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The Saint and the Sage: the Fiction of Raja Rao

ISSUE:  Winter 1980

When UNESCO officials asked Raja Rao to write a book on India, he replied that India did not exist. As the central figure in his novel The Serpent and the Rope says, “Anybody can have the geographic—even the political—India; it matters little. . . . India is not a country like France is, or like England; India is an idea, a metaphysic.” Strangely enough, this concept, which ultimately questions India’s material existence, helped shape the Indian Revolution. It lies, too, at the heart of Raja Rao’s fiction, and his devotion to it has helped him create out of an adopted language one of the few truly unique styles in Third World literature.

Third World writers often accuse each other of being imitative, tame. They bicker about cultural imperialism, and not without reason. Much Third World literature is written not in native languages, but in Western languages and after Western literary forms; and most Third World writers, even the brilliant ones, have indeed developed literary sensibilities and approaches to language and form that are heavily Westernized. But is Spanish or French or English supple enough to reproduce the ambience of, say, Igbo or Malayalam speech? Do Western form and native sensibility clash? If, for example, a writer comes from a Third World culture which views man as having little personal history and standing essentially outside time, will there not be a problem in conveying that view if he uses the Western novel form, which, at least traditionally, assumes and focuses on personal identity developing in time? Surely, synthesis is the problem, for it is too simplistic to assume, as many militant Third World writers seem to do, that colonialism is really a lesser historical phenomenon whose cultural influences can someday be completely neutralized. Still, it is true that too many writers, too much seduced by Western form and language, have unconsciously given up, or made quite secondary, the sensitive rendering of their own culture’s vision.

Of the few writers who have managed to synthesize forms and idioms out of the clash of the native and Western, one certainly thinks of Raja Rao, whom many consider the most brilliant Indian ever to write fiction in English. Forty years ago, in a preface to his first book Kanthapura, he wrote one of the first manifestos on Third World literary style.

. . . English is not really an alien language to us. It 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 a part of us. Our method of expression therefore has to be a dialect which will someday prove to be as distinctive and colorful as the Irish or the American. Time alone will justify it.

After language the next problem is that of style. The tempo of Indian life must be infused into our English expression. . . . We, in India, think 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. . . . The Mahabharata has 214,788 verses and the Ramayana 48,000. . . . 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.

This 1937 preface remains to my mind the most eloquent and enticing guide to style a Third World writer can have, and Raja Rao’s growing understanding of his own statement has manifested itself in two other celebrated works, The Serpent and the Rope (1960) and The Cat and Shakespeare (1967). Together with Kanthapura, they have become prime models in world literature, showing how profoundly one language can be made to serve the very soul of another culture.


Kanthapura is set in the early 30’s, around the time Gandhi made his salt marches. Moorthy, a young Brahmin transformed by Gandhi’s spirit into a revolutionary, comes back from the city to Kanthapura and attempts to cut across traditional boundaries of caste in order to create a unified front against the British. Even for himself, however, this assault on tradition is shocking. When he first enters a Pariah house the room seems to shake, and the gods and ancestors seem to cry out. Afterwards, feeling faint, he washes with Ganges water, and Achakka, the book’s narrator, says: “Afterall a Brahmin is a Brahmin, sister!” How much more, then, do others resist Moorthy’s reforms. Until he himself has a spiritual awakening (an incident we shall return to shortly), his efforts remain relatively ineffectual. When Kanthapura finally is unified, it inspires more rebellion. The British retaliate, wasting the village and dispersing its inhabitants, but the impact has been made. Surprisingly, Raja Rao was not arrested for sedition, for he clearly meant tiny Kanthapura to be an example of the type of courage and unity that could expel the British.

Outwardly, the book’s form is quite Western. It is told, first of all, by a narrator in the first person with a limited point of view. Most important, it has, in the tradition of Western historical narrative, a pointed, linear plot which Raja Rao has shaped with tight logic on a balanced curve which reaches its apex in chapter ten, the book’s exact center. Chapter one is balanced with chapter 19, chapter two with 18, and so on. In chapter seven, for example, Moorthy goes on a fast, attempting to become radiant with ahimsa (love; literally, noncruelty). He asks only for some salt to put in his water. In chapter 13 meditation finally bears fruit in action, and Moorthy’s request for salt is echoed as news reaches the village that Gandhi has embarked on his salt march.

