Raja Rao as a Novelist
Raja Rao was born in Mysore on November, 5, 1908, in an old and learned Bramhin family. He had his early school education in Hyderabad and later he was sent to the university of Aligarh. He came under the influence of Prof. Dickinson, the famous educationist. Dickinson discovered Raja Rao’s gift for writing and encouraged him in the study of French and English literature. At the young age of twenty, he went to the university of Montpellier and the Sorbonne, as a research student in literature. His first collection of short stories entitled Javni was published in 1930 in French
He returned to India in 1940 and started the study of the spiritual traditions of his country. He shuts himself in a room in Banaras, the most spiritual place in the world, for several days to decide whether to continue writing or to become a ‘Sanyasi’. He stayed in India for eight years and met the great vedantist philosopher and teacher Swami Atmanand who became his preceptor. He impressed upon Raja Rao that writing was his true vocation. It is significant to note that Raja Rao had given up writing for ten years before The Serpent and Rope was published. Before he launched upon writing, he spent twenty one days in meditation at the temple of Mahakali in Ujjain.
Raja Rao’s first novel Kanthapura appeared in 1938. His collection of short stories, earlier published in various journals, was published in 1946 in a volume entitled The Cow and the Barricades. In 1960 his voluminous novel The Serpent and the Rope was published. His next novel, The Cat and Shakespeare appeared in 1965. Nearly three score and ten, Raja Rao was now teacher of Indian philosophy of a non-academic kind at the university of Texas. He is a versatile writer in three languages-Kannad, French and English. He won the Sahitya Akademi Award and was honoured with the title of Padma Bhushan by the government of India in 1969.
An author difficult to understand, a class by himself in technique and vision, Raja Rao is a novelist of extraordinary prowess. Although he has written a large number of short stories, it is as novelist -as the author of Kanthapura, The Serpent and the Rope and The Cat and Shakespeare that he has earned for himself a place among the outstanding novelists in Indo-Anglican literature. Kanthapura is indeed a poetic novel which is not overshadowed by the whimsical, philosophical and metaphysical digressions which pervades the page of his later novels. It has been described as the most satisfying of modern Indian novels.
Raja Rao is the child of the Gandhian age. His artistic exploitation of the rich resources of India’s past in relation to the complex present is strikingly evident in Kanthapura. It is the story of how the congress’s struggle for independence came to the small South Indian Village Kanthapura. Dr. A.V. Krishna Rao writes:
“Raja Rao has made an effective literary transcript of the Gandhian myth by artistically attuning the reality of his role to the poetry of truth and its myriad miraculous transformation in the prism of historical consciousness. Though the Mahatma is not directly presented as one of the characters in action, the entire action is sustained by the spirit of Gandhi.”
That is why Dr. Krishna Sastry says:
“Raja Rao’s first novel, Kanthapura describes the whole gamut of the Gandhian revolution in a microscopic way.”
Mahatma Gandhi is Rama, the red foreigner is but a soldier in the ten headed Ravana’s army and the Satyagraha in prison is the Divine Krishna himself.
The novel tells of Moorthy, fresh from college, organizing bhajans, fasting and consorting with sweepers: of his widowed mother who dies from shame at her son’s behaviour of the strike of the workers on the Skeffington Coffee Estate; of processions, lathi-charges and mid-night arrests. Above all it is a story of the dusty roads and shady gardens of Kanthapura. Thus the theme pertains to the disturbing national movement of the thirties: ever the village of Kanthapura is shaken like a leaf in the August wind. It is indeed, to quote the words of Dr. Krishna Sastry ‘a unique fictional experiment in Gandhian politics.
Raja Rao explains in his Foreword to this novel that he has aimed at presenting, through the medium of English, the natural speech of the rural folk:
“The telling has not been easy. We cannot write like the English. We should not. We can write only an Indians. The style is unconventional. Episode follows episode and when our thoughts stop, our breath stops and we move on another thought. This was and still is the ordinary style of our story-telling.”
