Rao, Raja

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RAO, Raja

Nationality: Indian. Born: Hassan, Mysore, 5 November 1908. Education: Madarasa-e-Aliya School, Hyderabad, 1915-25; Aligarh Muslim University, 1926-27; Nizam College, Hyderabad (University of Madras), B.A. in English 1929; University of Montpellier, France, 1929-30; the Sorbonne, Paris, 1930-33. Family: Married 1) Camille Mouly in 1931; 2) Katherine Jones in 1965, one son. Career: Editor, Tomorrow, Bombay, 1943-44; professor of philosophy, University of Texas, Austin, from 1965, now professor emeritus. Lived in France for many years; now lives half the year in India and half in Europe and the United States. Awards: Sahitya Academy award, 1964; Padma Bhushan, India, 1969; Neustadt International prize, 1988.


Short Stories

The Cow of the Barricades and Other Stories. 1947.

The Policeman and the Rose. 1978.

On the Ganga Ghat. 1989.


Kanthapura. 1938.

The Serpent and the Rope. 1960.

The Cat and Shakespeare: A Tale of India. 1965.

Comrade Kirillov. 1976.

The Chessmaster and His Moves. 1988.


The Chess Master and His Moves. 1978.

Alien Poems and Stories. 1983.

The Meaning of India. 1996.

Editor, with Iqbal Singh, Changing India. 1939.

Editor, with Iqbal Singh, Whither India? 1948.

Editor, Soviet Russia: Some Random Sketches and Impressions, by Jawaharlal Nehru. 1949.


Critical Studies:

Rao by M. K. Naik, 1972; Rao: A Critical Study of His Work (includes bibliography) by C. D. Narasimhaiah, 1973; The Fiction of Rao by K. R. Rao, 1980; Perspectives on Rao edited by K. K. Sharma, 1980; Indo-Anglian Literature and the Works of Rao by P. C. Bhattacharya, 1983; Rao by Shiva Niranjan, 1985; Rao and Cultural Tradition by Paul Sharrad, 1987; Rao: The Man and His Works by Shyamala A. Narayan, 1988; The Language of Mulk Raj Anand, Rao, and R. K. Narayan by Reza Ahmad Nasimi, 1989; Indian Life and Problems in the Novels of Mulk Raj Anand, Raja Rao, and R. K. Narayan by G. N. Agnihotri, 1993; Myths and Symbols in Raja Rao and R. K. Narayan: A Select Study by Rajesh K. Pallan, 1994; Women in Raja Rao's Novel: A Feminist Reading of The Serpent and the Rope by Anu Celly, 1995.

* * *

The youngest of the so-called big three of Indian English fiction—the other two being Mulk Raj Anand and R. K. Narayan—Raja Rao is better known as a novelist than a short story writer. Although his contribution to the short story is perhaps as distinctive and substantial as that to longer fiction, his actual output in both forms remains equally restricted.

Of Rao's two short story collections, the first, The Cow of the Barricades and Other Stories, appeared in 1947, and the second, The Policeman and the Rose, published some 30 years later, actually contains as many as seven of the nine stories in the earlier collection. There are only three new stories, but these additions constitute a new departure in the direction of philosophical statement in symbolic fictional terms.

Most of the stories in The Cow of the Barricades were written during the 1930s, and some of them belong to the transitional period when the author was changing over from Kannada, his mother tongue, to English as his medium of expression. As the publisher's note declares, "One of the stories—'A Client'—is translated from the Kannada, and the rest, although first written in English, are translations too: through the medium of the English language the author seeks to communicate Indian modes of feeling and expression."

These early stories are sharply etched vignettes of Indian rural life in preindependence days. "Javani" and "Akkayya" are touching character sketches of widows. Javani is a low-class widow, while Akkayya belongs to the Brahman caste, but both lead equally miserable and meaningless lives. Javani's husband has died of a snakebite; hence, she is universally considered to be an ill-fated woman and is forbidden to touch her sister-in-law's child. Akkayya, who has spent her long life in bringing up other people's children, is, in death as in life, only an irritating nuisance to her relatives.

