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Editing Raja Rao


It is in English that Raja Rao's fiction most consummately speaks to us.

Unusually expressive: Raja Rao. Photo: Susan Raja Rao

"I was born in a dharmasala, room number one, in (the town) Beautiful, Hassana... "

THE words caught my eye as I unwrapped the typescript of The Policeman and the Rose, Raja
Rao's first collection of short stories since The Cow of the Barricades (1947). It was also the first
of Raja's books that I had edited. "One of the disciplines that has interested me in Indian
literature," Raja told me one pleasant February morning in 1976 at Vasanta Vihar, one of those
sprawling houses on the north bank of the Adyar River in Chennai that is the home of the
Krishnamurti Foundation, "is its sense of sadhana — a form of spiritual growth."

Dressed simply but elegantly in khadi, I found him propped up in bed with his eyes shut. He was
physically a rather small man, but his unusually expressive face commanded attention. His thick
grey hair billowed in the wind as he came to. And he continued, "In that sense, one is alone in the
world. I can say that all I write is for myself. If I were to live in a forest, I would still go on writing. If
I were to live anywhere else, I would still go on writing, because I enjoy the magic of the word.
That magic is cultivated mainly by inner silence, one that is cultivated not by associating oneself
with society but often by being away from it. I think I try to belong to the great Indian tradition of
the past when literature was considered a sadhana. In fact, I wanted to publish my books
anonymously because I think they do not belong to me. But my publisher refused."

Metaphysical speculations
The house of fiction that Raja has built is thus founded on the metaphysical and linguistic
speculations of the Indians. As Raja's editor at Oxford University Press, I saw The Policeman and
the Rose through the press, and it was published in 1978.

In the 1970s, English departments in universities across the country were at last beginning to
take notice of Indian literature in English. Annotated editions of novels were in demand, and to
meet this demand OUP published educational editions of Kanthapura (1974) and The Serpent
and the Rope (1978), with introductions by C. D. Narasimhaiah of the University of Mysore, a
scholar who has done more than anyone else to win international attention for Raja's works. With
Raja's approval, I had abridged The Serpent and the Rope.

However, my greatest challenge as an editor came after I had left OUP and moved to Austin,
Texas to work on a verse translation of the Cilappatikaram for my Ph.D. degree. I stayed with
Raja at 1806 Pearl Street from September 1982 to February 1983 in a sparsely furnished two-
bedroom apartment above a garage, where I would work for a few hours every day on the
typescript of The Chessmaster and His Moves, a novel unlike any other that I was familiar with.
We would spend the evenings at the kitchen table going over the pages that I had edited during
the day. Raja approved, for the most part, my suggestions for revision. Editing the novel was an
education in itself as we talked about the Indian philosophical, religious, and literary traditions well
into the night, and rewrote the 50-odd pages of translations and glossary. I learned more about
writing from Raja during those six months than I did from my teachers in high school, college, or

Linguistic pyramid

I was fascinated by Raja's use of English, and I came under its spell instantly. English is ritually
de-anglicised: in Kanthapura English is thick with the agglutinants of Kannada; in The Serpent
and the Rope the Indo-European kinship between English and Sanskrit is exploited creatively;
and in The Cat and Shakespeare, English is made to approximate the rhythm of Sanskrit chants.
At the apex of this linguistic pyramid is The Chessmaster and His Moves, wherein Raja has
perfected an idiolect uniquely his own. It is the culmination of his experiments with the English
language spanning more than fifty years. "The style of a man . . . ," he had written, "the way he
weaves word against word . . . makes a comma here, puts a dash there: all are signs of the inner
movement, . . . the nature of his thought."

The Chessmaster and His Moves is structured as a commentary (bhasya) on Indian esoteric
knowledge from the Upanishads down, often expressed in the terse, aphoristic style characteristic
of that literature. The narrative pattern is indigenous: it derives from the story (katha) tradition of
which the finest example is Bana's Kadambari. The novel has an explicit metaphysical position —
that of Advaita Vedanta which provides the focus for both understanding and assessing what
happens in it. It was published in 1988 in New Delhi by Vision Books, Raja's primary publishers. It
is the first volume of a trilogy, to be followed by The Daughter of the Mountain (in press) and A
Myrobalan in the Palm of Your Hand. It was awarded the 10th Neustadt International Prize for
Literature in 1988. Raja was the first and only Asian to be so honoured.

The last book of Raja's that I had edited was The Great Indian Way: A Life of Mahatma Gandhi in
1997. It is a sprawling oral history, interspersed with tales from the Mahabharata and the
Ramayana. Raja had lived at Sevagram for six months in 1942, and every page of the book
speaks of his awe of Gandhi.

