Raja Rao
(1908-2006)
India's finest writers in English, the 1988
winner of the prestigious $25,000 Neustadt
International Prize for Literature.
Rao defines the major theme of all his
fiction as the search for the truth; man's
search for ultimate values. It is a search
that has consumed much of his life.
Rao grew up in Mysore, an area of coffee
plantations and famous old temples, in the
south of India. He was a member of an old
and respected Brahmin family. He did not
study fiction writing, but came to it
naturally. "I wrote as a man of sixteen or
seventeen," Rao says. "I wrote in English.
I was sent to a very snobbish English
school. I learned English from English
people in India. I learned Sanskrit much
later."
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His father was a scholar and professor. But it was
from his grandfather, who spoke not a word of
English and meditated at length, that Rao got his
philosophical bent. "My grandfather started me
on the search," he says. "Philosophical inquiry is
personal contact. Not merely philosophical
thinking. Indian philosophy is thought in the
West to be mystical. But it's really logic. Logical
and metaphysical."
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He went to the Aligarh Muslim University and to
Nizam's College, Hyderabad, in India. At the age of
nineteen, he went to France, where he studied at the
University of Montpellier and later at the Sorbonne.
He left France in 1939, fifteen days before the
outbreak of World War II. "If I'd been there fifteen
days more, I'd not be alive today," he says, because of
his opposition to Hitler. "I was just lucky. When I got
to India, I went straight to a sage."
France, to my mind, is still the heart of Western
civilization," Rao says. His first wife was a professor
of French, and for about thirty years he lived six
months in France; six months in India. For a time he
considered becoming a monk.
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His first novel, Kanthapura, about a village in South India
affected by the spirit of
Gandhi, was published in the United States in 1938.
The Serpent and the Rope was published in 1960.
Other works include a collection of stories written earlier, The
Cow of the Barricades, but published in 1947;
The Cat and Shakespeare in 1965;
Comrade Kirillov in 1976;
The Chessmaster and His Moves in 1988.
In the years since, Rao had been working on a sequel to this last
novel, which has Indian Vedantic philosophy at its core.
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In the '60s and '70s the search for values was
very remarkable. I was really thinking America
would be the greatest nation..." Rao points
out that America had been fascinated by India
even earlier. "The 19th century
transcendentalists--Thoreau, Whitman,
Emerson--were all influenced by India. The
pragmatic American, I think, has not got time
for India."
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The novel Kanthapura is set against the
backdrop of a southern Indian village in the
1930’s where the villagers
are content
and dependent in their own homogenous
culture and tradition. The novel is a long
oral tale narrated by Achakka, an old
Brahmin grandmother of the village.
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Into this sociocultural life of set rituals comes a
firebrand Gandhian, the educated and radical
Moorthy
.The
novel
relates
the
villagers
involvement with the Indian freedom movement and
an extremely lifelike presentation of the Gandhian
struggle for independence from British colonial
rule. Raja Rao merges the myth ridden beliefs of
the villagers with that of rational explanations of
Moorthy, who as the central character is highly
pragmatic yet deeply traditional.
“There is no village in India, however mean,
that has not a rich sthala-purana, or
legendary history of its own. Some god or
godlike hero has passed by the village—Rama
might have rested under this peepal treee.
Sita might have dried her clothes, after her
bath, on this yellow stone, or the Mahatma
himself, on one of his many pilgrimages
through the country, might have slept in this
hut, the low one, by the village gate.
.”In this way the past mingles with the present, and
the Gods mingle with men to make the repertory
of your grandmother always bright. One such story
from the contemporary annals of my village I have
tried to tell.”
“The telling has not been easy. One has to convey in
a language that is not ones own the spirit that is
ones own. One has to convey the various shades
and omissions of a certain thought- movement that
looks maltreated in an alien language. I use the
word ‘alien’, yet English is not really an alien
language to us. It is the language of our
intellectual make-up- like Sanskrit or Persian was
before---but not our emotional makeup. We are
all ‘instinctively’ bilingual”
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"We cannot write like the English. We should
not. We cannot write only as Indians. We have
to look at the large world as part of us. The
tempo of Indian life must be infused into our
English expression. We, in India, think
quickly, we talk quickly, and when we move
we move quickly. There must be something in
the sun of India. And our paths are paths
interminable
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I was to write... my English, yet English after all-and how soon we forget this--is an Indo-Aryan
tongue. Thus to stretch the English idiom to suit
my needs seemed heroic enough for my
urgentmost demands. ... So why not Sanskritic
(or if you will, Indian) English? ...to integrate the
Sanskrit tradition with contemporary intellectual
heroism seemed a noble experiment to
undertake. Thus both in terms of language and
of structure, I had to find my way, whatever the
results. And I continued the adventure in lone
desperation.
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When I published my first stories in Europe...
