Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Kanthapura - Raja Rao

I picked up 'Kanthapura' by Raja Rao (Orient Books, Rs. 150, p184) a long time ago and finally got down to reading it and finishing it. I had one start before, but I gave up after a few pages. One of the main motivators for me to read Kanthapura was the discovery of Mulk Raj Anand's 'Untouchable' and of course, several of R.K.Narayan's books that I read over the last year. 'Kanthapura' comes with an impressive testimonial by E.M. Forster that it is the finest novel to have come out of India in those years.

'Kanthapura' is by no means an easy read because it is told in the voice of an old woman in the village Kanthapura. That is brilliant because Raja Rao uses her tone to great effect, never letting that rustic quality of telling a tale, an event of importance, describing the people, describing rituals and habits, using all that she had in her knowledge to add to that tale. For use of the language in such an Indianised way and for getting that effect of the old woman telling the story, Raja Rao is amazing. To me this use of language is the best yet, in all of the Indian Writing in English that I have read. But precisely because of the old woman's narrative, it is also difficult because she tends to digress, she tends to pick her favourites, she tends to lament, curse, wish, bless, describe as she goes on telling the incredible story of Kanthapura. It really is incredible to me.

The old lady starts with a description of her village high up in the hills of the Malabar coast, someplace close to Karwar. The setting is in the 1930s when Gandhi is making his presence felt and giving the British a run for their money. In the village there is an estate, the Skeffington estate, with a sahib, who hires coolies from Karnataka and Andhra. The village itself is full of systems that plagued India in those days - casteism, religion, British rule, illiteracy, landlords, moneylenders, child marriages. There is a brahmin quarter, a weaver quarter, a sudra quarter, a pariah quarter for the untouchables. And amidst this chaos there comes Moorthy, a young educated city boy who is influenced by Gandhi and the freedom movement. And along with his raw idealism he brings with him Gandhi's take on ahimsa, untouchability and so on and causes a huge upheaval in the village. Moorthy followers start in a atrickle and swell in numbers soon with many from the pariah quarters , women and even some powerful men like Patel Gowda joining the movement and the Congress.

The divisions in the village - among the high castes who do not want the untouchables to come near their houses, the rich like Bhatta who is a sly man who wants to bring down the movement so he can continue his divide and rule policy, the system represented by Bade Khan the policeman, the progressive women folk and the idealism of young Moorthy - are shown beautifully. From initially accepting the Gandhian philosophy, the villagers are slowly drawn into more and more confusion and strife as Moorthy introduces the alien concepts regarding untouchability, toddy, equality, ahimsa. The administration becomes aware of the village uprising and they arrest Moorthy and beat up all those who resist - despite Moorthy's cries for ahimsa. And the struggle intensifies as first the strong and rebellious pariahs, the men folk and then the women folk join the movement as it goes from head to head - picketing toddy shops, courting arrest, getting beaten by lathis, molested by the police - but still they struggle peacefully as cries go on 'do not fight', 'do not abuse them' as Moorthy observes his Gandhian principles exactly as he learnt them.

Kanthapura is ravaged in this struggle but the denizens are proud of what they have done. From their fears they rise, again and again, overcoming their doubt and questioning the basics of their faith, as they blindly believe Mahatma who they believe is a saint. The castes and communities mix, cultures and hopes merge, as Kanthapura is laid to siege by an army of policemen who occupy their lands and beat them up black and blue, women included. All the villagers believe is that their Goddess Kenchamma will save them from everything. And when the narrator tells the story a year after the Kanthapura uprising, there is hardly anyone left in the village except a few, including '...Concubine Chinna who still remains in Kanthapura to lift her leg to her new customers.' Such is the way the old lady narrates.

It is wonderful to hear the story told by the old lady and I suspect that if ever 'Kanthapura' is made into an audio book it should be delightful to hear it. The voice is haunting, funny, knowledgeable, honest and knows how to tell a tale. In the creation of this voice and in setting the backdrop of such turbulent but fantastic times, Raja Rao is brilliant. Characters like Moorthy, Waterfall Venkamma, Coffee Planter Ramayya, Temple Lakshamma, Fig Tree House people, Corner House Moorthy, Beadle Thimayya keep popping out of their pages with their quaint and rustic language, their quirky mannerisms. It is difficult to conceive such writing and only Indians can identify with it and its many sub texts. To say so much in 180 pages, in such a creative tone, with the backdrop of such a complex philosophy as Gandhi's, Raja Rao is a genius. But do not expect an easy read because it is not - instead let the old lady take over and listen to her.

Raja Rao is also from Mysore state, born in Hassan, and educated in Nizam's college, Hyderabad where his father taught Kannada. Once again, it is a wonder how two literary giants, Raja Rao and R.K.Narayan, came from the same place, in almost the same time. Raja Rao however lived for most part abroad, in Europe and USA, and married thrice, all foreigners. He died in 2006.

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