Establishing status of literature

In his "Acceptance Speech" on March 24, 1997 in Austin, when he was elected a Fellow of the
Sahitya Akademi, Raja observed somewhat wistfully: "To have been born in India and not have
written in Sanskrit, or at least in Kannada is believe me, an acute humiliation. But I still dream of
writing in Sanskrit — one day!" But the truth of the matter is that among Kannada, Sanskrit,
French, and English, it is English that Raja most consummately possesses, and it is in that
language that his fiction most consummately speaks to us. It was Raja who, more than any other
writer of his generation, which included Mulk Raj Anand (1905-2004) and R. K. Narayan (1906-
2001), established the status of Indian literature in English during India's struggle for
independence from British rule.

It was a warm July morning at the Onion Creek Memorial Park in Austin. In a grove of live oaks
and flowering myrtles under a clear Texan sky, Raja ended his long journey that had begun
almost a hundred years ago in a small town in South India.

The cremation could as well have taken place on the banks of his beloved Pampa at Anandavadi,
his guru Sri Atmananda's ashram in Malakkara in central Kerala. To the gentle recorded sounds
of Radha Devi Amma's chanting and to the strains of the Gayatri mantra, Raja was cremated.

He was robed in a white dhoti with a red zari border, raw silk kurta, brown Nehru jacket, and off-
white Kashmiri shawl. A garland of jasmine, lilies, and basil leaves covered his neck. Three of his
guru's books, frayed at the edges, were placed on his heart at his request.

Susan, Raja's wife of 20 years, strewed rose petals around his body that lay in a casket made of
ordinary cardboard. The ceremony was over in 20 minutes. Meanwhile, the Pampa waits for
Raja's ashes, and when she receives them, Raja would have truly come home.

R. Parthasarathy was Raja Rao's editor from 1974 to 1998. He received a Sahitya Akademi Prize
for his acclaimed translation of Cilappatikaram (Penguin Classics).

3. Raja Rao

An Indian writer using mysticism to explore the spiritual unity of east and west

Letizia Alterno
Monday July 17, 2006
The Guardian

In 1929, the promising young Indian writer Raja Rao received an invitation to study at Montpellier
University. From then on his life took a different turn, leading to long periods in France, England,
Italy and Texas - though India remained the place he always returned to. By the time of his death
at the age of 97, his dozen or so novels and short-story collections had reflected in the
profoundest way on some of the 20th-century's most significant events and cultural divisions.

Rao is mainly known in Europe as the author of Kanthapura (1938), his account of an Indian
village's response to the Gandhian non-violent civil disobedience movement of the time. It has
become a classic text in Indian schools, hailed as the first literary manifesto to point to an Indian
way of appropriating the English language.

Critically, he is often linked with Mulk Raj Anand (obituary, September 29 2004) and RK Narayan
(obituary, May 14 2001) - the three are seen as the pathbreakers of Indian writing in English. Yet
his oeuvre differs enormously from both of theirs. Rao viewed his writing as sadhana, a quest for
truth; his stories never narrate events, but rather their protagonists' inner evolution and self-
Their surrounding reality is always filtered through the author's Vedantic lenses: Advaita Vedanta,
or non-dualism, one of the six main schools of Hindu philosophy, holds that the world is the
expression of an all-encompassing unity - Brahman - the ultimate and impersonal principle of the
universe, from which all being originates, and to which it returns. It was first systematised by the
sixth-century scholar Adi Shankara and, unlike the dualism of Dvaita Vedanta, views the
individual self and the universal self, Brahman, as one. What captivates the western reader is the
unusual blending of this monism with the ways of thinking of such diverse writers as André
Malraux, Paul Valery, Dostoevsky, Baudelaire, Romain Rolland, Ignazio Silone, Rainer Maria
Rilke, Kakfa, Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Aiming at an ultimately positive encounter between east and west, Rao's metaphysical novel, The
Serpent and the Rope (1960), displays an intellectuality that goes beyond the textual, through its
metaphysical associations and a spiritual dimension that tells us much about the Indian and
European worlds. His protagonist, Ramaswamy, entertains his friends with philosophical
discussions ranging over an impressive set of themes - including Buddhism, theology,
monasticism and world politics - while at the same time he charmingly invites the reader to
envisage reality from his Hindu viewpoint, offering the key of distinguishing the projected reality of
the serpent from the existing reality of the rope, an image derived from Shankara.

In The Cat and Shakespeare (1965) Rao manages to bridge the very idea of opposition with his
Vedanta philosophy, which denies ontological opposites like space/time, cause/effect,
reality/illusion by maintaining that they are identical, since change is unreal. Ramakrishna Pai, an
alter ego of the novelist, discovers that it is avidya or logical thinking that impedes the recognition
of the unity of the individual self with Brahman. All his questions are answered by his guru, who
guides him to the understanding of the all-embracing consciousness.

