Narayan is distinguished by his ironic vision--he has created the small town of Malgudi and its middle-class characters. Rao, a philosophical novelist, is the most complex of the three. His three major novels--Kanthapura, The Serpent and the Rope (1960), and The Cat and Shakespeare: A Tale of India (1965)--are quite different from each other. Kanthapura, dealing with the impact of Gandhian ideology on a remote village in south India, is primarily a novel of social realism. The Serpent and the Rope takes its title from the Advaita Vedanta of Shankaracharya, in which the serpent and the rope are symbols of ultimate reality and cosmic illusion. The Cat and Shakespeare is a "metaphysical comedy" (Rao's words) dominated by the worldview of Ramanujacharya's Visistadvaita school of Indian philosophy.
Rao's fiction is distinguished by experimentation in form and language. His foreword to Kanthapura expresses the problems of the Indian writer succinctly: "One has to convey in a language that is not one's own the spirit that is one's own." He molds the language to suit the narrator. Kanthapura expresses the sensibility of a village grandmother and employs a simple vocabulary and sentence structure. Later novels such as The Serpent and the Rope and The Chessmaster and His Moves (1988) are written in a dense, convoluted style, reflecting the intellectual concerns of the narrator. Rao's greatest achievement is to Indianize the novel by adopting traditional Indian modes of storytelling, based on the Puranas. He is also a distinguished short-story writer; though not many (only about a dozen stories), they are varied in theme and treatment.
Rao was born on 8 November 1908 in the small town of Hassan in southern India into a family of Brahmins who had been advisers to kings for generations. He was born at the precise moment when his father was receiving the Maharaja of Mysore, Krishna Raja Wodeyar, at their ancestral home, so the child was named Raja (King) instead of Ramakrishna after his grandfather. Rao was only four years old when his mother died; his father remarried, and although his work includes references to a kind and loving stepmother, the theme of being an orphan finds a dominant place in the two novels that have an autobiographical strain: The Serpent and the Rope and The Chessmaster and His Moves. Rao was the eldest of two brothers and seven sisters. His father taught at Nizam's College, Hyderabad, and so Rao was educated there, the only Hindu in the Madrasa-e-Aliya, a school meant for the children of Muslim noblemen. Annual vacations were spent in Hassan and Malnad, the hilly region of Mysore state, with his grandfather, who greatly influenced him: his grandfather taught him to love Sanskrit and kindled his interest in Indian philosophy. As a child, Rao often suffered from lung trouble, so he was encouraged to spend time in his "home mountains" and later sent to Aligarh in northern India. He took his B.A. degree in 1929 from Nizam's College, specializing in English and history. As he records in the preface to his collection of stories The Policeman and the Rose (1978): "My karma had certainly something to do with my Muslim connections," for Rao, a quintessential Brahmin, whose vision of India is essentially Hindu, lived in predominantly Muslim towns and studied in Muslim institutions. At the Aligarh Muslim University he studied French for the first time. He received the Asiatic Scholarship awarded by the government of Hyderabad for study abroad and went to France, since Sir Patrick Geddes had invited him to study at the international college he had established at Montpellier. Rao studied at the Sorbonne for three years, working Indian influence on Irish literature under the supervision of Louis Cazamian. But he gave up formal academic pursuits to return to India in 1933 to live in Pandit Taranath's ashram in Tungabhadra in southern India. Rao's spiritual quest took him to various ashrams: he met Sri Aurobindo at Pondicherry, Ramana Maharshi at Tiruvannamalai (in Tamil Nadu), and Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi in Sevagram. In 1943 Rao succeeded in finding his guru, Sri Atmananda Guru, in Trivandrum: the epigraphs of Rao's novels The Serpent and the Rope and The Cat and Shakespeare are taken from Atmananda Guru's works on Vedanta.
