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Raja Rao (1908-2006)


Indian writer of novels and short stories, whose works are deeply rooted in Brahmanism and Hinduism. Raja Rao's semi-autobiographical novel, The Serpent and the Rope (1960), is a story of a search for spiritual truth in Europe and India. It established him as one of the finest Indian stylists. "Writing is my dharma," he once said.

I hear you saying that liberation is possible
and that Socratic wisdom
is identical with your guru's.
No, Raja, I must start from what I am.
I am those monsters which visit my dreams
and reveal to me my hidden essence.

(Czeslaw Milosz in 'To Raja Rao')

Raja Rao was born on November 8, 1908 in Hassan, in the state of Mysore in south India, into a well-known Brahman family. His native language was Kanarese, but his post-graduate education was in France, and all his publications in book form were in English. Rao's father, H.V. Krishnaswamy, was a anglicised Indian; he died in 1940. Rao's mother, Gauramma, died in 1912.

Like the Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe, writing in English, Rao was concerned with the colonial language. In the foreword to Kanthapura (1938), published in London, he admitted the difficulties in using "a language that is not one's own the spirit that is one's own," and conveying "the various shades and omissions of certain thought-movement that looks maltreated in an alien language."

Rao was educated at Muslim schools. After graduating from Madrasa-e-Aliya (Hyderabad) as the only Brahmin student, he studied English at the Aligarh Muslim Universiry and took a degree from the Nizam College (Hyderabad). In 1929 Rao left India for Europe, where he remained for a decade. He studied at the universities of Montpellier and the Sorbonne, doing research in Christian theology and history. In 1931 he married a French academic, Camille Mouly, who translated some of his short stories. Later he depicted the breakdown of their marriage in The Serpent and the Rope.

While in France, Rao was appointed to the editorial board of Le Mercure de France (Paris). His first stories, which show the influence of Kafka, Malraux, and the Surrealists, Rao published in French and English. During 1931-32 he contributed four articles written in Kannada for Jaya Karnataka, an influential journal.

Along with such writers as Mulk Raj Anand and R.K. Narayan, Rao stood in the forefront of the emerging Indian English literature. When his marriage disintegrated in 1939, Rao returned to India and began his first period of residence in an ashram. During WW II, he travelled widely in India in search of his spiritual heritage, edited with Ahmed Ali the literary magazine Tomorrow and met his guru, Sri Atmananda, in Kerala. In 1942 he spent six months in Mahatma Gandhi's ashram at Sevagram, in Maharashtra. With a socialist group Rao took part in underground activities against the British rule.  In 1949 he edited Jawaharkak Nehru's Soviet Russia: Some Random Sketches and Impressions.

Rao's involvement in the nationalist movement is reflected in his first two books. The novel Kanthapura (1938) was an account of the impact of Gandhi's teaching on non-violent resistance against the British. The story is seen from the perspective of a small Mysore village in South India. Rao borrows the style and structure from Indian vernacular tales and folk-epic. The narrator is an old woman. She tells how the community obtains from daily life, with its millennia-old worship of the local deity, the strength to stand against the British Raj.

In the character of the young Moorthy, who comes back from the city, Rao portrays an idealist and supporter of ahimsa and satyagraha, who wants to cross the traditional barriers of caste. The younger generation has city ways, they read city books, and they even call themselves Gandhi-men. Doré, as the old woman calls the "university graduate," has given up his "boots and hat and suit and had taken to dhoti and khadi, and it was said he had even given up his city habit of smoking." The work was highly praised by the English writer E.M. Forster, whose masterwork A Passage to India (1924) criticized British imperialism. However, Rao's India is not a certain geographical or historical entity, but more of a philosophical concept and a symbol of spiritual calling.