Yet tight, logical structure is neither the first nor last impression Kanthapura makes. Rather the novel sprawls and digresses, and features, besides, 60 pages of notes on Indian culture and history arranged by chapter at the back of the book. At times these notes seem as interesting as the novel itself; so when the narrator, Achakka, mentions Ravanna, for example, one turns to the notes; and since Ravanna, or the Cauvery River, or Shakuntala is likely to be mentioned in a digression, the notes extend that digression, sometimes forcing slow movement through the text.

The text, however, does not move slowly, for Achakka, a fantastically garrulous old woman presumably telling her tale to a group addressed only as “sisters,” is perhaps the fastest, most prolix talker in world literature. She begins:

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 on 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 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 . . .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.

She is something of a poet—especially in her descriptions of nature and evocations of Indian culture—but also a master gossip, telling us of squabbles, and houses, and who is jealous of whom (and why). Serious or frivolous, her words always pour forth in a near-breathless, near-torrential, near-endless rush which the American critic Charles Larson describes as an “oral stream of consciousness.”

Another American critic says, however, that the book’s style becomes monotonous over its 180-page length. The style is “dominated by and, then, but, when, and now,” says Robert J. Ray, and “one sequence follows another without emphasis or control.” In fact, though Rao had promised just this relentless rush of words and episodes, he appears to have run into a problem that has plagued many other literary works, Third World or otherwise, that use simple country or native narrators: the usually flat, repetitious syntax of such speakers is unable to buoy a long written narrative. In The Serpent and the Rope and The Cat and Shakespeare (which are better books) the narrators are quite sophisticated, and while the rhythm of Indian speech is still fully retained, the syntax of parataxis and simple coordination dominating Kanthapura gives way to what Robert J. Ray now describes as “paradoxical language patterns that are stunning, subtle, profound, and beautiful.” Rao’s artistic craft, says Ray, has become “the most profound in the history of Indo-Anglian literature, perhaps in the history of contemporary literature.”

Ray’s somewhat justified criticism of Kanthapura may be lessened, however, if we can learn to hear the rhythm and inflection of Indian speech and understand the peculiar literary synthesis Raja Rao is attempting. In a letter to M.K. Naik, Rao says that all his writings are:

. . . an attempt at “puranic” recreation of Indian storytelling: that is to say, the story, as story, is conveyed through a thin thread to which are attached (or which passes through) many other stories, fables and philosophical disquisitions, like a mala (garland).

Kanthapura is modeled not so much after the novel as the shthala-purana, or legendary history, which—oral or written— is chatty, digressive, amply laced with allusions, hymns, stories, and sayings. Even though Kanthapura has a few interesting characters and a tight, logical framework, Achakka’s torrential, digressive voice overwhelms—and was meant to overwhelm—all and work against the sense of controlled, historical progress or sequence. For the real protagonist of Kanthapura has neither personal character nor history: it is India— the idea, the metaphysic—which we may better understand if we return now to Moorthy’s spiritual awakening and the political context in which it occurs.

Indian political life, says W. H. Morris-Jones, is conducted in three major languages: the modern, traditional, and saintly—which, for reasons I hope shall become apparent, I wish to rename the “sagely.”

The first is the language of the Indian elite which has mastery over the grammar and accents of British rule. . . . The “traditional idiom” . . .is spoken in rural India and knows little about anything as big as India. . . . Caste is the core of traditional politics. . . .

The idiom of the sage has been the language of the venerable Sankara, of Sri Aurobindo, and Gandhi, and is based on the central text of Hinduism, Tat tvam asi (Thou art that), which occurs in the second Upanishad, Chandogya. Here the sage Uddalaka Aruni uses nine illustrations to point out the oneness of the individual and the universal. Tat tvam asi gives rise to the doctrine of radical monism, which holds that all things are ultimately one. It rejects subject-object dualism, moves away from the object and from history, and believes the world illusory—not materially real, but arising from the perceptions of the self, which is ultimately identical with the Absolute Self whose highest expression is ahimsa. “Seeing oneself,” says the central figure in The Serpent and the Rope, “is what we always seek; the world, as the great sage Sankara said, is like a city seen in a mirror.”

