Kanthapura Summary
by Raja Rao

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Kanthapura Summary

Kanthapura is a 1938 novel written by Indian author Raja Rao. It tells the story of Mahatma Gandhi's independence movement from 1919 to 1930, describing its impact on the caste-ridden south Indian village of Kanthapura. The story is narrated by Achakka, an elderly woman from the village’s dominant Brahmin caste, who chronicles the events in the village.

The novel’s central character, Moorthy, is a young educated Brahmin man. Originally from Kanthapura, Moorthy moves to the city to study. While living there he becomes a follower of Gandhi and an activist against the caste system, British colonial rule, and social inequality. When Moorthy returns to Kanthapura he becomes the leader of a non-violent independence group following in Gandhi's footsteps. When he is excommunicated by the village priest and his mother dies from the shame, Moorthy moves in with Rangamma, a young woman from the village. Rangamma, a wealthy widow, joins Moorthy’s group and becomes his second-in-command.

Moorthy is asked to spread the word of Gandhi's teachings at a rally of lower-caste villagers who work on a local coffee estate. But Moorthy and the villagers are attacked by a colonial policeman. When the villagers retaliate, violence breaks out; many of the villagers are hurt, and others are arrested. Villagers' protests against the arrests make the situation even more violent, and Moorthy is himself arrested and jailed. The group offers to pay his bail, but Moorthy, feeling responsible for the violence, will not accept it and instead remains in prison. In his absence, Rangamma becomes the group’s leader, and a number of village women join her. As violence from the police and the government continues, the group does not waver from their allegiance to Moorthy and to Gandhi. Three months later, when Moorthy is freed, he returns to Kanthapura, where he is welcomed as a hero.


(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Rather than being a traditional novel with a neat linear structure and compact plot, Kanthapura follows the oral tradition of Indian sthala-purana, or legendary history. As Raja Rao explains in his original foreword, there is no village in India, however mean, that has not a rich legendary history of its own, in which some famous figure of myth or history has made an appearance. In this way, the storyteller, who commemorates the past, keeps a native audience in touch with its lore and thereby allows the past to mingle with the present, the gods and heroes with ordinary mortals.

The story is narrated in flashback by Achakka, a wise woman in the village. She, like her female audience (whom she addresses as “sisters”), has survived the turbulence of social and political change which was induced by Mohandas K. Gandhi’s passive resistance against the British government. Achakka provides a detailed picture of the rural setting, establishing both an ambiance and a rhythm for the novel. It is clear that her speech and idiomatic expression are meant to express a distinctively feminine viewpoint an extraordinary achievement for a male Indo-English novelist. Achakka quickly creates a faithful image of an Indian way of life, circumscribed by tradition and indebted to its deities, of whom Kenchamma, the great and bounteous goddess, is made the village protectress. She is invoked in every chapter, for the characters never forget that her power resides in her past action. It is she who humanizes the villagers, and their chants and prayers ring out from time to time.

The narrator establishes the parameters of the story within old and new legends. While Kenchamma and Siva are remembered for their marvelous feats and interventions in human affairs, analogies are sometimes drawn with contemporary figures such as Gandhi who serve to turn fact and history into folklore , and who provide the motive for political struggle. At the beginning, while there are simply rumors of Gandhi’s activities, the villagers follow their customary routines. Then, Moorthy, a young, dedicated Brahmin, inspired by Gandhi,...

(The entire section is 1,272 words.)