The most important influence on Rao's early work was his first wife, Camille Mouly, a professor of French at Montpellier; she had translated the Bhagavad Gita and Aurobindo's commentaries into French and was interested in India. She encouraged Rao to develop a style of his own. As he writes in his article "Entering the Literary World": "She did not think my Tagore-Yeats English (with some Macaulay added to it) was at all literary." He started writing in Kannada almost immediately after getting married in 1929. He wrote in French, too, and was influenced by such contemporary writers as Franz Kafka , who had "broken the fable of realism"; André Gide ; André Malraux ; James Joyce ; and other Irish writers such as Frank O'Connor and Sean O'Faolain. Just four examples of Rao's Kannada work remain; these appeared in Jaya Karnataka, a journal published from the small town of Dharwar in Karnataka State. Rao's characteristic preoccupation with the meaning of India is found in the articles "Pilgrimage to Europe" (1931) and "Europe and Ourselves" (1931). "Romain Rolland, the Great Sage" (1932) comprises a personal interview and a brief introduction to Rolland and his work. "The Expiation of a Heretic" (1933), an autobiographical poem expressing the feeling of an Indian expatriate, is Rao's only excursion into Kannada verse. Both G. S. Amur (in his article "Raja Rao: The Kannada Phase") and M. K. Naik feel that these Kannada writings have no great intrinsic worth. Their value lies in enabling Rao to "find the richness of the English language." Rao says that he "emerged out of this holy dip a new man, with a more vigorous and maybe a more authentic style."
Most of the short stories in The Cow of the Barricades and Other Stories (1947) were written in the 1930s. "Javni," a story that appeared in Asia (New York) in 1933, was his first publication in English. The French version of "Akkayya," a short story, also appeared in the same year. Two other stories in The Cow of the Barricades and Other Stories first appeared in French: "A Client" (1934) and "The Little Gram Shop" (1937). "A Client" is the only story based on a Kannada original. But all the stories use English in an original manner.
Rao's short fictions fall into two broad categories. The stories written during the 1930s and early 1940s are generally in the mode of social realism, while the stories written in the 1950s and 1960s, and first published in book form in The Policeman and the Rose, tend to be metaphysical, with metaphorical and symbolical overtones. The stories in The Cow of the Barricades and Other Stories offer amazing variety. "Akkayya," "Javni," and "The Little Gram Shop" have memorable women characters and expose the cruel treatment of women, especially widows, by Indian society. The social concern of the writer is evident; the poverty of the low-caste Javni is made clear through small details, such as Javni considering an anna (a sixteenth of a rupee) a great deal of money: "It is what I earn in two days," she says. "In Khandesh," revealing the poor villagers' unquestioning love for their king, is expressionistic in technique and filled with the ominous throbbing of the drums. "The True Story of Kanakapala, Protector of Gold" is entirely different. Rangappa, a pious villager, sets out on a pilgrimage to Kashi; on the way he has a vision of the divine couple Shiva and Parvati and builds a shrine at that spot. His greedy descendants wish to appropriate the holy pot containing Rangappa's savings dedicated to the holy couple. A cobra, Kanakapala, protects the gold day and night but does not bite the thieves because they are of Rangappa's line. Realizing that his treasure has been robbed, the snake commits suicide. The narration has all the vigor of a folktale and captures a facet of Indian life that has seldom been presented in English.
"Companions" shows that Indian culture includes both Hindu and Muslim elements. Pandit Srinath Sastri, a devout but greedy Brahmin, is born as a serpent because of a curse and can get redemption only when Moti Khan, a Muslim basket maker, sees God. The Muslim travels north to Sheikh Chisti's tomb in Fatehpur Sikri and has a mystic experience there. "Narsiga" and "The Cow of Barricades" offer vignettes of India's struggle for freedom, the central theme of Rao's first novel, Kanthapura.
In his foreword to Kanthapura , Rao writes, "There is no village in India, however mean, that has not a rich sthala-purana, or legendary history, of its own. . . . One such story from the contemporary annals of my village I have tried to tell." The novel describes the impact of Gandhi and the struggle for freedom on a small village in southern India. Through his narrator, a garrulous grandmother, and his range of characters, Rao re-creates village life and reveals human nature in its rich diversity. Two stock elements of the village, the temple and the greedy moneylender, are present, but in Kanthapura the baseness of Bhatta, the village priest who grows rich by lending money, is a study of the degeneration of the Brahmin. Rao also gives a graphic account of the exploitation of the coolies in the nearby Skeffington coffee estate. The novel was a pioneering effort; Meenakshi Mukherjee refers to Kanthapura as "a remarkably radical text, in which he [Rao] experimented with language and used a collective feminine perspective, fusing myth and history in an innovative narrative mode." The narrative structure of Kanthapura exhibits many features of the Puranas, such as the upakatha ("subsidiary narrative"), which allows the narrator to digress freely. Like the harikatha, an oral performance of the Purana by a single speaker, the idiom of Kanthapura is colloquial, and the narrator uses songs to enliven the story. Rao never presents Mahatma Gandhi as a flesh-and-blood character in his novels; he shows Gandhi's impact through the influence of Moorthy, an educated young villager who has a mystic vision of the Mahatma. Kanthapura is a work of social realism, but it is not confined to that plane alone; as critic H. M. Williams has observed, "Kanthapura, which looks in many ways like a realistic epic of the freedom struggle, turns out on introspection to be the first of Raja Rao's explorations of the nature of India."