Prof. C.D. Narasimhaih explains that there are three strands of experience in the novel; the political, the religious and the social, and all the three are woven inextricably into the one complex story of Kanthapura.
Dr. Iyengar observes:
“the theme of Kanthapura may be summed up as ‘Gandhi and our village’: It is a veritable grammar of the Gandhian myth.”
The story of Kanthapura is narrated by an Indian granny, with her own idiosyncratic involutions and digressions, hypnotic repetitions and refrains and poetic iridescences, vivid with a raciness suffused with native vigour and exciting with a sense of drama shot through and through with humour and lyricism. The village is protected by the Goddess Kenchemma, benign and bounteous. It has four and twenty houses only. Besides the Brahmin quarter, there are four more quarters – pariah quarter, potter’s quarter and the quarters of the Weavers and Sudras. Moorthy, the darling hero of the village, organizes religious functions at the Kanthapuriswamy temple. As a ‘Gandhi man’ he tries to infuse nationalism into the minds of the uneducated villagers through the familiar and effective means of Bhajans and Harikatha Kalakshepams. Promptly a policeman Bade Khan comes there to reside and keep a watchful eye over the activities of the villagers. He is socially boycotted: however he secures a hut at Sheffington Coffee Estate. As the national movement in that remote hamlet grows momentous, the police become vigilant and active. Bhatta, the most influential and rich landlord of Kanthapura disapproves of Gandhi Bhajans.
Murthy’s austere practice of the Gandhian philosophy creates a stir in the village. All the orthodox men and women raise such a hue and cry against Moorthy’s way of doing things, that the Swami, the custodian of the Sanathana Dharma, threatens to excommunicate the whole Brahmin community of the village. Only Ratna, the young widowed daughter of Kanthamma turns out to be the spiritual helpmate of Moorthy. The threat results in Narasamma’s suicide, but Moorthy continues his work undaunted with more vigour and determination. Rangamma, an enlightened lady shows active sympathy for the cause of Moorthy.
The whole village is disturbed by the violent scenes at the Coffee Estate. Then Murthy undertakes a self-purificatory fast which brings him closer to the common people and closer still to Ratna His arrest causes a great commotion among the villagers who become politically conscious. Much to the relief of all, the cunning Bhatta goes away to Kashi to wash off his sins.
Active non co-operation movement, no-tax-campaign and picketing the toddy shops swiftly succeed the imprisonment of national leaders. Moorthy, the spiritual guide, friend and philosopher of the people of Kanthapura leads the villagers ably in launching and carrying on the movement. Congress volunteers come to Kanthapura in order to lead a peaceful procession including the coolies of the Coffee Estate. The police open fire, callously and indiscriminately. The staggered survivors are scattered: most of them settle down at Kashipura. Moorthy proceeds to Bombay and Ratna also joins him soon there.
Thus Dr. A.V. Krishna Rao aptly remarks:
“Such is the sad simple story of Kanthapura which becomes by the alchemic touch of Raja Rao not merely a ‘Gandhi Purana‘ but a historically authentic saga of the Indian nationalism invested with the solemn dignity and religiosity of a piece of ancient mythology.”
Raja Rao skillfully exploits the traditional mythological device in driving home a point, as well as the South Indian folk idiom in making the action of the novel more authentic and artistically convincing. It is a mixture of fact and fiction, myth and history. To quote the words of Dr. Krishna Sastry:
“It describes the whole gamut of Gandhian revolution in a microscopic way.”