Raja Rao fondly tells the story of how Nehru, on a speaking tour, arrives in a village so tired he cannot speak. Still the villagers respond with hearty rallying cries of the Revolution, “Mahatma Gandhi ki jai! Jai hind!” (Victory to the Mahatma! To India!). Nehru asks, “When you say these things, what do you mean?” “We do not know,” they say. “When you say “Jai hind, “” says Nehru, “you mean “Be true to yourself.”” Here a “modern,” Nehru, goes to the “traditional” and offers a “sagely” interpretation. “India is the Indian people,” says Rao, “and those people are ultimately not themselves but the Absolute.” To varying degrees each major leader of the Indian Revolution tried to blend the call for political unity with this sagely spirit of radical oneness found in the scriptures and rooted deeply in Indian culture. That spirit is India the idea, the metaphysic, and it is the connection between politics and tat tvam asi that Moorthy realizes during his awakening.

Only partially transformed by Gandhi’s example, Moorthy is at first a mere modern trying to remake the traditional without the transcending power of the sagely vision. “And this is how it all began,” says Achakka:

That evening Moorthy speaks to Rangamma on the veranda and tells her he will fast for three days in the temple, and Rangamma says, “What for, Moorthy?” and Moorthy says that much violence had been done because of him, and that were he full of the radiance of ahimsa such things should never have happened, but Rangamma says, “That was not your fault, Moorthy!” to which he replies, “The fault of others, Rangamma, is the fruit of one’s own disharmony.”

Some villagers actually scold Moorthy for his new “gilded purity,” but he “slips back into the foldless sheath of the soul,” and falling prostrate in the temple chants Sankara’s “Sivoham, Sivoham. I am Siva. I am Siva. Siva am I.”

In the end, feeling that Gandhi is not practical enough, Moorthy seems to turn away from the sagely vision and go to Nehru, the modern. But, as Raja Rao has said, Moorthy is immature and impatient: the only “practical” way, finally, is the way of the sage. Thus, except for a one-paragraph wrap-up by Achakka, Kanthapura ends not with Moorthy’s tentativeness but with Gandhi’s 1931 trip to England. That event, however, is not spoken of in historical terms, but, significantly, in terms of Indian myth and tradition:

They say the Mahatma will go to the Redman’s country and he will get us Swaraj. He will bring us Swaraj, the Mahatma. And we shall be happy. And Rama will come back from exile, and Sita will be with him, for Ravanna will be slain and Sita freed, and he will come back with Sita on his right in a chariot of the air and brother Bharata will go to meet them with the worshipped sandal of the Master on his head. And as they enter Ayodha there will be a rain of flowers.

The ever-present India mythos finally absorbs the characters and history it has all along been bathing and overwhelming.

For Raja Rao, myth is more real than fact, for myth leads fact out of itself, into the general, and finally into the realm of the nonmaterial Absolute, the One whose highest expression is ahimsa. Tat tvam asi gives to Indian aesthetics a movement diametrically opposed to the aesthetic tendencies of the West, especially as manifested in realism. lan Watt tells us that the rise of the novel in the West coincides with a philosophical movement towards the particular. Thus the novel’s preoccupation with human personality and the look of reality. Thus the giving, very early, of individualizing rather than generalizing fictional names (Moll Flanders vs. Mr. Badman). On the other hand, as the central figure in The Serpent and the Rope says, “India is perhaps the only nation that throughout history has questioned the existence of the world—of the object.”

The core and goal of Indian aesthetics is the rasa, a corollary of radical monism. The rasa, says Edward Gerow,

. . . is a generalized emotion, one from which all elements of particular consciousness are expunged: the time of the artistic event, the preoccupations of the witness (audience), the specific or individuating qualities of the play or novel itself, place and character, and so on. . . .

Generalization is the key to Indian aesthetics, and the means to it, to the rasa, are many, though usually related to rhythm, and incantation and deep immersion in myth, tradition, and philosophical disquisition. (All these, except for philosophical disquisition, are evident in the tempo and digressiveness of Achakka’s voice.) If the traditional artist is successful, the audience loses awareness of itself and apprehends the character Rama, for example, not as himself or even the love he represents: he and the audience would become love. “Brother, my brother,” goes a line in The Serpent and the Rope, “ the world is not beautiful—you are beauty. Be beauty and see not the beautiful.”

