Raja Rao Essay - Critical Essays


An understanding of Raja Rao’s art is enhanced by a contextualization of his novels. Although Rao admitted to several Western influences, his work is best understood as a part of the Indian tradition. Rao regarded literature as Sadhana, or spiritual discipline; for him, writing was a consequence of his metaphysical life. His novels, hence, essentially represent a quest for the Absolute. From Kanthapura to Comrade Kirillov, Rao’sprotagonists grapple with the same concerns: What is Truth? How is one to find it? Their methods vary, as do their results, but they share the same preoccupation. The novels, thus, become chronicles of this archetypal search. Formally, all of his first four novels share certain features. Plot is de-emphasized; thenarrative is generally subjective—even idiosyncratic—and episodic. The progression of the narrative is not linear but circular; in the Puranic manner of storytelling, which Rao adapts to the form of the Western novel, there are digressions, stories within stories, songs, philosophical disquisitions, debates, and essays. Characters are also frequently symbolic figures; often, the motivations for their actions might seem puzzling or insufficient. Finally, because the narration is subjective, the language of the narrator also tends to be unique, reflecting the narrator’s peculiarities—his or her social, regional, and philosophical makeup.


Rao’s first novel, Kanthapura, is the story of how a small, sleepy, South Indian village is caught in the whirlpool of the Indian freedom struggle and comes to be completely destroyed. In the foreword, Rao himself indicates that the novel is a kind of sthala-purana, or legendary history, which every village in India seems to have. These local sthala-puranas are modeled on the ancient Indian Puranas—those compendia of story, fable, myth, religion, philosophy, and politics—among which are the Upa Puranas, which describe holy places and the legends associated with them. Hence, several features of Kanthapura are in keeping with the tradition of sthala-puranas. The detailed description of the village at the opening of the novel is written in the manner of a sthala-purana, wherein the divine origin or association of a place is established.

The village is presided over by Goddess Kenchamma, the Gramadeveta (village deity), and the novel provides a legend explaining her presence there, recalling several similar legends found in the Puranas. Like the place-Gods of the Puranas, Kenchamma operates within her jurisdiction, where she is responsible for rains, harvests, and the well-being of the villagers. She cannot extend her protection to other villages or to outsiders. The village deity thus symbolizes local concerns such as famine, cholera, cattle diseases, and poor harvests, which may have little to do with the world outside the village. Like Kenchamma, the river Himavathy also has a special significance in the novel and recalls passages describing famous rivers in the Puranas, such as the description of the river Narmada in Matsya Purana and the Agni Purana.

Similarly, Kanthapura shares certain narrative techniques with the Puranas. The story is told rapidly, all in one breath, it would seem, and the style reflects the oral heritage also evident in the Puranas. Like the Puranas, which are digressive and episodic, Kanthapura contains digressions such as Pariah Siddiah’s exposition on serpent lore. The Puranas contain detailed, poetic descriptions of nature; similarly, Kanthapura has several descriptive passages that are so evocative and unified as to be prose poems in themselves. Examples are the coming of Kartik (autumn), daybreak over the Ghats, and the advent of the rains. Finally, the narration of Kanthapura has a simplicity and lack of self-consciousness reminiscent of the Puranas and quite different from the narrative sophistication of contemporary Western novelists such as Virginia Woolf or James Joyce.

Kanthapura is also imbued with a religious spirit akin to that of the Puranas. The epigraph of the novel, taken from the sacred Hindu scripture the Bhagavad Gita (c. fifth century b.c.e.), is the famous explanation of the Hindu notion of incarnation: “Whensoever there is misery and ignorance, I come.” The doctrine of incarnation is also central to the Puranas, most of which are descriptive accounts of the avatars of Vishnu. The avatar in Kanthapura is Gandhi, whose shadow looms over the whole book, although he is himself not a character. Incarnation, however, is not restricted to one Great Soul, Gandhi, but extends into Kanthapura itself, where Moorthy, who leads the revolt, is the local manifestation of Gandhi and, by implication, of Truth.

Although the form of Kanthapura is closely modeled on that of the sthala-purana, its style is uniquely experimental. Rao’s effort is to capture the flavor and nuance of South Indian rural dialogue in English. He succeeds in this through a variety of stylistic devices. The story is told by Achakka, an old Brahman widow, a garrulous, gossipy storyteller. The sentences are long, frequently running into paragraphs. Such long sentences consist of several short sentences joined by conjunctions (usually “and”) and commas; the effect is of breathless, rapid talking. The sentence structure is manipulated for syntactic and rhythmic effect, as in the first sentence of the novel: “Our village—I don’t think you have ever heard about it—Kanthapura is its name, and it is in the province of Kara.” Repetition is another favorite device used to enhance the colloquial flavor of the narrative. In addition to these techniques, translation from Kannada is repeatedly used. Nicknames such as “Waterfall Venkamma,” “Nose-scratching Nanjamma,” “Cornerhouse Moorthy” are translated; more important, Kannada idioms and expressions are rendered into English: “You are a traitor to your salt-givers”; “The Don’t-touch-the-Government Campaign”; “Nobody will believe such a crow and sparrow story”; and so on. The total effect is the transmutation into English of the total ethos of another culture. Kanthapura, with its “Kannadized” English, anticipates the lofty “Sanskritized” style of The Serpent and the Rope, which, stylistically, is Rao’s highest achievement.

