Viswanadha Satyanarayana is a polarising figure in Telugu literature. For his critics he was obsolete even in his own time—a believer in the value of the ‘Brahminic order of society’ with its ‘varna hierarchy’—a relic of a dark age, out of place in the 20th century, better forgotten. For his admirers on the other hand, he was the last great poet, who, through his work, made a statement defending ‘Indian culture’ against the rapidly encroaching forces of Western modernity.
Narayana Rao argues that reception of Satyanarayana is frozen on labelling him a traditionalist, any possibility of a more nuanced interpretation being lost “in the din of attacks and counter-attacks” between his critics and his admirers. In translating the two novellas in this volume, Ha Ha Hu Hu and Vishnu Sharma Learns English, Rao seeks to engender new interest in Satyanarayana by taking him to a wider audience and paving the way for a reinterpretation of the author beyond the labels that he has so far been confined to.
Rao argues for looking at Satyanarayana’s work beyond the binaries of tradition and modernity, but the author himself returns to dwell on the issue, like the ill-effects of modernity.
The first novella, set in early 20th century London, narrates the tribulations of Ha Ha Hu Hu, a Sanskrit-speaking, horse-headed demi-god (Gandharva) who crashlands in Trafalgar Square, having lost his wings. Neither a man nor an animal, the Gandharva defies the classificatory paradigm of post-Enlightenment Europe where man reigns supreme and nature is there for man to use as he sees fit. First caged as an animal to be scientifically examined, his superior intellect and manners force the powers that be to give him entry into their midst (though only by deeming him human, rather than accepting the idea of an intelligent animal). Ha Ha Hu Hu is unimpressed by the material advancements of Europe, and does not understand the impulse to search for truth in the material world—for him truth is to be found ‘within’, through tapas. Through the voice of the divine gandharva, Satyanarayana reiterates the trope of a spiritual India versus the material West. Obviously, Satyanarayana aims this narrative at Indians enamoured with the West, who court this ignorance to their peril.
Vishnu Sharma Learns English, like Ha Ha Hu Hu, relies on the supernatural, a true outsider perspective, to make its point. Vishnu Sharma, the author of Panchatantra, descends from heaven, appearing in the narrator’s dream, asking him to teach him English, with Tikkanna (one of the authors of the Telugu Mahabharata) coming along for the ride. The narrative, full of sharp wit, focuses on the detrimental influence of colonialism on the sense of self-worth and identity of the colonised. Vishnu Sharma, a victim of the demands of positivist history, which require him to prove his credentials as the author of Panchatantra, comes to earth to attempt the formidable task.
The narrator, a Telugu lecturer with an MA in Sanskrit, reluctantly starts teaching Vishnu Sharma English. For all his degrees, the narrator is neither a scholar of Telugu nor of Sanskrit, since his medium of education was English. Sadly, his English is not much better for that either. His efforts to teach his heavenly visitors English expose his deficiencies—product of a system of education that focuses on rote learning and degrees, he is stymied by the questions about the principles underpinning the language. In their attempts to learn English, Vishnu Sharma and Tikkanna realise that somehow their descendants have lost the power of language: “You do not know English, and neither do you know your Telugu.”
The translation does a good job of translating humour and meaning from Satyanarayana’s heavily idiomatic use of Telugu. Narayana Rao has made a considered choice to leave out some of Satyanaryana’s digressions in his translation of Vishnu Sharma because of their excessively context-specific content. Narayana Rao expends considerable effort setting out an argument for looking at Satyanarayana’s work beyond the binaries of ‘traditionalism and modernism’. For much of his work it is difficult to do so, since Satyanarayana himself frequently returns to reflect on the issues arising from lapses in adhering to traditional roles, and the pernicious effects of embracing modernity. However, Ha Ha Hu Hu and Vishnu Sharma Learns English are among the few of Satyanaryana’s works that make no effort to overtly address the issue of lapses in tradition, allowing the reader to pay attention to other aspects of his thought. The choice of novellas and the elegant translation mesh well to bring us a Viswanadha Satyanarayana very different from what we ‘know’ him to be.