Raja Rao gives a glowing description of the village “Kanthapura.” There are fine passages of superb description which almost reach poetic heights. The characters-Murthy and Bhatta dwarf the remaining characters. Murthy gets so much engrossed in the Congress movement that he ignores even his mother’s affection. Bhatta is a typical character. Raja Rao has brought the Indian atmosphere thoroughly well into his study. The various ceremonies and their rites-hair-cutting ceremony, rice-eating ceremony, marriage ceremony and death anniversary ceremony are all described with natural touch and lively force. The description of the Skeffington Coffee Estate is a magnificent piece of masterly prose. Life in the Coffee Estate is vivified in lurid colours and realistically described incidents. The description of the Kartik festival of lights is a brilliant masterpiece of poetic prose. The people of Kanthapura wear tell-tale nice-names: Water-fall Venkamma, Front-house Akkamma, Temple Rangappa, Coffee Planter Ramayya, Post-Office Suryanarayana.
Kanthapura is indeed Raja Rao’s Ramayana. It has a recognizable epic quality. The characters sharply divided into two- the rulers and the satyagrahis. Moorthy is the leader of the non-violent movement. Bade Khan is the symbol of oppression. Bhatta is the symbol of false orthodoxy and low cunning. Range Gowda is the symbol of sense and stolidity.
Thus, as Narasimhiah says, “It is a breathless tale from the beginning to the end and fascinatingly told. It is gives us an insight into the appalling social conditions of our villages as also the values that have preserved our people against flood, fire and famine and exploitation from within and from without and more than all, that incomparable manner in which Gandhi tapped the deeply religious and spiritual resources of our people living in the remotest parts of India and built up a national movement in one life-time.”
According to Dr. Iyengar “It is the singular fusion of poetry and politics that make Kanthapura a distinctive novel, almost a new species of fiction.”
In Dr. Krishna Sastry’s words
“The novel portrays the whole drama of the Gandhian revolution as enacted in a village in all its frenzy and fury. The typical feature of real life-its mixture of politics and mythology, its seraphic freedom from the taint of science and technology, its ruggedness and even its vulgarity are faithfully reproduced in terms of art. Even the language is creatively moulded by Raja Rao to distil the raciness and the poetic non-stop narration creates at once a sense of dramatic immediacy and personal intimacy.”
Dr. A.V. Krishna Rao writes:
“Narrated by an Indian granny, the prose in naturally racy with a rhythmic quality and a certain poetic sensibility throughout the novel: Kanthapura represents not an isolated village in Mysore but the whole country. The characters are convincingly drawn from all castes of an ordinary Indian village.”
The spirit of Gandhi pervades the whole story. Though the Mahatma is not directly presented as one of the characters in action, the entire action is sustained by the spirit of Gandhi. Raja Rao‘s next novel The Serpent and the Rope can justly be deemed his magnum opus. An attempt is made here to redefine man’s relation to the supernatural, of the absolute in terms insistent with modern thought. It is at once intriguing with its wide canvas and multiple vision of France, England and India. Carles W. Mann says that “the reader must face a flood or learned allusions and often annoying garrulity in this complex, yet poetic work. But it is a most difficult, circuitous novel. Nevertheless the trial of Raja Rao is worthy of respect and much more subtle than can adequately be expressed in a review.”
Raja Rao describes The Serpent and the Rope not as a story but as chronicle of his life. David McCutchion describes it as “a book of discursive enquiry rather than a novel.” The tendency is to include as much as possible with a view to telling the whole truth. The point of view is that of autobiography, because the narrator enters as an “I” character. Secondly the narrator is not interested in the events of his life as events, but in terms of the meaning, hidden in them. In order to get at this meaning, several devices are used:
(a) introspective diary entries to which the hero confides his innermost thought and feelings, analyzing the nature of his relations with others;
(c) a weaving into the movement and texture of the story of poetry, quotations and tales from the Vedas, Upanishads, Hindu lore, French poetry etc.:
(d) symbolical manipulation, in that the facts are given the value of symbol;
(e) style in its texture and syntax, imagery, epigram and aphorism.
