India As Metaphysic?

Revisiting Raja Rao’s fiction

01 January 2015
Roney Devasia for The Caravan

RAJA RAO WAS THE LAST of the canonical “founding fathers” of Indian English-language fiction to pass away. The triumvirate—which included RK Narayan and Mulk Raj Anand—were all born in the first decade of the twentieth century, and expired softly about a hundred years later. Their lives and careers bridged a century of enormous transformation in India. Wrestling the Indian experience into English, they set the stage for generations of writers who could inhabit the language without feeling out of place.

With so many South Asians now twinkling in the firmament of English letters, it’s easy to forget how new such writing was at the time. Anand’s friend George Orwell described English-language Indian literature as a “strange phenomenon” and a “cultural curiosity.” He doubted that it would manage any lasting significance. “It is difficult to believe,” Orwell wrote, “that it has a literary future.”

His position looks rather ridiculous given the successes of the last fifty years. English-language fiction has safely ensconced itself among India’s various literary traditions. It offers a deeply rutted path for younger writers to follow, bumping along. They no longer need to ask for the validation of Western publishers. The domestic market for Indian English fiction (whether highbrow or “mythological thriller”) is incomparably larger and more established than it was in Rao’s day. English is a natural medium for Indians to express their imaginations to each other, and not simply to readers in the West.

Writing nearly a century ago, Rao believed that he had to account for his use of English. It was the language of the ruling British, a tongue far removed from his native Kannada, and even further removed from the realities of rural life that initially preoccupied him. Rao’s foreword to Kanthapura (1938), his debut novel that studied the bloom of the independence movement in a south Indian village, amounts to a manifesto of sorts, a blueprint for why and how one might convert English to suit the sensibilities of the Indian writer. He argued that English could be Indianised.

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 part of us. Our method of expression therefore has to be a dialect which will some day prove to be as distinctive and colourful as the Irish or the American. Time alone will justify it.

In the bright light of the twenty-first century, this passage feels simultaneously musty and fresh. Rao’s prising apart of the indigenous “emotional” and the foreign “intellectual” evokes the hoary thinking of that time, when crusading nationalists sought to shield the warm soul of India while arming themselves with the rhetoric and technology of the colonial West. That stern binary has withered considerably in the intervening decades, with English being happily domesticated in numerous ways, from the tumbling energy of Salman Rushdie to the bald functionalism of Chetan Bhagat.

And yet there is that extraordinary injunction—“We cannot write only as Indians”—as intriguing now as it was then. It teases with its elusive, pseudo double negative. It seems like an impossible demand, stranger to grapple with now, perhaps, than in Rao’s era of high modernism. I’ve never heard a similar line thrust upon English or French or American writers, a reminder that they belong inextricably to a world much bigger than themselves and the certainty of who they are. (Contemporary American fiction would stretch in fertile ways if writers were told in their workshops, “You cannot write only as Americans!”) Rao’s challenge may reflect the peculiar position of English in India, at once within and without, pulling its users towards other horizons. At the same time, it is freighted with a universal moral imperative to remain open to others, other ideas, other histories, other forms.

In his search for an Indian voice in English, in his historical interests, in the way he sketched his own encounters with Europe, Rao tried to orient his imagined India within a wider world. Like Narayan and Anand, he emerged from the efflorescence of modernist literature. He drew from the likes of Kafka—whom he thanked for having “broken the crust of realism and given fabled meanings to man’s fears”—from the French novelist André Malraux, and the Irish poet and folklorist Padraic Colum. His work, too, won appreciation from various corners of Europe’s intelligentsia. The Austrian writer Stefan Zweig and the French novelist Romain Rolland praised the French translations of some of his early short stories. EM Forster swooned at the publication of Kanthapura, describing it as the best novel written in English by an Indian. This international renown was certainly a measure of achievement, the success of an Indian writer making English his own. But as Rao’s career strayed from its promising beginnings into philosophical abstraction, the acclaim of the West began to represent something else. Rao traded not on the merits of his fiction, but on the abstruse, quasi-spiritual vision of India that defined the bulk of his work.

SADLY FOR RAO, his place in the canon of Indian fiction has not guaranteed the same respect or lasting popularity afforded the likes of RK Narayan. A number of his major works were recently republished by Penguin, inviting a return to his oeuvre. They include Kanthapura, the seemingly never-ending The Serpent and the Rope (1960), and the briefer The Cat and Shakespeare (1965).

