Travelogue as (Post)Colonial Satire:
Mokkapati Narasimha Sastry's Barrister Parvatheesam


K. Suneetha Rani

University of Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh, India

Copyright © 2003 by K. Suneetha Rani, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. Copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the editors are notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author.

  1. Mokkapati Narasimha Sastry's novel Barrister Parvatheesam gives rise to several controversies and arguments, most having to do with its 'truth quotient.' Readers have questioned whether the book is fact or fiction and, concomitantly, whether it is largely autobiographical. In this article, I attempt to present Barrister Parvatheesam as a travelogue that imaginatively offers a garland of colonial and post-colonial incidents and issues shared by many early 20th-century Indian travellers, though the writer himself introduces the book as a novel. As a travelogue, the book reverses the trajectory of travel writing concerning India. Whereas there had been published many accounts of white men's or women's experiences and visions of India, now -- for the first time in Telugu Literature[1] -- this book depicts the relations and responses of a citizen of a colonised country to the so-called `civilized culture.'

  2. Barrister Parvatheesam was published in three parts, over twelve years in the 1920s and 30s. The first part deals with Parvatheesam's early life in Mogalturu, a small town that he calls a "famous historical city" in the East Godavari district of Andhra Pradesh, and his decision to go to England, ending when he reaches his destination. The second part covers his stay in Great Britain and the third concerns his return to India as a man profoundly changed by his experiences in abroad. The book presents a crucial time in Indian history, the decades in which domestic political awareness was growing yet in which many Indians went to Britain for higher education -- and often became involved in the Freedom Struggle upon return to India. Despite its humor and satire, then, the travelogue suggests that colonial mimicry is part of the postcolonial process -- that a future postcolonial Indian identity will contain elements drawn from the colonial past as well as new elements forged in reaction to that past.

  3. The fluidity of the subject is introduced in a meta-narrational manner. Sastry's "Foreword" prompts readers to question stable identity, for he refers neither to the book's autobiographical elements nor to his own travel abroad; strangely enough, however, he does refer to critics who had traced these elements, asserting that the author had been to England and therefore that the book was a thinly disguised account of Sastry's own experiences, without ever commenting on whether such assertions were true. He thus partially erases his own presence, blurring the boundaries between author and character. When we enter into the world of Parvatheesam' travel experiences, however, the difference between fiction and travelogue blurs even further. The episodes are narrated in so realistic a way that they force readers to recollect their own experiences and encounters with new cultures, thus setting up a homology among readers, character, and author.

  4. Indeed, in his "Introduction" to the Second Edition of the First Part, Sastry says that after the book's publication, people approached him to enquire how he had found out about their own experiences abroad. This reminds readers of another Telugu novel -- Kandukuri Veeresalingam's Sathyaraja Charitramu (The Story of Sathyaraja[2]), which is modeled on Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels.[3] Sathyaraja Charitramu, published in the late 19th Century, depicts Sathyaraja's travel to alien worlds, such as a world where the roles of men and women are reversed; Veerasalingam later revealed that after the book's publication, several people wrote to him asking the directions to reach the places that he had depicted in his novel. But whereas Sathyaraja Charitramu is obviously utopian fiction, creating imaginary worlds through which to satirise contemporary society, Barrister Parvastheesam less clearly announces its own genre.

  5. Nonetheless, we should not ignore its satiric dimensions, the ways in which England and India are exposed as flawed and ridiculous, Parvastheesam -- like Gulliver and Sathyaraja -- acting as the 'objective' observer of alien and familiar cultures. Parvastheesam sees the West through what we might call Indian bifocals, in that divisions like coloniser-colonised, exploiting-exploited, dominating-dominated play major roles in forming his opinions about Western life and culture, including milestones of European history like the First World War and its repercussions. The book gives the thoughts of an outsider, who is not exactly an outsider, but who cannot become or cannot be considered an insider. The technique of meticulously detailed, humorously presented first-person narration obviously helps readers to identify with the protagonist and persuades readers to accept the truth of the travelogue; at the same time, it plays the common satirist's trick of collapsing the distance between readers and the narrated experiences, thus turning readers themselves into the targets of satire.

