My own tribute to the late Raja Rao

Here is my own humble tribute to the late Raja Rao. It will appear in the
August 2006 edition of ENGLISH TODAY, an e-zine published in Delhi and
distributed to English teachers in India, thanks to the good offices of the
editor, my friend Suktara Ghosh.
With the passing away at the ripe age of 97, on 8 July 2006 at his home in Austin, Texas,
of Raja Rao, Indian Writing in English (IWE) has lost the last of its three
‘grand old men’, the triumvirate of R.K. Narayan, Mulk Raj Anand and Raja
Rao who are generally held to have exerted a crucial influence over IWE’s
key transition period between the late colonial and post-Independence
epochs. Of the three, Raja Rao was, while not neglecting either the
regional orientation of Narayan or the political discourse of Anand,
certainly the most philosophical, and his writing career can be seen as a
constant effort to bring a distinctively Indian metaphysical outlook into
the province of the novel form in English.
Born into a Brahmin family in 1908 in what is now Karnataka, Raja Rao was
nonetheless educated, as the only Hindu student, at a Muslim university in
Aligarh, and went on to study in Montpellier, France, and later at the
Sorbonne in Paris. He was thus early exposed to a multiplicity of cultural
influences, and saw it as his task to disentangle a distinctively modern
Hindu sensibility in a world where cultures inevitably meet and come into
dialogue. Over a literary career spanning three-quarters of a century, he
published five novels (more are for the moment unpublished), three
short-story collections and a large amount of non-fictional prose (more,
again, will appear posthumously). From 1960 on he was resident in Austin –
and yet expatriate though he was, Mother India was always at the forefront
of his thought and work.
Raja Rao began his writing career with the short stories that were later
collected as The Cow of the Barricades (1947), but it was the novel
Kanthapura (1938) that catapulted him to prominence. This tale of a
Gandhian struggle in a fictional South Indian village is notable for its
anti-colonialist thrust, its first-person narrative assuming the voice of a
woman villager, and its deliberate espousal, as set out in Rao’s famous
Preface, of a distinctively Indian form of the English language (‘We cannot
write like the English. We should not. We can only write as Indians’).
After a lengthy interval came a very different work, The Serpent and the
Rope (1960), a long philosophical novel set variously in France, England
and India, in which Rao explored the convergences and divergences of the
Indian and Western mindsets, in what the critic David McCutchion, writing
in 1969, perceptively called ‘a consistent, convincing presentation of a
particular kind of mind’ – an authentically Indian mind’.
In Comrade Kirillov (first published in a French-language edition in 1965),
Rao, writing under the influence of the great Russian masters, engaged
controversially in philosophical dialogue with Marxism, a belief-system
which he rejected. The next novel, The Cat and Shakespeare (1965), was
deliberately local – and yet universal – in its feel, offering a parable of
enlightenment in a small-town South Indian environment. 1978 saw another
volume of stories, The Policeman and the Rose; the autochthonous vein
continued, this time with a more cosmopolitan view of India, in On the
Ganga Ghat (1989), a volume of interlinked short stories about Benares and
its manifold pilgrims. The Chessmaster and His Moves (1988), Rao’s last
published novel, witnessed a return to the metaphysical concerns of The
Serpent and the Rope: it is the first volume in a trilogy whose remaining
parts will see the light of day in due course.
Raja Rao is survived by his devoted wife Susan, who tended him in his last
years. His work will be continued and his unpublished writings edited by a
small band of equally devoted scholars. The highly distinctive
philosophical tone of his writing remains unique in the annals of IWE, and
we now here pay homage to Raja Rao’s voice by sampling a passage from On
The Ganga Ghat that communicates something of that particular flavour, as
the devout cow, Jhaveri Bai, immerses herself in the Ganges:
The cow’s tears are purer than your brahmin prayers. Come and see it there,
if you will, by the Benares ghat. ‘God you made the elephant and the
peacock, the bear and the porcupine – even the dog did you make and the
hyena, creatures of this earth. But the cow, Lord, you made as your first
child. Lord, I sink in your waters, I sink into my origins. Lord, give me
the gift of truth.’
The Ganges flows fierce and fresh on Jhaveri Bai’s back. Head inturned and
her horns unshaking, Jhaveri Bai contemplates her own face in the moving
waters. There’s magic in this picture that appears and disappears.
More information on Raja Rao can be found at two very rich and detailed
sites, both maintained by the Rao scholar Letizia Alterno:

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