Born into a distinguished family in the princely state of Mysore, Rao straddled the worlds of colonial and Brahminical education. His childhood was split between an elite English-medium school in Hyderabad and his family home in the cool of the Western Ghats, in the region that would become the setting for Kanthapura, watched over by the mother goddess Kenchamma and watered by the Hemavati River. He credits his grandfather, who spoke no English but was steeped in Sanskritic learning, with first exciting his interest in philosophical inquiry. After studying at Aligarh and then at Nizam’s College in Hyderabad, in 1929 he won a scholarship to the University of Montpellier, in the south of France.

A record of his entry into literature is available in an autobiographical essay published in 1978. It was in France, not in India, that Rao moulded himself into a writer. From afar, he experimented with writing in Kannada, publishing a few short pieces in the monthly magazine Jaya Karnataka. He longed to write in Sanskrit, which contained, in his view, the vastest riches of any language, but which he recognised “was beyond my competence to use.” The “severe musicality” of French intrigued him, but “its delicacy needed an excellence of instinct and knowledge that seemed well-nigh terrifying.” English was the only viable option; it was the “one language … capable of catalysing my impulses, and giving them a near native sound and structure.” Rao wrote most of Kanthapura while staying at a wintry castle in southern France. (“As I sat and wrote,” he remembers in an afterword, “day after day, I felt the snow high behind me.”) But that distance didn’t prevent him from filling the novel with the vividness of India, and the energy of its storytelling.

Kanthapura remains Rao’s best novel—a sad fact since it was his first book—composed in his early twenties and full of youthful speed. Like many of his contemporaries, Rao was impassioned by the righteousness of the anti-colonial struggle. The novel observes the fictional south Indian village of Kanthapura—a counterpart to RK Narayan’s Malgudi—embrace the independence movement against the British. Moorthy, a Brahmin boy who has spent time in “the city,” returns to the village and begins to organise its inhabitants against the “Red-men” oppressors. Stirred by an encounter with “the Mahatma,” he tries to apply the principles of non-violence and striving for truth to the rural theatre of his political action. In so doing, he challenges millennia of ingrained casteist habits, invites the wrath of plantation owners and police constables, and brings the full force of the colonial state down upon little Kanthapura.

But the novel is not Moorthy’s story alone. One of the joys of Kanthapura is its irrepressible narration, ostensibly from the first-person perspective of a Brahmin woman in the village, but with hardly a single “I” used. The voice of the novel pours forth from an imagined collective, a surging, roiling “we” that includes all the people of the caste-riven hamlet.

Rao experiments with this mode of narration in trying to cast his English-language fiction in an Indian mould. As he writes in the famous foreword to the novel, “there must be something in the sun of India that makes us rush and tumble and run on … episode follows episode, and when our thoughts stop our breaths stop, and we move on to another thought. This was and still is the ordinary style of our storytelling.”

The style of Kanthapura contrasts sharply with his other works. Where his later novels rattle with a staccato of cryptic statements, some sentences in Kanthapura gush on and on. Here, the narrator describes rain falling on a coffee plantation:

Then the wind comes so swift and dashing that it takes the autumn leaves with it, and they rise into the juggling air, while the trees bleat and blubber. Then drops fall, big as the thumb … the earth itself seems to heave up and cheep in the monsoon rains. It churns and splashes, beats against the treetops, reckless and wilful, and suddenly floating forwards, it bucks back and spits forward and pours down upon the green, weak coffee leaves, thumping them down to the earth.

There is a delightful, homespun excess to the prose, a freshness compared to the stifling sobriety of his later work. Rao can steer this torrent of language into incredibly powerful moments, including one when Moorthy visits Kanthapura’s “Pariah quarter.” When invited inside the house of an untouchable, the young man’s Gandhian idealism wars with the instincts of caste. He hesitates to accept the offer of a glass of milk, “his hands steal mechanically to the holy thread, and holding it, he feels he would like to say, ‘Hari-Om, Hari-Om.’” Lingamma, his hostess, endures his reluctance before gently prevailing upon him. “‘Touch it, Moorthappa, touch it only as though it were offered to the gods, and we shall be sanctified’; and Moorthy, with many a trembling prayer, touches the tumbler and brings it to his lips, and taking one sip, lays it aside.”

In its breathless gusts, Kanthapura offers both pointillist scenes and the bustling sweep of an entire world. A multitude of characters—including “Nose-scratching Nanjamma” and “Waterfall Venkamma”—crowd the narrative, surging in and out of relief, forming a kind of Greek chorus. Rangamma, an educated woman, instructs her neighbours in astrophysics and the nature of light from the stars. The ominous cigarette of the new police constable smoulders in the village dark. Protesting women are dumped by the authorities in a jungle, and must clap and sing to ward off panthers. In the novel’s incredible denouement, we lose sight of Moorthy and other central figures, and are instead immersed in the frantic striving of the village against its whirlwind destruction.

