Vikram, the Vampire, and the Story

The following is reprinted by permission of translator, editor, and writer Alok Bhalla. It is an English translation by Frances Pritchett of another lovely essay by Intizar Husain.

Peepal tree in Bodhgaya.

The future of the short story is dark because there are fewer and fewer trees in the world, and more and more people. In a world containing only people, there is room for journalism to grow, but not for poems and stories. Journalism and oratory are merely the human world’s means of expression. However, poems and stories are expressions that are born from the interaction of the human and the non-human worlds. Story was born in a time when there were more trees on this earth, and fewer humans. When night fell, there was a handful of men and women around a fire, and beyond them only darkness and more darkness—and trees and more trees.

Certain parts of the natural world can be replaced by others. Forest can be replaced by desert, and desert by high mountains or by the shore of the noisy sea. But sky-high buildings cannot replace sky-high mountains or tall forest trees. Meditation—the training of the imagination and creative action—can live in the shade of banyans, in mountain caves, in the expanses of the desert. But nothing can live within the walls of factories.

Today, there is no escaping sky-high buildings, noisy factories, and row upon row of houses and apartments. The “mass man” that Jose Ortega y Gasset characterized forty years ago in the context of twentieth-century Europe is now, with the rise of industrial development, spreading in our South Asian cities also. Traffic is so great that trees are continually being cut down and roads expanded. Buses are full of people, and motorcycles and taxis are so loud that normal speech is inaudible. But even so, there are not enough vehicles to carry everyone.

The problem with housing is the same. There are many houses, but more people who need them, even though new residential areas are constantly being developed. Where there was a forest yesterday, today there is a forest of houses and apartments. And yet there are not enough. An empty house is a relic of the past. Houses that remained empty for years—so that even their locks grew rusty—no longer exist. Such mysterious houses nourished the imagination and gave birth to stories.

Nurturing the imagination was partly the responsibility of vacant, mysterious houses. Dense old trees, birds, and other animals were also responsible. All these were active in the life of the society. Love of humanity, no doubt—but love of humanity was not the only concern of Tulsi, Kabir, and Nazir. Their poetry also arose from the mysterious relationship between the human and the non-human, which was the very foundation of the flourishing societies of those days.

But now, with our sky-high buildings, noisy factories, and massive machines, we are entering a new age of barbarism. Thanks to this barbarism, which only seems to be civilization, the breadth of our experience is shrinking while the metropolis of facts and information is spreading. Man’s relationship with the non-human world is breaking down, and we are becoming industrialized creatures.

Today the classic collection Twenty-Five Tales of a Vampire could not be written. Why? The Vampire says to King Vikram, “It’s good to pass the time in talking of good things while travelling. So, Raja, listen to the stories I’ll tell you. But if you speak on our journey, I’ll go back to where you found me and you’ll have to start all over.” These days, we speak a great deal. Speeches, newspaper statements, conferences, discussions—our thoroughfares are full of noise. While travelling on them, conversations between a human—such as King Vikram—and a non-human are no longer possible. In the midst of constant noise, we have become hard of hearing. There are some voices that we can no longer even hear.

When Raja Vikramajit spoke on the journey and the Vampire went back and hung upside down in his tree, social realism replaced storytelling. Social reform, political conditions, revolution, ideologies—these are Raja Vikram creations; or, in the words of D. H. Lawrence, a wastebasket of concepts and opinions that we carry on top of our heads, not knowing that inside us is a dark continent. The storytelling Vampire in a tree is hanging somewhere far away, lost in thought. Meanwhile Raja Vikram, with the wastebasket on his head, keeps speaking and claiming that only his monologue is a story! What kind of a story can be told by a man who is cut off from the non-human world and who mistakes his wastebasket for the entire universe?

Look at the stories written in the realistic tradition. Then look at the stories written in rebellion against this tradition. In neither kind does the Vampire speak. In both kinds Raja Vikram is adumbrating his own lofty views. Sometimes he takes up the cause of social reform; sometimes he raises the cry of revolution; sometimes he bears the message of optimism and thus encourages the community. What other choice does he have since the masses are so numerous?

