Trying to untangle this week’s selection for the Torque Control Short Story Club (published here at Strange Horizons) is not something I’m going to be able to do completely, and perhaps not even in large part, for ‘Someadeva: A Sky River Sutra’ is like a kaleidoscope of story: tales within tales, refracting as far as the eye can see.
To start with the history: Somadeva was an 11th-century CE Brahmin who collected and retold the tales of the Kathāsaritsāgara for the queen Sūryavati. In Singh’s story, his personality and memories are recreated centuries later by a woman named Isha, who has read the Kathāsaritsāgara, and wants to collect the stories belonging to the peoples of her galaxy, Sky River. Isha’s hope is that she may discover her origins, all knowledge of her past having been erased from her memory.
The structure of ‘Somadeva’ mirrors that of the Kathāsaritsāgara, in that it consists of a number of interlocking stories, some embedded within others (Singh also writes herself briefly into the story, as the authors of some texts did and Somadeva here wishes he had). One result of this is to make it more-or-less impossible to tell for sure whether Somadeva is in the future with Isha, or in the past telling all this to Sūryavati, or perhaps somewhere else. It’s handled elegantly by Singh, the effect is not so much disorientation as a satisfying recognition of the shape of the whole.
One of the main themes of ‘Somadeva: A Sky River Sutra’ is the extent to which stories can – or should – be pinned down to one definitive interpretation. Isha is excited to discover that a tribe named the Kiha tell stories that can be interpreted as describing fundamental scientific processes; it’s an appealing way to read them, but then Somadeva reminds us that those tales could just as easily be read in other ways – none necessarily invalid.
Perhaps, following on from this, it’s best to leave one’s interpretation of this story open. But there is one thing I think I can say with some certainty: at the start of the tale, Somadeva says,’ I was once…a poet, a teller of tales’; by its end, he’s declaring that he is those things. Whatever else stories do, they bring Somadeva to life.
Vandana Singh’s website