Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Happy Birthday, Raja Rao!

Raja Rao (08-November-1908 to ?) would be 98 years today. Arguably, he is one of the greatest Indian English authors. He ranks along with Mulk Raj Anand and R.K.Narayan and the three are aptly called the original trinity. The next generation of Indian English writing had to wait for around 20-30 years till Salman Rushdie appeared. The comparision between Raja Rao with Salman Rushdie is reasonable. A better comparision of Raja Rao could be with James Joyce, as both of them created a new way of writing and then expressed themselves excellently in the new way.

His way of writing is unique. The punctuation itself is so close to the the way Indians talk and think. The following, from the preface of his first novel Kanthapura, explains about his way of writing.

The telling has not been easy. One has to convey in a language that is not one's own the spirit that is one's own.
After the language the next problem is that of style. The tempo of Indian life must be infused into our English expression, even as the tempo of American or Irish life has gone into the making of theirs. We, in India, think quickly, we talk quickly, and when we move, we move quickly. There must be something in the sun of India that makes us rush and tumble and run on. And our paths are interminable. The Mahabharatha has 214,778 verses and the Ramayana 48,000. The Puranas are endless and innumerable. We have neither punctutation nor the treacherous "ats" and "ons" to bother us -- we tell one interminable tale. Episode follows episode, and when our thoughts stop our breath stops, and we move on to another thought. This was and still is the ordinary style of our storytelling....

Beyond the use of language in style and punctuation, his scholarly way of writing can put people in his awe. I would like to think that if Sri. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan would be a novelist, he would write the way Raja Rao. Raja Rao's careful use of Advaitic concepts in The Serpent and the Rope makes it, what Arvind Sharma calls, India's most famous Advaitic novel.

Some biography snippets from the preface of Makarand Paranjape's book.

Raja Rao was born in an ancient and respected Brahmin family in Hassan, Karnataka, on 8th November, 1908. The eldest son in a family of two brothers and seven sisters, he was the centre of the family.

The Introduction chapter in the book by Shyamala Narayan gives another date of birth (the text also implies that there has been a confusion regarding the year of birth too). The following is the relevant excerpt from the book.

Raja Rao was born in Hassan, a small town in the state of Mysore (now called Karnataka). There is some confusion about Raja Rao's date of birth: his books mention it as 1909, but he was actually born on November 5, 1908, as M.K.Naik clarifies. There is an interesting story about his birth. He was born at the precise moment when his father was receiving the Maharaja, Krishna Raja Wodeyar of Mysore, at their house, So the child was called Raja and not Ramakrishna, after his grandfather. Raja Rao comes from a family of Brahmins who had been Vedantins and advisors to kings for generations. He was greatly influenced by his grandfather at Hassan, who taught him to love Sanskrit and kindled his interest in Indian Philosophy.

The date of birth given in the following link link also agrees with the one given by Makarand Paranjape.

Raja Rao was born on November 8, 1908 in Hassan, in the state of Mysore in south India, into a well-known Brahman family. ...

Autobiographical rant:

He has been of huge influence on me. My first memories of any of his works was looking at his classic book The Serpent and the Rope in my home. The cover had a picture of a beautiful European lady. Behind her was a dark man from India with a cigaratte in his hand. The background to this picture was the waters of Benares. It was one of the books that my mother used in her M.A (literature) and had since become part of the family library.

In one of the first classes of first year of engineering, one of our professors, Prof. P.V.Ratnam, who I admire a lot, had suggested us to read this book. I came home and started it right away "I was born a Brahmin. Brahmin is one who knows Brahman and all that..." The magic in the words, however, could not force me to read beyond a couple of pages and so I kept it aside. However, the book was never far away from me or my personal cupboard. I did not keep the the book away probably because I thought this was just a book like M.G.Say or Clayton-Hancock or Van Valkenburg (the classic books of EE) which needed a couple of careful readings to understand it. Alas, it did not occur to me that to understand the book, all that was needed was a mature reader. Also, that the book was recommended by Ratnam-garu made it a top of the list book.

I intuitively understood that, being unable to understand beyond a couple of pages of a novel which presupposes a good understanding of my beliefs is a serious deficiency on my part.

In the summer vacation between first and second years, I had read a couple of novels mostly R.K.Narayan (quite a few of them) and Serpent and the Rope.

When I went for higher studies to Bangalore, this was one of the books that I took with me -- inspite of the fact that I knew I may not have much time for novels -- mainly because I felt that this book had some magic in it. I was enchanted by the first lines.

Later in Bangalore, when I was in a book reading spree, I began Raja Rao with earnst. This time, I did some research and began with Kanthapura. Next I read The Serpent and the Rope. This time, the words in the book started to make sense. I continued and completed the novel. I also read another novel, The Cat and the Shakespeare. When I left to US, I still had my mother's copy with me. I read the book in the summer of 2003. I donot think I read it again in the next two years.

I began with a earnst study of Advaita as such and had read Deutsch, Arvind Sharma and some books on Ramana Maharishi.

In the Sep, OCT-2005, when I had a fracture of the hand and my movement was restricted, I read the book again, and the book made lot of sense and I could understand many of the quotations and monologues.

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