In Raja Rao’s synthesis, then, there is an exquisite contrariety of motion between establishing individuality on the one hand—as with the unforgettable Govindan Nair in The Cat and Shakespeare— and undermining that individuality with constant, overt pressure towards the general, towards the revelation that that individual is not himself but the Absolute. Of course, for Raja Rao the Absolute must prevail, and as he pursues the implications of tat tvam asi further and further, his style becomes more antirealistic in a way that is kin to, but, one should note, much more radical than the anti-realism that animates so many of the classics of modern and contemporary literature in the West. Reviewing James Joyce’s Ulysses, for example, T.S. Eliot said that Joyce had found a way of using myth to control, order, and give “shape and a significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history.” But to use myth in this way is to put the greater reality too much in service to the lesser. Revolted by both historical chaos and historical determinism, the West nonetheless remains historical, committed to redeeming history, or unwilling, at least, to consider it illusory. For Raja Rao the function of myth is to dispel history. Yet myth is only a halfway house to the real. “I want to bring myth up to the Real,” says Rao, “not down to history.”

Philosophy carries us beyond myth. Gabriel Marcel once told Rao that the Indians scared him because whereas the West went from philosophy to God, they went from God to philosophy. It is just this element of philosophical disquisition, generally absent from Kanthapura, that saturates the pages of The Serpent and the Rope and The Cat and Shakespeare, taking us further away from the object, from history, from the world.


The mala or threadlike storyline of The Serpent and the Rope concerns the breakup of a remarkable marriage between Rama, a Brahmin, and Madeleine, a Westerner and teacher of history. Rama, himself a history student and writing a dissertation for a French university, narrates the story, saying at one point:

I am not telling a story here, I am writing the sad and uneven chronicle of a life, my life, with no art or decoration, but with the “objectivity,” the discipline of the “historical sciences,” for by taste and tradition I am only an historian.

Yet to be thus dedicated to history is to be dedicated to the object, to the world, and Rama is uneasy about this. In fact, the tone of the book’s first line constitutes an unconscious admission of this uneasiness: “I was born a Brahmin,” says Rama, “—that is, devoted to Truth and all that.”

The Truth Rama is at first so tentative about concerns the relationship between the self and the world. The vision defined by tat tvam asi sees that the world persists because the ego persists, for the world is really only the self seen as the other. Thus The Serpent and the Rope revolves around the question, will one or will one not give up the world?—which is the same as asking, will one or will one not give up the self and see that one is not oneself, but the Absolute? Raja Rao’s great achievement is to be able to pursue such questions with an almost manic philosophical drive without robbing them of the passion, pathos, and even sentimentality which must attend questions that threaten the realm of the self. “Float down, float down, little circles like flowers,” says Rama, almost chanting as he thinks of the mendicants who come down to the banks of the Ganges and receive alms from those bearing their dead:

. . . and there is not even a tear in his eye, for who can weep? Why weep and for so many dead—what little circles like some flowers, and there is not even a tear in his eye, for who can weep? Why weep and for so many dead—what would happen to this poor Brahma Bhatta or Virupaksha Bhatta if our fathers did not die, and we did not have to take their ashes to Benares? Death and birth are meteorological happenings: we reap and we sow, we plant and we put manure; we smile when the sky shows rain, we suffer when it rains hail— and all ends in our stomach. There must be a way out, Lord; a way out of this circle of life: rain, sunshine, autumn, snow, heat and the rain once more, in gentle flower-like ripples on the Ganges.

The rhythms and images of this passage circle, creating a stylistic counterpart to the circle in which Rama feels trapped. But there are two ways out, two ways to give up the world; and, as one might suspect, they are the ways of the West and East, Saint and Sage.

Rama’s dissertation has to do with possible connections between the Western, saintly Cathari and the Eastern, sagely Vedantin. The connections, however, exist only superficially, for although both sects forsake the world through the acquisition of knowledge and the practice of an extreme asceticism, the Cathari—whose doctrines descend from the Gnostics and Manichaens—base their attitudes on a fiercely maintained dualism. The “West”—understood throughout the book not so much as a geographical term, but a shorthand term for the affirmation of the object—means something quite different when it speaks of giving up the world. It means, ultimately, “The world must be more perfect or it must leave me alone.” Yet the more intensely it rejects the world, the more intensely is the world’s unsatisfying presence affirmed. Geared to the titanic struggle of human personality against what is, the West thus produces the hero as dualist and moralist who, as Rama says,

. . . must become saintly, must cultivate humility, because he knows he could be big, great, heroic and personal, an emperor with a statue and a pediment. . . . The Cathar, the Saint, wants to transform the world in his image—he the supreme anarchist. The Sage knows the world is but perception; he is King, he, Krishna the King of Kings.

