(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Raja Rao 1909–

Indian novelist, short story writer, and editor.

Rao, who was educated in India and England, is one of India's most outstanding authors writing in English. His distinctive style captures the rhythms of Indian speech and idiomatic expression. His writing is complex but poetic. Intensely philosophical, Rao examines, in his fiction, the religious and mythic roots of India, at times offering a comparison to Western thought.

Rao grew up during colonial India's struggle for independence and his first novel, Kanthapura, depicts the impact of Gandhi's passive resistance movement on a South Indian village. The Serpent and the Rope, considered his best work, describes the dissolution of a marriage between an Indian student and his French wife. It is semi-autobiographical, and because of its extensive symbolism and the nature of its philosophical discussion, it is considered a metaphysical novel. The Cat and Shakespeare, also metaphysical, is an allegory which has been variously interpreted. The Cow of the Barricades and Other Stories is a 1947 collection of some early short stories.

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 73-76.)

Martin Tucker

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Serpent and the Rope is much more than the description of the spiritual journey of an Indian visitor to a new land…. In his main character, Ramaswamy, the author has the East turn West in its search for one of the fulfilling mysteries of the universal quest. Rama comes to Europe to study the Albigensian heresy and to complete his doctoral thesis. During his immersion in his studies he meets and marries a beautiful French girl, Madeleine….

Ostensibly, the story is about the dissolution of the marriage between Rama and Madeleine, told with "objectivity" (Rama's word) by an "historical scientist."…

[Madeleine] senses she must offer her womanhood, raise it to the point of a religious ecstasy if she is to hold on to Rama. Yet she cannot hold him. Something in her is rooted in the earth, and Rama is the air. Inevitably they separate, without having enunciated a quarrel. Characteristically, they understand the nature of their failure and do nothing but interpret it to each other and to themselves.

It is impossible to state the meaning of the novel, for to catch and hold onto the main thread one must tear the fabric. Where one ordinary stitch would do, Rao has woven thousands. (p. 471)

Rao does not merely confront East and West; he shows them working together and apart at the same instant. Yet the symbolism is easily apparent. Either one believes in the serpent or one...

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Hortense Calisher

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

If Raja Rao's The Serpent and the Rope has a shape of its own, it is one altogether outside the duality of the Western mind. Such is both the intent and fascination of this first-person narration of a Hindu-French marriage in terms of the metaphysical quest on both sides. As one travels with it from France to India on its various threads of time-place description, seeing the persona at both the inner and the impersonal distance, participating in talk-reflection which ranges, with a scholar's emotion, from Judao-Christian ethic through all Vedanta lore, one is brilliantly seduced away from the a priori Western world into an Indian one that seems far more natural…. [The] ultimate sensation left by the book is deeper than instruction, and far and away from the fashion for such angularly repellent mimicry as Hesse's Siddhartha or even Mann's Transposed Heads. Rao's talent is to lead you as the two-dimensional creature was led in the mathematician Edwin Abbott's Flatland, into another dimension altogether, there to seat you, as you grow more Indian, at the round table of yourself. (p. 231)

Hortense Calisher, "Fiction: Some Forms Offshore," in The Nation (copyright 1963 The Nation magazine, The Nation Associates, Inc.), Vol. 196, No. 11, March 16, 1963, pp. 229-32.∗

Lois Hartley

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Whether writing of sophisticates or peasants, Raja Rao has a style that is slow-moving and difficult, and his texts require, for the ordinary reader, many notes of explication. Nevertheless, there are passages of immense beauty in his novels, and his notes are often delightful brief essays on Indian customs, history, philosophy and religion.

Raja Rao's Kanthapura, written almost 35 years ago, has been belatedly published in the United States…. [Kanthapura] must be recommended to all interested in a sensitive and compassionate story of an Indian village during the Gandhi movement for independence, and in fact to all who have any interest in India.

The narrator is an Indian woman of the village of Kanthapura, in South India. Raja Rao sustains superbly the viewpoint, the mannerisms, the ways of thought and speech of this villager so different from himself. At the beginning of the events there are rumors of the activities of Gandhi; but Kanthapura reclines in the passivities and rhythms of centuries. Then a young, dedicated Brahmin, inspired by the Mahatma to a vocation to his village, returns and slowly leads the villagers fully into the freedom movement. Eventually this hero turns from Gandhi to Nehru; but his villagers remain faithful to the primary religious and political vision of the Mahatma. A major irony is that the way of the Mahatma—a way of nonviolence and victory through love—leads Kanthapura into extremes of violence and destruction.

Kanthapura is told somewhat as an old wives' tale, and one suspects an element of the mythical in such a tale; but it is a book of extraordinary veracity in its details of village life in India.

Lois Hartley, "A Look at Spring Fiction: 'Kanthapura'," in America (reprinted with permission of America Press, Inc.; © 1964; all rights reserved), Vol. 110, No. 9, February 29, 1964, p. 290.

Edward C. Dimock, Jr.

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

To some schools of Indian religion the cat has a metaphorical significance. There are two theories of Grace: In the first, man's responsibility is to cling to God as a baby monkey clings to its mother in flight. In the second, man depends wholly upon God for his protection and progress, as a kitten depends upon its mother to carry it about by the scruff of its neck.

Raja Rao has used this latter metaphor as a point of departure for his third novel…. The Cat and Shakespeare is a tender and deceptively humorous story of a South Indian ration-office clerk called Govindan Nair, narrated by his friend Ramakrishna Pai. Raja Rao calls his book "a metaphysical comedy," and indeed his pungent and thoroughly delightful observations of South Indian middle-class life provide a counterpoint to a sometimes difficult allegory. (p. 27)

Raja Rao's book is itself a little like a cat. It has grace and beauty, dignity and a sense of humor, a certain mystery, and even a quality of insubstantiality. Its meaning comes to you of its own accord, and cannot be coaxed or wheedled. You reach out toward it, and it turns its back and stalks unconcernedly away, or even, with a Cheshire grin, fades into nothingness. Sometimes, too, for no apparent reason, it leaps stiff-legged into the air and charges up the draperies. (pp. 27-8)

The book requires multiple readings; one is not enough to follow the thought and at the same...