AFTER THE SUCCESS of Kanthapura, Rao plunged into spiritualism and philosophy, spending considerable time in ashrams before embarking upon a teaching career that led him to the University of Texas in Austin. “I have abandoned literature for good and gone over to metaphysics,” he somewhat disingenuously wrote to EM Forster in 1945, after the Englishman asked to meet the author of Kanthapura, “I’m not a writer any more.” Rao continued to write fiction, but mostly in the service of metaphysics.

Besides Kanthapura, his books have not aged well. The Serpent and the Rope and The Cat and Shakespeare perilously toe the line between fiction and intellectual thought-experiment. They belong to a period when India swam in the Western consciousness as a land of high spiritualism and primordial belief, all sadhus and holy cows and kaleidoscopic journeys of self-discovery. These novels do not conjure such overt clichés, but they peddle India as a place out of time, wrapped in philosophical contemplation. “India has no history,” he writes in The Serpent and the Rope, “for Truth cannot have history.” Later in the heavily autobiographical novel, which charts the breakup of a relationship between an Indian man and a French woman (Rao married his first wife while studying and writing in France), he reveals his hand: “India is not a country like France is, or like England: India is an idea, a metaphysic.”

The problem with “India as metaphysic” is that every nation is a “metaphysic.” Even little Andorra in the Pyrenees, half shopping mall and half mountain, could reasonably claim to be a metaphysic. Nations are necessarily more intangible than tangible, more imagined than real. The image of timeless, contemplative India, however charming, is a rather precious anachronism, much easier to believe (and want to believe) in the salons of France and the halls of American academia than in India itself. Rao’s commitment to this notion reinforced its unfortunate credibility, exciting the imagination of the many Western intellectuals with whom he built lasting friendships. (The Polish writer Czeslaw Milosz lovingly dedicated a poem to him.) Even worse, it made for bad fiction.

How to describe the monumental tedium of The Serpent and the Rope? It soars above the reader, impassable as a cliff, earnest and sullen in its granite solemnity. The novel poses an exploration of ascetic Western and Indian philosophies, with their differing attitudes to the reality and unreality of the world. Rama, the protagonist, is an Indian scholar in southern France writing a dissertation on the Cathars, a heretical medieval Christian sect. He sees commonalities between the radical Cathar search for Truth and aspects of Hindu (“Vedantin”) and Buddhist belief. Running parallel to this historical investigation is the tortuous plot of Rama’s relationship with his French wife Madeleine (also a scholar), the premature deaths of their infant children, their philosophical parting of ways (she embraces the “saintly” path of Buddhist asceticism, rejecting the world that he “sagely” understands cannot be rejected without being crudely affirmed), and the dissolution of their marriage. The possible drama of the encounter between Indian and French, Brahmin and Christian, “East” and “West,” asphyxiates in the thin air of high philosophy.

I would happily read a monograph comparing the beliefs of the Cathars to various Indian philosophies. In novel form, however, it makes me wonder about the very purpose of fiction. Instead of sifting ideas from his description of life, Rao expects us to find life in his description of ideas. One gets the sense that the novel’s characters are mouthpieces for philosophical notions or, worse, a quasi-philosophical tone, forced to spout such elliptical gobbledygook as “I saw my eyes see that I saw,” or “meaning, in fact, is meaningful to meaning.” In the same vein: “There is nowhere to go, where there is no whereness. Alas, that is the beautiful Truth and man must learn it—beautiful it is, because you see yourself true.” If some readers are warmed by hundreds of pages of this kind of banter, I suppose they must already be very cold.

Similar expanses of abstract language litter The Cat and Shakespeare, though the book is far more readable, possibly because it is about one third the length of The Serpent and the Rope. It follows the curious connection between two men in pre-independence Trivandrum, the narrator Ramakrishna Pai and his esoteric neighbour Govindan Nair. The latter serves as a spiritual guide to the narrator, leading him to a species of revelation (Pai eventually jumps over a wall and has a vision of paradise).

The novel floats along rather serenely, with few moments of serious drama or tension. Even in its climactic peaks—later in the novel, Nair endures a trial for alleged bribery—philosophical posturing squashes the suspense (“Tell me then, Mr Govindan Nair, how can a judge know the truth?” “By being it.”). The use of symbolism in the novel is bludgeoning, returning over and over to an image of a mother cat carrying a kitten by the scruff of its neck. The kitten’s surrender in its mother’s mouth is an analogy for man’s spiritual surrender to ultimate truth. “Let the mother cat hold you by the neck,” Nair tells Pai in a typical outburst. “I meow-meow the dictionary, but my meaning is always one.”

