Strange, anachronistic beings – misfits in the contemporary world – feature in the new Penguin Modern Classics publication Ha Ha Hu Hu, which collects two novellas by the renowned Telugu writer Viswanadha Satyanarayana. In the first story, “Ha Ha Hu Hu”, Londoners find a wounded, unconscious creature with a horse’s head and a human body in their city. (The story’s sub-head is “A Horse-Headed God in Trafalgar Square”.) When it shows a deep intelligence – unlike any they have encountered before – they don’t know how to deal with it, or how to explain the rules of their own civilisation (beyond caging it and demonstrating for its benefit that their guns can kill). Even a Sanskrit scholar, who realizes this might be a gandharva fallen to earth, is puzzled.

In the second story, “Vishnu Sharma Learns English”, the scholar Vishnu Sharma – who is believed to have written the Panchatantra – and the 13th century poet Tikanna (who translated the Mahabharata into Telugu) appear first in dream form, and later as flesh-and-blood humans, to a lecturer, requesting that he teach them English. The king of the gods, Indra himself, has asked them to return to earth to do this, so they can “get the education suitable for these days”. But the lessons that follow prove confusing to both the students and their master.

“Ha Ha Hu Hu” was first published in 1932, while “Vishnu Sharma Inglishu Chaduvu” came nearly 30 years later; these two English translations are by Velcheru Narayana Rao, who also provides an Introduction and Afterword. Many readers prefer to skip such essays and go to the stories directly, letting them speak for themselves. Personally, as someone who had never read Viswanadha Satyanarayana before, I found it useful to go through Rao’s pieces for context.

Almost the first thing the translator tells us is that Satyanarayana was, unlike many of his contemporaries in the early decades of the 20th century, a traditionalist. Modernists saw him as someone who was anti-progress, anti-social reform, bound to the old rules. But as Rao puts it, it was not easy to marginalise or dismiss him. “He was too modern to be outdated and too outdated to be modern. He was everywhere – as a writer, critic, public intellectual and a formidable opponent of everything the new middle class stood for. For about half a century, he walked the Telugu literary scene like a four-hundred-pound gorilla in the living room who could not be ignored.”

That last analogy is intriguing, given that “Ha Ha Hu Hu” is about a beast that people don’t know what to make of – a cerebral, category-defying animal whose very existence seems to contradict everything one thinks one knows.

The many possibilities in creation

Central to this story is the lament that pre-modern, pre-Enlightenment ideas and forms of expression are seen as quaint, childlike and inferior by western civilisation – and by those who have grown up under western influence. (As Rao notes in his Introduction, Indian nationalists may have fought for freedom from colonial rule, but most of them wholeheartedly embraced the modern literary culture that came in through the English language – consequently, people like Satyanarayana found themselves in a minority in the world of the progressive writers.) The first few Londoners who see the horse-headed creature exoticise it and comment on its clothes in the same way that an insular Englishman of the time might mock traditional Indian attire. Ha Hu (as he comes to be called) responds by mounting an argument for keeping one’s mind open to the many possibilities in creation, rather than staying restricted by a single value system: “There are many different animals on this earth […] If there are many types of people, their habits vary too.”

The interactions between the horse-man and those who want to study him make up the bulk of the story: Ha Hu gets the better of the scientists and scholars who are smug about their knowledge and try to compartmentalize him in terms of their narrow experience – but he says equally smug and reductive-sounding things at times. (“Knowledge comes through tapas, not by cutting up animal bodies”.) The story loads the dice in favour of the gandharva, and a reader can feel ambivalent about this, given the constant attempts – even in 21st century India – to haul us back into a supposedly golden age where everything was pristine, uncorrupted by newfangled ideologies or scientific progress.

Dream logic

While “Ha Ha Hu Hu” is the shorter of the two stories, and in some ways the more simplistic allegory, “Vishnu Sharma Learns English” is more wide-ranging – in fact, Rao says he had his work cut out as a translator because the story was so full of digressions. By this point in his writing career, Satyanarayana “had grown somewhat carefree. He began writing novels by the dozen, often dictating several novels the same day to scribes who worked in shifts […] no one edited his work, and apparently no one proofread it either.”

But this also works well for the novella, giving it a stream-of-consciousness quality and a dream-logic suited to its premise. At one point, the lecturer frets about the rules of etiquette in dealing with his spectral visitors. (He should get up from his bed to offer them water – but if he does that, he will wake up and they will be gone!) There are passages that are droll and poignant at the same time, such as the one where Tikanna mentions that he went to see a river he remembered from his own time, but couldn’t recognise it because someone had put “a belt” on her.

And there are many comical, incisive observations on English, some of which might strike a chord for anyone who has seen Hindi films such as Namak Halal or Chupke Chupke. This is a funny, illogical, unnecessarily complicated language, mull the two heavenly visitors – how ironic that it has come to be so closely associated with a rational, progressive world. Vishnu Sharma wonders why English requires small as well as big versions of every letter. “If they are the same, why do I have to learn them separately? This is like showing me your uncle when he has his shirt on and then with his shirt off. It’s the same uncle.”

“A language has to follow the inner movements of the mind and its syntax should support it,” Tikanna says; in his view, English fails this test and lacks the “conceptual purity” of the older tongues. It’s possible to see this as a metaphor for the difference between a newer, more egalitarian world (made up of many parts, which don’t always fit together well) and an older, more regimented one where people (like letters in an alphabet) knew their exact place and function, and it was possible to tell by looking at someone what his social role was – much the same way as, in a “pure” language, one can look at a word and know exactly how it is to be pronounced. (None of the ambiguity one finds in English – “go” being said in one way, “do” in another.)

However, Rao also suggests – and I think this is borne out by the story – that “Vishnu Sharma Learns English” shouldn’t be reduced to the message: Telugu or Sanskrit are superior to English. An important part of the point is that people like the lecturer inhabit an in-between world, where they have not fully understood or absorbed either the old or the new, and where they are thus susceptible to the bullying of those who insist that their way is the only correct one.

“Viva twentieth century!” the lecturer cries in triumph during one conversation, where he seems to have temporarily silenced his visitors with his arguments. This sort of thing can come across as obvious, heavy-handed satire – but then, such is the nature of this material, and such must have been Satyanarayana’s position as a writer expressing his reservations with modernity even while grudgingly accepting some of its assumptions.

Ha Ha Hu Hu: A Horse-Headed God in Trafalgar Square, Viswanadha Satyanarayana, translated from the Telugu by Velcheru Narayana Rao, Penguin Books.