The Arabian Nights and Vikram & Betaal: similarities and differences
The Arabian Nights (or the Thousand and One Nights), is one of the best examples of world literature. It is appreciated for its frame tale narrative, which is a story within a story, and is also well-known for its protagonist, Scheherazade, who beautifully weaves story after story and narrates them to King Shahryar, to save her life from the insane king, who has the intriguing habit of marrying and beheading his wives.
A similar story is found in Indian Mythology; Vikram and Betaal (Betaal Pachisi). It seems to follow the same structure as the Arabian Nights, which is the frame tale narrative. The plot is, however, entirely different, though both stories, the Arabian Nights and Vikram and Betaal, emphasize on the importance of storytelling and the power it holds. It is a story where a King (Vikram) goes on a quest to find and bring back a corpse (Betaal) from a far away tree. However, the corpse suggests that he will only go with Vikram if Vikram listens to a story and answers a follow up question. The trick is that Vikram has also taken an oath to silence, which if broken, Betaal will return to the tree. But, if Vikram does not answer, Betaal threatens that Vikram’s head will burst into a thousand pieces. Thus Vikram answers every time, and Betaal returns to the tree, and the cycle goes on.
Both the stories have intrigued me morally and have been very entertaining too, motivating me to research about the similarities and differences between the two narratives and explore more about each of them.
The most prominent similarity between the two narratives is, of course, the existence of curiosity. In The Arabian Nights, King Shahryar is so curious to listen to a story, that he spares Scheherazade for yet one more day, which continues for a thousand and one nights! Similarly, in Vikram and Betaal, it is like a game in which the reader is expected to solve a problem (posed by Betaal through the narrative) and check from Vikram’s answer if he got it right.
Both the stories inherently connect to the idea of storytelling and make us realise how compelling it can be, so much so that it saves one’s life, like Scheherazade’s or Vikram’s. It connotatively hints at how literature helps many to fight against depression or anxiety, thus saving their lives.
Another interesting similarity between the two stories is the aim of the characters. The main characters in both the narratives, Scheherazade and, Vikram and Betaal want to save lives and they do that, by telling stories. Now, one would wonder if Betaal is saving his own life, and does he indeed need to do that? Isn’t he already dead? Isn’t he a ghost? Well, it turns out, that after narrating the last story, which is the 25th story, Betaal finally confesses that he has been playing tricks on Vikram because the mendicant, to whom Vikram is taking Betaal, has an ulterior motive of using Betaal to perform certain rites, which would make the mendicant omnipotent. Thus, Betaal also has the motivation, if not of saving himself, of saving the world.
In Arabian Nights, interestingly, Scheherazade is not just saving her own life but also saving womankind. She also tries to save the kingdom as, at this moment, it is being ruled by an insane king, who is killing women and not exactly handling the affairs of the kingdom in ideal fashion. By telling the stories of great kings, who fulfilled their duties and managed their kingdoms with true moral values and decisions, Scheherazade tried to instil some sense into the king. After all, in Richard Burton’s translation of the Arabian Nights, Scheherazade was described as someone who was “pleasant and polite, wise and witty, well read and well bred.”
I tried analysing the characters from both the narratives and found that some of the characters of one book shared characteristics of at least two characters from the other narrative. Betaal is similar to Scheherazade, not only as a narrator, but also as someone who has larger aim. He outsmarts Vikram, who is a wise and noble king, and so does Scheherazade, who outsmarts someone like King Shahryar, who is on the edge of insanity. However, very interestingly, Betaal also shares qualities with King Shahryar, as he threatens Vikram by saying that his head will burst into a thousand pieces if he doesn’t answer the questions, something similar to what King Shahryar did.
In a way, Vikram is similar to King Shahryar, who is a listener. Vikram and Shahryar listen to stories, and both are able to appreciate them. Amusingly, Vikram and Shahryar are also similar to the sister of Scheherazade, Dunyazad, who had been to first to listen to Scheherazade’s tales (before King Shahryar married Scheherazade) and was also a great example of an ideal listener.
Even if the narratives seem similar, they obviously have differences.
In terms of authorship, Arabian Nights has been highly questioned and pondered about. There is no particular author of the Arabian Nights, and moreover, it was not just written in Arabia. Presumably, the Arabian Nights has travelled all the way from Arabia, through present day Iran, Iraq and Syria and even Egypt, and then was discovered by Antoine Galland, a French writer and translator, who translated the famous narrative into French, making it well-known in the West. Since then, the narrative has been translated by many other well-known writers/ translators like Richard Burton and Husain Haddawy. The lack of authorship makes Thousand and One Nights a great example of world literature but also misleading as many authors, including Galland, have added new stories of their own and even altered the existing ones, resulting in a range of versions of the narrative.
However, Vikram and Betaal was based on Betaal Pachisi, which was written by Somdev Bhatt, a Kashmiri poet, thus securing the authorship of the narrative. This is a definite difference between the two narratives. Moreover, the Arabian Nights, till date, has never had its own complete set whereas, Vikram and Betaal has a finite set of 25 stories (the Pachisi in Betaal Pachisi stands for the 25 stories).
Many of the Arabian Nights stories, like Aladdin, Ali Baba and the 40 thieves, and Sinbad the Sailor, weren’t even a part of the narrative until Galland’s translation. After translating the stories that Galland had found initially, the demand for more stories from the Arabian Nights started increasing. In order to meet the demand and to secure himself financially as well, Galland added stories including those he had heard from Hanna Diab, a traveller from the Middle East. Many believe that it was Hanna Diab indeed who created such stories (for instance the story of Aladdin) as there were no written manuscripts of the same before Galland published them in his translation, Mille et une nuits.
I found the narratives extremely thought-provoking. What made it even more interesting were the similarities. I wonder how they could be so similar, being two centuries and many lands apart. The core manuscripts of the Arabian Nights date back to the ninth century whereas Vikram and Betaal was written in the 11th century. Who knows, maybe Vikram and Betaal (Betaal Pachisi) has some connection to the Arabian Nights (One Thousand and One Nights), as some scholars say that the Arabian Nights had travelled through India as well.
©Aaira Goswami, 2020. All rights reserved.