Rao's second novel, The Serpent and the Rope , has a much wider scope than Kanthapura; it moves to Benares, France, and England from the protagonist Ramaswamy's ancestral village of Hariharapura. It ends with the narrator finding his guru at Trivandrum; this novel includes a strong autobiographical element that describes the failure of the marriage between a south Indian Brahmin and a French girl (Rao's marriage was dissolved in 1949). Many novelists have explored the encounter between India and the West. But in Rao's novel, the West is not merely Madeleine, whom Ramaswamy marries, but a multitude of characters: her cousin Catherine; her uncle Charles Rousselin and aunt Zoubeida; Lezo, the exile from Spain; the religious Russian, Georges Khuschbertieff; the French taxi driver, Henri; the porter at Girton College, Cambridge; and the patron at the café at Aix. The novel is not only about contemporary Europe, but also its cultural history through the centuries: Tristan and Isolde, Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet , Karl Marx , Friedrich Nietzsche , Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, the troubadours of Provençe, the cathedrals of France, the operas of Richard Wagner , and The Brothers Karamazov (1879-1880) by Fyodor Dostoevsky . It is a soutenance de theses at the Sorbonne and the coronation of Queen Elizabeth in London.
The Serpent and the Rope is narrated by Ramaswamy, who goes to Europe in 1946 to study; three years later he marries Madeleine, whom he meets at the University of Caen. The novel begins with Rama's visit to India at the age of twenty-two, when his father falls ill and dies. Rama's meeting with Savithri, the unwilling fiancée of his friend Pratap, highlights what he misses in Madeleine. The death of both their children, one at seven months, another at birth, proves too much for Madeleine. Rama's second visit to India, for the marriage of his sister Saroja, increases the rift between Madeleine and Rama. Madeleine turns to Buddhism, withdrawing from the world; she mistakenly thinks that all Rama needs to be happy is an Indian wife nearer his age (she is five years older than he) and so completes the divorce proceedings when he returns to France. All these experiences breed vairagya (a sense of detachment) in Rama, and he realizes that only a guru can show him the way out of this samsara (career or the soul); at the end of the novel he is at peace, having found his guru. The novel deals with the themes of love, death, and marriage; the repeated allusions lend rhythm to the narrative. An important organizational principle is that of cyclic repetition. Rao explores the theme of marriage through parallel instance: Tristan and Isolde, Abelard and Heloise, the Upanishadic story of sage Yajnyavalkya and Maitreyi, Satyavan and Savithri, Rama and Sita, and Krishna and Radha. Many other repeated motifs relate to Buddha's great renunciation, Paul Valéry 's "Le Cimetière Marin," and the Cathars. The scene shifts back and forth in time and space with frequent flashbacks.
Rao has said that the novel is an attempt at "a Pauranic recreation of Indian storytelling: that is to say, the story as a story is conveyed through a thin thread to which are attached (or which passes through) many other stories, fables and philosophical disquisitions, like a mala [beads used to count mantras or prayers]." Many stories are attached to the main narrative, like beads in a necklace. Some, such as the story of Satyavrata (a king of the Puranas, who has to choose between giving up the deer that had sought refuge or breaking his vow of silence), or the parable about the man who tried to cover the whole world with leather instead of buying himself some footwear, are a part of Ramaswamy's consciousness. The folktale about Prince Satyakama and the princess who comes out of a pumpkin provides a parallel to the life of Ramaswamy and Savithri. The novel includes many philosophical discussions between Ramaswamy and his friends abroad. This inclusion is contextually appropriate, because the protagonist is an intellectual, researching a complex concept, trying to establish the link between the Druzes, the Manicheans, the Cathars, the Albigensian heresy, and Buddhism. Rao attempts to infuse something of the rhythms of Sanskrit into his English prose. Some Sanskrit literary texts mix prose and verse (champu-kavya). Rao incorporates poetry (French and German), Sanskrit hymns and chants, the bhajans of Mirabai, Provençal songs, snatches of opera (with musical notations), diary entries, legends, and folktales to give his prose a distinctive texture.