Mulk Raj Anand’s fiction has been criticized on the charge of formlessness. The plot, the story are dwarfed under the load of intellectual discussion and digressions. Despite all its shortcomings The Serpent and the Rope remains an intensely human document. The reader gets dumb founded with astonishment at the wealth of words and scholarship of the novelist-be it history, Indian and European and Sanskrit or French classics. His close acquaintance of history, philosophy and literatures of India as well as Europe and his wide reading constitute an altogether new literary experience in the Indo-Anglican fiction.
Prof. Narasimhaiah feels that “Here is the finest and fullest possible expression of an essentially Indian sensibility.” Western reaction to the novel was mixed. The title was attractive, the language was more than competent and the theme international: but its “Asiatic vague immensities” repelled many and baffled some, precisely which challenged and absorbed the attention of the Indian mind.
The novelist has not one method but has recourse to many to make his tradition alive, for it is so varied, so rich and complex, It is at once a tradition, a myth, an idea, which is metaphysical rather than historical
Others view it as a leisurely novel and sum up the plot as a series of difficulties attendant upon a marriage between a young Indian Rama, and a French intellectual Madeline. Dr. Iyengar remarks:
“Never before has the sut de and tortuous mind of cultivated Indian who is caught in the harrows of the ambiguous agonizing present the junction of the old and the new, the East and the West-been presented so engagingly and excitingly in a work of fiction. It is perhaps the most impressive novel yet written by an Indian in English.” Dr. Krishna Sastry goes further and says, “It might even be said that it is the most inclusive novel to be written in English by an Indian. One might turn to it for the ineluctable’ Englishing of the Sanskrit verse, or one might witness in it endless debates of teasing philosophical systems, or one might gather from it pithy pronouncements and intriguing epigrams. The total comprehension of the book certainly calls for a variety of insights and hence the despair of the critic. The complexity in structure is the obvious result of Raja Rao’s unique personality his rich and versatile scholarship and the highly metaphysical bent of his mind, which is amazingly mercurial in its movement.”
On the other hand, critics like Prof. Mehta, feels that “the story element is almost threadbare, or to put it the other way, Raja Rao has packed pages and pages of his reflections in his story to such an extent that the whole becomes mystifyingly dull.”
Thus The Serpent and the Rope is Raja Rao’s first attempt at making Indian mysticism and Vedant philosophy a subject of regular novel. The Serpent and the Rope are the symbols of illusion and reality’ in Indian tradition and it is Raja Rao’s fond hope to weave into his novel his ideas regarding illusion and reality. Prof. Naik says that it is a novel which invites a variety of approaches.
The hero of the novel is Rama or Ramaswamy. He hails from a Brahmin family from the south, somewhere in Mysore State. Quite early in life, he goes to study in France. His thesis is connected with the Oather heresy. There he comes across a French girl named Madeline who falls in love with him. They get married. They are blessed with a child named Krishna
Soon Ramaswamy learns of his father’s illness and returns to India in 1951. This is the beginning of the story and the incidents till 1954 are narrated in the novel. Dr. Krishna Sastry says “Retrospective narration, jottings from diary, description and dialogues and sheer poetic rhapsodies sometimes-all these fill the wide scope of the book and make it difficult to read though perhaps doubly rewarding.”
Ramaswamy, the interpreter of Hinduism, is a scholar and historian and above all a Vedantin, he is a seeker after metaphysical truth-the truth of birth and death, the truth of man discovering his Godhead. He establishes his relationship with the absolute through having sought and secured an inner harmony with his inner self.
Dr. Paul Verghese feels that “In The Serpent and the Rope Raja Rao regards Hinduism as providing a basis for reconciling scientific thought with basic religious beliefs. It may also be pointed out that his success in the novel is mainly due to the fact that the spiritual autobiography of Ramaswamy is indeed an expression of Raja Rao’s own spiritual quest.”