The moral universe insists—whether it be according to Newton or Pascal—on the reality of the external world. That dhira (hero) of whom the Upanishads speak, enters into himself and knows he has never gone anywhere. There is nowhere to go, where there is no whereness. Alas, that is the beautiful Truth and man must learn it—beautiful it is, because you see yourself true.

Even though he seems to understand the differences between Saint and Sage quite deeply, Rama still works at finding possible connections and confesses “a tender heart for the Cathars.” Indeed, tenderness of heart, rising from a deeply felt compassion for the difficulty of life, is one of his most endearing qualities. Because he is tender we respect his wavering between knowing the sagely vision true and desiring to affirm the world. And never does he waver so intensely between knowledge and desire than in his relationship to Madeleine. At times he feels that he and Madeleine can truly marry, become one, but at others he knows that the best he can do is possess her, play for her the hero as saint; for in her great love for Rama and India she longs to be made over in their images. “Oh to be born in a country where tradition is so alive,” she says. Yet Madeleine is the quintessence of the West: she can only reject the world, not truly give it up. Shortly after their second child is born, she writes a remarkable letter to Rama, whose father’s death has forced him to return to India. The letter is the pure voice of the West addressing India. “You people are sentimental about the invisible,” she writes, “we about the visible.” “I wondered,” she continues, “whether I could really love you—whether anyone could love a thing so abstract as you.” She closes by saying she can, but this declaration is just bravura, for throughout, with great pathos and humor, she has been virtually confessing the opposite. She speaks of naming their son:

. . . at first I thought a second name for Krishna would be Ulysses. How I rounded the names on my tongue: Krishna Ulysses Ramaswamy. Absurd, absurd, said something to me, but I repeated them so often together that with familiarity it might become natural. No, the name seemed so absurd.

The child is named Pierrot and, like their first child, dies within weeks.

Pierrot’s death sparks Madeleine’s efforts at rejecting—not giving up—the world. She remains the dualist, the Cathar. In the growing intensity of her dedication to teaching history, people sense the heroic. She becomes obssessed with Buddhism, drives herself in pursuit of saintliness, and naturally drifts further apart from Rama. Near the end of the book Rama goes to visit her. “Why did you come?” she asks. “To see you.” “You cannot see anything but the eighteen aggregates.” She goes back to counting her beads, and Rama says to himself as he leaves, “. . .she parodied herself out of existence.” It is a weird, pathetically comic close to a marriage whose ups and downs, and intense happinesses and sorrows we so long been following.

To be truly married is crucial, for true marriage is India, is complete, non-dualistic oneness. With Savithri Rathor, a young Indian girl who helps him rediscover India’s spiritual meaning, Rama feels this metaphysical marriage bond. “You can marry,” he says to her, “when you are One. That is . . . when there is no one to marry another. The real marriage is like 00 . . . When the ego is dead is marriage true.”

The desire for the Absolute, for the dissolution of ego and its dualistic vision, is at the heart of a spiritual longing which grows in Rama until near the end of the book he tells us:

Sometimes singing some chant of Sankara, I burst into sobs. Grandfather Kittanna used to say that sometimes the longing for God becomes so great, so acute, you weep and that weeping has no name. Do I long for God? God is an object and I cannot long for him. . . . No, not a God but a Guru is what I need.

He returns to India hoping to still the wavering of his soul over Madeleine, over the Cathars, over the multitude of people and issues his life touches.

The Serpent and the Rope might be merely a short, touching, somewhat sentimental story were it not for the prodigious volume of philosophy that swells the book to more than twice Kanthapuras length and brilliantly transforms the storyline into small, seemingly ephemeral bits imbedded in vast realms of thought. Rama easily out-talks Achakka. He constantly quotes and philosophizes, and devises a stunning theory of history which is at times so satisfying (as when Hitler is identified as a type of the Cathar, the hero-saint who wishes to transform the world in his image) and at other times so infuriating, especially to the humanist who may be put off by Rama’s insistence that the human be set aside in favor of the “abhuman”—a word coming from the combination of “Absolute” with “human,” and signifying that humans are ultimately not themselves but the Absolute. History—the record of human acts—needs to be replaced by knowledge of how the Absolute acts. “India has, I always repeat, no history,” says Rama:

To integrate India into history—is like trying to marry Madeleine. It may be sincere, but it is not history. History, if anything, is the acceptance of human sincerity. But Truth transcends sincerity; Truth is in sincerity and in insincerity— beyond both. And that again is India.

