The Saint and the Sage: The Fiction of Raja Rao – Part 1

This essay originally appeared in The Virginia Quarterly.  It  focuses on Raja Rao’s three major novels (Kanthapura, The Serpent and the Rope, and The Cat and Shakespeare), arguing that they parallel the three stages of Vedic enlightenment—myth, philosophy, and perception—and that these three also progressively empowered the Indian Revolution.  More detail and comment at the end of this post.


When UNESCO officials asked Raja Rao to write a book on India, he replied that India did not exist. As the central figure in his novel The Serpent and the Rope says, “Anybody can have the geographic—even the political—India; it matters little. . . . India is Raja Raonot a country like France is, or like England; India is an idea, a metaphysic.” Strangely enough, this concept, which ultimately questions India’s material existence, helped shape the Indian Revolution. It lies, too, at the heart of Raja Rao’s fiction, and his devotion to it has helped him create out of an adopted language one of the few truly unique styles in Third World literature.

Third World writers often accuse each other of being imitative, tame. They bicker about cultural imperialism, and not without reason. Much Third World literature is written not in native languages, but in Western languages and after Western literary forms; and most Third World writers, even the brilliant ones, have indeed developed literary sensibilities and approaches to language and form that are heavily Westernized. But is Spanish or French or English supple enough to reproduce the ambience of, say, Igbo or Malayalam speech? Do Western form and native sensibility clash? If, for example, a writer comes from a Third World culture which views man as having little personal history and standing essentially outside time, will there not be a problem in conveying that view if he uses the Western novel form, which, at least traditionally, assumes and focuses on personal identity developing in time? Surely, synthesis is the problem, for it is too simplistic to assume, as many militant Third World writers seem to do, that colonialism is really a lesser historical phenomenon whose cultural influences can someday be completely neutralized. Still, it is true that too many writers, too much seduced by Western form and language, have unconsciously given up, or made quite secondary, the sensitive rendering of their own culture’s vision.

Of the few 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 make-up—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 method of expression therefore has to be a dialect which will someday prove to be as distinctive and colorful as the Irish or the American. Time alone will justify it.

“After language the next problem is that of style. The tempo of Indian life must be infused into our English expression. . . . We, in India, think quickly, and when we move we move quickly. There must be something in the sun of India that makes us rush and tumble and run on. . . . The Mahabharata has 214,788 verses and the Ramayana 48,000. . . . Episode follows episode, and when our thoughts stop our breath stops, and we move on to another thought. This was and still is the ordinary style of our storytelling.”

This 1937 preface remains to my mind the most eloquent and enticing guide to style a Third World writer can have, and Raja Rao’s growing understanding of his own statement has manifested itself in two other celebrated works, The Serpent and the Rope (1960) and The Cat and Shakespeare (1967). Together with Kanthapura, they have become prime models in world literature, showing how profoundly one language can be made to serve the very soul of another culture.


          Kanthapura is set in the early 30’s, around the time Gandhi made his salt marches. Moorthy, a young Brahmin transformed by Gandhi’s spirit into a revolutionary, comes back from the city to Kanthapura and attempts to cut across traditional boundaries of caste in order to create a unified front against the British. Even for himself, however, this assault on tradition is shocking. When he first enters a Pariah house the room seems to shake, and the gods and ancestors seem to cry out. Afterwards, feeling faint, he washes with Ganges water, and Achakka, the book’s narrator, says: “Afterall a Brahmin is a Brahmin, sister!” How much more, then, do others resist Moorthy’s reforms. Until he himself has a spiritual awakening (an incident we shall return to shortly), his efforts remain relatively ineffectual. When Kanthapura finally is unified, it inspires more rebellion. The British retaliate, wasting the village and dispersing its inhabitants, but the impact has been made. Surprisingly, Raja Rao was not arrested for sedition, for he clearly meant tiny Kanthapura to be an example of the type of courage and unity that could expel the British.