Kanthapura is really a novel about a village rather than about a single individual; nevertheless, Moorthy, the Brahman protagonist of the villagers’ struggle against the government, is a prototypal Rao hero. Moorthy is the leader of a political uprising, but for him, as for Gandhi, whom he follows, politics provides a way of life, indistinguishable from a spiritual quest. In fact, for Moorthy, Action is the way to the Absolute. In Gandhi, he finds what is Right Action. Thus, for him, becoming a Gandhi man is a deep spiritual experience that is appropriately characterized by the narrator as a “conversion.” At the culmination of this “conversion” is Sankaracharaya’s ecstatic chant, “Sivoham, Sivoham. I am Siva. I am Siva. Siva am I,” meaning that Moorthy experiences blissful union with the Absolute. Indeed, the chant, which epitomizes the ancient Indian philosophical school of Advaita or unqualified nondualism, is found in all Rao’s novels as a symbol of the spiritual goal of his protagonists. Moorthy, the man of action, thus practices Karma Yoga (the Path of Action), one of the ways of reaching the Absolute as enunciated in the Bhaghavad Gita. In the novels after Kanthapura, Rao’s protagonists, like Moorthy, continue to seek the Absolute, although their methods change.

The Serpent and the Rope

Published twenty-two years after Kanthapura, The Serpent and the Rope is Rao’s most ambitious work. If the former is modeled on an Upa Purana (minor Purana), the latter is a kind of Maha Purana (major Purana) or epic; geographically, historically, philosophically, and formally, its sweep is truly epical. The novel includes a variety of settings, ranging from Paris to Ramaswamy’s ancestral home in a South Indian village, from European locales such as Aix, Montpalais, Pau, Montpellier, Provence, Cambridge, and London to Indian locales such as Hyderabad, Delhi, Lucknow, Bombay, Bangalore, and Beneras. Rao delves into almost the whole of Indian history, from the invasion of the Aryans to the advent of British rule; European history, chiefly the Albigensian heresy; Chinese history—all of these come under discussion as the protagonist, Rama, a historian by training, expounds his theories in conversations with the leading characters. Philosophically, too, the novel’s sweep is formidable: Rao discusses Hinduism, Buddhism, Catholicism, Islam, Daoism, Marxism, Darwinism, and Nazism.

Hence, it is not surprising to find The Serpent and the Rope extremely diverse in form as well. Rao quotes from an array of languages, including Sanskrit, Hindi, French, Italian, Latin, and Provençal; only the Sanskrit quotations are translated. There are long interludes and stories, such as Grandmother Lakshamma’s story of a princess who became a pumpkin and Ishwara Bhatta’s “Story of Rama.” In addition, the novel contains songs, myths, legends, and philosophical discussions in the manner of the Puranas. The main narrative, the gradual disintegration of Rama’s marriage with his French wife, Madeleine, is thus only a single strand holding a voluminous and diverse book together.

The Serpent and the Rope is an extremely challenging work thematically as well; Savithri’s words in the novel sum it up well: It is “a sacred text, a cryptogram, with different meanings at different hierarchies of awareness.” It may be approached on at least two different levels, the literal and the symbolic, although the two usually operate simultaneously. On the literal level of plot, the novel may appear puzzling and unsatisfying. The crux is: Why does the marriage of Rama and Madeleine disintegrate? Critics have attempted various answers, ranging from incompatibility between the Indian Rama and the French Madeleine to Rama’s infidelity. Although such answers are plausible, they do not satisfy completely because these reasons are not perceived by the characters themselves. Rama and Madeleine are both aware of the growing rift between them, but they do not attempt to bridge it on a practical level. Instead, both watch the dissolution of the union with an almost fatalistic helplessness. Similarly, it is hard to understand why Rama seeks fulfillment in other women while averring his love for Madeleine at the same time, or why he never tells her of his affairs in spite of his claim that he keeps no secrets from her.

Rama, the narrator, does not answer such questions; he only chronicles the breakdown of the relationship, almost impersonally, as if there were little he could do to save it. He also does not feel himself responsible for having affairs with other women, one of which involves a ritual second marriage, while being married to Madeleine at the same time. What is lacking, then, is an adequate motivation for the actions of the characters, something that most readers are conditioned to expect from a novel. Perhaps a better approach, however, instead of asking of the novel something that it did not intend to give, is to consider what it does clearly provide; indeed, questions that appear unresolved on the literal level are resolved more...

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