Ultimately, however, philosophy must also be left behind. The Vedantin recognize three stages in giving up the world: faith, knowledge, and realization—which correspond to our myth, philosophy, and perception. Philosophy may carry one to the brink of realization by analyzing such dualities as Saint and Sage, human and abhuman, but it cannot dissolve these dualities by itself. Even the duality of unreal and real, the root duality of The Serpent and the Rope must be dissolved, and Rama moves towards this dissolution in what is perhaps the book’s most famous passage:

“The world is either unreal or real—the serpent or the rope. There is no in-between-the-two—and all that’s in-between is poetry, is sainthood. You might go on saying all the time, “No, no, it’s the rope,” and stand in the serpent. And looking at the rope from the serpent is to see paradise, saints, gods, heroes, universes. . .you feel you are the serpent—you are—the rope is. But in true fact, with whatever eyes you see there is no serpent, there never was a serpent. You gave your own eyes to the falling evening and cried, “Ayyo! Oh! It’s the serpent!” You run and roll and lament. . . . One—The Guru— brings you the lantern . . .”It’s only the rope.” He shows it to you. And you touch your eyes and know there never was a serpent. Where was it, where, I ask you? The poet who saw the rope as a serpent became the serpent, and so the saint: Now, the saint is shown that his sainthood was identification, not realization. The actual, the real has no name. The rope is no rope to itself.”

“Then what is it?”

“The rope. Not opposed to the serpent, but the rope just is—and therefore there is no world.”

Rama becomes free—philosophically. To transform philosophy into realization, into pure, intuitive vision, he seeks a guru.


“Afterall, you see what your eyes see. That is the root of the problem,” says Shantha, mistress of the main character in The Cat and Shakespeare. As Kanthapura is, so to speak, centered on myth and tradition, and The Serpent and the Rope on philosophy, so The Cat and Shakespeare, while encompassing both myth and philosophy, is centered on the problem of perception. “Freedom is only that you see that you see what you see,” says Ramakrishna Pai, the book’s main character. Merely to see is to affirm the object: to see you see is to affirm perception. But, untransformed in the beginning, Pai had said: “Time ticks. You close your eyes and open. I want to be free,” thereby echoing what Rama had said in The Serpent and the Rope: “. . . all ends in our stomach. There must be a way out, Lord.”

The style of The Cat and Shakespeare rises out of its pre-occupation with perception. Raja Rao intends his prose to be referentially difficult, ambiguous, as a way of de-emphasizing what is merely seen. Indeed, it is often difficult to figure out what, if anything, has happened, and Rao’s determination to convey the vision of tat tvam asi deeply affects even the very grammar of written English. As in “you close your eyes and open,” he makes many sentences elliptical by dropping, appropriately, subjects and objects. Many sentences move by indirection, switching subjects or objects in mid-flow, using logical connectives to imply connections not there, winding up where they did not set out to go. Also, the contrariety of particularization and generalization, so lovely in Rao’s works, operates here more pervasively than ever. One of the main symbols of the book, for example, is a wall which Ramakrishna Pai must learn to cross:

What a will-o’-the-wisp of a wall it is, going from nowhere to nowhere; tile-covered, bulging, and obstreperous, it seems like the sound heard and not the word understood. It runs just a little above my window, half an inch higher, and on the other side it dips and rises, running about on its wild vicarious course.

Ultimately the wall is only ahankara, the limitations of the ego, which keeps him from seeing what he sees he sees.

“The definition of Truth is simple,” says Pai, “—you wake up and you are in front of Truth.” The book’s plot is so tenuous because Truth is finally more a matter of what is, not what happens. It is not action, but recognition. Ahankara, however, blocks recognition by leading one to try to fulfill the longing for Truth with things which are lesser than the Truth. (Pascal, one recalls, expressed the same notion—only using “God” for “Truth.”) Like Rama working on his dissertation, Ramakrishna Pai is involved in a project closely related to, but lesser than, his desire for freedom and Truth: he wants to build a three-story house.

