The end of an era
Rumina Sethi

Raja Rao nativised English and let his words convey his spirit. Indian writing will be
poorer without him

Raja Rao (1908-2006)
Raja Rao (1908-2006)

Many years ago, when I met Mulk Raj Anand in connection with my doctoral thesis on Indian writing, he referred to the early trio of Indian writers who wrote in English as the three chachas, the other two being Raja Rao and R. K. Narayan. All three were born in the first decade of the twentieth century, but Raja Rao outlived Anand and Narayan.

On the one hand, Raja Rao won many admirers for promoting the idea of a fundamental Brahmanic Hindu core believed to be the Indian "essence", and on the other, his espousal of such a limited definition of India isolated those for whom metaphysics was not integral to a representative Indian tradition. Regardless, Rao’s novels created ripples throughout the literary world.

Kanthapura, his first novel, published in 1938, virtually shaped the nation’s destiny. It is a text of the Civil Disobedience Movement that takes for its central concern the participation of a small village in the national struggle at Gandhi’s call. In a Foreword that has become a manifesto for speakers/writers of English in India, Rao enunciated the mantra by which one might "convey in a language that is not one’s own the spirit that is one’s own". Experiments in language for a colonised country that had still to find a medium of expression and a representative Indian voice were scarce at that time and Rao become an early precursor in nativising English. He therefore finds a prime position in the curriculum of world literatures in English in most Indian universities.

Rao’s next major novel, The Serpent and the Rope (1960), is a story of the hero’s love and longing, but as a cultural tract, it would become a momentous treatise on the dharma of a hindu Brahmin articulating the principles of a philosophical Sanskritic tradition. By this time, Raja Rao was an expatriate; so the advocacy of a uniform hindu cultural inheritance akin to current-day "Hindutva" was received critically by many, and Rao was labelled a proponent of racist imperialism. The Cat and Shakespeare (1965) and Comrade Kirillov (1976) continued with the same pithy moralising in his journey towards knowledge, but it was The Chessmaster and his Moves (1988) that brought the philosophical quest to a head: "There are no Indians... India is no country`85 wheresoever one dissolves is India`85 every thought when purely understood is India."

Raja Rao, thus, securely separated the East from the West, and reality from maya. Yet Rao was among the nationalists who joined an underground movement to oust the British in 1942, and the emotion-packed rhetoric of Kanthapura testifies to the sentiments running through the youth of that time, indifferent to caste barriers.

Whether Rao borrowed from the Puranas or the Vedas, his primary purpose was to illuminate the journey from ignorance to light, treating literature as sadhana, devotion, and not profession.

For Rao, "unless word (became) mantra, no writer is a writer, and no reader a reader." The novel, then, became a prayer or a religious chant to which the reader could be initiated only if he had the requisite cultural inheritance. This is undoubtedly founded on different premises from those informing both the western novel and western society.

Rao carried his Indian inheritance with nobility and presented the urban intellectual with pride and splendour. His passing away closes the chapter on the doctrinaire and the philosophical novel. To give him his due, it is imperative to evaluate Rao’s work from the position of Indian aesthetics and a social reality specific to India and dissimilar to western notions of realism.