Rao was born and raised in Mysore, and oddly enough for a South Indian brahmin boy, he received his education mainly at Muslim schools in Hyderabad (his father worked for the local government, I believe). According to excerpts of his memoirs here, he also studied at Aligarh Muslim University until he received an invitation to come to a university in Montpellier, France from a visiting French professor, in the late 1920s. He ended up staying in France for more than a decade, studying Christian theology -- and married a French woman who was also in acdemia. The marriage soon fell apart, and Rao return to India on the eve of the Second World War, becoming more and more religious. He spent a great deal of time in ashrams in the 1940s, though he was also active in the independence movement. Later Rao returned to France, though he ultimately moved to Austin, Texas, where he taught Philosophy (alongside G.V. Desani) until he retired in 1980.
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One of the most remarked-upon aspects of Rao's writing is his language. Though Rao spoke Kannada and studied extensively in France, he wrote in English. Some critics have said that he didn't actually know English all that well at the time he wrote his first novel, while others have presumed that he intentionally implanted a Kannada rhythm into his language in Kanthapura, for effect. Here are the opening paragraphs -- what do you think?
Our village--I don't think you have ever heard about it--Kanthapura is its name, and it is in the province of Kara. High on the Ghats is it, high up the steep mountains that face the cool Arabian seas, up the Malabar coast is it, up Mangalore and Puttur and many a centre of cardamom and coffee, rice and sugar cane. Roads, narrow, dusty, rut-covered roads, wind through the forest of teak and of jack, of sandal and of sal, and hanging over bellowing gorges and leaping over elephant-haunted valleys, they turn now to the left and now to the right and bring you through the Alambe and Champa and Mena and Kola passes into the great granaries of trade. There, on the blue waters, they say, our carted cardamoms and coffee get into the ships the Red-men bring, and, so they say, they go across the seven oceans into the countries where our rulers live.
Cart after cart groans through the roads of Kanthapura, and on many a night, before the eyes are shut, the last lights we see are those of the train of carts, and the last voice we hear is that of the cartman who sings through the hollows of the night. The carts pass through the main street and through the Potters' lane, and then they turn by Chennayya's pond, and up they go, up the passes into the morning that will rise over the sea. Sometimes when Rama Chetty or Subba Chetty has merchandise, the carts stop and there are greetigns, and in every house we can hear Subba Chetty's 350-rupee bulls ringing their bells as they get under the yoke.
While some of the unusual stylistic elements here may be for effect, there are a few phrases that do come across as non-idiomatic English. I find it somewhat uninteresting (and unlikely) to think that the unusual idiom of Kanthapura is purely an accident of the author's imperfect mastery of the English language. It might be both correct and charitable to say that most of the effects are intentional, while some odd phrases ("granaries of trade") are accidents of Rao's newness to the language.
Unlike some readers of the book who might find the eccentric language charming, I tend to think that the more awkward phrases ought to have been edited out of the book by a friend or an editor.
One doesn't see such phrases in Rao's later fiction, though I must confess that aside from The Serpent and the Rope I haven't read very much of the later books. And I even found The Serpent and the Rope quite difficult to get through, though I was an impatient graduate student when I read it. It might read differently now...
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Rao studied in Europe near the peak of the modernist moment, and was hardly untouched by that experience. Indeed, in some ways even his approach to Hindu and Buddhist mysticism in his later books seems to be tied up with modern western philosophical concerns. Throughout his career, he was in continual dialogue with many of the great world writers of his era, one of them being the great Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz. Milosz devoted one beautiful poem to Rao, which explored their commonalities (they were both nomads as well as religious seekers), but also stressed at least one key philosophical difference. Here is an excerpt from Milosz's poem "To Raja Rao":
[From “To Raja Rao"]
Raja, I wish I knew
the cause of that malady.
For years I could not accept
the place I was in.
I felt I should be somewhere else.
A city, trees, human voices
lacked the quality of presence.
I would live by the hopes of moving on.
Somewhere else there was a city of real presence,
of real trees and voices and friendship and love.
Link, if you wish, my peculiar case
(on the border of schizophrenia)
to the messianic hope
of my civilization.
Ill at ease in the tyranny, ill at ease in the republic,
in the one I longed for freedom, in the other for the end of corruption.
Building in my mind a permanent polis
forever depreived of aimless bustle.
I learned at last to say: this is my home,
here, before the glowing coal of ocean sunsets,
on the shore which faces the shores of your Asia,
in a great republic, moderately corrupt.
A couple of things should be said to explain these lines. First, one might want to refer to some biographical background on Milosz. The "tyranny" above is Poland under the Nazis. One "republic" would have been Paris, where Milosz lived in the 1950s. After 1960 he lived in the U.S., the "great republic, moderately corrupt" mentioned above. Those places are important in Milosz’s writing more broadly (he has a lot to say about California in particular, which he was pretty ambivalent about).
Philosophically, Milosz extends the framework of the Platonic ideal ("the city of real presence") to modern social and political anxieties. For him the "city of real presence" (which is clearly an allusion to Plato’s Republic) is longed for not just because it represents Truth, but because it represents something like a functional, happy community. That’s happiness. And it’s not that the "republic" doesn’t exist at all. Republics do exist, but they are all in some sense corrupt. By the last stanza quoted above, it seems like Milosz has taught himself to accept them as they are, far from ideal.
The end of the poem brings us back to Rao (I'm omitting the middle part of the poem):
I hear you saying that liberation is possible
and that Socratic wisdom
is identical with your guru’s.
No, Raja, I must start from where I am.
I am those monsters which visit my dreams
and reveal to me my hidden essence.
If I am sick, there is no proof whatsoever
that man is a healthy creature.
Greece had to lose, her pure consciousness
had to make our agony only more acute.
We needed God loving us in our weakness
and not in the glory of beatitude.
No help, Raja, my part is agony,
struggle, abjection, self-love, and self-hate,
prayer for the kingdom
and reading Pascal.
Like Milosz, Rao also led a very complex, nomadic, 20th century life. Rao, like Milosz, studied Catholic theology intensely at a time of political repression. In the section of the poem above, "liberation" seems to have somewhat of a political connotation, though clearly the primary emphasis is spiritual.
Milosz, I think is partly defining himself as a realist against Rao's spiritual idealism ("I must start from what I am"), and partly marking the lessons learned from the violence of the 20th century first hand. "I am those monsters which visit my dreams" is a way of talking about the psyche, but I also read it historically, as a reference to Poland in the war. And of course, it's an acknowledgment of Milosz's attachment to Catholicism, in which "my part is agony,/ struggle, abjection, self-love, and self-hate,/ prayer for the kingdom/ and reading Pascal." The difference between Milosz and Rao is in that sense theological: Rao's is a sprituality without "self-hate," while the "agony" must be the starting point for Milosz as a philosophical Catholic.
As far as I know, Rao did not respond publicly to this poem, though I am quite curious as to what his thoughts might have been.
[Note: a predecessor for this post can be found here, warts and all. Cross-posted at Sepia Mutiny.]