Academic journal article Southeast Review of Asian Studies

Dakini, Yogini, Pairika, Strix: Adventures in Comparative Demonology

Academic journal article Southeast Review of Asian Studies

Dakini, Yogini, Pairika, Strix: Adventures in Comparative Demonology

Article excerpt

The Barber's Tale

In 1989, the British director Peter Greenaway brought to the screen The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, a film noted for its brutality, raw sexuality, cannibalism, and scatological themes. The Cook's story line centers on a creative act of revenge taken by the weak against the strong, which is perhaps the sole redeeming feature of an otherwise repulsive production. Some nine hundred years prior to Greenaway's heavy-handed effort, a storyteller from Kashmir wove a similar tale with many of the same dark themes, but was able to do so with such a lightness of touch as to transform a revenge narrative into a comedy. This was Somadeva, who incorporated into his ca. 1070 CE anthology, the Kathasaritsagara (Ocean of Rivers of Story), the following tale of a barber (a person near the bottom of India's ancient caste hierarchy), his wife, and his king. For reasons that will become clear, the story is told through the mouth of the barber himself:

Drdhavarman, our [present] king, had a father of dissolute morals. I was that king's slave and so carried out the duties appropriate to my status. One day, while he was going for a stroll in this neighborhood, he espied my wife. She was young and beautiful and he was attracted to her. He asked the people around him who she was, and they told him that she was the wife of a barber. Thinking to himself that a barber could do him no harm, he came into my house. Then after having had his way with my wife, that cursed monarch returned to his palace. As fate would have it, I was away that day, but when I arrived home the following morning I found my wife altered, and so I asked her what the matter was. With no small amount of pride, she related the events of the previous day just as they had transpired. And so it was that the king continued to increase my wife's prestige by taking his pleasure with her--and me unable to do a thing about it. (When a debauched king is in rut, he can no more distinguish between licit and illicit love than a wind-driven forest fire can tell the difference between a verdant stand of trees and piece of straw.) Seeing no other way of dealing with the matter, I began to eat very little so as to emaciate my body and appear enfeebled. In that condition, pale, skeletal and out of breath, I presented myself to the king to offer him the services of my profession. Noting my weakness, he began to question me on how I had fallen into such a state, and when he wouldn't stop, I threw myself at his feet, declaring, "Master, my wife is a witch (dakini)! When I am asleep, she pulls my innards out through my arse! After that, she sucks them dry--and then she chucks them back inside! That's why I'm all dried out! Even with a rich and steady diet, how could I possibly be plump?"

My words planted the seed of doubt in the king's mind, and he thought, "Could she possibly be a witch? Have I fallen under her power? I who stuff myself with food, has she also been sucking on my guts? Tonight I will carry out a plan and so test her myself!" Upon which the king had me serve him his supper.

Upon returning home, I burst out in tears in front of my wife and, when she asked me the reason, I replied with the words "My darling! Listen to what I have to say, but promise you will reveal it to no one! The king has teeth, sharp as diamonds, growing out of his arse! Just today, while I was performing my duty, they broke my razor (which is, truth be told, of excellent quality). From now on, my razor is going to shatter every time I'm down there. How am I ever going to come up with a new razor every day? The reason I'm crying is that my income has fallen to zero!"

My words inspired my wife to make the most of that very night, so that once the king who would be visiting her had fallen asleep, she could have a peek at his marvelous anal dentition. She never dreamed that something that had never been seen since the dawn of time could be a subterfuge: even the craftiest of women will let herself be taken in by the words of a sweet talker. …

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