Chandamama (a magazine you would buy for your kids in the hopes of making them pious individuals1) carried the story of the king and this ghost. It was very intriguing, partly because it was an interesting read and partly because the spirit (as in ghost and not vodka) in the book was illustrated to be scary & sophisticated. But Doordarshan, in their zeal to keep kids from getting petrified, made Vetaal look like a cross between a polar bear and Manpreet Brar2. It wasn’t as scary as seeing Manpreet Brar as a whole. Vikram aur Vetaal series gave my Sunday afternoons a completely different meaninglessness. One hour of self imposed torture. I actually loved to watch vetaal who spent too much time in the beauty parlour, but none at the dentist. King Vikramaditya was either under the influence of something very potent or he didn’t bribe the historians enough to portray him as an intelligent and capable king. Who in the right mind would spend half his life in the graveyard with a guy who loved cuticura powder and yellow eye shadow? Maybe he loved the vetaal stories as much as I did. Here’s a hilarious account3 of the series.
The reason for my post is not about recounting my experiences of enacting the whole Vikram aur Vetaal bit with my unsuspecting brother. I would drag him out of bed, sling him on my back and throw him to see if he flew. The ending to this story is very traumatic with my mom locking me up in the balcony where I only felt it practical to learn flying and then teach my brother.
Here’s the real raison d’etre. In his hey days, my uncle was a chief engineer for the Narmada Valley Project (Please please, let’s not get all riled up against my family. He was only getting paid handsomely for it). He got to stay in the Narmada valley. Now you’d think that’s not a big deal. It isn’t till you hear that he gets to stay in King Trivikramasena’s palace4 on the banks of river Narmada in Madhya Pradesh. The name didn’t ring a bell till my dad told me that his other name in the vetaal community happened to be Vikram. I was in raptures when we were slated to meet uncle and his family for summer vacation. My brother was too little to understand the thrills of staying in such a historically significant locale. Maybe he was smart enough to know that this vetaal thing was probably hooky, a figment of someone's imagination to make Chandamama sell. All he could care about was the servants who’d bring a golden wash basin to bed and brush his royal teeth with diamond bristles. He makes the likes of Anna Nicole Smith pale in comparison. I was certain that my uncle wouldn’t be sitting on a throne, but I never broke that news to my giddy brother. In fact, I did something I would come to regret. I encouraged him. I told him stories of a raging war against neighboring king in which King Uncle came out victorious to the cacophony of conch noise. His white elephant had tusks as big as the slide in the park. And of course, our Queen Aunty would spend idyllic days in the palace gardens (that’s the only thing that happened to be true).
My brother couldn’t hide his excitement in the train. He told the co passengers that he was on the way to meet his King Uncle and that if they happened to be on the same train on the way back, he would reward them with a few pearl necklaces that he’d bring from the treasury. My parents shot worried looks at each other. I was amused no end. Co passengers pulled his cheeks.
My uncle and aunt came to receive us at the station. One look at them and my brother completely lost his marbles. His wails competed with that of the conch din he had been made to envision. My uncle was taken aback by this sudden display of affection. Through his sobs, he made it clear that he wasn’t interested in traveling with a crownless king. Amused, my uncle said he had left his crown at home (er..palace) as he had to come incognito to escape from the enemy’s eyes.
Part two of my brother’s displeasure took place in the parking lot when he saw a car instead of a horse chariot. So to appease him, we took a detour to Ujjain where we hired a tonga (horse cart) to take us around the city; all the while my uncle had to pertend to be the king. I think that reconciled my brother a bit as we didn’t hear much of his howling till we reached home.
The palace- It was just fabulous. In my scheme of trying to goad my brother, I had downgraded my own expectations of this place. Not one of the huge castles with moats and canons, but a really humungous bungalow capable of accommodating only the royalty. A palace of a king who ruled small kingdom. The scene took us back a couple of centuries even though the palace was renovated with modern amenities. Red carpets and wood paneling still dominated certain rooms. Ornate chandeliers and unexplored rooms. Manicured lawns with dancing peacocks. Huge balcony with a painting-perfect view of river Narmada flowing in the backyard that housed scampering monkeys whose granddad probably made faces at the brave King (or found the ruby in the fruit). King Vikram may easily have spent days standing here watching the sun set across the river, wondering if he should accept any more fruit from suspicious vendors.
There is something to be said of places that are not made into museums and are left for you to discover. There is something to be said about running along the river to find a graveyard. There is a lot of be said of imaginations and transporting yourself to an era you have always wondered about.
The best part of the palace was the basement that was converted to my uncle’s office. An oversized mahogany table and chair that only looked proportional to the size of the room. An enviable library with topographical maps lining the walls. A scaled down model of the controversial dam with my uncle's imposing presence completed the picture. ‘Saab, aapke liye chai5,‘ the servant chimed in. He truly was a King uncle. My brother beamed with pride as uncle lifted his non-golden cup of steaming tea.
Latest Update: Since I was just 10 when we went to visit uncle, I wanted to validate my memory and gather more information about this palace of King Vikramaditya. So I called my cousin in DC as King Uncle happens to be his dad.
Me: Cousin bro, where in MP was that Vikramaditya’s palace…where you guys lived?
Cuz: Vikramaditya? You mean, the vetaal king?
Me: Oh oh, don’t say a word. Ok, break the news. Was he even a king?
Cuz: It was Maharaja Holkar’s summer palace in Barwah.
Me (very very disappointed, especially since I wrote a whole freakin post on this Vicky fella): But papa told me it was King Vikram.
Cuz (mocking laughter): Your papa was probably pulling your leg. King Vikramaditya’s palace wasn’t too far off, if that is any consolation. It was in Ujjain. You probably did feel the chill of the vetaal while you were there.
Me (feeling more cheated than my brother would have felt, considering I believed it all along. Damn the power of believing what you want!): Is Holkar a decent king? I mean, did Chandamama have stories about his greatness?
1. In my case they forgot to hide the Harold Robbins
2. For people who aren't google educated, Manpreet Brar is a model, VJ and looks like a well bred horse (Google won't divulge that info)
3. Zap is a crazy blogger whom I used to frequent long time ago when he was in Rediff. He couldn't handle the fans and so he escaped. Thanks to vetal, I found him.
4. It is normal to allow Govt. officials to stay in renovated palaces during their tenure.
5. Sir, tea for you. ( I am pandering to my international and Tamil audience)
6. Still sulking