In many ways he was the quintessential writer of the Great Indian Diaspora, a harbinger for other writers who followed. Long before it became trendy, Rao was infusing unique Indian literary genres, including interior monologue, retrospective narrative, and symbolism into the narrative of English fiction.
Raja Rao passed away July 8, 2006, in Austin, Texas, just two years short of the century mark.
In India Rao would be, as he himself once put it, “somewhat important.” But he chose to live in a modest apartment on Pearl Street in Austin, Texas, where he was on the faculty of the University of Texas from 1965 to 1983. When he retired as professor emeritus, he continued to make his home in Austin, with his wife and former student, Susan.
“India,” according to Rao, “is not a nation, like France or Italy or Germany: India is a state of being …” On another occasion he wrote that India is “an idea, a metaphysic. My India I carried wheresoever I went …” India, Rao implied, is open to whoever can attain it, wherever they may be. Reading his works was an invitation to taste that eternal India—of the Mahabharata and Ramayana; of the Upanishads; of Sankara, Aurobindo, Tagore, Vivekananda, and Gandhi.
Born into an ancient and respected Brahmin family in Hassan, Karnataka, Raja Rao was educated at Aligarh Muslim University and Nizam’s College, Hyderabad, where he majored in English and history. When he was only 4, his mother died. This was one of the most important events in his life; indeed, the absence of the mother and the sense of being an orphan recur in his fiction.
In 1929, two important events occurred in Rao’s life. First, he won a Government of Hyderabad scholarship for study at the University of Montpellier in France. Secondly, in that same year, Rao married Camille Mouly, who taught French at Montpellier. Camille was undoubtedly the most important influence on Rao’s life during the next 10 years; she not only encouraged him to write, but supported him financially for several years.
In 1931, his early Kannada writing began to appear in the journal Jaya Karnataka. For the next two years, Rao researched the influence of India on Irish literature at the Sorbonne. His first short stories were published in journals such as Asia (New York) and Cahiers du Sud (Paris). In 1933, Rao abandoned research to devote himself completely to writing.
Rao’s first novel, Kanthapura, about a village in South India affected by the spirit of Gandhi, was published in London and the United States in 1938. One year later his marriage disintegrated; he found himself back in India, his spiritual search renewed. He appeared to give up writing to seek the truth. In the next few years, Rao visited a number of ashrams and teachers, notably Ramana Maharshi, Narayana Maharaj, Mahatama Gandhi, and Atmananda Guru of Trivandrum.
The Serpent and the Rope was published in the United States in 1960. Other works include a collection of stories written earlier, The Cow of the Barricades, but published in 1947; The Cat and Shakespeare in 1965; Comrade Kirillov in 1976; The Chessmaster and His Moves in 1988. A year later, On the Ganga Ghat was published in India, and in 1996, The Meaning of India.
Essentially, the autobiographical novel Serpent and the Rope portrayed the poignant meeting of the East and the West at the most intimate level, through the story of Rama, an Indian student, and Madeleine, a French girl, who meet at a French university. Their union is the central theme of the book, and it is in telling this story that Rama reveals—with more profundity than most writers are able to suggest in a lifetime—the meaning of love and of loss and of return to the source.
From 1965 to 1983 Rao lectured on Indian philosophy at the University of Texas, Austin. His courses on Marxism to Gandhism, Mahayana Buddhism, Indian philosophy, and The Metaphysical Basis of the Male and Female Principle were highly regarded by both students as well as faculty. Teaching only one semester a year, Rao divided his time between the United States, France, and India
What makes Rao’s writing unique is not just the highly innovative, experimental, and dynamic English prose style that he developed but the deeply spiritual content of his works. His spirituality is not of a New Age feel-good kind, but philosophically rigorous. He is a novelist of ideas, but the idea is always suggestive of something beyond itself, pointing, ultimately, to the Absolute. In the process, Rao also brought to the Indian novel in English many elements in which it had previously been largely deficient: an epic breadth of vision, a metaphysical rigor and philosophical depth, a symbolic richness, a lyrical fervor, and an essential Indianness of style.
That’s why, in his short biography, Professor Makarand Paranjape makes an important point: “Although Rao lived abroad, he never ceased to be an Indian in temperament and sensibility. In fact, his awareness of Indian culture grew even though he could not settle down permanently in India. He became a compulsive visitor, returning to India again and again for spiritual and cultural nourishment; indeed, in a sense, Rao never completely left India.”
The fact is, within his brief corpus of writing, Rao has crammed things that could have been, with a little clever packaging, neatly spread out into a dozen books or more. But that was not his style. His position as the most “Indian” of all Indian novelists in English, as perhaps the finest painter of East-West confrontation in all it aspects, as symbolist, myth-maker and philosophical novelist, and as an original voice in modern fiction, is impeccable.
What if his works are few? They are roses—or, to put it more appropriately—they are lotuses.
Francis C. Assisi (email@example.com) is the recipient of a SAJA award in 2006 for a series on South Asians in the U.S. Civil War.
* Published Works
The Cow of the Barricades (1947)
The Serpent and the Rope (1960)
The Cat and Shakespeare (1965)
Comrade Kirillov (1976)
The Policeman and the Rose (1978)
The Chessmaster and His Moves (1988)
On the Ganga Ghat (1989)
The Meaning of India (1996)
The Great Indian Way: A Life of Mahatma Gandhi (1998)
* Raja Rao Publication Project
Currently, at the University of Texas, there is The Raja Rao Publication Project whose task is to make available all of his unpublished writings. David Iglehart, editor-in-chief for the project, and a former student of Rao, informs: “The task before us is formidable. Rao’s wife, Susan, has filled half a room with boxes of his highly creative, insightful manuscripts, the outpouring of a lifetime. This includes four unpublished novels, stacks of short stories, hundreds of articles and essays, interviews, poetry in French, class notes, informal notes, plans for scholarly projects, and correspondence with Indira Gandhi, Octavio Paz, and Andre Malraux.”
According to Inglehart, “The Raja Rao Publication Project is only partially funded at this time. Any help coming from those who have benefited from the work of this great man will enable his work to live in the hearts of generations of readers and thinkers.”
Professor Makarand Paranjape of Jawaharlal Nehru University, who examined the unpublished manuscripts, said, “All of it is vintage Raja Rao, going into the very depths of the human condition. The very first lines of the text leapt out to clutch you by the throat, as it were … As I held the box (of Raja Rao’s unpublished manuscripts), I felt that I was in possession of a great treasure from one of the world’s greatest living writers. My feeling was confirmed when I started reading the text.”
—Francis C. Assisi