Raja Rao

Master of Indo-Anglian fiction
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The Independent Online

Raja Rao, writer and philosopher: born Hassan, India 8 November 1908; three times married (two sons); died Austin, Texas 8 July 2006.

"That Raja Rao is India's most significant novelist writing in the English language today is now indisputable," wrote the late C.D. Narasimhaiah, doyen of Indian literary critics. That was a judgement made over 30 years ago, but there are many who would still argue for Rao's supremacy in Indo-Anglian fiction.

With his ascetic and rather beautiful features, so that even in old age he retained a princely visage that was part-Hamlet and part-Krishna, the slightly built Raja Rao looked every inch a metaphysical and poetic novelist. He was the last of the quartet of writers, the others being Mulk Raj Anand, Nirad Chaudhuri and R.K. Narayan, who made English into a major literary language in the subcontinent. They all lived to great ages, but they were never close to each other.

Rao was the most intellectually demanding of the four and there were plenty of people prepared to dismiss him as pretentious, even fraudulent. It is hard, however, to imagine a cultural history of India that did not give proper respect to Kanthapura (1938) or to The Serpent and the Rope (1960), or which did not acknowledge Rao's place as a bridge between Eastern and Western ideas. His stature was recognised in India by several honours, including the Sahitya Akademi's highest award in 1997.

Raja Rao was born in 1908 (some records say 1909), a Brahmin from Hassan in Karnataka. His mother died when he was only four, so that his upbringing was mainly in the hands of his schoolmaster father and his spiritually minded paternal grandfather. His philosophical bent can be traced to these beginnings, but so too may be his delight in the company of young women, since he knew so few in his childhood and youth.

Though a Hindu by caste and culture, Rao was educated at a Muslim school in Hyderabad and at the Aligarh Muslim University in North India. It was in Aligarh that Rao first learned French, the language which opened up for him a philosophical domain unknown to Anand and Narayan. After matriculating in 1927, Rao returned to Hyderabad, graduating two years later from Nizam's College. He won the Asiatic Scholarship of the government of Hyderabad and left for the University of Montpellier. There, within a short time, he married a Frenchwoman, Camille Mouly, and started publishing stories in the Paris-based Cahiers du Sud.

Though now we can see a figure who occupied borderlands between cultures and histories, exploring links and articulating intellectual connections, especially between Europe and India, this was not so apparent in his first novel, Kanthapura. Rao had begun by writing stories in Kannada, but as he became more fully integrated in to a European way of life, for a while studying Irish writers at the Sorbonne, he gradually moved towards expressing himself in English. It was an English, however, strongly influenced, at the start of his writing career, by the cadences of his mother tongue.

Kanthapura remains one of the key texts in post-colonial literary studies for investigating how forms of English can develop free of some of the accrued associations of British culture. It is closest in spirit to the village locales of the great Anand and Narayan stories, but already Rao's philosophical cast of mind predominates. Kanthapura is a village caught up in the nationalist struggles of the 1930s and in the course of it Rao examines Gandhian thought (though not Gandhi himself) as a continuance of ancient spiritual truths to be found in the Puranas. The tale is told in the voice of a grandmother, Rangamma, through whom Rao seeks to capture some of the manner of traditional oral story-telling.

Rao lived a long time, but he was in the first half of his life a slow writer. He was to make up for this in recent years when some of his most complex works appeared, but these were the product of long mental gestation which reached back to his first decades. Apart from Kanthapura he wrote mainly short stories at the start of his career, many of which were brought together in The Cow of the Barricades and Other Stories (1947). They reflect his interest in social matters such as the plight of women in rural India. However, nothing he had written to date prepared readers for his masterwork, The Serpent and the Rope, which came out in 1960.

This took Indian writing in English away from the rural settings not only of his immediate peers but of the newer generation of novelists such as Kamala Markandaya. It marked a return to the metaphysical roots of Indian thought and culture, whilst being at the same time a speculation on the possible shared spirituality in the histories of East and West.

The Serpent and the Rope is a patrician novel in manner, but it could also be seen as a precursor of modern feminism in as much as enquiry into the nature of the Feminine Principle is one of its main themes, portrayed not only through the characters of Madeleine, Savithri and Little Mother, but in woman-honouring episodes woven in to the story, such as the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.

Autobiographical elements are obvious, for the central figure is an Indian postgraduate student called Rama, studying at Montpellier, married to a Frenchwoman, absorbed by apparent connections between ancient Indian philosophy and European medieval heresies and quests. Rama's is a pilgrimage towards what is utterly pure, whether it be in art or in metaphysics, a search for the Holy Grail whereby godliness is distilled into an earthly vessel and the unattainable goal of life is Truth. Late in life Rao was heard to complain that "most of modern literature is psychological. There is no search in it." The Serpent and the Rope is a novel of spiritual searching, but without fulfilment.

Nothing that Rao subsequently wrote had the impact of his first two novels, though his longest work, The Chessmaster and His Moves (1988), coincided with his winning the prestigious Neustadt International Prize for Literature. Rao refused to compromise over its length or its difficulty. Many reviews of the long-awaited book were hostile. "Is he a Vedantic philosopher or an insufferable poseur?" asked Prema Nandakumar in India's national daily The Hindu.

The popular readership that was there for Kanthapura and the intellectual discourse to which The Serpent and the Rope gave rise both evaporated with this unwieldy, often highly impersonal and abstract philosophical journey towards defining the Absolute. It may be that an editor, freed from the author's insistence that nothing be cut or re-shaped, will now be able to hew from this monument an elegant summation of Rao's understanding of wisdom. Meanwhile there is more to come from the same well, for The Chessmaster was planned as the first part of a trilogy, much of which was written but is as yet unpublished.

Rao wrote two novellas, The Cat and Shakespeare (1965) and Comrade Kirillov (1976), as well as two more books of short stories, The Policeman and the Rose (1978), which included some tales already published in The Cow of the Barricades, and On the Ganga Ghat (1988), short pieces which he hoped would be read in sequence as facets of one novel. He also brought out in 1996 an anthology of essays called The Meaning of India, which looked back to his nationalist days and to meetings with writers such as André Malraux and E.M. Forster. Included in it is his superb discussion of political leadership, "Wisdom and Power", derived from a lecture he had given in Washington, DC.

In 1998 his life of Mahatma Gandhi, The Great Indian Way, was published, an astonishingly lively account of the man whose spirit had illuminated Kanthapura. Rao felt that other biographies of Gandhi had been true to the facts but not to the meaning of his life. He had stayed at Gandhi's ashram in 1942, during the short period of his life when nationalism appealed to him more strongly than writing.

In 1965 Rao began teaching courses on Indian religion and philosophy at the University of Texas, Austin, which became his main residence for the rest of his life. He stayed in touch with India and continued well into his nineties to return each year. Although he defined India, as Nirad Chaudhuri had also done, as a state of mind, a perspective, a darsana, more than as a nation or a culture, he never lost his taste for the smells and actuality of his home state.

This most meditative, serene and ascetic of men was also the embodiment of quiet courtesy. Over a simple lunch in London, in coffee breaks at conferences, or in his letters, he emanated a quality of calmness to which people naturally gravitated. Indeed, he valued silence almost as a moral condition. His simplicity of dress, invariably black, nevertheless carried with it a hint of dandyish elegance.

Alastair Niven