Drawing a distinction between Raja Rao’s Kanthapura and The Serpent and the Rope Dr. Krishna Sastry says that “While Kanthapura is a novel of action. The Serpent and the Rope is essentially one of recollections. Both are authentic testaments of Indian life, but, while the one tries to capture exciting drama on the surface, the other is concerned with the deeper varieties comprehended in an epic sweep. While the one, in fine, is an experiment in language, the other is the language of the experiment that is life.”!!
In his next novel The Cat and Shakespeare Raja Rao attempts the metaphysical. It is a gentle, almost teasing fable, plain spoken and humorous. The very title of this novel shows the whimsical, paradoxical note that is the characteristic of Raja Rao. The ‘Cat ‘in the novel is supposed to refer to the Kitten principle which is followed by devotees of the Visishtadwaita school of thought. The principle is based on the blissful manner in which the helpless kitten surrenders itself utterly to its mother and is well taken care of. “Learn the way of kitten. Then you are saved. Allow the mother Cat, Sir, to carry you.” Thus runs the teaching of Govindan Nair, the clerk, to his friend and neighbour Ramakrishna Pai, in this tale of two friends whose own lives have the simplicity of joy and the unaffected universality of Shakespeare. It therefore means that the devotee who adopts an attitude of self-surrender to creator need have no fears about himself of his near and dear ones in the world.
The story revolves round the tale of two clerks but moves in a zig-zag way with numerous digressions, relevant or more often irrelevant. Ramakrishna Pai, a divisional clerk at Trivandrum is the narrator of this story. Govindan Nair is another clerk who is a typical character. He is poor but highly intelligent and is devoted to philosophical arguments. His thoughts and speeches are quite odd and difficult to follow. His style of talking is a mixture of ‘Vicar of Wakefield‘ and Shakespeare. But its artistic beauty is at times marred by absurdities and digressions.
The novel deals with a few middle class families of Kerala during the period of the second world war. Nair and Pai are the next door neighbours. Pai has a wife named Saroja, who is practical minded. They have two young children- Usha, the girl and Vithal, the boy. Pai falls in love with a young school mistress Shanta who has a child by him. She gives Pai her private money for the purchase of a house.
Pai’s friend Govindan Nair is charged with bribery and is looked up in prison, though he is ordered to be released by the High Court. After release he shifts elsewhere from Trivandrum. The cat plays a vital role in the incident at the officer, which was evidently meant as a practical joke against him. But the joke has a tragic consequence for the office boss, Bhutalinga Iyer who dies when the cat jumps on his head. The cat is brought as evidence in the court.
The story is very thin indeed. Raja Rao himself says about the book: “It is a metaphysical comedy, and all I would want the reader to do is to weep at every page, not for what he sees, but for what he sees he sees. For me it is like a book of prayer.”
Ka Naa Surahmanyam feels that “the technical skill of Raja Rao, the narrator, the story teller, is at its best in this novel. Apart from the technical skill one senses the many levels at which the novelist has been functioning and has made his English language function with an art that is extremely hazardous in the undertaking and effective in its communication, Raja Rao manages to tell a tale of sophisticated faith, (philosophy, metaphysics Vedanta or what you will) rather complexly.”
In this novel every object is given a symbolic meaning. Explaining the same, Mrs. Mukherjee writes: “Secretariat clock in Trivandrum is Eternity, Malabar is truth, the weighing scale in Ration-Shop No. 66 is the microcosm of life. The cat is both symbolic and literal.”14
Prof. Mehta aptly remarks: “The entire story looks, like a threadbare plot full of metaphysical discussion about Truth, Woman, Life and so on. Unconnected arguments, vague statements are impressively strung together in a jumbling kaleidoscope of absurd, whimsical, but highly imaginative thoughts of Raja Rao.
The whole thing taken in its entirety presents an artistic patter– difficult, tortuous, foggy, spiritual and yet beautiful.”
In a recent interview Raja Rao has said that he does not believe in writing or publishing a great deal. He is at present working on a non-fiction ‘Ganges and Her Daughter’ and another book dealing with modern aspects of Indian thought and history.
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