(Carried in Speaking Volumes, the Business Standard, July 11, 2006. This elicited one of the most hair-raising emails I have received in a while: “Dear Mr (sic) Roy: [Long paragraph about importance of Raja Rao and/ or importance of spirituality in daily life, plus lament about the irreligiosity of the Modern Man. And then:] I agreed one hundred per cent with your observation that sainthood is an incontinent thing. Regards and blessings, Mr X.”
Sainthood is an
incontinent thing? I sweated buckets of sweat wondering whether that was really what I’d written before checking the online, paper and Word doc version for reassurance.
It was only a few days later that I thought about saints, and the fact that they achieve the halo at a ripe old age, and wondered whether perhaps Mr X might not have had the right phrase after all.)

“Sainthood is an inconvenient thing,” Raja Rao wrote of Mahatma Gandhi. The essay was published in The Meaning of India in 1996, but Raja Rao’s meditations on sainthood were of much older vintage. The saint, to him, was a man who “would be perfect”; the politician was a man who “would make the world wholesome, whole”.

Raja Rao understood saints and sainthood perhaps better than he understood politicians and politicking, and he would have been amused, if puzzled, at the canonisation that will inevitably follow his death at the age of 98 this Saturday in Texas.

His first novel, Kanthapura , remains one of the most perfect classics of Indian literature. His later works, from The Serpent and the Rope to The Chessmaster and his Moves and The Cat and Shakespeare were critically acclaimed, though none of them achieved the iconic status of Kanthapura .

Kanthapura was published in 1938, when Raja Rao was just 30. Today’s college students in India might not understand the impact Kanthapura had on students of a decade-and-a-half ago, when the “Eng” in Eng Lit was taken very seriously. The curriculum was devoted to Dryden and Chaucer and Shakespeare: no Faulkner, no Proust, no Garcia Marquez, and certainly no Indian writers were allowed to pollute those literary waters. Few colleges would have dreamed of placing Mulk Raj Anand or Salman Rushdie alongside the Silver Poets or E M Forster.

Reading Kanthapura in college was a liberating experience. It was the key to our own world, and to a wider world. The fierce discussions sparked off by Raja Rao’s novel of a village whose slow life-cycles are savagely interrupted by revolution led us inevitably to Manohar Malgaonkar, Bankimchandra, O V Vijayan. And Kanthapura also let us claim the work of Chinua Achebe and Naguib Mahfouz.

Today, when debates over the importance of “location” and “audience” overwhelm the actual work of writers, it is worth remembering that the work seen as one of the most quintessentially Indian in the IWE canon was written in a French chateau. Raja Rao had written in Kannada and then experimented with French before settling into English.

“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… English is the language of our intellectual make-up—like Sanskrit or Persian was before—but not of our emotional make-up… We cannot write like the English. We should not. We cannot write only as Indians. We have grown to look at the large world as part of us.”

That prescription, from the Foreword to Kanthapura , was written in 1937 and holds true for Indian writers even today. The voice of Achakka, the old woman who narrates Kanthapura’s story, is still fresh, seventy years after Raja Rao created her. In Rao’s words, the story “may have been told of an evening, when as the dusk falls…stretching her bedding on the verandah”, a grandmother might tell a newcomer the sad tale of her village.

In 1945, Raja Rao wrote to his friend E M Forster, “I have abandoned literature for good—and gone over to metaphysics. I am not a writer any more….” Forster responded in kind: “You have, you say, abandoned literature for metaphysical inquiry. I have abandoned literature for nothing at all. So please let us meet.”

Raja Rao became a student and teacher of philosophy, but continued to write. David Iglehart, a former student, runs the Raja Rao Publication Project: Rao has left behind four unpublished novels, short stories, essays, poetry in French and correspondence with Indira Gandhi, Octavio Paz, and Andre Malraux. Iglehart has also edited Rao’s The Daughter of the Mountain , the second volume of his trilogy based on The Chessmaster and His Moves, to be published soon. He was an active writer, Iglehart reminds us, not someone who should be stifled beneath the camphor of sainthood.

In 1969, Czeslaw Milosz wrote a poem 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…” it begins. “I hear you saying that liberation is possible/ and that Socratic wisdom is identical with your guru’s./”…Milosz continues, and ends with: “No help, Raja, my part is agony, / struggle, abjection, self-love, and self-hate, / prayer for the Kingdom/ and reading Pascal.”

Raja Rao’s path was very different from Milosz’s, much less wracked by pain and doubt. But here at last is an image of Raja Rao that might stand for the author as well as the man: not a saint, not an icon, but the priest in his confessional, listening in silence, offering understanding, and absolution.