BOOK EXCERPT

In this classic Telugu novella, a horse-headed god falls from the sky into the middle of London

Telugu writer Viswanadha Satyanarayana’s ‘Ha Ha Hu Hu’, about a Prakrit-speaking gandharva who falls while flying over London, has been translated to English.

For about fifteen days the animal did not move; then one day it started moving. On every one of those days, people had come in large numbers from all over Europe to see the animal. The hotels in London were all full; the city was crowded with visitors.

“It moved, it moved,” the news spread in a split second all over London. The soldiers stood in attention with loaded guns around the iron cage.

The wounds on the animal’s back had not healed even after the doctors had bandaged them. It woke up. It spread its arms and legs, stretched, moved to the other side, and opened its eyes.

The police stood attentively.

The animal looked around. It looked surprised. It sat up, then jumped up and stood. It yelled loudly, “Kim gadomhi.”

The sound was like the neighing of a horse. But for the people who were a few hundred yards away, it sounded like words, syllables. Was it a language? And if it was, what language was it? How could an animal speak anyway? Those who were at a distance and thought they recognised syllables were a little surprised.

By then it was noon. The animal looked at the iron cage and neighed. It sounded like laughter, but there was sadness in its eyes. It lay on the floor and made a sound as if it were in great pain. To those who were at a distance, it sounded like: “Aho me atha atta im. Kim addi? Kim samadi ho?”

The police thought that the horse was neighing in a strange way. A few older people in the group thought that there was more to learn about the animal.

A little while later the animal sat up and looked at the people. It did not look as surprised as before. The officers pushed the food closer to the animal. It looked at the food: bread, potatoes and horse gram. It didn’t seem to know what they were. Then someone brought fruits and placed them before the animal. As soon as the animal saw the fruits it made a gesture that it recognised them. It picked up a fruit. The people thought that it would eat the fruit, but the animal examined it, turned it around and then put it back.

“The animal hasn’t eaten anything for fifteen days. Why doesn’t it eat that fruit?” someone wondered.

Some thought, for an animal of that size, that fruit was not enough.

“How could a horse eat fruit anyway,” said some others.

After a little while, the animal extended its hands through the cage and made a gesture, asking a person to draw near. Someone approached, and the animal neighed. To people at a distance, it sounded like, “Ko utumam.” People began to realise that the animal was trying to say something. But still the question persisted: ‘How could an animal talk?’

The animal realised that this person did not understand what it said. It gestured with both hands to indicate pouring of water over the body. Nobody understood what it meant.

There was a Hindu in the crowd. He said, “Maybe the animal wants to take a bath.”

The word slowly reached the Mayor. The Mayor thought that this might be true. But then, how to arrange for a bath for the animal? It would need a lot of water.

Some suggested that they should chain the animal’s hands and feet and take it to the Thames.

“Oh no, that’s very dangerous. It could kill people on the way,” said some others.

So they brought hoses from the fire engines and pumped water over the animal. The animal was all wet now. And it was muddy all around the cage. The animal took the cloth off its shoulders, wrung it out and dried most of its body. It wrapped the cloth around its loins and then pulled off the wet cloth it was wearing. Then it twisted that cloth and hung it on the iron bars to dry. The people were amazed at all this.

The animal gestured that the floor was all muddy and there was nowhere to sit down. People understood the gesture. They brought a big stool and handed it to the animal. The animal sat on the stool in the lotus position, closed its nostrils and began to meditate. Nobody understood what it was doing. After about an hour, it opened its eyes and stood up, tied the now dry cloth around its body and put the cloth it was wearing out to dry. It pointed towards the fruits, gesturing for more. The Lord Mayor sent his men and had a large basket of fruits brought in. The animal then gestured asking for a chembu. Where could you find chembus in England! So they gave it a glass instead. The animal took the glass, sprinkled a few drops of water on the fruits, muttered something, waved its hand around the fruits and then ate all the fruits. It gestured for more water. They gave it more water from the hose. The animal drank the water.

Sitting on the stool, the animal looked quietly around at everybody. It laughed again. Now the people understood that that was how the animal laughed. The animal pointed towards the cage and gestured asking why it was there. Everyone was amazed.

Someone in the crowd said, “No, this isn’t an animal. This is a human being. The head is a horse’s head but this surely is a human being. We have discovered new continents, but we haven’t yet discovered the continent where people like this live. Let’s find out what his language is and which country he comes from. Looks like he comes from a very civilised culture. Why put him in a cage? Get him out.”

The police officers didn’t agree. “We can’t free him from the cage,” they said. “How can we be sure that it’s not an animal? What if it pounces on the crowd and eats people alive?”

So the cage stayed.

The officers talked about many things to the animal in English. It was clear the animal did not understand. Then they spoke in French, German, Italian and Russian, one after the other. Still the animal did not understand. They brought a black man and had him speak his language to the animal. Listening to all these languages, the animal began to laugh as if it were ridiculing them. The police didn’t know what else to do. After a little while the animal neighed, which sounded to people at a distance like “Kim ma e sudam? Kim edam?” By now everyone knew that the animal was talking. But it did not know any of their languages, so they did not know how to communicate with it.

However, they noticed something interesting: The animal was totally calm and looked uninterested in the people around it.

All this time, the soldiers stood with loaded guns. Coming close to the bars, the animal looked at one of their guns. A soldier standing behind the animal was frightened and walked four paces back and held the gun close to him. The animal turned around and saw his frightened face. It realised that the man’s hands held some kind of an instrument for killing. It looked at the gun with some interest and asked the policeman to see the gun. The policeman refused.

Everyone looked on in amazement.

The sun was setting. People were leaving for their homes. For fun, the eight-year-old son of a police inspector poked at the animal from behind with his badminton racket. The animal turned around as the boy ran away and stretched its hands through the bars to catch him. The boy escaped but the animal did get hold of a soldier, pulling the gun from his hands into the cage. People were frightened and ran away. Even the police and the soldiers were fleeing when the Lord Mayor commanded them to stop.

The animal began to look closely at the gun.

Excerpted with permission from Ha Ha Hu Hu: A Horse-headed God in Trafalgar Square, Viswanandha Satyanarayana, translated by Velcheru Narayana Rao, Penguin Random House India.

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