A laughing matter

Satire
Highlights: 
The translation for these two novellas is smooth and well done. The stories read easily and naturally, preserving the author’s wry humour and subtle insights.

The enigmatically titled Ha Ha Hu Hu, A Horse-Headed God in Trafalgar Square features two novellas by Viswanadha Satyanarayana (1895-1976), a Telugu litterateur, translated into English by Velcheru Narayana Rao. The first novella follows a mysterious stranger who finds himself in an out-of-the-way place (for him) called London. In the second novella, a professor with staunchly held views comes face to face with a certain Vishnu Sharma, and a certain Tikkanna.

The book also features a detailed introduction that deals with the author’s life and times, notes on the author himself, and the impact of cultural changes on his writing. An equally detailed afterword tackles the two novellas themselves, providing analysis and a rather thorough reading of their plot points. Both are useful in the reading of the novellas, providing insight into these works of Telugu literature.

In Ha Ha Hu Hu, the first novella, a strange creature materialises in London, causing a lot of commotion. People are horrified, aghast, and also wonderstruck – for this newcomer has the body of a very tall and broad-shouldered man, and the head of a horse. He is clad in silk and jewels. And most mysterious of all, he speaks in a language they cannot, in the beginning at least, even begin to understand. The creature is not what they think he is, and he sparks off a debate. Since he has the head of a horse, can he be classified as an animal, and can his skull be cracked open, all in the name of science? Or, since he speaks and speaks so well, is he a strange being with the consciousness that is comparable to a human? And most of all, Ha Ha Hu Hu focuses on the creature himself, and what he thinks. He is, to say the very least, puzzled by the commotion and not particularly impressed.

As for the people who captured him, they gawp. They try to intimidate him. They are fascinated when he speaks and curious when he meditates. They also keep him caged, because they have no idea who, or what he is.

Vishnu Sharma Learns English, the second novella, has three characters at the fore. Vishnu Sharma is the author of the Panchatantra. Tikkanna wrote the Mahabharata in Telugu. And both of them visit a hapless and thoroughly confused professor who narrates the story. The professor sees them first in a dream…and then that dream evolves into something more akin to reality.

Vishnu Sharma, for his own reasons, wishes to learn English, as does Tikkanna. But teaching masters of classical Indian languages English is no mean feat, as the professor soon discovers. English grammar makes no sense to the masters. They ask questions the professor cannot answer. The upper-case and lower-case alphabet is scoffed at. And then comes the strangest element of the story — of just how well modern society can cope, or indeed accept, visitors from the ancient or medieval past.

The professor’s humorous antics only add to the chaos. He takes the two scholars to colleges for lectures and speeches in an attempt to gauge the reaction of the audience. Sometimes, the scholars are recognised and revered. Sometimes they are recognised and not respected. And sometimes, all of them are branded insane.

Both novellas have memorable characters. The mysterious stranger from Ha Ha Hu Hu has his own motivations, practises yoga, and has a sharp mind that counters logic with irrefutable logic. There is little that fazes him, and he remains composed even when guns are pointed at him. Or when eager scientists try to argue with him that his horse head makes him an animal and never mind that he can speak perfectly and argue with them better than they can themselves.

The two litterateurs of Vishnu Sharma Learns English are very astute and slightly irritated by the imposition, or rather, the permeation of this peculiar language called English. They do not understand it and they find it illogical. The professor and narrator trying to teach them tumble headlong into futile arguments with them. He thinks them fussy, without the slightest realisation that he might himself be a bit rigid in his beliefs. This novella is sprinkled with sharp humour.

Both novellas are fascinating, and both of them display insights into the foibles of human nature — of cultural progressiveness as the characters see it, of the thinking of the ancients compared to the self-proclaimed rationalism of the modern world. This is particularly evident when the horse-headed visitor confounds and is unfazed by technological marvels. Or when the professor learns that his knowledge may be a bit sketchy.

The translation for these two novellas is smooth and well done. The stories read easily and naturally, preserving the author’s wry humour and subtle insights.

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A laughing matter

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