I pay my respect and tribute to my colleague Professor Mark. Passing by the tree in our university campus at Oxford, where he was found hanging, my heart misses a beat. In a way, I’m guilty for his death. If I hadn’t gone to India, if I hadn’t brought that manuscript with me, he would have been alive today. The spell of Baital haunts me.
It all began when I read a folk tale about old scripts hidden in a cave in Rajasthan. Then, I read about a Buddhist monk who had discovered manuscripts sealed in a cave in Aravalli Mountains. It tempted me to go to India and search for the cave. I took a few days off from my work. It was past midnight when my plane landed in India. I hired a taxi to the resort where I had reserved earlier. I checked in, went to my room and fell asleep in a comfortable bed.
Opening my eyes to a bright sunny morning, I went to the balcony to stretch myself. Apart from flying eagles, it seemed quiet and still. The sun-bleached sky poured the heat like from a furnace. I stood there, gazing at the semi-arid landscape. When I focused my binoculars to the south side of the valley, I saw tiny villages spread among the groves and a lake on the south-west side. I was in Jhadol, Udaipur district of Rajasthan.
I rented a bicycle, raced up the mountain to find the cave but in vain. When I returned in the evening, I ran for a cold shower without locking the door. It was hot.
One day during my bicycle ride, I felt someone watching me. I stopped and rested for a while under a tree but saw no one. The next day, I saw a man dressed in a loincloth. He had a beard, long matted hair and a satchel on his shoulder. I ignored him. After some days, I saw him again. His body smeared with ashes, he sat on a rock, meditating. I returned to my hotel room. After freshening up, I went to the dining room.
“Hello Mr Sharma,” the waiter said, “this is your table today, next to the window.”
“Hello Ram. Call me, Rohan,” I said. “All tables reserved… Any special event today?”
“A wedding reception,” he said. “The tribal people will dance around the campfire. You too can take part if you like.”
“I had a long day,” I said.
While I was eating, Ram came to my table. “The curry is extraordinary,” I said, breaking the bread with my fingers and stuffing the gravy in it.
“Can I ask you something,” he said.
“Go on,” I said.
“What do you do all day?”
“I am an archaeologist,” I said.
“I don’t understand why you have to roam in the heat. You were white when you came here, now, you are my colour.”
“Your mountains hide thousands of years of history. I stay here only because of the food you cook for me.” I laughed.
“You are flattering me, Mr Sharma. I feel better calling you Mr Sharma.”
I went to the garden, near the campfire. There, I saw women in traditional clothes, adorned with nose rings, bracelets, anklets and tattoos. Men wore white clothes and colourful turbans. They were preparing for the event that Ram had mentioned. Bride and groom arrived with relatives and friends. I stood watching them, a stark contrast to the monotony of the desert. Other guests joined me. Men played drums; women sang and danced around the fire, shaking their upper torso to the rhythm.
“Who are these people?” I asked Ram who was standing beside me.
“The Kalbelia tribe,” he said.
I had read about the Kalbelia tribe who had left Egypt with Moses. According to history, they travelled from one place to another.
The drumbeat went faster. The women folks danced turning in circles, bending backwards in acrobatic style. Lost in the show, I almost forgot the stress of the day. I noticed a man with a beard, dressed like a Kalbelia, watching me from a distance.
After the show, when I went to my room, I heard a knock on the door. I opened it and the same man with beard walked inside without saying a word. Although dressed like a Kalbelia, I sensed he was a city-dweller.
“I sell books,” he told me, removing the turban from his head. His matted hair fell on his back. He looked like the one who had followed me on the mountain. He had a similar satchel with him.
“What books?” I asked him.
“I want to show you an old book that might interest you. I got it from Kalbelia people.” He opened his satchel and placed the book on the table. It was cloth-bound octavo volume, centuries old. I examined it: Brihatkatha – a Sanskrit title, The Great Story.
“From the sixth century before Christ, I suppose,” I mentioned.
“I cannot confirm anything,” was his response.
