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Raja Rao (1908-2006)


Indian writer of novels and short stories, whose works are deeply rooted in Brahmanism and Hinduism. Raja Rao's semi-autobiographical novel, The Serpent and the Rope (1960), is a story of a search for spiritual truth in Europe and India. It established him as one of the finest Indian stylists. "Writing is my dharma," he once said. Most of his life, Rao lived outside India, but it was always at the heart of his thought.

I hear you saying that liberation is possible
and that Socratic wisdom
is identical with your guru's.
No, Raja, I must start from what I am.
I am those monsters which visit my dreams
and reveal to me my hidden essence.

(Czeslaw Milosz in 'To Raja Rao,' 1969)

Raja Rao was born on November 8, 1908 in Hassan, in the state of Mysore in south India, into a well-known Brahman family. His native language was Kannada, but his post-graduate education was in France, and all his publications in book form were in English. Some of his first efforts as a writer were in Kannada.

Rao's father, H.V. Krishnaswamy, taught Kannada at Nizam's College (Hyderabad). He was a anglicised Indian; he died in 1940. Rao's mother, Gauramma, died in 1912.

Like the Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe, writing in English, Rao was concerned with the colonial language. In the foreword to Kanthapura (1938), published in London, he admitted the difficulties in using "a language that is not one's own the spirit that is one's own," and conveying "the various shades and omissions of certain thought-movement that looks maltreated in an alien language."

Rao was educated at Muslim schools. After graduating from Madrasa-i-Aliya (Hyderabad) as the only Brahmin student, he studied English at the Aligarh Muslim University and took a degree from the Nizam College. Upon winning in 1929 the Asiatic Scholarship of the government, Rao left India for Europe, where he remained for a decade. He studied at the universities of Montpellier and the Sorbonne under Professor Louis Cazamian, doing research in Christian theology and history, particularly searching the link between India and the thought of the Cathars. At Montpellier he met Camille Mouly, a French academic; they married in 1931. Camille became the most important person in his life. She translated some of his short stories. Rao depicted the breakdown of their marriage in The Serpent and the Rope.

While in France, Rao was appointed to the editorial board of Le Mercure de France (Paris). His first stories, which show the influence of Kafka, Malraux, and the Surrealists, Rao published in French and English. Between 1931 and 1933 he contributed articles written in Kannada for the periodical Jaya Karnataka (Dharwar): 'Pilgrimage to Europe' (1931), 'Europe and Ourselves' (1931), and Romain Rolland, the Great Sage' (1933).

Along with such writers as Mulk Raj Anand and R.K. Narayan, Rao stood in the forefront of the emerging Indian English literature. When his marriage disintegrated in 1939, Rao returned to India and began his first period of residence in an ashram. During WW II, he travelled widely in India in search of his spiritual heritage, edited with Ahmed Ali the literary magazine Tomorrow and met in Kerala his guru, Krishna Menon, better known as Sri Atmananda Guru.  Menon had been a police offices before finding his true vocation. At every turn of his life, Rao had his picture on the wall.

In 1942 Rao spent six months in Mahatma Gandhi's ashram at Sevagram, in Maharashtra. With a socialist group Rao took part in underground activities against the British rule. When Rao met Jawaharlal Nehru in the Black Forest in Germany, he brought three Evian bottles for his wife.Nehru said to him: "We've had enough of Rama and Krishna. Not that I do not admire these great figures of our traditions, but there's work to be done. And not clasp hands before idols while misery and slavery beleqguer us." (The Meaning of India by Raja Rao, 1996, p. 37)

Rao's involvement in the nationalist movement is reflected in his first two books. The novel Kanthapura (1938), published by E. Arnold & Co., was an account of the impact of Gandhi's teaching on non-violent resistance against the British. The story is seen from the perspective of a small Mysore village in South India. Rao borrows the style and structure from Indian vernacular tales and folk-epic. The narrator is an old woman. She tells how the community obtains from daily life, with its millennia-old worship of the local deity, the strength to stand against the British Raj.

In the character of the young Moorthy, who comes back from the city, Rao portrays an idealist and supporter of ahimsa and satyagraha, who wants to cross the traditional barriers of caste. The younger generation has city ways, they read city books, and they even call themselves Gandhi-men. Doré, as the old woman calls the "university graduate," has given up his "boots and hat and suit and had taken to dhoti and khadi, and it was said he had even given up his city habit of smoking."

Both the English writer E.M. Forster and Rao had the same publisher.  Foster, whose masterwork A Passage to India (1924) criticized British imperialism, is said to have praised Kanthapura as "the finest novel to come out of India in recent years." ('Raja Rao:  A Philosophical Novelist' by Mallikarjun Patil, in The Fiction of Raja Rao: Critical Studies, edited by Mittapalli Rajeshwar, Pier Paolo Piciucco, 2001,  p. 4) However, Rao's India is more than a British colony, but goes deeply into the philosophical and spiritual aspects of life. In The Serpent and the Rope Rao wrote, "India is not a country, like France, or like England; India is an idea, a metaphysic." (Ibid., London: J. Murray, 1960, p. 389)

Rao returned to the theme of Gandhism in the short story collection The Cow of the Barricades (1947). Rao also edited Nehru's Soviet Russia: Some Random Sketches and Impressions. (1949). After India gained independence, Rao traveled throughout the world, making his first visit to the Unites States in 1950. He also spent some more time living in an ashram. In 1965 he married a stage actress, Katherine Jones; the marriage also ended in divorce. From 1963 Rao lectured on Indian philosophy at the University of Texas, Austin. After retiring as professor emeritus, Rao continued living Austin. In November 1986 he married Susan Vaught. They lived in a modest apartment on Pearl Street. Rao ate only vegetarian food, with the exception of some desserts.

