Reprise Books

Kanthapura by Raja Rao

There’s no way to celebrate the Salman Rushdies and the Arundhati Roys who have earned such fame without going back to the originals: R.K. Narayan, G.V. Desani, Raja Rao.

In the preface of his classic Kanthapura, first published in 1938, Raja Rao writes, “We cannot write like the English. We should not. We cannot write only as Indians. Our method of expression... has to be a dialect which will some day prove to be as distinctive and colourful as the Irish and the American. Time alone will justify it.”

The beginning of Kanthapura lives up to this distinctiveness: “Our village—I don’t think you have ever heard of it—Kanthapura is its name, and it is in the province of Kara. High on the Ghats is it, high up 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 sugarcane. Roads, narrow, dusty, rut-covered roads, wind through the forests of teak and of jack, of sandal and of sal, and hanging over bellowing gorges and leaping over elephant-haunted valleys, they turn now to the left and now to the right...”

The telling was not easy. “One has to convey in a language that is not one’s own the spirit that is one’s own.... English is not really an alien language to us. It is the language of our intellectual make-up...not our emotional make-up,” he says, choosing to write in English and not Kannada or French, two other languages he was fluent in.

The story is of an upheaval that will soon tell on the lives of a community. A disarray is caused by the arrival of a person influenced by Mahatma Gandhi’s teachings. “O, lift the flag high/ Lift the flag high/ This is the flag of the Revolution.”

As the grandmother-narrator Achakka puts it: “We said to ourselves, he is one of the Gandhi-men, who say there is neither caste nor clan nor family, and yet they pray like us and they live like us. Only they say, too, one should not marry early, one should allow widows to take husbands and a brahmin might marry a pariah and a pariah a brahmin. Well, how does it affect us? We shall be dead before the world is polluted.”

But her world will be upended too. Raja Rao, who lived in France for decades, and later taught philosophy at the university of Texas, was always in search of the best way to infuse the “tempo of Indian life” while writing in English.

“We, in India, think quickly, we talk quickly, and we move quickly. There must be something in the sun of India that makes us rush and tumble and run on... we tell one interminable tale. 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.”

Writing about various lives in his village, the rich and the poor, the disparate caste and religious equations, the clash of the old and the new, he touched the world. Polish poet Czesław Miłosz wrote his only poem in English titled ‘To Raja Rao’—For years I couldn’t accept/ The place I was in./ I felt I should be somewhere else.

The writer looks back at one classic each fortnight.

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Printable version | Aug 4, 2021 2:50:50 AM |

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