  6. Before presenting a conflict between two races and two countries, the novelist presents a conflict between two cultures and two languages in the same country. Parvatheesam's journey begins in his village, Magalturu, and his preparations for his trip, his adventures in the railway station, and his experiences traveling through India are hilarious. But the comedy has a serious purpose: it exposes the ignorance and inhibitions of moderately-educated, middle-class Indians of his time. When Parvatheesam reaches his first destination of Madras, for instance, Tamil culture and language confuse him so much that he feels like running away from the place. He sees the green fields and wonders why Tamil people are so mean and greedy in spite of such fertile and prosperous surroundings. Part of the satiric humor here stems from the way he reflects Indian regional prejudices. Yet when Parvatheesam comes back from England, longing to see his noble and sacred motherland, he thinks the same disparaging thoughts about his own Telugu people. Perception is a matter of perspective, and Parvatheesam's direct encounter with the colonizing power seems to have warped his vision even more, at least in the first moments of 're-entry' into his home culture. The satiric irony here lies in the fact that his journey was prompted by Indian and Telugu patriotism in the first place.

  7. Sastry's work reflects the spirit of Freedom Struggle. The young Parvatheesam is inspired and influenced by the ideas and ideals of the National Movement; he organises meetings, becoming one of the movement's most active members. But he faces opposition from his own family. His father advises him to get educated first, acquire knowledge, and then do whatever he wants. With the help of a learned man he reads books on politics and society, which, in fact, contribute to an agitation in his mind. He meets a lawyer and on his advice, he decides to go to England and become a Barrister. This becomes Parvatheesam's goal in life: "Thinking that it would be easier to achieve Swaraj if I go to our rulers' country, perceive their culture and traditions and find out the secrets, I decided to go there and study Barristry" (66). Although Parvatheesam is aware that lawyers were taking part in the National Movement, ironically it is only during his stay in Britain that he hears about Gandhi and meets other Freedom Struggle leaders. Although his declaration sounds like an upper class/caste Indian's aspiration for power or like a thoughtful Movement member's strategic plan, we find that Parvatheesam's words are naïve. His decision stems not so much from his involvement with the Freedom Struggle or from his dawning political awarenesss but from a personal wish to counter failures in school and to overcome his father's resistance.

  8. That Parvatheesam is satirized via his own travelogue does not negate the satiric force of its cultural critique. For instance, Parvatheesam's resistance to the British Raj starts from his careful observation of Europeans' effort to spread Christianity in India. Sastry depicts his protagonist's thoughts through the satiric techniques of reversal and of direct condemnation. Whereas in most Western travel writings about India, we see missionaries desperately trying to spread enlightenment and wisdom (called Christianity) and save the natives from ignorance and superstition (called Hinduism), in Barrister Parvatheesam Parvatheesam expresses his disgust for missionaries' forceful and forcible attempts to convert Indians to Christianity and their delusion that Christianity is the only religion that directs man towards salvation. Thus the work discloses Indian desire for freedom not only from English political suzerainty but also from Christian religious fanaticism.

  9. While the book brings to us Parvatheesam's protest against colonial rule in India, it also introduces us to Parvatheesam's encounter with racial superiority of the English during his stay. The very first comment that hurts Parvatheesam is from the customs officer: "Who is this darkie?" (239). Shocked at the threshold itself, Parvatheesam encounters many such instances of ridicule inflicted on him by whites. In this way, his experiences are representative of any Indian's experiences travelling to Europe from colonised India, and, in a more general sense, of most colonised people's experiences in Europe. Parvatheesam's subjectivity becomes racialised. [4]

  10. In a park, Parvatheesam happens to meet some children who are intimidated by his appearance and run to their mothers. "There is a black, mummy . . . Mummy, will he take away children? . . . Mummy, does he ever take bath?" (Sastry 239). Racial difference is attributed moral and physical impurity. No doubt for similar reasons, his search for a house becomes an exercise in humiliation, as some people shut the door on his face and others ruthlessly turn him down. It is not out of place to recollect Edward Said's words in this context: "A group of people living on a few acres of land will set up boundaries between their land and its immediate surroundings and the territory beyond, which they call the land of the barbarians. . . . All kinds of suppositions, associations, and fictions appear to crowd the unfamiliar space outside one's own" (54) . In relation to the 'boundary makers' such as the British landlords in Barrister Parvatheesam, Said's words can be interpreted in two ways: as hatred of or as fearful fascination with the "other." But in relation to the "others" themselves, colonial exclusion paradoxically can strengthen feelings of admiration for those doing the excluding.