Rao received in 1988 the prestigious Neustadt International Prize for Literature. Several Neustadt Laureates have been awarded the Nobel Prize for literature, among them Gabriel García Márquez, Czeslaw Milosz, and Octavio Paz. Milosz's poem dedicated to Raja Rao was composed in 1969 in Berkeley, where they had a long discussion. It was one of the few pieces Milosz wrote in English. In 1997 Rao was given India's highest literary award, the Fellowship of the Sahitya Akademi. He was unable to travel to India to receive it. In Rao's old age, his longish, once black hair had turned silver. Rao was short, he had fine features and he spoke with soft voice.

In his introduction to Rao's retelling of Gandhi's life, Great Indian Way: A Life of Mahatma Gandhi (1998), Makarand R. Paranjake said that "Raja Rao . . . belongs very much to this pauranic tradition. He has performed his duty as a writer as faithfully and sincerely as our ancient poets, who have told the stories of gods and demons, heroes and villains, apsaras and princesses, sages and mendicants with such zealous relish." Rao called the work "an experiment in honesty". Abandoning historians' commitment to the factual, Rao intertwined prose and poetry."The Pauranic style, therefore, is the only style an Indian can use – fact against custom, history against time, geography against space," Rao said in the 'Preface'.

The Serpent and the Rope was written after a long silence during which Rao lived India. There he renewed a connection with his roots in the modern rendering of the Mahabharata legend of Satayavan and Savithri. The work also dramatized the relationships between Indian and Western culture. Ramaswamy, a young Brahmin studying in France, is married to a French college teacher, Madeleine, who sees her husband above all as a guru. As Ramaswamy struggles with commitments imposed on him by his Hindu family, his wife becomes a Buddhist in her spiritual quest and renounces worldly desires. She leaves her husband to find his own true self. The serpent in the title refers to the illusion and the rope to the reality. Ramaswamy evolved into Sivarama Sastri in The Chessmaster and His Moves (1988). 

Cat and Shakespeare (1965) was a metaphysical comedy that answered philosophical questions posed in the earlier novels. In the book the Hindu notion of karma is symbolized by a cat. The hero discovers in his attempts to receive divine grace, that there is no dichotomy between himself and God. Comrade Kirillov (1976) was written early in Rao's career and was first published in a French translation. It satirized communism as an ideological misunderstanding of man's ultimate aims, and argued that all foreign creeds gradually become Indianized.

The Chessmaster and His Moves is peopled by characters from various cultures seeking their identities. Like Nabokov, Rao used the metaphor of the chess game to illuminate philosophical and psychological questions. In the story Sivarama Sastri, an Indian mathematician in Paris, meets Proust, and recounts his love affairs and friendships. The magnum opus was the first part of a projected trilogy.

Rao wrote: "I am no scholar. I am a "creative" writer. I love to play with ideas. It is like a chessgame with horses, elephants, chamberlains and the Kings which might fight with one another. The game is not for winning. It is for rasa – delight." ('Introduction,' in The Meaning of India by Raja Rao, 1996, p.7) Raja Rao died of heart failure on July 8, 2006, at his home in Austin, Texas. He was 97.

For further reading: 'Entering the literary word' by Raja Rao, in Name Me a Word: Indian Writers Reflect on Writing, edited by Meena Alexander (2018); Freedom in Indian English Fiction: Raja Rao to Arundhati Roy by K.B. Bindu (2016); Raja Rao: an Introduction by Letizia Alterno (2011); The Rose and the Lotus, Partnership Studies in the Works of Raja Rao by Stefano Mercanti (2010); The Feminine Mirrored: Raja Rao, R.K. Narayan, Bhabani Bhattacharya by Sandhya Sharma (2002); The Fiction of Raja Rao, ed. by Rajeshwar Mittapalli and Pier Paolo Piciucco (2001); Socio Cultural Aspects of Life in the Selected Novels of Raja Rao by A. Sudhakar Rao (2000);  Critical Study of Novels of Arun Joshi, Raja Rao and Sudhin N. Ghose by T.J. Abraham (1999); Myths of the Nation by Rumina Sethi (1999); Word as Mantra: The Art of Raja Rao, edited by Robert L. Hardgrave, Jr (1998); The Novels of Raja Rao by E. Dey (1992); 'Raja Rao,' in World Authors 1950-1970, edited by John Wakeman (1975); Raja Rao by M.K. Naik (1972); Raja Rao by C.D. Narasimhaiah (1973); Indian Writing in English by K.R. Srinivasa Iyengar (1962) 

Selected works:

  • Kanthapura, 1938
  • Changing India, 1939 (ed., with Iqbal Singh)
  • The Cow of the Barricades, and Other Stories, 1947
  • Whither India, 1948 (ed., with Iqbal Singh)
  • The Serpent and the Rope, 1960
  • The Cat and Shakespeare: A Tale of India, 1965
  • Comrade Kirilov, 1976
  • The Policeman and the Rose: Stories, 1978
  • The Chessmaster and His Moves, 1988
  • On the Ganga Ghat, 1993
  • The Meaning of India, 1996
  • Great Indian Way: A Life of Mahatma Gandhi, 1998
  • The Best of Raja Rao, 1998 (selected and edited by Makarand Paranjape)
  • Kanthapura, 2010 (Second Edition; New Delhi: Oxford University Press)

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