The characters were Sanskrit letters, handwritten in two columns in a colloquial style but legible, pages numbered in Sanskrit numerals. The narrator was Baital, a vampire, sketched as a dwarf-human like bat drawn by an experienced hand. It had long ears and wings, unfurled and raging.
“Mysterious things happen if you stare at the image,” he said, lowering his voice, as if revealing a secret.
I recognised the word Baital and thought about the story of Vikram and Baital, a comic book I had read as a child. As an archaeologist, Sanskrit literature interested me. I thought of Baitālapañcaviṃśati – Twenty-Five Tales of Baital, written by Soma Deva in the eleventh century. The manuscript in my hand, an older version with more than twenty-five tales, must’ve influenced Soma Deva. I flipped through its palm leaves but found no information about the author.
“Do you believe in evil?” I asked him.
“I believe in God,” he said. “Evil is His creation. My conscience is clear. Baital should have nothing against me.”
He demanded a high price for the manuscript. I offered him the cash I had. He wasn’t happy. I gave him my watch. “It’s a deal,” he said.
“Do you know anything about a cave where old manuscripts were found?”
He looked at me, puzzled and said, “I’ve never heard of it.”
After he left, I realised I had forgotten to ask his name. I went to bed early but woke up around three in the morning, turned on the lights to read the manuscript. As I read, I began to translate it on my laptop as follows:
One day a young merchant came to King Vikram’s court and gave him a basket of precious stones. When the king asked him why he was giving away his wealth, the merchant said, “I’m about to perform a ritual.”
“What can I do for you,” asked the maharaja.
“You should spend one night with me, so my ritual is successful.”
Maharaja Vikram thought of the strange proposal. He couldn’t say no. Without suspecting the merchant, he replied, “I will come, tell me when and where.”
“On Monday, the dark fourteenth night in the Hindu month Bhadra, at the burial ground on the bank of the River Godavari. You must come alone and armed, but without any soldiers.”
“I will,” the king promised.
On the day mentioned by the merchant, as the twilight fell on his palace, the warrior king walked out of his fort. Tying his turban-ends under their chins and a sword tucked on his vest, he went to the cemetery on the bank of River Godavari.
At the burning ground, the merchant who sat next to the fire had his magic staff planted behind him. He was clad in a loin-wrap around his waist. His tangled locks of hair fell on his back. His body smeared with ashes from a funeral pyre, his fingers played on a human skull.
I stopped translating. The merchant’s appearance was identical to the bookseller. Was it a coincidence? I continued reading and translating.
Maharaja Vikram saluted him.
“O king,” the merchant said, “about two kilometres from here, towards the South, in another cemetery, there’s a Mimosa tree. Bring me the body that’s hanging on it.”
Maharaja Vikram went to the cemetery mentioned by the merchant. He sighted the tree, went towards it and watched the body of a dwarf-human like bat hanging with its head downwards from a branch with a rope-like toe-tips. The brave king recognised the creature as Baital. The cunning merchant had sought him to carry the vampire. The maharaja touched its cold body, damp as a snake. The only sign of life was the whisking of a ragged rear-end that looked like a goat’s tail.
The maharaja cut the branch of the tree with his sword. Baital fell to the ground. It gnawed its teeth and began to utter a wailing cry like screams of an infant in pain. Vikram held its body. The vampire slipped through Vikram’s fingers and jumped. As earlier, it suspended on another branch, swinging back and forth, with compulsive laughter
The maharaja wondered what he should do next. He climbed up the tree, seized Baital’s hair, and forcefully tore it from its hold and threw it to the ground. He hurried down the tree and fixed his grip on Baital’s neck. Again, the vampire slipped through his fingers and returned to its dangling-place.
Vikram lost his temper. This time gave a furious blow with his hands at the vampire’s legs and struck his sword heavily on it when it fell. It had no effect on Baital. It returned, in loud glee and merriment, to its old position.
Vikram took the vampire in his hands, brought it down again. But the vampire slipped through his fingers, six times, sixty times.
As I sat in my room reading and translating the manuscript, I heard something strange. A constant stream of high-pitched sound. After a while, when the sound receded, I continued reading.
