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the Complete Review
the complete review - poetry

The Story of Manu

Allasani Peddana

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To purchase The Story of Manu

Title: The Story of Manu
Author: Allasani Peddana
Genre: Poem
Written: Ca. 1520 (Eng. 2015)
Length: 608 pages
Original in: Telugu
Availability: The Story of Manu - US
The Story of Manu - UK
The Story of Manu - Canada
The Story of Manu - India
  • Telugu title: మను చరిత్రము
  • Translated and with an Introduction by Velcheru Narayana Rao and David Shulman
  • This is a bilingual edition, with the Telugu tex facing the English translation

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Our Assessment:

B+ : a bit unusual in how it unfolds, but enjoyable throughout

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The NY Rev. of Books . 24/9/2015 Roberto Calasso

  From the Reviews:
  • "Itís a spectacular case of a reverse metamorphosis where, from heavenís point of view, human shortcomings become qualities to attain -- even the mere act of sweating. Few Western poets have been so audacious and unconventional." - Roberto Calasso, The New York Review of Books

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Story of Manu opens with a description of how Peddana came to compose the poem: "Make a poem for me, Peddanarya", the emperor, Krishnadevaraya, asks -- suggesting also its subject-matter, the 'Birth of Svarochisha' (Manu).
       The emperor is a real fan:

You're a friend. You're good at words.
You carry in your mind all the stories of the
āgamas, and itihāsas. You're the creator
of Telugu poetry. No one
is equal to you.
       Indeed, each of the six chapters ends with a reminder that:
The great poem called "The Birth of Svarochisha Manu" was written by Allasani Cokkayamatya's son Peddanarya, known to all as the "Creator God of Telugu Poetry"
       No humility there -- and while it's hard to gauge whether he can truly live up to his billing, he fortunately does prove to be rather: "good at words" (better than that, for one thing -- the translation jars occasionally in its blunt simplicity). In their Introduction translators Velcheru Narayana Rao and David Shulman situate Peddana at a turning point and flourishing of (a new form of) Telugu poetry, with Pedanna at the vanguard. He was not an isolated genius, either:
The sheer volume of outstanding, sustained, heavily intertextual literary output in Telugu over a few decades compares, one might say, with the nineteenth-century Russian novel. Poets and readers clearly found the new genre compelling.
       (Among the works they cite are also two by Pingali Suranna that they have also translated, The Demon's Daughter and The Sound of the Kiss.)
       Neither "The Birth of Svarochisha Manu" nor The Story of Manu seem, at first sight, to accurately reflect the content of the poem, the title-character only appearing on the scene very, very late in the day: the account of how "On a good day / she gave birth to a son" is found in the final chapter of the poem, verses 96-7 (of the 124 in this sixth chapter) But, as the translators noted in their Introduction:
The whole book, on one level, is an extended essay on the making of a full human being and, by the end, of a fully human king.
       In focusing on what came before, The Story of Manu is a story of what made the man.
       It is an unusual story, beginning with the devoted Brahman Pravara, who has led an exemplary life and is happily married -- "But -- he had always wanted to travel". He is "restless and eager", and when a stranger comes telling of fantastic places Pravara can't hold himself back:
I wish to travel to the holy places.
Make it happen
       Soon enough, of course, he finds he's in over his head -- and lost, afar:
Why did I come here ? Was I out of my mind ?
I don't even know the way I took
to get here. How will I get back ?
       He comes across a beautiful woman, Varuthini, who is completely taken by the Brahman and tries to seduce him -- but he is dutiful ("Don't speak to me / about these fleeting pleasures, like honey / on a mustache", he says, in one of the poem's nicest images), and getting back home is the only thing on his mind:
     if I don't reach home
today, my whole world
will crumble.
       Devout Pravara is rewarded and makes it back home -- but Varuthini finds it hard to get over him:
Damn it, that heartless man
walked away from my love.
He pushed me into an endless ocean
of longing. How can I keep myself
from drowning ?
Human women are lucky.
If their lover rejects them, they die.
But me -- I'm immortal !
       A gandharva who is in love with her sees his opportunity -- and pretends to be Pravara. Blinded by her passion (and told to keep her eyes closed when they make love: "This is how we / do it in our country. Opening your eyes / would offend the gods"), Varuthini lets herself be seduced by the impostor. She's completely fooled, and even becomes pregnant -- at which point the gandharva figures he better make himself scarce. Leading her yet again to be heart-broken:
She felt a shock. She nearly fainted.
Tears spilled from her eyes, wide as lotus petals -- first a few drops,
then a trickle, then a stream washing the dark musk
off her breasts, then wave after flooding wave.
       She does have a child -- Svarochi (not to be confused with Svarochisha ...). He becomes "a striking young man", and soon is off on his own adventures -- reveling, in particular, in hunting. There's a lot of hunting (and animal slaughter) -- eventually too much even for them:
We were so lost in killing animals
that we forgot ourselves and ended up
here, far from home. The omens, O King,
do not bode well. We're in for big trouble.
       Indeed -- but first there's a damsel in distress to be saved, Manorama, being chased by a demon. Battles follow, but all ends well when the curse that turned Manorama's father "into a man-eater" chasing after his own daughter is lifted and everything is set right again. Eventually, Svarochi and Manorama marry, in a grand ceremony -- but there are other women to marry, too; eventually:
Varuthini's son, married to all three women,
spent his time playing inventive games.
       No doubt. (Though it doesn't go unmentioned that: "a man loving more than one woman / is a lie".)
       Sons are born, and enthroned in various cities "with great glory" -- but though Svarochi feels fulfilled he hasn't fulfilled his destiny. Out hunting, he is approached by a doe -- who turns out to be the goddess of the local forest, and who explains:
All the gods begged me to have a child
by you, a Manu who would protect
the whole world. That's why I came here.
I love you. Marry me. Have a son
with me. You'll attain the supreme world.
       Done and done (and done). And that's the story of the birth of Svarochisha Manu -- who goes on to rule the world (and provide happy times and abundance -- though that part is only briefly mentioned, in part because presumably everyone knows that already).
       For readers unfamiliar with the background of the tale -- the very basic Manu-myth, central to Indian mythology -- and the various players the way the story unfolds can be a bit disorienting with its sharp, long focus on certain episodes and then quick summary of long periods of time (such as the characters' childhoods). The subtleties of Peddana's larger story -- of what goes into the making of Svarochisha Manu -- can be confusing (not the least the abrupt appearance of his mother more or less out of nowhere -- and in the guise of a doe, no less) and more difficult to appreciate immediately, the layers and references not as obvious to readers unfamiliar with the background, but the episodes of Peddana's poem stand nicely by themselves too. There are good stories here, quite nicely related -- and there's convincing emotion and suspense.
       The translators note "Pedanna's extreme lyricism", and the musicality of his writing, and in their Introduction try to give some sense of the sound and feel of it. With the Telugu text facing the English translation in this (beautiful) edition, readers at least have the opportunity to see the original, and those who can read the Telugu obviously get a very different sense of the poem. Regretably, there's not enough here -- in supporting material and in the form of the fairly free translation -- for those for whom the Telugu remains inaccessible to get a true sense of the original poetry. It is a tall order, perhaps, but given how different this text seems from most that most readers will have encountered, as well as a lack of uniformity -- verses are of greatly varying length and obviously different make-up -- more supporting material would have been very welcome.
       The poetry itself, in translation, is fairly straightforward and even relatively simple -- occasionally too much so ("We're in for big trouble" ?). On the whole, however, it is appealingly lyrical (even as some of the romantic idea(l)s -- or the hunting massacres -- can be a bit unsettling for contemporary readers), and gripping too. There's also a nice humorous touch to some of the situations, such as the one the hapless Brahmin Pravara gets himself into.
       It's great to have this work available in English -- with the original Telugu, too -- and while its classic status may not be immediately obvious to English-speaking readers, there is a clear sense that it is a major work, at least of the time and language.

- M.A.Orthofer, 5 May 2016

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The Story of Manu: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Telugu poet Allasani Peddana (అల్లసాని పెద్దన) lived in the sixteenth century.

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