In buses, in cinema halls, in cultural lectures, the crowd has its own taste, its own likes and dislikes. When someone is not able to satisfy this taste, the cry goes up, “Kill him for his bad verses.” Thus, as Ghalib says,

How narrow is the world of us oppressed ones
In which an ant’s egg is the sky

What kind of a world is it where nothing but human faces can be seen in every direction? The rest of the universe—with its trees, beasts of prey, and shadows—where has it gone?

Once there were tales in which man appeared as part of the universe, sometimes among human faces, sometimes surrounded by unknown non-human forms; sometimes in a town, sometimes wandering in a forest far away. That was a human world whose windows opened on the unknown forest, a world constantly in movement from the known to the unknown. On that hazardous journey, one sometimes ran into a vampire, sometimes had to fight with dragons and demons, sometimes even took on a different form. Whoever hesitated on the road was left behind; but whoever emerged from the forest became mass man.

The new era tried to remove the wild forest from the world, for in a world without a forest, a man could move about in any direction. He could be confident that he would not suddenly see a deer, which might lure him on a magical path. The new storyteller—believing that the non-human world is gone—began to write tales of only the human world, with windows that did not open on to a forest.

In ancient stories, a man journeying through a forest risked being turned into something else by a spirit or a demon. After a struggle, he might turn himself back into a man. This triumph was the theme of many ancient stories. But in the new era, demons of another kind arose in the cities, because man is himself a demon. Humans began to metamorphose, but not through the magical ways of the forest.

For example, in the midst of an industrialized city, Kafka’s man metamorphosed into a non-human. He was unable to overcome this new kind of demon-magic and regain his humanity. Thus, when the non-human world is cast aside or destroyed, the power of the human spirit is diminished. Ancient tales are no longer even possible unless they ended in tragedy. Wherever men fall under the influence of the new era and its ideas, the same thing happens.

The socialist intellectual says, “Don’t speak of such a thing! It’s an incitement to despair, a devaluation of humanity. Man is great, O Lord; he cannot become a monkey.” But if it is despair, then so what? At least Man is capable of despair; monkeys do not despair. To despair and to write poetry was the destiny of Mir Taqimir. Monkeys can neither despair nor write poetry, but if they get their hands on the Collected Works of Mir, they are capable of tearing it to pieces, just as progressive criticism has torn Mir to pieces—Mir and every verse and story that smell of that despair. “It smells of Man! It smells of Man!”

Certain verses of Munir Niyazi astonish me: walking in the city, how does this man, in this era, suddenly emerge in a forest? I am astonished and envious, because walking and breathing in the city, in the midst of a crowd, I am not pleased. It seems to steadily drain me of my human qualities. Why shouldn’t I also turn some corner and, leaving the city behind, find myself in the forest?

The fear a man knows in the forest is different from the fear he feels in the city. It is fear of the unknown that creates depth in a man’s character. But fear of the unknown has vanished. We are now absorbed solely in fear of the known: war, civil conflicts, language riots, death in traffic accidents, muggings by criminals. These fears are humiliating—and how demeaning these kinds of death are!

The Buddha said that people are like children: they enjoy listening to stories. Therefore, the Buddha told stories. And Jesus spoke in parables. He said, “Look at fig trees and all the trees. When their buds open, we know that summer is near.” But how can we understand “winter” and “summer,” and how can we tell stories, parables, and tales when the world is barren of trees? The neem tree that told me about summer and the monsoon season in my childhood—I don’t know what shape it’s in now, whether it’s standing or has been sacrificed. Listen to the words of Kabir: “Seeing the carpenter come, the tree begins to tremble.” But the entire world of trees has trembled—and been destroyed.

Children of the industrial era do not consider themselves children, and therefore do not enjoy listening to stories. They have silenced the Vampire, while they themselves speak in loud voices, yelling slogans. They say that these slogans are today’s stories. Then why do I persist in writing stories?

Perhaps because a neem tree was once outside me, and a neem tree is still inside me. Whatever may have happened to the outer tree, let the inner one not wither. My commitment is to my neem tree, with its bitter fruit. “Cling to the tree,” to the neem tree and to the story, without any “hope of spring.” For people are no longer children, and they do not listen to stories with wonderment.


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