Just as he begins seriously questioning his ability to do this, one of the great character creations in all literature makes his appearance. Govindan Nair, Pai’s friend, easily jumps back and forth across the wall. “Hey there, be you at home?” he asks. A significant first question; for Govindan is really asking Pai how he conceives of his own being. Are you or are you not yourself? “I tell you, God will build you a house of three stories,” he tells Pai:

It is already there. You’ve just to look and see, look deep and see. Let the mother cat hold you by the neck. Suppose I were for a moment to show you the mother cat!” Govindan Nair never says anything indifferent. For him all gestures, all words have absolute meaning. “I meow-meow the dictionary, but my meaning is always one,” he used to assure me.

Govindan Nair is Ramakrishna Pai’s guru, and for him the mother cat is symbol of Truth, of the Absolute.

In one of the book’s most bizarre sequences, Nair’s office mates present him with a cat they have placed in a rat cage. It is a joke of metaphysical proportions, and there ensues a weird parody on Hamlet’s famous soliloquy. “To be or not to be. No, no,” says Govindan Nair. “A kitten sans cat, that is the question.” The vision shaped by tat tvam asi sees that the world is but the play—lila— of the Absolute. Kittens are cats—the diminuitive, playful aspect of cats, just as “To be” is the play of “Not to be,” or the serpent (the unreal) the play of the rope (the real). To choose, like Hamlet, is to affirm duality, to maintain the illusion that one is different from the other. To put a cat in a rat cage is to treat the Absolute like an object; and if the Absolute is an object, if it is not free, then there is no hope of freedom.

“We have no feline instinct. We live like rats,” says Govindan in an atypical moment of despair. That is, we live as if we were objects. But on the whole Govindan Nair, like the book itself, exudes hope. In lovely accord with the concept of lila, The Cat and Shakespeare is a roguish, uproarious, but exceedingly gentle comedy which, despite its general abstruseness, strikes one with great warmth. “Life is so precious,” says Pai near the end of the book, “I ask you why does not one play?” Man, like a kitten, plays because he perceives himself to be lila, and no one perceives this more profoundly and compassionately than Govindan Nair. One comes to love him not only for his delightful, teasing language but also for the fearless freedom with which he lives.

Through a fantastic series of events, for example, Nair is framed and brought to trial for perpetrating fraud in the ration shop where he works. Yet he faces the situation with such playful courage that the spectators, especially Ramakrishna Pai, suddenly realize the power of the sagely vision. “Govindan Nair was not set free. He was free,” says Pai. Shortly after the acquittal the two speak:

“You must have eyes to see,” he said desperately to me. “What do eyes see?” I asked, as if in fun. “Light,” he said, tears trickling from his dark eyes.

At the end of the book Pai crosses the wall:

I saw nose (not the nose) and eyes seeing eyes seeing. . . . I saw love yet knew not its name but heard it as sound, I saw truth not as fact but as ignition. . . . If I go on seeing a point, I become the point.

This is the rhetoric of mystical illumination, Raja Rao’s prose straining to convey the point at which the self gives way to the Absolute. Finally, however, such passion to render that moment must result in silence; so when Raja Rao said he wanted to publish The Cat and Shakespeare, itself barely 100 pages long, with 300 blank pages at the end, he was jesting in earnest.

The tears trickling from Govindan Nair’s eyes may serve to remind us that to jest in such a way or to fill one’s book with complex, often irreverent discussions on perception or causality is not merely to engage in merry abstruseness. We have not come as far from Kanthapura as it may seem, for the Truth that so deeply touches Govindan Nair is the same that caused Moorthy to say to Rangamma, “The fault of others is the fruit of one’s own disharmony.” The Cat and Shakespeare pulses with the very heartbeat of revolutionary India, for it is the most sophisticated extension to date of India as idea, as metaphysic. One may also sense in Govindan Nair’s fearlessly free style something of the courage that animated Sri Aurobindo, and Gandhi, and so many of those early strugglers for freedom. To know that the world is but one’s self seen as the other is to have, as Rama says, the courage “to dare annihilation.” The metaphysic of tat tvam asi assures us that one’s freedom is truly one’s own creation. It is not, however, in one’s hands: it is in one’s eyes—in vision.

Find out more about Richard R. Guzman’s work at his website.


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