Rao returned to the theme of Gandhism in the short story collection The Cow of the Barricades (1947). In 1998 he published Gandhi's biography Great Indian Way: A Life of Mahatma Gandhi. After India gained independence, Rao traveled throughout the world, making his first visit to the Unites States in 1950. He also spent some more time living in an ashram. In 1965 he married a stage actress, Katherine Jones; the marriage also ended in divorce. From 1963 Rao lectured on Indian philosophy at the University of Texas, Austin, before retiring in 1983. In November 1986 he married Susan Vaught; they had two sons. Rao received in 1988 the prestigious Neustadt International Prize for Literature. Several Neustadt Laureates have also received the Nobel Prize for literature, among them Gabriel García Márquez, Czeslaw Milosz, and Octavio Paz. In 1997 Rao  received India's highest literary award, the Sahitya Akademi fellowship.

The Serpent and the Rope was written after a long silence during which Rao lived India, where he renewed a connection with his roots in the modern rendering of the Mahabharata legend of Satayavan and Savithri. The work also dramatized the relationships between Indian and Western culture. Ramaswamy, a young Brahmin studying in France, is married to a French college teacher, Madeleine, who sees her husband above all as a guru. As Ramaswamy struggles with commitments imposed on him by his Hindu family, his wife becomes a Buddhist in her spiritual quest and renounces worldly desires. She leaves her husband to find his own true self. The serpent in the title refers to the illusion and the rope to the reality.

Cat and Shakespeare (1965) was a metaphysical comedy that answered philosophical questions posed in the earlier novels. In the book the Hindu notion of karma is symbolized by a cat. The hero discovers in his attempts to receive divine grace, that there is no dichotomy between himself and God. Comrade Kirillov (1976) was written early in Rao's career and was first published in French. It satirized communism as an ideological misunderstanding of man's ultimate aims, and argued that all foreign creeds gradually become Indianized.

The Chessmaster and His Moves (1988) is peopled by characters from various cultures seeking their identities. Like Nabokov, Rao used the metaphor of the chess game to animate philosophical and psychological ideas. In the story Sivaram Sastri, an Indian mathematician in Paris, meets Proust, and recounts his love affairs and friendships. Rao has confessed: "I am no scholar. I am a creative writer. I love to play with ideas. It is like a chess game with horses, elephants, chamberlains and kings which might fight with one another. The game is not for winning. It is for rasa-delight." Raja Rao died of heart failure on July 8, 2006, at his home in Austin, Texas. He was 97.

For further reading: The Rose and the Lotus, Partnership Studies in the Works of Raja Rao by Stefano Mercanti (2010); The Feminine Mirrored: Raja Rao, R.K. Narayan, Bhabani Bhattacharya by Sandhya Sharma (2002); The Fiction of Raja Rao, ed. by Rajeshwar Mittapalli and Pier Paolo Piciucco (2001); Socio Cultural Aspects of Life in the Selected Novels of Raja Rao by A. Sudhakar Rao (2000) ; Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Vol. 3, ed. by Steven R. Serafin (1999); Critical Study of Novels of Arun Joshi, Raja Rao and Sudhin N. Ghose by T.J. Abraham (1999); Myths of the Nation by Rumina Sethi (1999); The Novels of Raja Rao by E. Dey (1992); Raja Rao by M.K. Naik (1972); Raja Rao by C.D. Narasimhaiah (1973); Indian Writing in English by K.R. Srinivasa Iyengar (1962) 

Selected works:

  • Kanthapura, 1938
  • Changing India, 1939 (ed., with Iqbal Singh)
  • The Cow of the Barricades, and Other Stories, 1947
  • Whither India, 1948 (with I. Singh)
  • The Serpent and the Rope, 1960
  • The Cat and Shakespeare: A Tale of India, 1965
  • Comrade Kirilov, 1976
  • The Policeman and the Rose: Stories, 1978
  • The Chessmaster and His Moves, 1988
  • On the Ganga Ghat, 1993
  • The Meaning of India, 1996
  • Great Indian Way: A Life of Mahatma Gandhi, 1998
  • The Best of Raja Rao, 1998 (selected and edited by Makarand Paranjape)

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