Outwardly, the book’s form is quite Western. It is told, first of all, by a narrator in the first person with a limited point of view. Most important, it has, in the tradition of Western historical narrative, a pointed, linear plot which Raja Rao has shaped with tight logic on a balanced curve which reaches its apex in chapter ten, the book’s exact center. Chapter one is balanced with chapter 19, chapter two with 18, and so on. In chapter seven, for example, Moorthy goes on a fast, attempting to become radiant with ahimsa (love; literally, noncruelty). He asks only for some salt to put in his water. In chapter 13 meditation finally bears fruit in action, and Moorthy’s request for salt is echoed as news reaches the village that Gandhi has embarked on his salt march.

Yet tight, logical structure is neither the first nor last impression Kanthapura makes. Rather the novel sprawls and digresses, and features, besides, 60 pages of notes on Indian culture and history arranged by chapter at the back of the book. At times these notes seem as interesting as the novel itself; so when the narrator, Achakka, mentions Ravanna, for example, one turns to the notes; and since Ravanna, or the Cauvery River, or Shakuntala is likely to be mentioned in a digression, the notes extend that digression, sometimes forcing slow movement through the text.

The text, however, does not move slowly, for Achakka, a fantastically garrulous old woman presumably telling her tale to a group addressed only as “sisters,” is perhaps the fastest, most prolix talker in world literature. She begins:

“Our village—I don’t think you have ever heard about it— Kanthapura is its name, and it is in the province of Kara. High on the Ghats is it, high up on the steep mountains that face the cool Arabian seas, up the Malabar coast is it, up Mangalore and Puttur and many a centre of cardamom and coffee, rice and sugar cane. Roads, narrow, dusty, rut-covered roads, wind through the forest of teak and of jack, of sandal and sal, and hanging over bellowing gorges and leaping over elephant-haunted valleys, they turn now to the left and now to the right and bring you . . .into the great granaries of trade. There, on the blue waters, they say, our carted cardamoms and coffee get into the ships the Red-men bring, and, so they say, they go across the seven oceans into the countries where our rulers live.”

She is something of a poet—especially in her descriptions of nature and evocations of Indian culture—but also a master gossip, telling us of squabbles, and houses, and who is jealous of whom (and why). Serious or frivolous, her words always pour forth in a near-breathless, near-torrential, near-endless rush which the American critic Charles Larson describes as an “oral stream of consciousness.”

Another American critic says, however, that the book’s style becomes monotonous over its 180-page length. The style is “dominated by and, then, but, when, and now,” says Robert J. Ray, and “one sequence follows another without emphasis or control.” In fact, though Rao had promised just this relentless rush of words and episodes, he appears to have run into a problem that has plagued many other literary works, Third World or otherwise, that use simple country or native narrators: the usually flat, repetitious syntax of such speakers is unable to buoy a long written narrative. In The Serpent and the Rope and The Cat and Shakespeare (which are better books) the narrators are quite sophisticated, and while the rhythm of Indian speech is still fully retained, the syntax of parataxis and simple coordination dominating Kanthapura gives way to what Robert J. Ray now describes as “paradoxical language patterns that are stunning, subtle, profound, and beautiful.” Rao’s artistic craft, says Ray, has become “the most profound in the history of Indo-Anglian literature, perhaps in the history of contemporary literature.”

Ray’s somewhat justified criticism of Kanthapura may be lessened, however, if we can learn to hear the rhythm and inflection of Indian speech and understand the peculiar literary synthesis Raja Rao is attempting. In a letter to M.K. Naik, Rao says that all his writings are:

“. . . an attempt at “puranic” recreation of Indian storytelling: that is to say, the story, as story, is conveyed through a thin thread to which are attached (or which passes through) many other stories, fables and philosophical disquisitions, like a mala (garland).”

