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, returns to Kanthapura to propagandize the cause of the Indian National Congress and Gandhi’s satyagraha (truth-force) movement. The colonial masters (nicknamed “Red-men” for their ruddy complexions) are a palpable, tyrannical presence but are sensed only obliquely at the beginning via the mysterious passing policeman who is treated as a spy and who, consequently, seeks refuge on the Skeffington Coffee Estate run by a brutal gang-boss.
Moorthy does not immediately win favor. He is opposed by Bhatta, a reactionary who sneers at “Gandhi vagabondage,” and by fellow Brahmins who are increasingly upset by Gandhi’s acceptance of Untouchables. The caste system, so much a part of Indian history, is shaking apart under Gandhi’s example, and the social pattern of Kanthapura delineated by separate quarters for Brahmin, Pariah, Potter, Weaver, and Sudra is disturbed by the progress being made by the Untouchables.
Even Moorthy’s own mother is revulsed by his Gandhian precepts, and Moorthy brings matters to a head by eliciting Patel Range Gowda’s help in starting a Congress group and encouraging the villagers to vow to speak only truth, wear no cloth but homespun khadi, and use all forms of passive resistance. This Gandhian nonviolence provokes a brutal response from the authorities, and the villagers are attacked by the police. Moorthy and advocate Rangamma are arrested as Bhatta is uncovered as a traitor and some Brahmins are deployed to stir fear among the villagers. Patel Range Gowda is dismissed from his hereditary office as village executive chief, and the villagers turn to the gods for help.
The radical change in the political nature of India, however, becomes apparent as the women stir into action. Rangamma, who always links Indian scripture to contemporary events, manages to inspire the womenfolk to dire deeds as the men...
(The entire section is 968 words.)