The Serpent and the Rope won the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1964, and the government of India honored Rao with the Padma Bhushan in 1969. In 1965 Rao accepted an invitation from the University of Texas, Austin, to teach philosophy, and in the same year he married Katherine Jones, a young American actress. They have a son. His third novel, The Cat and Shakespeare , was published in 1965. It is also philosophical, but in the comic mode, and presents an authentic picture of life in India in the 1940s. It is a kind of sequel to The Serpent and the Rope, which posited mukti (salvation) through jnana (knowledge). The symbol of the cat is from the philosophy of Ramanujacharya, which lays emphasis on Divine Grace, and salvation through bhakti (devotion). Just as the kitten allows itself to be carried by the mother cat, so humanity can attain salvation by complete surrender to the Divine. An earlier version called "The Cat" was published in The Chelsea Review in 1959, but in terms of composition, the novel came earlier. According to Naik, "The Cat and Shakespeare was actually written about two years after The Serpent and the Rope was completed in 1955-1956."
Ramakrishna Pai, the narrator, and Govindan Nair are clerks in a government rationing office in Trivandrum in the 1950s. Pai's wife, Saroja, is so busy managing the ancestral property that she has no inclination to travel to Trivandrum to look after her husband. Nair, Pai's neighbor, helps him at every step; through his grace, Pai is vouchsafed a mystic vision. The novel includes bizarre incidents such as a scene of cat worship in the ration office and a trial in which the cat is a witness. While The Serpent and the Rope shows the hero struggling for enlightenment and looking for a guru, The Cat and Shakespeare shows the grace of the guru in operation. Holy men are stock characters in Indian fiction. The majority of novelists--for example, Anand, Khushwant Singh, Narayan (in The Guide ), and Manohar Malgonkar--present them as frauds who exploit the faith of gullible people. Rao's Govindan Nair is far from the popular image of the holy man; that this guru is credible is a measure not only of Rao's talent as a novelist but also of his deep understanding of the Indian spiritual tradition and the concept of the jivanmukta, a person who has attained salvation while continuing with worldly life. The language of The Cat and Shakespeare is simple; yet, Nair can express complex truths because he works through parables similar to those in the Upanishads (commentaries on the Vedas [earliest Hindu sacred writings]).
Comrade Kirillov (1976), written a few years before The Serpent and the Rope, is a sketch of an Indian communist whose real name is Padmanabha Iyer. It was first published in a French version by Georges Fradier in 1965. The epigraph of the novel is from Dostoevsky's The Possessed (1872), and Rao's characters are as obsessed with India as Dostoevsky's Shatov is with Mother Russia. The style is involved, featuring long words and sentences. Critics such as Naik, D. S. Maini, and Narsingh Srivastava feel that this novella lacks form and seems to be merely a rehash of material left undeveloped in Rao's earlier work. P. K. Rajan admires the book for its satire, though he feels that the novel is "divested of literary form" and is "deficient in what precisely is Raja Rao's superb achievement in Kanthapura, a sublime artistic cohesion." But other critics--such as Esha Dey, V. V. Badve, and Vineypal Kaur Kirpal--praise its form; Kirpal, in fact, believes that the novel has "perfect structural unity."
The narrator, "R," a friend of Padmanabha Iyer (Kirillov), resembles the novelist himself. Kirillov marries a Czech girl, Irene, and they have a son, Kamal. When Irene dies in childbirth a few years later, Kamal is sent to his grandfather in south India. The novel is lyrically intense in its description of "R" taking the child to the temple of the Virgin Goddess at Kanya Kumari and thus providing a kind of vicarious homecoming for the Moscow-bound Kirillov and Irene, who loved India. The narrative is interspersed with a twenty-six-page excerpt from Irene's diaries covering the period 1939-1945, which provides a different perspective on events. The book includes interminable discussions of communism and allied matters. Rao appears to be saying that an Indian communist is a contradiction in terms, that an Indian can only be a Gandhian.
Rao's second collection of short stories, The Policeman and the Rose , has an informative preface by Rao about his writing practice. He had published several sketches and short stories in a popular magazine, The Illustrated Weekly of India, in the 1960s. Three of these stories are included in The Policeman and the Rose, which reprints seven earlier stories (with only slight revisions). "The Cow of the Barricades," the title story of the earlier collection, has an allegorical dimension. In this story about India's struggle for independence (the theme of Kanthapura), the cow is a real creature as well as a symbol of Mother India, and the "Master" parallels Mahatma Gandhi. In "India: A Fable," too, the subjects are valid both as symbols and at the realistic level. Critics have praised this story, which mixes fact and fancy, but the uninitiated reader may find the philosophy obtrusive. "The Policeman and the Rose" presents reality through the parable of a nameless narrator who is "arrested when born." Rao makes no attempt at realism, and the action takes place at an unspecified time. The policeman and the rose have multiple meanings--such as the fetters of the ego, the sensual life, and karma--ably explicated by Naik and C. D. Narasimhaiah. "Nimka" is the story of a young white Russian living in self-exile in Paris with her mother. The girl is attracted to the young Indian narrator (who appears to be a clone of Ramaswamy, the narrator of The Serpent and the Rope) and loves nineteen-year-old Michel, a student of Sanskrit. She marries an old Russian count, but he soon deserts her and their son.
