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An uncomfortable Telugu classic

The work of Viswanadha Satyanarayana, revered Telugu writer of his time, feels preposterous in the 21st century

A key moment in ‘Ha Ha Hu Hu’ takes place at Trafalgar Square, in London. Photo: iStock
A key moment in ‘Ha Ha Hu Hu’ takes place at Trafalgar Square, in London. Photo: iStock

Penguin Modern Classics has been doing excellent work translating great and forgotten works of literature from Indian languages into English. The latest addition to the list is Viswanadha Satyanarayana(1895-1976), two of whose novellas, Ha Ha Hu Hu: A Horse-headed God In Trafalgar Square (written circa 1932) and Vishnu Sharma Learns English (published in book form in 1961), are collected in translations by Velcheru Narayana Rao.

Rao’s contribution to Telugu poetry and literature, via translations, collaborations and scholarly work, is extraordinary, so any work that he chooses to bring into English must be read with seriousness. These rather slim novellas—the two together a slight 60 pages—are buttressed by Rao’s extensive Introduction, Afterword, endnotes and a note on translating Satyanarayana’s work. Satyanarayana dictated his work to scribes and was often discursive to a great degree. He was also edited very lightly, if at all. That the work is readable is entirely due to Rao’s efforts.

Read without all the scholarly accompaniments, the first interesting thing about the novellas is their fantastic nature: In one, a gandharva (horse-headed creature) falls to the ground in Trafalgar Square, and crowds gather to figure out what is happening. In the second, a minor lecturer in a college in Vijayawada dreams that the author of the Panchatantra, Vishnu Sharma, and the great 13th century Telugu poet Tikkanna, are sent to him by Indra to learn English in order to settle a dispute about authorship in heaven.

Since it takes far less time to read these novellas than to learn about the author and his milieu, and to struggle with other questions I shall come to shortly, let me first say what I liked about the stories: languages, and the way they express utterly different modes of thought, are central to both. Related to the question of language is the entire colonial encounter, ideas of superiority and the absurdity of the other.

In Ha Ha Hu Hu, Londoners are unable to understand what the horse-headed creature is saying. To those close by, it sounds like neighing; to those some distance away, it sounds like words. But only certain scholars of Sanskrit, present by a happy coincidence, are able to communicate with the fallen gandharva. Naturally, what people don’t understand, they consider a threat: Ha Hu, as the gandharva is known, is chained, caged, then studied as if he were an animal on whom scientists can experiment with no thought to ethics.

In Vishnu Sharma Learns English, the two scholars are taught English grammar by a man un-equipped to teach it. Modern forms of education have left him poorer in every language he claims to know, and what follows is a series of absurdities about English, its grammar, the disjunction between the way it is written and spoken, and the comparable superiority of Sanskrit. Many Indians who learn English later in life will identify with parts of this novella.

Satyanarayana’s fierce anti-colonialism is apparent throughout; it is also clear that he thinks the acquisition of English is the worst thing to happen to the study of Sanskrit and Telugu, to the literatures in these languages, and the people who produce and study this work.

The difficulty, for a person reading these works in the 21st century, is in finding the alternative Satyanarayana proposes acceptable: a return to a traditional, Brahminical social order that ignores centuries of engagement with the Muslim world, with Turkic, Farsi, Urdu and other languages; indeed, these stories speak against the modernist strand in contemporary Telugu literature by ignoring it entirely. Reading these novellas, it is hard to believe that Satyanarayana was a contemporary of Sri Sri or Gudipati Venkata Chalam.

In Ha Ha Hu Hu, we’re meant to discern Ha Hu’s superiority by the Brahminical rituals he engages in that not only restore his lost wings but are also the prescribed route to enlightenment. He tells a Sanskrit scholar, who asks him about life after death, that each society should follow what its religious guru tells them: “Our bodies are formed according to our samskaras. And our mental capacities are formed in accordance with the environment in which we live, the body which we inhabit and the actions of our ancestors. That is an unbreakable bond."

Satyanarayana’s defence of varnasrama dharma is not the only preposterous thing: in Vishnu Sharma Learns English, some poets who have a limited time in heaven on account of good deeds done tell Indra that other poets, the modern ones, being chaste themselves, rejected heaven because they had heard it was “full of whores…a red-light district in heaven!" They’re referring here to the apsaras Rambha, Tilottama, Urvashi, and others.

It’s hard to miss how ill-represented women are: in Vishnu Sharma Learns English, the lecturer’s mostly absent wife is demanding and frivolous; when she is menstruating, the lecturer has to cook in her stead. Her absence and presence are equally a burden on him.

I found particularly distasteful an episode that portrayed what we would today mischaracterize as “reverse casteism" (there’s no such thing). The lecturer wonders how he is to wake up the sleeping Tikkanna: “We are against treating the lowest castes as untouchables, but the untouchability of those who are respectable is not going to go away. No, I cannot touch Tikkanna. Who is untouchable here, me or Tikkanna?"

Rao, in his conclusion, admits these books could have a difficult reception in the 21st century. He asks us to see Satyanarayana’s work in the context of his anti-colonialism, but he seems to downplay the extent to which Satyanarayana has dated. The alternative to a literature impoverished by colonialism need not be a return to some pristine past. That would re-establish the Brahmin male as the site of all learning, ignoring centuries of home-grown movements that stand against Empire even as they fashion themselves into progressive and egalitarian movements in literature. But Satyanarayana seems unwilling to make that distinction, choosing instead the easy path of ridicule against what does not fit into his idealized world of Brahmin superiority.

We live in a time of continuous and relentless attacks against minorities, Dalits and women, and for some of us this translation will be particularly ill-timed. The publisher, however, seems to have judged its moment most astutely: what better time than now for this highly decorated writer to find his audience?

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