Such an understanding was not altogether clear in Comrade Kirillov (1965 in French; 1976 in
English), an earlier attempt that testifies to Rao's engagement with Marxism and his
disillusionment with the ideas of Gandhi and Nehru following India's disentanglement from Britain.
Rao affirmed that "there is intellectual confusion" in this novel, based on a man he had met in

Rao's last, controversial masterpiece, The Chessmaster and His Moves (1988), which won the
Neustadt international literature prize, is the product of a more abstract reasoning - though some
critics allege that its complexity is the product of the unclear and insincere mind of its protagonist.
Part one of a trilogy (the remaining volumes of which will be published shortly), the novel is Rao's
tribute to India. It explores the country's major contributions to the world: the cipher zero, or
sunya, and the game of chess. With the help of the Chessmaster's non-dualism, the protagonist
Sivarama, a mathematician, tries to elucidate their significance in metaphysical terms, by
avoiding the analytical method of western logical reasoning.

Rao said he inherited his metaphysical temperament from his Vedantin grandfather. Born in
Hassan, Mysore (now Karnataka), the Kannada Brahmin proudly belonged to "a family that can
boast of having been Vedantin at least since the 13th century", although his father, HV
Krishnaswamy, was a fervent anglicised Indian who tried to distance his children from Hinduism.
His mother, Gauramma, constantly venerated in his works as a devoted Hindu wife, died when
Raja was only four, leaving her little prince (hence the name "Raja") to the custody of his father,
who sent him to Madrasa-e-Aliya, a school for Muslim noblemen in Hyderabad.

In 1926 he entered Aligarh Muslim University, Uttar Pradesh, where he recalled having "learned
English from English people" - and indeed he studied English with Oxford poet Eric Dickinson and
French with Jack Hill. After matriculating at Nizam's College, Hyderabad, in 1927, Rao graduated
in English and history from Madras University in 1929. With the aid of a Hyderabad government
scholarship, he enrolled at Montpellier, to expand his knowledge of French language and
literature; he was there at the instigation of Sir Patrick Geddes, the distinguished Scottish
scientist and thinker on town planning, and founder of an international learning centre at the
university, the Collège des Ecossais.

Always fascinated by France, which he considered "the heart of western civilisation", in 1931 Rao
married Camille Mouly, a French schoolteacher who translated some of his short stories. The
Cow of the Barricades, his first collection, is dedicated to her. Although published in 1947, it
includes some of Rao's earlier stories. He then started a doctorate at the Sorbonne, researching
the Indian influence on Irish literature, but eventually dropped the project to dedicate himself to
writing. By 1935 he was already known in France, England and the US for his short stories and
contribu- tions to journals of the time, such as Mercure de France, Les Cahiers du Sud, the
Chelsea Review, Asia and Adelphi. He also helped to arrange for Natwar Singh to edit a book on
EM Forster.

Following the outbreak of the second world war and the disintegration of his marriage, Rao
returned to India in search of answers to his emotional "wavering". Abandoning writing, he visited
Gandhi's ashram at Sevagram, in Maharashtra, in 1942, and got involved in the independence
struggle; Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi were among his friends, he recalled in the
anthology The Meaning of India (1996). It seemed to Rao that all his intellectual doubts and
questions were finally dissolved when, in 1943, he met his guru, Sri Atmananda, in Trivandrum
(now Thiruvananthapuram), in Kerala, where he lived for a while.

Hence the guru becomes the interpretative key to the understanding of Rao's life and work. After
his return to France in 1948, he tried to get Malraux to meet Sri Atmananda, and 10 years later, in
India, he acted as official guide for the French information minister, who remembered him in his
Antimémoires as "the best Indian connoisseur of France".

Rao first visited America in 1950, five years before settling down there and marrying Catherine
Jones, an actor. In 1966 he started teaching philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin,
retiring as emeritus professor in 1980. His second marriage ended in divorce, and he married
Susan Vaught in 1986. He received India's highest literary award, the Sahitya Akademi fellowship,
in 1997.

Although he settled in Austin, Rao made it a point to go back and forth to India, in real life as well
as in fiction: "Whether it is through Dante or Shakespeare, through St Thomas Aquinas or
Nietszche, you come back to the Upanishads and the Vedanta, realising that wheresoever you
go, you always return to the Himalayas, and whatever the rivers that flow, the waters are of the

The final time I met him was last November. The frail nonagenarian was still a luminous figure, his
radiant blue eyes and voluminous head suggesting extraordinary intellectuality, though by then
several heart attacks had left him silent for long stretches. His students remember him as a very
spiritual being, but also as a humorous man. Some of them recall meeting him during one of his
usual meditative walks along the hike-and-bike trail in Austin. He is survived by his wife, and by
two sons.