Romain Rolland and Stefan Zweig wrote
enthusiastic letters to me about them. And
Kanthapura, my first novel, was mostly
written in a thirteenth-century castle of the
Dauphine in the heart of the Alps, and when
it came out, E.M. Forster spoke so boldly of
my rigour of style and structure, I had, so to
say, entered the literary world."
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The most suggestive and loaded metaphor
indeed to critics of Indian English was
Caliban’s tongue. It symbolized how Caliban
had acquired a voice and used it as a
linguistic weapon. “But not for Rao.There is
no Caliban here, nor is Rao using English
from the periphery. He brings English, and its
functions, to the centre of his creativity, to
the centre of Indianness.In his hands the
crossover of the language is on Rao’s
terms”(Kachru 78)
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Indian Method of Story-telling: The method of describing of the novel is
characteristically Indian. The Indian grandmother can be considered to
be the earliest and most typical of story tellers. Achkka is the storyteller
of the novel, who is just like a grandmother. She tells the story to every
new comer to Kanthapura. According to Raja Rao, “Achakka’s
exceedingly long sentences, use of blanks, and expressions like ‘this’
and ‘that’, ‘here and there’ are meaningful. She gives us complete
character-sketch of Sankar, Bhatt and Rangamma.
They are very much informative, as well as vital for the narrative. In this
way, one episode leads to another, and so the tale tends to be
interminably long. This also makes the narration episodic.
There are so many episodes in the novel. Thus, the narration is
characterized by verbosity and garrulity, which are the features of the
Indian folklore. Raja Rao wanted to stress this admired tradition. As a
result he didn’t feel it necessary to divide the novel into chapters.
In his Foreword to Kanthapura Raja Rao clarifies that the novel is to be
judged with reference to the conventional Indian tradition and not with
reference to Western methods of story-telling and theories and of the
novel writing.
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begins with The breathless narration by the
garrulous Achakka, playing many roles,
recalling the orality of past traditions:
“Our village---I don’t think you have ever
heard about it---Kanthapura is its name, and
it is in the province of Kara. High on the
ghats is it, high up the steep mountains that
face the cool Arabian Seas, up the Malabar
coast is it, up Mangalore and Puttur and many
a center of cardomom and coffee, rice and
sugarcane”(Rao 1).
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It is Achakka who goes on to show how the
village is presided over by the overpowering
legend of Goddess Kenchamma:
“Kenchemma is our goddess. Great and
bounteous is she. She killed a demon ages,
ages ago, a demon that had come tom
demand our son’s as food.”’(Rao 1-2)
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The protagonist Moorthy is introduced by the
narrator Achakka in familiar terms:
“Cornerhouse Narsamma’s son Moorthy-our
Moorthy as we always called him”(Rao 7). To
describe with consummate skill a character
as “paradoxical as Moorthy and a theme as
complex” (Sankaran 43) with its intricate
mingling of the mythic and the rational,
required great skill in narrative strategy.
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Moorthy offers a vision of reconstruction and of
integration of the possibilities and impossibilities of
the philosophic whole, where even intense inward
questionings betrayed no jarring collusion or
confrontation. The culmination of the conversion of
Moorthy is Saint Sankaracharya’s chant:
“ …and closing his eyes tighter, he slips back into
the foldless sheath of the Soul…and sends out rays of
love to the east, rays of love to the west,…. And when
he opens them to look around, a great blue radiance
seems to fill the whole earth, and dazzled, he rises
up and falls prostrate before the god, chanting
Sankara’s ‘Sivoham, Sivoham, I am Siva.I am Siva.Siva
am I.’ ”(Rao 67).
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This variability in interpretation integrates
certain terms such as taste or essence (rasa)
and sound (dhvani-), which reconcile theories
of linguistic expressionism with emotional
nuances. “What Rao’s mantra did was to
create what has been called
“unselfconsciousness’ about English, about
creativity in this language, about
Indianness”(Kachru 82), where “English is
ritually de-anglicized”(Parthasarathy 13).
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The detailed descriptions, sobriquets and
labels of persons, as for eg. “Waterfall
Venkamma”(Rao 16), “Maddur Coffee planter
Venkatanarayana”(Rao 37), “pock marked
Sidda”(Rao 5), and of local sights- “Now when
you turned round the potters’ Street and
walked across the Temple square, the first
house you saw was the nine beamed house of
Patel Range Gowda”(Rao 60), combined with
the abiding presence of the great river
Himavathy:
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“The slow–moving carts begin to grind and to
rumble, and then the long harsh monotony of the
carts’ axles through the darkness.the noise
suddenly dies into the night and the soft hiss of
the Himavathy rises in the air” (Rao 1). The
reversal of the sentences, the flavour and nuance
of the long sentences joined by idioms and
expressions, as in the dialect of spoken Kannada
of South India simulates the suggestive word,
implying suggestive meaning and the power of
suggestion.