  11. Sastry's book does give voice to colonised Indians' admiration of whites, but it also depicts the unravelling of this admiration. At one point, for instance, Parvatheesam thinks aloud: "When I first came here, I thought that the behaviour of these people will be as white and pure as their skin is. Later I suspected that it may not be true and it may be my own mere imagination" (305-306). Characteristically, such a potentially devastating realization is treated with humour, here using the satiric technique of trivialization, as Parvatheesam comes to this conclusion when he detects that the landlady has stolen his silver tongue cleaners. His opinion is confirmed when he finds that the bill is increasing every month and the food that he stores in his room are disappearing. During a seaside holiday, he is asked to vacate his hotel room by the management. The explanation is that in the same hotel stays and Englishman retired from a business firm in India. He does not like Indians around him, so he fights with the management and has Parvatheesam thrown out. This incident reminds us of Mahatma Gandhi's experience in South Africa when he was thrown out of the train, an ugly event that helped fuel later political movements. For Parvatheesam, then, this incident is a kind of revelation about racial discrimination in all its colours.

  12. By presenting sordid realities in a humorous tone, Barrister Parvatheesam raises important questions about cultural identity. The protagonist changes his name from Vemuri Parvatheesam to P.V. Moor after much contemplation, enabling him to be clearly identified by the British and receive his mail promptly. But what about his cultural identity? As an orthodox Brahmin, he finds it difficult to exist on non-vegetarian food and without daily rituals. He adapts to all these changes in order to achieve his goal, but they involve real losses of physical and emotional comfort. Nevertheless, he gains a certain recompense from lessons learned from his own mistakes, mistakes that on the one hand stem from crosscultural ignorance but on the other stem from ingrained Indian habits and perceptions.

  13. The travelogue is a litany of ludicrous events. Parvatheesam buys a hat and muffler meant for women; when he wears them he is ridiculed. He goes to a shop and does not want to spoil the rich carpet by walking on it; he walks on the bare floor, falls down and is laughed at. He asks his guide how the train will travel in darkness, only to be sneered at and answered sarcastically that two people with lanterns will walk in front of the train showing the way. Such experiences reinforce the advice offered by his friend and senior Raju: "Here if you lock the door, the owners will be upset. They will think that we do not believe them and we are insulting them. So you need not lock. Here, as far as possible you should lock your mouth but need not lock the door" (251). The ironic humor here is that checks are directed against Indian behaviour rather than British attitude.

  14. While in Britain, nostalgia for Telugu culture offers a way out of this crisis. The Telugu students with whom Parvatheesam associates celebrate typical Telugu festivals like Ugadi.[5] They prepare Telugu delicacies and serve them to the locals, nostalgically recollecting their cultural base while attempting a culinary route to crosscultural understanding. Parvatheesam watches cricket for the first time and, like George Bernard Shaw, wonders what is so great about it; he counteracts his disregard for cricket by mastering the game of golf (he is now studying in Edinburgh, and participating in Scotland's most popular sport signals a desire to belong to at least a peripheral part of Great Britain) and by teaching Telugu games like Chedugudu[6] to the Scots (thus asserting the value of his own culture). Parvatheesam sometimes touches Telugu readers' consciences by playing to cultural pride while simultaneously mocking Indian admiration for everything English. For example, when he reveals his belief that no Westerner can learn Telugu, he both asserts Telugu's linguistic sophistication and satirizes the common Indian internalization of English-language hegemony:
    He can never learn Telugu. Even if he performs tapas for thousands of years, he cannot utter a Telugu word. I am born and brought up in Telugu land, but still I too can not understand and cannot correctly pronounce some words. Then how can he learn? Is it silly English, which any body can learn within one or two years? (183)