“I ‘m Vikram, the maharaja of Ujjain and I bear you to a man who lives in a cemetery.”
“Remember the old saying, mighty Vikram,” said the Baital, with a sneer, “a tongue can cut a throat. I surrender to your determination. Carry me on your back. I must warn you, I’m talkative. As we go, I shall entertain you with tales and I propose to ask you questions. If you answer me, bragging how smart you are, I’ll suck your blood, hang you on a tree and leave you to die. If you remain silent and fail to reply, I will allow you to take me to your friend. Hide your pride, arrogance and superiority.”
Vikram seized the ends of the waist cloth with Baital in it, twisted them, raised the bundle with a jerk and tossed it over his shoulder. He set towards the merchant.
The vampire asked him questions about the wind, rain and earth. Receiving no answer, it began to feel uncomfortable. “O King Vikram,” it said, “listen to a story.”
I stopped translating but read the manuscript further. The story continued in the same pattern. Vikram carried Baital on his back, Baital told him a tale that ended with a question for the maharaja. The maharaja didn’t respond and remained silent. After several failed tries to make Vikram talk, Baital somehow convinced the maharaja to free it and kill the evil merchant. Vikram did so and returned to his palace. The story went on. I was shocked to see my name mentioned in the manuscript. I was reading my own story: how I bought the manuscript from the bookseller, whose name was Namdev. It drove me crazy. I trembled. The text was malicious.
I shut the volume and reopened it. The last page had changed, it had a higher number than before. The beginning remained intact, but not the end. With the number of pages, the story also began to grow. Weird. I shut the manuscript but didn’t open it again. I decided to go back home, to Oxford.
I booked the next available flight, which forced me to spend another night in the resort. I went to the dining room and was happy to see Ram there.
“Have you heard of Baital?” I asked him.
“The vampire?” he said.
“Yes,” I said.
“Never seen him. Are you okay?”
“I’m fine. Does Baital exist?”
“That’s what people believe. Why are you asking?”
“I think I heard him last night.”
“Be careful. He’s dangerous, they say, and playful. He wants human blood, it makes him stay young.”
“Do you know a Kalbelia bookseller?”
Ram sat next to me and thought for a while.
“What’s his name?” he asked.
“I forgot to ask him.”
“Did he talk to you?”
“Yes, he sold an old manuscript to me.”
Ram’s face turned grim. “Can you describe him?”
“A tall man with a tanned skin, beard, long matted hair.”
“Namdev,” Ram said. “Stay away from him.”
His name was mentioned in the manuscript. “Is he a dangerous man?”
“He is an aghori. He lives in the cemetery and performs post-mortem rituals. He wants to control the Baital to become powerful.”
“Why did he sell the manuscript to me?”
“Baital doesn’t show up if Namdev calls. Disguising himself he sells the manuscript to people, seeking their help to invoke Baital.”
I couldn’t sleep that night. Baital craved for my attention. I felt disgusted and thought of burning the manuscript, but I feared the vampire. I put the manuscript in my bag, destroying an old manuscript was against my ethics.
Once I was back home, I went to the Oxford library. I kept the manuscript with other old books. The best place to hide a leaf is in the forest. Each time I passed by, I looked at it without taking it in my hands. One day, I couldn’t find the manuscript. It was gone.
After a few days, I learnt that Professor Mark was dead; he was a renowned Sanskrit scholar. He was found hanging upside-down from a tree on the campus. I visited the local hospital. His mutilated body was in a pathetic state. I saw the deep gashes on his body by sharp teeth. The creature had sucked his blood.
“It’s a murder,” the police officer said. “We haven’t identified the murderer yet. We found this in Professor Mark’s room,” he gave me the manuscript. It was the Brihatkatha – The Great Story.
It could’ve been me hanging on the tree, tortured by the vampire. I didn’t take the manuscript back to the library, someone else may read it. After proving its authenticity and its antiquity, I sought the library authorities to move the manuscript to the British Museum. It is safe, in a locked glass-case, not easily accessible. But Baital had found his way into England.
(Published on the literary journal Muse India - October 2018)
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