The political unrest of the 1930s is mirrored in three stories: the title story, "The Cow of the Barricades," "Narsiga," and "In Khandesh." In the first story the holy cow named after the goddess Gauri is an expressive symbol of the Indian synthesis of tradition and modernity. The sacred cow dedicated to a god is a part of ancient Indian tradition, but Gauri, who dies of a British officer's bullet during the riots for freedom, becomes a martyr in the cause of modern Indian nationalism. "Narsiga" shows how the national consciousness roused by the Gandhian movement percolates in the simple mind of an illiterate urchin. In the process, however, the ancient legend of Rama gets inextricably mixed in with Gandhi's life and character as Narsiga imagines the modern Indian leader "going in the air … in a flower-chariot drawn by sixteen steeds." "In Khandesh" recaptures evocatively the commotion caused in a sleepy little village by which the British viceroy's special train is to pass.

"The True Story of Kanakapala, Protector of God" and "Companions" are legends from serpent lore, a traditional subject in a land in which a serpent festival is still celebrated. "The Little Gram Shop," on the other hand, is a starkly realistic study of Indian village life, and "A Client," the only story in the collection with an urban setting, provides an amusing glimpse into the Indian system of arranged marriages.

The narrative technique in this collection shows Rao experimenting in the direction that was to lead to the finished triumph of his mature novels. His attempt to adapt the ancient Indian folktale to fictional expression in English perhaps succeeds only partially, as when he recounts legends in "Companions." But when he applies the architectonics of the form to a narrative of modern life, as in "The Cow of the Barricades," he achieves something much more meaningful. An equally fruitful experiment is the deliberate attempt to capture, both in dialogue and narration, the actual feel of rustic Indian speech by the literal translation into English of Indian idiom, oaths, nicknames, and imagery, imbuing the entire book with a strong flavor of authentic local color.

Two of the three new stories in The Policeman and the Rose show how in his later work Rao's interest shifted from the social and political planes to a metaphysical apprehension of life. Only one story in this collection is a character sketch in the manner of earlier efforts like "Javani" and "Akkayya." "Nimka" is a portrait of a White Russian refugee whom the Indian narrator meets in Paris. A princess by blood, she now ekes out a living by serving as a waitress in a restaurant. Drawn to India through Tolstoi and the narrator, she declares that India for her is "the land where all that is wrong everywhere goes right."

It is in "India: A Fable" and the title story, "The Policeman and the Rose," that Rao has successfully made shorter fiction the vehicle of profound metaphysical statement. The central theme in both stories is humankind's quest for self-realization, though "India: A Fable" presents the theme with far greater economy of narrative content. The narrative in "The Policeman and the Rose" makes strange reading until one understands the key symbols. The narrator, who declares that every man is arrested at the moment of his birth by a policeman, recounts the story of his several births in past lives, since the day he was a contemporary of ancient Rama. In his latest birth in modern India, he goes to Paris, opens a "shop of Hindu eyes," and earns a reputation as a man of God. Upon his return to India, he falls ill, and he then goes back to Paris a much chastened man only to find that he has been declared dead and a statue erected to him. His return in flesh being now inconvenient, he is compelled to return to India, where at last he offers his red rose at the lotus feet of his guru at Travancore, the retired police commissioner. Finally getting rid of his policeman, he becomes free. The major symbols here are the policeman, who arrests everyone at birth and who is the ego sense (the guru, who has overcome his ego, is a retired police commissioner); the red rose, standing for rajas, or passion; the lotus, standing for truth; and the eye, which is the eye of religious faith. The entire narrative is thus a fictional statement indicating that salvation lies in surrendering one's ego at the feet of the Guru.

Rao's short stories, though small in number, encompass Indian life and culture on individual, social, political, and metaphysical planes, and they offer authentic glimpses of Indian character and thought. Their English is imbued with a strong Indian flavor.

—M. K. Naik

See the essay on "India: A Fable."