Literary Review

Reading between the lines

Kanthapura; Raja Rao, Penguin, Rs.299  

Penguin has re-released four works of Raja Rao — Kanthapura (1938), Serpent and the Rope (1960), Cat and Shakespeare (1965), and a new selection of stories, called Collected Stories (2014). Raja Rao was once thought of as part of the earliest generation of Indian English novelists, the others of the trinity being R.K. Narayan and Mulk Raj Anand. All of them were canonised by the first half of the twentieth century. However, the re-issue of these books is a very pleasant surprise, as this trinity, and especially Raja Rao, is quickly being forgotten.

The reception of Raja Rao’s work was affected by several factors: Edward Said’s influential book Orientalism (1978), which spoke of how the West had long stereotyped the East, ended up rendering suspect all images of the East, especially the image of the East as spiritual. The literature that found increasing favour was the work of writers like Rushdie whose keen political voice in Midnight’s Children and subsequent novels found greater legitimacy, both with the media and the academy. After Rushdie, the climate became even more conservative (in terms of literary and formal technique), and the success of the simple social realism of Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy may be said to be the forerunner of the ever more elementary popular realism of novelists like Chetan Bhagat.

One may attempt to rehabilitate Raja Rao only on careful grounds. His early novels like Kanthapura, which is about how Gandhian ideas impact a traditional village, are said to be experiments in form. As they mimic the syntax of Indian languages (like Raja Rao’s native Kannada), and an attempted oral quality of a grandmother’s tale, they are interesting as minor experiments, the warm-ups a writer does before getting down to more serious and extended work. Many of the stories collected in the re-issued Collected Stories reveal much delightful experimental play, and a delight that does not have the harshness of much of Rushdie’s more laboured attempt at the chutnification of English, the predecessor to our Hinglish.

The way Raja Rao has traditionally been read — and this is unfortunately reproduced in some of the forewords to the re-issues — is as a profound spiritual novelist. This may be to partly make up for some of the admittedly dated stereotypes regarding race and gender in his oeuvre. It is understandable that people read him this way, as, at face value, the characters go on about Advaita and other such high theology — but this may not be the most productive way to read him.

One cannot take such talk in the novels literally. The charm of the novels lies in the fluidity with which Rao evokes an archaic Sanskritic world — but neither he, nor the reader, should take this world too faithfully. In a charming story found in the Collected Stories, ‘India-A Fable’ , the protagonist, of Indian origin, sitting in a Paris park, concocts a fabulous image of India for a seven-year-old French boy (marriages on gold-caparisoned elephants, many limbed goddesses, boat-rides in moonlight). We will be misunderstanding Rao if we do not see him as constantly having a quiet laugh at pretending to be a traditional romantic hero ( nayaka) who has traipsed from an ancient world to the present.

It is true that in some novels, this sense of self-satire seems largely absent, or at least infelicitously achieved — this may be true of Cat and Shakespeare, which never quite convinces us of why the humble lives of a clerk and his friend should resonate with a grandiose Advaitism.

But in his more successful work, like Serpent and the Rope (and still more admirably, in the later Chessmaster and His Moves, published in 1988, well into Rushdie’s reign), Rao manages to weave a whole velveteen continent of mood. To read him, with some suspension of judgment, is to feel oneself wholly submerged — not in the Ganges, as Rao might have grandly said — but in the ordinary beauty of the village tank. Rao’s stories are barely plotted — as if movement itself might disrupt the woven mood. Often they are simply of archetypal situations — the partings and meetings of lovers, the smooth slippage from one continent to another, one lover to another. The Serpent and the Rope is ostensibly about the relationship of a Frenchwoman and an Indian scholar, the latter beset with family obligations. Though written in the idiom of the encounter between the East and West and the material and the spiritual, its joy lies less in these staid binaries and more in its hypnotic and pellucid arrangement of mood.

Unburdened of the pretensions of spiritualism, Rao’s works may finally be allowed to first breathe, and then sing in one’s ear — for Rao remains a master of a mesmeric, aural storytelling. Rao is less of a novelist and more of a fabulist, a writer of lyric romances, where the weight of fantasy never entirely loses sight of a slender baseline track of reality. The genealogy he conforms to is not the novel of ideas, but more the lush, worldly Sanskrit romance-fantasies such as the Seventh Century Bana’s Kadambari, which also has its elements of lost and found lovers (over many lifetimes), churlish parrots, and long moonlight sequences. To read him today is to hope that publishers in India, tied to increasingly conservative notions of populist realism, may become more open to new forms, experiments, and genres.

The Serpent and the Rope; Raja Rao, Penguin, Rs.499

The Cat and Shakespeare; Raja Rao, Penguin, Rs.299

Collected Stories; Raja Rao, Penguin, Rs.299

Kanthapura; Raja Rao, Penguin, Rs.299


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