Raja Rao: Scholar, Philosopher, Literary Artist


Tribute to Raja Rao

The Indian Writer of a Century

It is with a note of disappointment that I write these words this grey summer afternoon. As a scholar of Raja Rao I feel regretful that the Indian writer who probably wrote most profoundly of India has not had the honour of receiving much critical acclaim for the last twenty years or so. It is a mixed feeling of injustice and impotence for which I hereby express an apology as a scholar of an eminent Indian writer of our century.

The luminous novelist has passed away on the 8th of July, 2006, at 12.45am. I am told by his wife Susan that he passed away calmly and surrounded by people who loved him. I cannot avoid admitting that I am writing this today with a deep sorrow - or dukkha as Raja Rao would call it - affecting my soul. One thing is sure: Raja Rao would have never remained in this world for so long without the devoted and painstaking care of his adorable wife Susan. In her, he must have found the peace he had been searching for in his novels, as echoes of her personality and character can be read in Rao's last masterpiece. She said she still feels his presence so strongly that to her their hearts are one. I could not then imagine a better person beside Rao's bed at the time of his peaceful death. As a true Hindu wife, Susan is dutifully going to disperse his ashes in a holy river back to India, near Sri Atmananda's ashram in Kerala. The devoted Shishya is going to finally rest beside his holy Guru in his beloved Bharat Mata.

India has indeed always been in Raja Rao's heart as a mother is in her child's heart. She - or Gauri as he often called her - is the very meaning enveloping his writing, his sadhana, his ultimate quest for Truth. What else otherwise. In all its expressions, as Sunya, as the primordial sound Sabda, as metaphysics, as Siva, as Parvati, as Gauri Mata, India was to Raja Rao the vital essence of his own being. And you could tell this by just looking at Raja Rao himself, and by the way he writes about it in his works.

The last time I saw Raja Rao was in November 2005. My trip to Austin was the coronation of many years of working on this author and my encounter with him one of the most illuminating. On the one hand, I met the nonagenarian writer Rao, the author of Kanthapura (1938), the first literary manifesto acclaiming a new Indian way of appropriating the English language, and of course of The Serpent and the Rope (1960), The Cat and Shakespeare (1965), The Chessmaster and His Moves (1988) and many other works which still remain unpublished (as Rao is definitely not the unprolific writer who is often depicted). On the other hand, I met the man Rao, this frail little figure with brilliant blue eyes whose voluminous head could only be a sign of extraordinary intellectuality. A kind sweetness transpired from his figure. To Rao the man I started to speak French, as Susan had told me this was the language that he had adored throughout his whole life. Unfortunately, his health conditions were not good when I visited him so I had to renounce to the idea of an interview with the writer, while helping in the daily care of Rao the man. Hence our five-minutes walking exercise per day during which I had the chance to talk to him about his work and my research, in French. And what a pleasure to clearly see happiness shining through his big blue eyes when I addressed him in the language of the revolution. I clearly remember a large smile of appreciation arising on his face which for me was the sign that an instant recognition had occurred between the writer and the critic who knew about his many years spent in France and about his intellectual world.

But alas, not many were interested by it anymore. Unfortunately, during the last twenty years, Rao's life has been covered by this halo of mystery which caused critics to assume that he was already dead together with the other members of the first generation of Indian writers. So throughout my research years I had to reply to different scholars asking me if he was still alive, while I even had to find out that a major critical anthology on Indian writing in English had stated that he was already dead.

This inaccurateness of information is another indication of the fact that unfortunately Rao's work has been neglected for too many years, notwithstanding the efforts of a few academic friends like Prof. Wilfred Lehmann. A sad fact to be acknowledged, as I have been dedicating eight years already to the investigation of his work and no fresh study on Rao has been published since the last monographs written in the eighties. Only a few anthologies have appeared on his works lately, the latest to my knowledge being The Fiction of Raja Rao: Critical Studies published by Atlantic Books in 2001, and edited by Rajeshwar Mittapalli and Pier Paolo Piciucco. An upcoming anthology, gathering contributions from India and Europe and edited by Jaydeep Sarangi will also be published shortly. This has motivated the conception of a volume on Rao which I have completed a few days before Rao's death. I am deeply sorry that I will not able to show him a copy when it is published. But I am glad that it is an Indian publisher which has demanded the task. I wish it will at least serve to honour him and his work, to continue that trend of critical voices which started a serious investigation into Indian writing in English during the nineteen-thirties. I hope to honour both the man and the author, at once the writer who has been witnessing and rendering in his works the most important - and sorrowful - events of the last century and also the man who counted amongst his closest friends some of the most influential figures of the last eighty years, such as André Malraux, Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, D. H. Lawrence, E.M. Forster.

I hope that my words will encourage young scholars to undertake research on this author as a great amount of work still needs to be done while too much attention is being devoted exclusively to the younger generation of trendy Indian writers.

Raja Rao's work is not only a testimony of an intellectuality which goes beyond the textual, but of a spiritual dimension which tells us much about both India and Europe, albeit its main stance remains linked with Hindu India, more specifically with Advaita Vedanta. Extending his discourse on The Chessmaster and His Moves to the whole of Rao's writing, I concur with Makarand Paranjape in saying that the rejection of some of Rao's works by critics tells us more about ourselves that about Rao's books, just as our acceptance of his works "tells us more about our predispositions than about the virtues of the text. The problems are our's, not the book's." [1] Rao has interpreted the reality surrounding him and the world he was living in through his Vedantic lenses while also assimilating the philosophy and thinking of Western writers like Malraux, Valery, Dostoevsky, Baudelaire, Rolland, Silone, and many others. His most original perspective has captivated hundreds of readers and critics around the world, as before the generation of diasporic writers he had already embodied the factuality of movement with his travelling through Europe and America. His quest was not only a literary sadhana, but also the expression of long spans of life spent abroad, mainly in France, Italy, England and Texas. Yet India remained for him the only place to return to.

With him, and for him, I end this tribute to that modest Indian soul that I had the pleasure and honour to meet using his very words:

[…] whether it is through Dante or Shakespeare, through St. Thomas Aquinas or Nietszche, you come back to the Upanishads and the Vedanta, realizing that wheresoever you go, you always return to the Himalayas, and whatever the rivers that flow, the waters are of the Gangotri [2].

Atmanatmanam ya evam veda. (Thus I go to where the "I" is.) - Mandukya Upanishad.

Letizia Alterno, July 9, 2006

[1] Makarand Paranjape, "The Difficult Pilgrimage: The Chessmaster and His Moves and its Readers," Word as Mantra: The Art of Raja Rao, ed. Robert L. Hargrave, (New Delhi: Katha, 1998) 130.

[2] Raja Rao, "Books Which Have Influenced Me," Illustrated Weekly of India Bombay (10 Feb. 1963): 45.