  15. As is typical of journey-patterned satire, Sastry's criticisms are aimed at the visitors as well as the visited. Thus Indians in Britain are not spared. When Parvatheesam reaches `India House' in London, for example, he is shocked at the behaviour of the people around him. He recollects the hospitality of Indian society where a stranger is extended a very warm welcome and an invitation for food. To his amazement he comes across a person who hails from home region but refuses to recognise or talk to him -- because no one has introduced them properly. Situating Parvatheesam as innocent victim and reporter, this incident shows another aspect of cultural identity crisis. The aloof countryman represents an individual who is not only physically but also psychologically alienated from his culture, alienated to such an extent that he needs to separate himself from anything or anyone who reminds him of home.

  16. In subtle ways, Parvatheesam raises complex question about the difference between the standards of living in Britain and India. He wonders why we do not find sofas and other luxuries even in rich Indian homes, whereas in England even lower-middle class houses have all these luxury goods. Such comparisons are framed as quasi-comic incongruities, rather than as serious economic criticisms. Part of the reason for this tone may be to sustain Parvatheesam's role as a disinterested, innocent satiric persona, but it is also possible that Sastry subtly tries to project the difference between a colonised country and a colonising country, thus exposing -- however gently -- the consequences of imperialism.

  17. Having satire take the form of travelogue allows a wide variety of comic and critical encounters, at each stage providing means to compare one culture with another and to show how enculturation is a continuing, multivalent process. Parvatheesam's education at the University of Edinburgh is a case in point; he finds every detail about the university surprising, but often in positive ways. On the outset, mistaken identity forces him into the chamber of the vice-chancellor, whom he finds very kind and affectionate instead of affronted at the non-scheduled visit. He also finds the student/teacher relationship different from what he has known. For instance, his class grows restless as the professor goes beyond the stipulated time. The professor notices this and says, "I am sorry Gentlemen, but I have a few more pearls to throw away." Parvatheesam appreciates the way the professor subtly scolds the students instead of losing his temper and shouting at them. In another instance, a mischievous student transforms the written message "The professor will not be able to meet his classes today" into "The professor will not be able to meet the lasses today" by taking off the 'c.' In response, the professor subtly and coolly removes the 'l' from the notice, making the students into asses. Parvatheesam compares good-natured give-and-take with an Indian classroom, where mischievous students would be punished. These vignettes use comedy to criticize Indian educational practices.

  18. Despite his admiration for certain aspects of British life, the seeds of patriotism planted in Parvatheesam's mind when he was in India sprout into well-rooted plants during his stay abroad. He continues his activities related to the National Movement. He gets associated with Duggirala Gopalakrishnaiah, [7] he avidly follows political developments in India, and he regularly attends Gandhi's meetings. Despite comic mistakings and misgivings, perhaps because of the satiric critique they enable, Parvatheesam begins to open an eye of wisdom. His travel, in a way, paves the way for his future activities as a freedom fighter who influences his family -- especially his wife -- to take an active part in the battle for the motherland's emancipation.

  19. Being able to treat his wife as a responsible human being may also be a consequence of his travels, during which he has a number of experiences with non-Indian women. He meets a lady at the theatre, who continues her friendship by accompanying him to movie-houses and outdoor excursions. His landlady's two young daughters try to approach him, but he does not reciprocate, at the same time being careful not to hurt their feelings. He falls deeply in love with a white woman, but after thinking about the cultural distance between them he convinces himself -- and her as well -- to discontinue their relationship. On his return journey, a visit to a French cinema lands him in trouble when his friendly smile is misunderstood by a lady as an invitation and she follows him. This works as a blessing in disguise, since Parvatheesam runs towards the harbour in order to escape her attentions and fortunately reaches his ship, which unbeknownst to him, had to debark suddenly on government orders. These incidents helped shape another aspect of cultural identity - how one understands and interacts with the opposite sex. His 'Indianness' makes him helpless and hapless in Europe, even forcing him to give up the woman he loves; but his relatively unrestricted knowledge of women, made possible by less stringent customs governing 'proper' female behavior, allows him to see women as three-dimensional individuals and to import this attitude into relationships with women back in India.

