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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Demon's Daughter

Piṅgaḷi Sūranna

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Title: The Demon's Daughter
Author: Piṅgaḷi Sūranna
Genre: Novel
Written: ca. 16th cent.
Length: 111 pages
Original in: Telugu
Availability: The Demon's Daughter - US
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The Demon's Daughter - India
  • Translated and with an Introduction and Afterword by Velcheru Narayana Rao and David Shulman

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Our Assessment:

B : interesting piece, though it presents obvious translation difficulties

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
J. of the Royal Asiatic Society . (2007) Lucy Rosenstein

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The complete review's Review:

       The Demon's Daughter is a novel that was written in Telugu, probably in the late 1500s or early 1600s, by renowned southern Indian author Piṅgaḷi Sūranna. The presentation of this translation and edition emphasises its novel-form, but it's no great stretch to ascribe the text to that genre -- and just how accomplished it is may come as a surprise to those who are only familiar with European or perhaps Chinese fiction of that time.
       The story is a fairly basic one, with a focus on a grand love story. The premise is an appealing one, with über-bad guy Vajranabha sitting pretty:

This monster Vajranabha made friends with Brahma, the Creator, by means of strict inner discipline. Brahma built him a city called Vajrapuri, near Mount Meru, a city no one can enter, not even the wind or the sun, without permission. Aflame with arrogance, Vajranabha embarked on a life of pleasure and splendor.
       With his invulnerable base to fall back on, Vajranabha can cause a lot of damage -- and he's begun taking advantage of that, and: "Not one among the gods was capable of standing up to him". The only way to defeat the demon, everyone thinks, is to get someone inside Vajrapuri -- but who ? and how ?
       Love turns out to be the answer, and the story becomes that of the demon's daughter, Prabhavati, and Krishna's son, Pradyumna. Prabhavati dreams of her intended, and she is described to the prince in a way to make him fall head over heels. The only difficulty then is in getting them together -- including getting Pradyumna into the city which even the sun can't enter without permission .....
       A helpful (and articulate) goose helps things along, and the lovers are eventually united, leading also to the grand show-down with Vajranabha. As the translators note, the emphasis here is very much on the love story (and there's also a sub-love story, as two other couple are united with the help of another meddling and talking bird, a parrot ...).
       The love story is almost Shakespearean in its confusion before being neatly resolved. A love letter plays a large role, and the gods' use of their powers (great, but occasionally limited) and those talking animals make for a heady (and, in part somewhat, messy) mix, but the translators are correct in focussing in on the love story, which is effectively presented.
       Sukimukhi, the goose, describes Prabhavati to Pradyumna to get him to fall in love with her, passages that illustrate some of the difficulties of rendering the text in English. One can imagine the original and intended effect, but it doesn't always come across ideally:
When she speaks, it's not only your ears that are happy. Your eyes are bathed in a spray of white light bouncing off her teeth.
       For the most part, the erotic gets lost in translation, at best tantalizingly half-suggested:
     Her waist is visible only with reference to the dark hair in the middle. Otherwise, you might wonder whether it exists or not. Like a streak of lightning split down the middle in a monsoon cloud, you have to strain to see it.
     In fact, her waist is teetering under the weight of her breasts and anything could happen at any moment. That's why Brahma has shored it up with folds of golden skin on her belly.
       Other evocative attempts are simply baffling:
     Her calves are like ripening rice in a well-watered field, which you can imagine as her anklets, and her knees could be turtles seeking a cool place in the water.
       Often enough, at least a sense of what the original must feel like does come across, but the translators have a decidedly heavy-handed touch, and too often things go completely awry:
     The king was ever so impressed and kept saying, "Wow".
       Still, Suranna's writing is varied enough -- there's poetry, description, action -- and the story unusual enough that even as presented it impresses.
       The Afterword and Introduction don't provide enough information about Suranna and his times (readers are referred to their earlier translation of another of his works ...), but offer some decent commentary on The Demon's Daughter. Among the points of interest: that this is a work that Suranna wrote for his family -- as he also notes in the text -- rather than, as was common (in East and West), one that was, say, inspired by the gods, or dedicated to a specific patron.
       Though it feels like it only comes across partially in (this) translation, The Demon's Daughter is a rich, eye-opening literary text and worthwhile novel, and suggests that Suranna was an author of considerable talent, and at least the equal of some of the better European writers of the same time.

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The Demon's Daughter: Other books by Pingali Suranna under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Piṅgaḷi Sūranna (పింగళి సూరన) lived in the 16th or 17th century in southern India.

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