Kanthapura is modeled not so much after the novel as the shthala-purana, or legendary history, which—oral or written— is chatty, digressive, amply laced with allusions, hymns, stories, and sayings. Even though Kanthapura has a few interesting characters and a tight, logical framework, Achakka’s torrential, digressive voice overwhelms—and was meant to overwhelm—all and work against the sense of controlled, historical progress or sequence. For the real protagonist of Kanthapura has neither personal character nor history: it is India— the idea, the metaphysic—which we may better understand if we return now to Moorthy’s spiritual awakening and the political context in which it occurs.

Indian political life, says W. H. Morris-Jones, is conducted in three major languages: the modern, traditional, and saintly—which, for reasons I hope shall become apparent, I wish to rename the “sagely.”

“The first is the language of the Indian elite which has mastery over the grammar and accents of British rule. . . . The ‘traditional idiom’. . .is spoken in rural India and knows little about anything as big as India. . . . Caste is the core of traditional politics. . . .”

The idiom of the sage has been the language of the venerable Sankara, of Sri Aurobindo, and Gandhi, and is based on the central text of Hinduism, Tat tvam asi (Thou art that), which occurs in the second Upanishad, Chandogya. Here the sage Uddalaka Aruni uses nine illustrations to point out the oneness of the individual and the universal. Tat tvam asi gives rise to the doctrine of radical monism, which holds that all things are ultimately one. It rejects subject-object dualism, moves away from the object and from history, and believes the world illusory—not materially real, but arising from the perceptions of the self, which is ultimately identical with the Absolute Self whose highest expression is ahimsa. “Seeing oneself,” says the central figure in The Serpent and the Rope, “is what we always seek; the world, as the great sage Sankara said, is like a city seen in a mirror.”

Raja Rao fondly tells the story of how Nehru, on a speaking tour, arrives in a village so tired he cannot speak. Still the villagers respond with hearty rallying cries of the Revolution, “Mahatma Gandhi ki jai! Jai hind!” (Victory to the Mahatma! To India!). Nehru asks, “When you say these things, what do you mean?” “We do not know,” they say. “When you say “Jai hind, “” says Nehru, “you mean “Be true to yourself.”” Here a “modern,” Nehru, goes to the “traditional” and offers a “sagely” interpretation. “India is the Indian people,” says Rao, “and those people are ultimately not themselves but the Absolute.” To varying degrees each major leader of the Indian Revolution tried to blend the call for political unity with this sagely spirit of radical oneness found in the scriptures and rooted deeply in Indian culture. That spirit is India the idea, the metaphysic, and it is the connection between politics and tat tvam asi that Moorthy realizes during his awakening.

Only partially transformed by Gandhi’s example, Moorthy is at first a mere modern trying to remake the traditional without the transcending power of the sagely vision. “And this is how it all began,” says Achakka:

“That evening Moorthy speaks to Rangamma on the veranda and tells her he will fast for three days in the temple, and Rangamma says, ‘What for, Moorthy?’ and Moorthy says that much violence had been done because of him, and that were he full of the radiance of ahimsa such things should never have happened, but Rangamma says, ‘That was not your fault, Moorthy!’ to which he replies, ‘The fault of others, Rangamma, is the fruit of one’s own disharmony.'”

Some villagers actually scold Moorthy for his new “gilded purity,” but he “slips back into the foldless sheath of the soul,” and falling prostrate in the temple chants Sankara’s “Sivoham, Sivoham. I am Siva. I am Siva. Siva am I.”

In the end, feeling that Gandhi is not practical enough, Moorthy seems to turn away from the sagely vision and go to Nehru, the modern. But, as Raja Rao has said, Moorthy is immature and impatient: the only “practical” way, finally, is the way of the sage. Thus, except for a one-paragraph wrap-up by Achakka, Kanthapura ends not with Moorthy’s tentativeness but with Gandhi’s 1931 trip to England. That event, however, is not spoken of in historical terms, but, significantly, in terms of Indian myth and tradition:

“They say the Mahatma will go to the Redman’s country and he will get us Swaraj. He will bring us Swaraj, the Mahatma. And we shall be happy. And Rama will come back from exile, and Sita will be with him, for Ravanna will be slain and Sita freed, and he will come back with Sita on his right in a chariot of the air and brother Bharata will go to meet them with the worshipped sandal of the Master on his head. And as they enter Ayodha there will be a rain of flowers.”