  20. When Parvatheesam returns home, another travelogue begins -- a domestic journey from young adulthood to full adulthood. Parvatheesam gets married, settles as a barrister, and gets actively involved with the National Movement. He is a success as a son, husband, barrister, responsible citizen, and patriot. Thus, these parts of the travelogue are less comedic; as the writer himself says, now Parvatheesam is in a position to laugh at others' follies in a philosophical manner, and his maturation allows the text to present a serious (albeit still humorous, on occasion) discussion of the Freedom Struggle and Parvatheesam's fervent participation in it.

  21. Whereas his first journey through India showed the motherland through preconceptions received both from Indian regionalism and from British colonialism, and whereas he initially viewed England through the spectacles of Indian culture, Parvatheesam now can have a more nuanced and informed vision. He has learned to discriminate among aspects of British culture, embracing those that seem valuable (like relative equality between teachers and students, between men and women) and rejecting those (like equating worth with race or assuming that English is more prestigious than Telegu) that seem incorrect. He retains some qualities of the classic persona of satire -- he is still ridiculed and humiliated, criticised and attacked, and is often oblivious to these occasions. But he has grown in crucial ways. Now he is also heard and respected. From the vantage point of Barrister Parvatheesam's third installment, travel has become less a vehicle for episodic, picaresque satire and more a metaphor for the journey of human life, where man starts in ignorance, travels through the process of learning and ends in knowledge and realisation.

  22. Perhaps this is why Telegu readers saw themselves as well as Sastry in Barrister Parvatheesam and were reluctant to read the novel as satiric fiction rather than comically inflected fact. Parvatheesam's travelogue sent postcards from the edges of empire, where colonised thinking was giving way to postcolonial aspirations. It played into the political hopes of many contemporary readers: that India could gain independence without jettisoning some of the benefits of British rule. Its satire seems directed at helping its audience distinguish between desirable and undesirable characteristics in both British and Indian culture. Further, in transmitting a classic narrative of one man's growth and maturation, it played into personal hopes for individual success and modern identity responsible to Indian nationalism and Indian history.


  1. Telegu is India's second most commonly spoken language, and people who live in Andhra Pradesh, the majority of whom speak Telugu, are referred to as Telugus.Back

  2. As the name suggests, Satyaraja means 'king of truth,' but all his stories are fantastic. Yet the name's literal meaning is also valid, since he tries to depict contemporary realities with the help of fantasy.Back

  3. The same mistaking of fiction for fact happened in regard to Gulliver's Travels, which delighted Swift greatly. See "Swift's Correspondence" in Greenberg and Piper, particularly John Arbuthnot to Swift (586-87) , John Gay to Swift (587-88), and Swift to Alexander Pope (590). Back

  4. This incident is similar to one recounted by Frantz Fanon. When Fanon traveled from the colony of Martinique to France, he also encountered a white child who cried, "Mama, see the Negro! I'm frightened" (112). This experience of being "dissected under white eyes, the only real eyes" (116) led to Fanon's belief that the white man creates the black man by recognising only his skin color . . . and that recognizing this recognition is profoundly traumatic. Back

  5. Ugadi is the festival that celebrates the Telugu New Year; it falls some time in the months of March/April.Back

  6. Chedugudu is a game that features two sets of players arranged on each side of a line, each set attacking alternately. It is usually considered to be a rural game. Back

  7. In 1921, Duggirala Gopalakrishnaiah of Guntur, Andhra Pradesh, led an agitation in defiance of orders to pay municipal taxes. The whole population of Chrala moved out to establish a new township. Back

Works Cited

[Note: In this article I used the 1988 re-edition of Barrister Parvatheesam, which contains all three parts; the first publication dates for each part are not all available. All translations from this book are my own.]

Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin, White Masks. (Peau noire, masques blancs. 1952.) Trans. Charles Lam Markmann. New York: Grove, 1967.

Greenberg, Robert A., and William B. Piper, eds. The Writings of Jonathan Swift. New York: Norton, 1973.

Said, Edward. Orientalism. 1978; rpt. London: Penguin, 1991.

Sastry, Mokkapati Narasimha. Barrister Parvatheesam. Vijayawada: New Students Book Centre, 1988.

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