Raja Rao and his Novels Echo the Gandhian Freedom Movement

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Basudeb critiques the novels of Raja Rao and analyses the impact of Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy in his works, in the weekly column, exclusively in Different Truths.

Raja Rao was roughly a contemporary of and R.K. Narayan. He was born on November 8, 1908, in the State of Mysore. His mother tongue was ‘Kannada’. English was his second . He completed his post graduate study in France. He was adequately exposed to Europe and America because of his frequent visits to those two continents. But at the same time he was a child of Gandhian period. He breathed in an environment of Gandhian philosophy of life. His important works are Kanthapura (1938), Changing India (ed., with I.Singh,1947),The Cow of the Barricades, and other stories(1947),Whither India (with I.Singh,1948),The and the Rope (1960),The Cat and Shakespeare (1965),Comrade Kirilov (1976),The Policeman and the Rose(1978),The Chess master and His Moves (1978),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).

In the foreword to his first novel Kanthapura, Raja Rao confessed that had much problems in writing his Indian experience of life in English. Every language is culture-specific. Naturally the novelist explored a particular variety of English language that matched his experience of Indian life he delineated in his novels. And that variety is Indian English which is distinctively different from the Standard British English. One of the important characteristic features of Raja Rao’s English is the ‘Mother-tongue interference’. He created many words which are technically known as ‘Classifiers’ (Compound words) to communicate his ideas or to describe certain features of his or events in his novels. Raja Rao’s enthusiastic contribution in the Indian Struggle for Independence under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi has been echoed particularly in his first two works, Kanthapura and The Cow of the Barricades.

Kanthapura shows how the protagonist in the novel is inspired by Mahatma Gandhi’s principle of nonviolence. The novel is a record of Indian’s non-violent resistance against the colonial masters in India. Srinivasa Iyengar comments, “The theme of Kanthapura may be summed up as ‘Gandhi and our village’, but the style of narration makes the book more a Gandhi Purana than a piece of mere fiction. Gandhi is the invisible god, Moorthy is the visible avatar. The reign of the Red Men is the Asuric (demonic) rule, and it is resisted by the Devas, the Satyagrahis. The characters sharply divide into two camps: the Rulers (and their supporters), on the one hand, and the Satyagrahis (and their sympathisers), on the other.” (Iyengar, 391).

The locale of the story is a tiny village in South India. It is ‘Kanthapura’. This small village represents the whole of India. One can have the glimpses of the Indian struggle for Independence and the Indian philosophy of life through what happens at this tiny and obscure village. One old woman is the narrator of the story. Moorthy, the protagonist of the novel hails from the city to that village and he is very much inspired by the Gandhiji’s ahimsa and Satyagraha movement.

The novel is also a comment on the widespread caste system in Indian society. Gandhi believed that caste system in Indian society is inhuman and barbarous and he believed that this caste system is detrimental to the growth of the country. Moorthy is the ardent disciple of Mahatma Gandhi, who is the central character in the title story,The Cow of the Barricades, though Gandhi is in the background. Raja Rao wrote The Serpent and the Rope when he returned to India after a long stay abroad. During this phase of his life, Raja Rao tried to explore a “connection with his roots in the modern rendering of the Mahabharata legend of Satayavan and Savithri. The work also dramatised the relationships between Indian and Western culture”.

Raja Rao’s Kanthapura has the quality of an epic and The Serpent and the Rope has the quality of an encyclopedia. The novel, autobiographical in nature, shows novelist’s conscious shift of attention from the Gandhism to Vedantic Hindusim, from freedom narrative to metaphysical fiction. The Cat and Shakespeare is a comedy based on metaphysical narratives. It attempts to answer certain questions pertaining to philosophy, the questions the novelist made in his earlier works. The Chessmaster and his Moves show how people belonging to different cultures are in search of their identities.

©Basudeb Chakraborti

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Basudeb Chakraborti

Basudeb Chakraborti

Basudeb Chakraborti is a retired professor of English and Faculty Dean, University of Kalyani. He founded the Department of English in Sikkim Central University (2013). He taught in the USA and India. He wrote more than 100 articles in different literary journals in India and abroad. Among his books, Thomas Hardy's View of Happiness, Some Problems of Translation: A Study of Tagore's Red Oleanders, Indian Partition Fiction in English and in English Translation, etc.
Basudeb Chakraborti