Rao taught at Texas from 1966 to 1980. In 1972 he was named a Fellow of the Woodrow Wilson International Center, Washington, D.C. He was elected an Honorary Fellow of the Modern Language Association of America in 1984. After his divorce from Katherine, he married for a third time in 1986. In 1988 he won the Neustadt International Prize in literature, sponsored by the University of Oklahoma. The essays in the special issue of World Literature Today published on the occasion speak highly of his work, especially his fifth novel, The Chessmaster and His Moves , the first volume of a projected trilogy. The concept of life as lila ("play of the Divine") is present in The Cat and Shakespeare; in The Chessmaster and His Moves worldly existence is likened to a game of chess. The hero, Sivarama Sastri, is a brilliant mathematician working in Paris. Like Moorthy, Ramaswamy, Ramakrishna Pai, and "R" of the earlier novels, he is a south Indian Brahmin. He has many women in his life: Suzanne, an actress who lives with him and hopes to marry him; Jayalakshmi, the Indian princess married to Surrendar Singh; and Mireille, married to a close friend of Sastri. The hero's sister Uma is portrayed vividly; the way she almost worships her brother recalls Saroja in The Serpent and the Rope. The 729-page The Chessmaster and His Moves includes many philosophical discussions, with Sastri meeting his match in the "rabbi," Michel, a survivor of the concentration camps. As in his other novels, Rao is preoccupied with India and the real meaning of being a Brahmin.
Critical opinion is sharply divided on the merits of The Chessmaster and His Moves. Edwin Thumboo calls it "the most international novel we have" and "Rao's greatest achievement." R. Parthasarathy considers it "a metaphysical novel without equal in our time." Prema Nandakumar, however, is forthright in condemning it in her book review published in The Hindu: "The tedium is often unbearable . . . Raja Rao goes on and on mesmerized by his own voice." Naik feels that The Chessmaster and His Moves is little more than a reworking of material already presented. As he says in Indian English Literature 1980-2000: A Critical Survey: "The chief difficulty with The Chessmaster and His Moves is that at every step, it fills one with an uncomfortable sense of déjà vu; the narrative reads almost like a more prolix and rather confused retelling of Raja Rao's acknowledged masterpiece, The Serpent and the Rope."
On the Ganga Ghat (1989) is a series of stories delineating a variety of characters, including birds and animals, in the holy city of Benares. Rao's claim that the eleven chapters are part of a linked narrative "so structured that the whole book should be read as a single novel" is difficult to justify. The last chapter includes musings on life in general and on Benares in particular.
Rao was elected a Fellow of the Sahitya Akademi (New Delhi) in 1997. The Meaning of India (1996) brings together his nonfiction work published earlier in journals as varied as The Texas Quarterly, Encounter, and The Literary Criterion (Mysore). The Meaning of India also includes articles as well as speeches (such as his acceptance speech of the Neustadt International Prize in 1988) and prefaces to anthologies of essays (such as the memorial volume to Indira Gandhi). Just one piece, "The Silence of Mahatma Gandhi," was written especially for this collection. Rao has written about the significance of Mahatma Gandhi in novels (especially Kanthapura , and Comrade Kirillov ) and short stories. He has now published a biography, The Great Indian Way: A Life of Mahatma Gandhi (1998), which employs the convoluted, philosophical prose of his later novels.
Raja Rao has dealt extensively with the meaning of India, whether the village (Kanthapura), the small town (The Cat and Shakespeare), or the young intellectual abroad (The Serpent and the Rope). These three novels have attained the status of classics. Critics differ in their valuation of The Chessmaster and His Moves; but they all agree that Rao is one of the most important Indian-English novelists of the twentieth century, because he Indianized the novel in form, language, and theme.
Narayan, Shyamala A. "Raja Rao." South Asian Writers in English, edited by Fakrul Alam, Gale, 2006.