up. The beggar says that he was hoping to get the king to do him a favor. The king agrees. He is told to come to a cremation ground at night to meet the beggar.

Once there, the beggar asks him to walk to a tree and bring him the corpse that’s hanging from it.  The king goes and cuts it down, but it turns out to be inhabited by a vetāla. As the king is taking him back to the beggar, the vetāla begins telling him stories. But the stories are also riddles, and the king has to answer each one correctly. For instance, a washing man falls in love with a woman named Madanasundarī. She goes with her new husband and his brother to a temple of Parvātī, but they have nothing to offer as a sacrifice. Her husband goes in and is so overcome by the religious atmosphere that he feels he must sacrifice something— and having nothing else, cuts off his own head. His brother comes after him, and seeing his head on the floor, does the same. Madanasundarī finally goes after them, and is shocked to see them both dead. She is about to kill herself when the goddess intervenes. She tells the girl to reattach the heads to the bodies, and they will be restored to life.  This she does, but in her excitement she puts the wrong heads on the bodies.

Now, the vetāla asks, which man was really her husband— the man with her husband’s head, or the one with his body?  Vikrama responds that the man with the head is her real husband: “the head rules the limbs and personal identity depends on the head.”  (This sounds reasonable to us, but then we believe that we live in our brains, which was not an opinion shared by all cultures.)

After a couple dozen stories, the vetāla reveals that the beggar is a sorcerer, and plans to sacrifice the king to him to achieve power over the vidyādharas. The beggar will ask him to lay down on the ground in a certain way.  The vetāla tells him to ask the beggar to show him how; the king should then cut off his head.  The king does just this.  The vetāla disappears and Śiva makes Vikrama king of the vidyādharas.  Which in turn brings us back to Naravāhanadatta, who at this point in the framing story also becomes king of the vidyādharas.

Anyway: bottom line, if you can find Sattar’s translation, go get it.  It’s a quick read and you won’t regret it.

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