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“In Vaisakh men plough the fields of
Kanthapura.The rains have come, the fine,
first footing-footing rains that skip over the
bronze mountains, tiptoe the crags, and
leaping into the valleys, go splashing and
wind-swung, a winnowed pour, and the
coconuts and the betel-nuts and the
cardomom plants choke with it and hiss
back”(Rao114).
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Reading this parable like tale is a recollection and
recreation of “not only myth but ‘social
transactions’ rendered authentic in terms of art
by the villagers patois, their sing song
syntax…”(Narasimhaiah 54). Whereas the story
here as such is involved in arrangement and
sequence of juxtaposition, whose endless play of
meanings against the visual and graphic is
constantly breaking itself off, with the repetitions
of images and metaphors, in a design which is
often a flow of words, a perspective of the whole
order.
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With the passing years since Kanthapura was first
written “we see that Rao’s mantra established a
subtle connection between the English language
and India’s linguistic and cultural parampara and
its assimilative literary culture” (Kachru 81).
In infusing his language with a distinctive Indian
idiom, Rao maneuvered and moulded the
figurative and the literal, making schematic
distinctions fade, combining and interacting
between the various sound patterning to
enunciate a different kind of essence, the soul of
Indian poetics, of rasa-dhvani, a completeness of
response in an all aesthetic experience.
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Indian philosophy is basically religious and even politics is
also spiritualized in India. India’s so many prominent
social reformers and political leaders were great religious
figures. In India, communal and political goals have been
attained with the help of spiritual activities.
The same thing happens in the novel, in the case of
Gandhi and his freedom struggle. According to a
Narsimhaiah, “there are at least three strands of
experience in the novel: the political, the religious and the
social.” To the uneducated villagers, Kenchamma is a kind
and helpful goddess. Their attitude is extremely religious.
As the story progresses the three threads of experience
become one: the religious, social and political issues
become one and the same.
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Theme of Shakti Worship: Shakti-worship is a basically Indian
theme and it is present throughout the novel. In this Gandhian
freedom struggle, the ladies of the Kanthapura play a key role.
The author has painted them as energetic forms of Shakti. It can
be said that Indian women are solid as rock, and they can easily
bear the pain. Shakti(energy) rises in them, and each of them is
inspired at a particular time. One noticeable thing in the novel is
that in the last phase of nonviolent struggle, it is a lady named
Ratna, who takes over from Moorthy and leads the movement.
The language of the novel is flooded with the Indian phrases,
Indian similes and rustic color.
You can find so many sentences in the novel that are exactly
translated from Kannada into English. Sometimes, there is
breaking up of the English syntax to express emotional
disturbances and feelings. Many words are taken from local
Indian languages. The author has used them ‘as they are’. He
didn’t feel it necessary to translate them into English
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In the novel, you can get words likeAhimsa, Dhoti, Harikatha, Mandap
etc. Raja Rao has repeatedly used village proverbs, and folklores
according to his requirement. For example,
(1) Every squirrel has his day,
(2) our hearts beat like the wings of bats,
(3) and yet he was as honest as an elephant,
Likewise, you can found so many proverbs and sayings from the
language of illiterate people in the novel. For example:
(1) The policemen are not your uncle’s sons,
(2) the first daughter milks the cow when the mother is ill,
(3) saw you like a rat on your mother’s lap,
(4) there is neither man nor mosquito in Kanthapura (5) you cannot
straighten a dog’s tail,
(6) land, lust and wifely loyalty go badly together.
Sometimes Raja Rao doesn’t hesitate to use a rude and offensive
language of the villagers. He uses this type of language when it is
necessary
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“When a non native English writer, such as Rao,
chooses this specific genre rather than one that
is traditional to his own culture, the epic, for
instance, and further chooses this genre in a
second language, he takes upon himself the
burden of synthesizing the projections of both
cultures. Out of these circumstances, Rao has
forged what I consider a truly exemplary style in
South Asian English.in fact in World Literature.He
has above all.tried to show how the spirit of one
culture can be possessed by and communicated
in another language.”(Parthasarathy 9)
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“I am a man of silence. And words emerge
from that silence with light, of light, and light
is sacred. One wonders that there is the word
at all—sabda-and one asks oneself, where
did it come from? How does it arise?…. The
word seems to come first as an impulsion
from nowhere, and then as a prehension, and
it becomes less and less esoteric-till it begins
to be concrete…
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The writer or the poet is he who seeks back
the common word to its origin of silence, that
the manifested word becomes light…where
does the word dissolve and become meaning?
Meaning itself, of course, is beyond the
sound of the word, which comes to one only
as an image in the brain, but that which sees
the image in the brain (says our great sage of
the eight century, Sri Sankara) nobody has
ever seen. Thus the word coming of light is
seen eventually by light…”(Paranjape ed.xxv)
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