· Raja Rao, writer, born November 8 1908; died July 8 2006

4. Raja Rao

(Filed: 18/07/2006)
Raja Rao, who died on July 8 aged 97, was the author of the first first major Indian novel written
in English and was one of three writers, with RK Narayan and Mulk Raj Anand, who laid the
literary groundwork for an independent India.
An activist in the Indian Nationalist movement, Rao's first novel, Kanthapura, published in 1938
nearly a decade before Independence, incorporated the approach and themes of Indian
vernacular tales and folk epic to explore the impact of Gandhi's teachings on non-violent
resistance to the British through the lives of the inhabitants of a small Mysore village.
At a different level, Rao's theme was the relationship between language and consciousness, and
the book, which won high praise from EM Forster for its style and structure, was significant in that
it sought to use English to express Indian philosophical and cultural concepts.

Though he moved easily between English, French, Sanskrit and his native Kannada, Rao
regarded English "with its great tradition and unexplored riches" as the only language capable of
"catalysing my impulses, and giving them a near-native sound and structure".
But, as he admitted in the preface to Kanthapura, the process was not an easy one: "One has to
convey in a language that is not one's own, the spirit that is one's own. English is not really an
alien language to us. It is the language of our intellectual make-up but not of our emotional make-
He looked forward to a time when Indians themselves would adapt the language to suit their own
world view. Indian English, he argued, "has to be a dialect which will some day prove to be as
distinctive and colourful as the Irish and the American".
The eldest of nine children, Raja Rao was born on November 9 1908 into a prominent Brahmin
family at Hassan, in the state of Mysore (now Karnataka), south India. His father taught Kannada,
the native language of Karnataka, at Nizam's College in the Muslim state of Hyderabad. His
mother died when Rao was four.
Though born a Hindu, Rao was educated at Muslim schools, the Madrassa-e-Aliya in Hyderabad
and the Aligahr Muslim University, where he learned French, then at the Nizam's College and at
Madras University, where he read English and History.
After graduation he went on a scholarship to the University of Montpellier, where he studied
Christian History and Theology, then to the Sorbonne, where he researched the Indian influence
on Irish literature. In 1932 he was appointed to the editorial board of Mercure de France, a
position he held until 1937. While in France he became inspired by the non-violent nationalism of
Mahatma Gandhi, a preoccupation of his early fiction. He wrote Kanthapura while staying in a
French chateau.
In 1931 Rao had married Camille Mouly, a French teacher at Montpellier. The marriage lasted
until 1939, and the course of its breakdown provided him with the themes of The Serpent and the
Rope (1960), a semi-autobiographical rendering of the Mahabharata legend of Satayavan and
Savithri, updated and adapted to dramatise the relationships between Indian and Western
The work tells the story of a young Brahmin married to a French college teacher who regards her
husband as a guru. As he struggles with the worldly commitments imposed on him by his Hindu
family, she becomes a Buddhist and renounces worldly desires, abandoning her husband to find
his own spiritual path.
Returning to India in 1939, Rao spent time in an ashram in Madras and edited, with Iqbal Singh,
the anthology Changing India, an exploration of changing currents in Indian thought. In 1942,
after joining the Quit India movement, he spent six months in Mahatma Gandhi's ashram at
Sevagram. In 1998 he would publish a biography of Gandhi, Great Indian Way.
During the war years Rao travelled widely around the sub-continent and was the guiding spirit
behind Sri Vidya Samiti, a short-lived cultural organisation devoted to reviving the values of
ancient Indian civilisation. He edited the literary magazine Tomorrow, and was also involved with
Chetana, a society for the propagation of Indian thought and values.
Rao reprised the theme of non-violent resistance in The Cow and the Barricades, a collection of
short stories published in 1947, although by this time he felt that he no longer wanted to write
fiction. "I have abandoned literature for good and gone over to metaphysics," he wrote to EM
Forster in 1945. "I'm not a writer any more." Forster repied: "You have, as you say, abandoned
literature for metaphysical enquiry. I have abandoned literature for nothing at all. So please let us
Rao became a teacher of philosophy, and after the war spent much of his time travelling. He
visited America in 1950 and later spent more time living in an ashram. In the 1960s he moved to
America, where he taught Indian philosophy and culture at the University of Texas at Austin from
1966 to 1983.
He continued to write. The Cat and Shakespeare (1965) was a teasing comedy of manners
exploring metaphysical themes; Comrade Kirillov (1976) satirised Communism as an ideological
misunderstanding of man's true nature; The Chessmaster and his Moves (1988) used the
metaphor of a chess game to explore different philosophical ideas.
He was awarded the Neustadt International Prize for Literature in 1988.
Rao married, in 1965, Katherine Jones, an American actress with whom he had a son. The
marriage was later dissolved, and he is survived by his third wife, Susan.