(The entire section is 423 words.)

Ahmed Ali

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Raja Rao] published his first novel Kanthapura in 1938, which, but for its title, would have met with greater success than it did. It had a pictorial quality of its own both in word and style, and an approach to life and its problems more serious than had hitherto been made by any Indian writing in English, while it carried a sensibility and intelligence not found in many vernacular writers of the day. It centres round a small village in Mysore and the struggle for Independence through Satyagrah and non-cooperation started by Mahatma Gandhi and the Indian National Congress. But it has more to tell than the political vicissitudes of India. The inner stream of the novel, though not its whole canvas, concerns Tradition….

Kanthapura narrates how the struggle for Independence came to this village, and tells of Moorthy and his band of satyagrahis in conflict with vested interests and the law. As compared with The Serpent and the Rope it has action. The characters have both shape and contour. They are living men and women, not mere symbols; and the story is not just a parable, but fiction. The telling may be strange, but it holds our interest. It is more satisfying than anything Indian that had appeared in English by 1938. (p. 17)

Indian that Raja Rao is, he is conscious, even over-conscious, of his Indian-ness. In Kanthapura he is also conscious of the fact that being an Indian he was writing in a language not his own, and that therefore his use of English was found to be different, akin to a dialect for, he said in the preface to that novel, 'one has to convey the various shades and omissions of a certain thought movement that looks maltreated'.

The emphasis, thus, right from the beginning in his writing, is on this thought movement. Only outlined in Kanthapura it is unfolded in his second and most considerable novel, The Serpent and the Rope, a 'serious and difficult book', in Raja Rao's own words, but which has made an understanding of the soul of the other India easier, the India free of the Fascist Jan Sangh movement which is blotting out the image of the real and traditional India. (pp. 18-19)

[The] form of The Serpent and the Rope is epic, sustained throughout, maintained at a pitch that carries the metaphysic in its train, the sweep of the rain-bearing clouds. Raja Rao is a superb narrator, and his narration carries with it wisdom, philosophy, scholarship, beauty of word and phrase and aphorism. The narrator in him is awake, ever moving, untired, even when the novelist, the weaver of tales, is...

(The entire section is 1077 words.)

Janet P. Gemmil

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The Serpent and the Rope] reflects the cultural synthesis effected in the mind of the author in his own encounter with Europe as epitomized by his intellectual French wife. Transcending these is his love for Savithri, a pseudonym for an Indian woman with whom Rao has maintained a Platonic relationship for some thirty years. To express the divine quality of their love, Rao borrows from the literature of Europe and India both, and the result is a monument to absolute love coupled with a series of metaphysical questions answerable only in terms of a lifelong philosophical quest. (p. 247)

In total, The Serpent and the Rope is an overwhelming novel, for Raja Rao a tour de force which...

(The entire section is 845 words.)

R. Shepherd

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In The Cat and Shakespeare (1965) the larger natural symbols of The Serpent and the Rope (1960) have been adapted for a deeper and more intensive examination of Truth, now sought in the familiar domestic details of the ordinary workaday life—houses, walls, cats, coffee, illness, and so on. These are the dominant symbols of the novel, which recur page after page. The wall defines a threshold between the physical and supraphysical worlds; the bilva-tree hangs over the wall, thereby sanctifying it through contiguity (as in the legend of the hunter explained at the beginning of the novel); the house of three storeys encompasses the three worlds, heaven, earth, and the underworld (according to one...

(The entire section is 954 words.)

Charles R. Larson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In Kanthapura,] Raja Rao has abandoned his position as story teller, giving it over to his fictive female persona [Achakka]. I can think of few other instances in Third World fiction where a male novelist has done this. (p. 134)

With the exception of Afro-American fiction, I would have to say that in most Third World novels female characters play lesser roles than their male counterparts—no doubt in large part because Western (romantic) love is missing as a theme. If women are present in any of these books, they tend to be of incidental importance, functional objects in an otherwise masculine-oriented world….

[But in] Kanthapura, women are the vanguard for an...

(The entire section is 1435 words.)

Richard R. Guzman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Of the few [Third World] writers who have managed to synthesize forms and idioms out of the clash of the native and Western, one certainly thinks of Raja Rao, whom many consider the most brilliant Indian ever to write fiction in English. Forty years ago, in a preface to his first book Kanthapura, he wrote one of the first manifestos on Third World literary style.

… English is not really an alien language to us. It is the language of our intellectual makeup—like Sanskrit or Persian was before—but not of our emotional make-up…. We cannot write like the English. We should not. We cannot write only as Indians. We have grown to look at the large world as a part of us. Our...

(The entire section is 3283 words.)


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Raja Rao's The Serpent and the Rope, the classic of Indo-English literature, portrays the encounter between East and West on the intimate plane of sex, love, and marriage. The recurring theme of interracial and intercultural relationships in Indo-English literature is explored in Raja Rao's novel with a set of variables not used elsewhere….

Rama, who is a curious mixture of sensuousness and asceticism, is as strongly attracted by the beauty of Madeleine's body as by the virtues of her character. Being an Indian Brahmin, Rama is obviously impressed by Madeleine's active interest in Indian philosophy and religion and by her virtuous character; she is well known among her relatives and friends...

(The entire section is 1304 words.)