Without this overlay of heavy metaphor and inscrutable meaning, there could be much charm in The Cat and Shakespeare. Rao is often a fine stylist, depicting the middle-class world of these two men—they are both civil servants in the local administration—with easy specificity. Pai lives with his daughter, and is estranged from his wife and son. His mistress, Shantha, whom he loves, is pregnant with his child, but refuses to cross the threshold of his house since it is still technically his wife’s home. Living adjacent to Pai, Nair works as a clerk in a ration office—a potentially wonderful space for fiction. He hops, feline-like, back and forth over the wall separating his and Pai’s compounds to ply his neighbour with quizzical bits of language and suggestion. Pai and Nair muse about all manner of things, taking the occasional wondrous imaginative leap:

Did you know, for example, that if you stand at the southern tip of Travancore and look down against your nose, straight down lies Antarctica, rich in its fissures of fishes? … They discovered a tablet there some years ago which showed they probably wrote in the Dravidic tongue. Antarctica is our home. They used to grow pineapples there … The bones of its people are all long and thin, un-Aryan—their heroes lie beside coconut shields made on tropical seas. I know whence they come. They came from Malabar. Malabar is Truth. Antarctica is only a name for Malabar.

And yet, Rao seems utterly disinterested in digging deeply into the world of his own novel. “The kingdom of Denmark is just like a ration office,” Nair teasingly tells his colleagues on one occasion, without further clarification. Pai’s narration turns meandering and cryptic, melding with that of the supposedly singular Nair. Readers are only allowed to skim the surface of characters. Pai says that his daughter, Usha, is “my child. She is not merely that. She is child.” Similarly, his mistress, Shantha, never takes much shape beyond the image of a beautifully pregnant woman. “Shantha is not just a woman, she is woman,” Rao writes. And that is exactly the problem—another instance of the writer choosing the ideal over the real, a foil for the narrator instead of an individuated personality.

All this philosophical “play”—as Rao describes it in the novel’s foreword—is in the service of enabling unanswerable musings such as these: “And the cause of cause, what is it? … Could there be a father without a daughter? What would Usha be without me? What would this house be if I did not own it? … Air I own not, yet I breathe. I breathe myself. Do I own I?”

Rao orchestrates many such jigs around profundity. They suggest more than they mean. To read The Cat and Shakespeare is to wade through a series of novel-like gestures, bounded by the jabbering of sagacious sounds.

IN AN INTERVIEW GIVEN to a Texas newspaper in 1997, Rao lamented the waning interest in philosophy in America. “In the ‘60s and ‘70s the search for values was remarkable,” he said approvingly of the fiction of that era. But that philosophical imperative vanished. “Most of modern literature is psychological. There is no search in it.” This is a fair criticism. While often slick and well turned, contemporary American literature suffers from its indefatigable psychological realism, touring every corner of the self to the detriment of a more meaningful or imaginative engagement with the world. But Rao’s philosophy is not the answer to this failing. In his mind, what later American fiction lacked was its old passion for the high ideals that once made poets dream of India. “The 19th century transcendentalists—Thoreau, Whitman, Emerson—were all influenced by India,” he recalled wistfully in the same interview. “The pragmatic American, I think, has not got time for India.”

That was a revealing admission. One cannot help but feel slightly sorry for Rao, the venerable writer so past his literary moment, as out of time as his vision of India. Any reader (pragmatic or not, American or Indian) will struggle to have time for the India of novels such as The Cat and Shakespeare and The Serpent and the Rope, where characters are cut out of principles, their motivations more ontological than human. In melding folkloric epic with the modernist novel, Kanthapura offered a far more energetic vision of the possibilities of Indian fiction. That vigour stalled in the later novels, replaced by now out-dated ideas about the fundamental spirituality of India. Rao’s most forgiving readers in Indian and Western academia strained to explain his philosophical work, earnestly searching for the ancient Indian aesthetics and metaphysics moving through his prose. Such interpretations only shared in the fantasy of a timeless India. At best, they provided a gloss to inexcusably ponderous fiction.

Kanishk Tharoor is the author of Swimmer Among the Stars: Stories, a collection of short fiction forthcoming from Aleph. His essays have appeared in publications around the world.

Keywords: fiction Raja Rao George Orwell Indian English literature Kanthapura