New Delhi: “India is not a country like France is, or like England; India is an idea.”
These lines from Raja Rao’s seminal novel The Serpent and The Rope exemplify, in a sense, his approach to writing.
For many, Raja Rao is one of the three founding pillars of Indian writing in English, along with R.K. Laxman and Mulk Raj Anand. But Rao’s brilliance as an author is not limited to this genre. His writing was distinct from his contemporaries because he attempted not only to translate Indian sensibilities into English but also tried to incorporate Indian metaphysics and philosophy into his fictional work.
Born on 8 November 1908, into a family of Kannada Brahmins in Hassan, a district in the princely state of Mysore (now Karnataka), he credited his metaphysical temperament to his Vedantin grandfather. He attended the Montpellier University in France to study literature and the French language in 1929.
In the early 1940s, Rao was afflicted with an “emotional wavering” and he returned to India in search of answers. He visited Gandhi’s ashram and participated in the freedom struggle along with Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi. His intellectual and philosophical quest came to an end only after he met his guru, Sri Atmananda, in Trivandrum, Kerala.
In 1966, he moved to Austin, Texas, where he began teaching Indian philosophy. He held the job until his retirement in 1988.
Rao had been the recipient of two prestigious awards — the Neustadt prize in 1988 and the Sahitya Akademi award in 1992. He passed away on 8 July 2006, aged 92.
Rao’s literary journey as an Indian author who wrote in English about Indian metaphysics can be traced by looking at three of his most popular works – Kanthapura, his first novel; The Serpent and the Rope, an exposition of Indian and European metaphysics, and The Chessmaster and His Moves, in which he attempted to arrive at some semblance of a metaphysical unity.
Kanthapura and the act of writing in a colonial language
Kanthapura was Rao’s first full-length fictional novel and it is here that he expresses the discomfort he experienced while writing in English. His ultimate aspiration was to accurately translate Indian sensibilities into English, an “alien” language by his own admission. However, writing in English was complicated for him, not just because it was then not an Indian language, but more importantly, because it was the language of the colonial ruler.
“The telling has not been easy,” he writes in the much-celebrated preface of the novel, “One has to convey in a language that is not one’s own the spirit that is one’s own. One has to convey the various shades and omissions of a certain thought-movement that looks maltreated in an alien language.”
If anything, Rao was fairly successful in his project. There is a certain cadence to the narrative in Kanthapura — it follows a familiar rhythm that brings together oral narratives of yore into the written word.
Sample its very first line: “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.”
R. Parthasarathy calls the novel a “microcosm of village India” and that was perhaps Rao’s ultimate aim with Kanthapura.
The Serpent and the Rope
Rao moved onto more internal struggles with The Serpent and The Rope, which has a distinct metaphysical premise in a fictional context. The narrative closely mirrors Rao’s own life and one is left to wonder exactly how much of himself can be discerned through the tale. The protagonist, Ramaswamy, is a young Indian boy who travels to France to study European thought while his own upbringing as a Brahmin forms an integral part of his psyche. He discovers the distinctions and similarities between life and thought in India and Europe, in an attempt to arrive at an understanding of the human self.
It is a difficult quest, perhaps an impossible one, and Rao acknowledges that in the novel, which can be viewed as not only a celebration of what it means to be human but also the role of one’s own culture in that development. For Rao, the question of Indianness continued to be an important one and he attempted to show this through Ramaswamy’s character.
Ramaswamy marries Madeleine, a French woman who is some years older than him and represents all he loves in French philosophy. For Madeleine, he is the Indian ideal. But this Indian and European resolution is not an easy one. Later in the novel, when Ramaswamy returns to France after visiting his family, Madeleine notes that he is “darker” and when she kisses him “it was like kissing a serpent or the body of death”.
This is the shattering of the built-up illusion for both Madeleine and Ramaswamy and this is perhaps where Rao’s deftness as an author lay. He was able to weave together the planes of reality and illusion to bring forth a story that is ultimately about the human experience with all its complex contours.
The Chessmaster and His Moves
If The Serpent and the Rope highlighted binaries in metaphysics, a certain form of non-dualism emerge in The Chessmaster and His Moves. Many literary critics believe that Rao modelled this novel on the principle of Advaita Vedanta, or the belief that the true self or atman is the same as brahman or the highest metaphysical reality.
The novel consists of deep meditations on life, death, divine unity, time and love. The protagonist of the novel is Sivarama, a Tamil Brahmin mathematician. Rao was obviously attempting to play on the much-discussed mathematical dimension of Indian metaphysics, particularly the concept of brahman. At one point in the novel, Sivarama says, “My mind was essentially metaphysical… thus evading humans. For after all, the human has no ultimate significance.”
In the midst of all these complicated questions, the most prominent one the novel seeks to address is the fundamental question that every human asks himself or herself at some point in time — “Who am I?” This is a question that haunted Rao throughout his life as he attempted to arrive at some reconciliation about himself as an Indian author writing in English about Indian sensibilities in a foreign land.