The ever-present India mythos finally absorbs the characters and history it has all along been bathing and overwhelming.

For Raja Rao, myth is more real than fact, for myth leads fact out of itself, into the general, and finally into the realm of the nonmaterial Absolute, the One whose highest expression is ahimsa. Tat tvam asi gives to Indian aesthetics a movement diametrically opposed to the aesthetic tendencies of the West, especially as manifested in realism. lan Watt tells us that the rise of the novel in the West coincides with a philosophical movement towards the particular. Thus the novel’s preoccupation with human personality and the look of reality. Thus the giving, very early, of individualizing rather than generalizing fictional names (Moll Flanders vs. Mr. Badman). On the other hand, as the central figure in The Serpent and the Rope says, “India is perhaps the only nation that throughout history has questioned the existence of the world—of the object.”

The core and goal of Indian aesthetics is the rasa, a corollary of radical monism. The rasa, says Edward Gerow,

“. . . is a generalized emotion, one from which all elements of particular consciousness are expunged: the time of the artistic event, the preoccupations of the witness (audience), the specific or individuating qualities of the play or novel itself, place and character, and so on. . . .”

Generalization is the key to Indian aesthetics, and the means to it, to the rasa, are many, though usually related to rhythm, and incantation and deep immersion in myth, tradition, and philosophical disquisition. (All these, except for philosophical disquisition, are evident in the tempo and digressiveness of Achakka’s voice.) If the traditional artist is successful, the audience loses awareness of itself and apprehends the character Rama, for example, not as himself or even the love he represents: he and the audience would become love. “Brother, my brother,” goes a line in The Serpent and the Rope, “ the world is not beautiful—you are beauty. Be beauty and see not the beautiful.”

In Raja Rao’s synthesis, then, there is an exquisite contrariety of motion between establishing individuality on the one hand—as with the unforgettable Govindan Nair in The Cat and Shakespeare—and undermining that individuality with constant, overt pressure towards the general, towards the revelation that that individual is not himself but the Absolute. Of course, for Raja Rao the Absolute must prevail, and as he pursues the implications of tat tvam asi further and further, his style becomes more antirealistic in a way that is kin to, but, one should note, much more radical than the anti-realism that animates so many of the classics of modern and contemporary literature in the West. Reviewing James Joyce’s Ulysses, for example, T.S. Eliot said that Joyce had found a way of using myth to control, order, and give “shape and a significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history.” But to use myth in this way is to put the greater reality too much in service to the lesser. Revolted by both historical chaos and historical determinism, the West nonetheless remains historical, committed to redeeming history, or unwilling, at least, to consider it illusory. For Raja Rao the function of myth is to dispel history. Yet myth is only a halfway house to the real. “I want to bring myth up to the Real,” says Rao, “not down to history.”

Philosophy carries us beyond myth. Gabriel Marcel once told Rao that the Indians scared him because whereas the West went from philosophy to God, they went from God to philosophy. It is just this element of philosophical disquisition, generally absent from Kanthapura, that saturates the pages of The Serpent and the Rope and The Cat and Shakespeare, taking us further away from the object, from history, from the world.

_______ End of Part 1.  Read Part 2. _______ 

“The Saint and the Sage: The Fiction of Raja Rao” by Richard R. Guzman originally appeared in The Virginia Quarterly Review, 56:1 (Winter 1980), 32-50.  It has been reprinted many times.  The spiritual depth of India is undeniable and its relationship to the India Revolution strong, especially seen through the lens of this particular author.  Yet I also do not mean to fall into an “Orientalist” trap by over-spiritualizing India.  I am aware, for example, that perhaps the world’s largest body of work arguing for atheism and materialism is written in Sanskrit.

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