Raja Rao’s Kanthapura, nationalism and caste

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Raja Rao’s Kanthapura enacts some of the motifs of postcolonialism. In my previous post here I point out that Raja Rao critiques the simple position al010that the discourse of colonialism instituted a notion of the natural superiority of the colonising race and this was internalised by the colonized. In the second piece on the novel I point to how the novel problematizes viewing colonial modernity as having had a liberating impact on the Indian society. Let me take this reading further.

The problematising potential of the novel extends to anti-colonial nationalism too. In order to examine this let us turn to another dimension of the novel. The emergence of novel as a genre in 19th century India raises the question of whether it is derivative. While there is a debate on this issue, the novel’s role in enabling the notion of nation-state to take shape is an important one. Benedict Anderson has argued that novel is partly responsible for a community to imagine itself as a nation. The novels written in 19th century and even beyond in India may be used to support this claim. While in Kanthapura, the action is restricted to the village itself with none of the characters venturing too far out, yet the village is not insulated against the happenings in other places. In fact, the stimulation for action is not local. The grand events that form the focal points of the novel take place in response to events elsewhere – Lahore, Bengal, Gujarat, etc. The village community moves from an insulated identity towards a national identity. In one sense, Kanthapura chronicles the formation of a national identity within a remote village. This thematic is also supported by the manner in which the village becomes a kind of a microcosm of the nation. The narrative tends towards mythicizing. For example Moorthy’s fast, Ramakrishnayya’s death, the receding of the flood, and nationalist struggle itself are mythicized. The narrative takes recourse to Vedantic texts and Puranas and inserts nationalist struggle into them. For example, in a harikatha, Jayaramachar brings in an allegory between Siva, Parvati and the nation. The three eyed Siva stands for Swaraj. Later Rangamma standing in as the commentator of Vedanta after the death of her father reads the Puranas allegorically, interpreting hell as the foreign rule, soul as India and so on. Shall we say nation is thus constructed hermeneutically?

The process of imagining a community – of imagining nationhood – also underlines the homogenising tendency of nationalism. The congress workers, who so vehemently are ‘swadeshi’ and give up anything foreign, unwittingly embrace the European model of nation. This notion requires a nation state to have a singular form. A nation is a community of people who have a common language etc. Thus in Kanthapura, Congressmen including Moorthy follow the same model of the nation-state. Sankaru epitomises this: his insistence on speaking Hindi even to his mother instead of the local language Kannada; his fanatic resistance to the use of English and so on. This conception of the nation informs that of everyone: e.g. the narrator visualises Moorthy {when in prison} to be wearing kurta pyjama instead of dhoti. The Hindi teacher is not from any Hindi speaking region but a Malayali [Surya Menon]. Thus, the very conception of ‘Nation’, which is conceived after the European model of the nation-state, undermines the ‘Swadeshi’ spirit of nationalism. Any pure form of nationhood untouched by colonialism is seriously questioned.

Another problem arises when this novel is read as a record of a nation-in-the-making.  It would seem to exemplify Jameson’s argument that third world literature is necessarily a national allegory. When we keep in mind that Benedict Anderson’s thesis about the emergence of nation-state is a work on the emergence of nation-state in Europe, Jameson’s argument seems to put third world literature in the past of European literature. This only re-enacts the familiar theme that comes across in the colonialist historiography of Indian nationalism: that Indian nationalism is a learning process as has been pointed out by Ranjit Guha (Subaltern Studies I). This particular view of nationalism characterises Indian nationalism as a response to the stimulus of colonial administration. The view of the history of the colonised society as a march towards the teleological goal of becoming ultimately ‘Europe’ places them always at a past time in relation to the colonisers present time. The denial of coevalness of time is a necessity in the discourse of colonialism.

This view of India’s history being bound to Europe takes us to Dipesh Chakravarthy’s thesis that as far as history as a discourse is concerned, Europe remains the sovereign theoretical subject of all histories, including the one we call Indian (Provincialising Europe OUP, 2001). Further, he says, as opposed to other narratives of self and community, history is the meta-narrative that looks to the state/citizen bind as the ultimate construction of sociality. Other constructions of self and community speak an anti-historical consciousness. With modernity, history becomes the site where the struggle goes on to appropriate other collocations of memory. In Kanthapura, the narrative in the beginning reflects an ahistorical consciousness. The description of the village life is as a timeless continuum in the form of Sthalapurana. Or the Harikatha wherein nationalist figures become mythical. Whereas, colonialism disrupts the narratives of the community and introduces ‘history’. In as far as the change in the narrative technique, which becomes more linear while narrating the freedom struggle in Kanthapura, history really begins with Europe inhabiting Kanthapura. This is most clearly suggested in the loss of mythicizing tendency of the narrative in the later part when the arrival of newspapers, novels and pamphlets has exposed the first person narrator to techniques of historicizing.

This whole reading of the novel harps back upon the exchange between the coloniser and the colonised. The interesting insights offered by the novel are about the immense complications and violence that attend the arrival of colonial modernity in India.

The novel highlights with no subtlety the collusion between colonialism and Brahmanism. The manner in which Moorthy becomes an outcaste in the Brahmin quarters with his campaign against untouchability indicates the tension between Brahmanism and nationalism. For Brahmanism, the colonial ruler is not the enemy but Gandhi’s anti-untouchable movement is. The collusion between Brahmanism and colonialism is suggested through the alliance between Bhatta, Bade Khan the policeman and the Sahib of the Estate. Swami, who is waging a war against ‘caste pollution due to this pariah business’, sees British rulers as protectors of the ancient ways of Dharma. Swami receives a large amount from the govt as Rajadakshina and is promised that he would receive moral and material support in his war against caste pollution.

While this reading posits nationalism in conflict with brahminism, something more interesting is available if we push our reading a little further. Moorthy’s politics in the village mobilises people of all castes for the struggle against colonisers. In so doing Moorthy radicalises his sociality by visiting the untouchable quarters, and even having milk offered by one of them. Interestingly after this he is troubled by his action and takes a bath. Though he does not change his sacred thread as then he would have to do it daily, he does take a little Ganga water and we are promised that he would do that every time he visits the pariahs. His politics aims at assimilating the lower castes into the nationalist movement. This may also operate as a move towards containment. For example, the discourse of nationalism meets the discourse of religion at different levels in the novel. While Bhatta, Swami and their followers {who have often material motives such as Venkamma) resist Gandhism in the name of religion, in Kanthapura, the nationalists increasingly employ the religious discourse and customs and symbols for nationalist purposes. Religious resources are mobilised for the politicisation of the people. But the customs, rituals and symbols that become tools of nationalist mobilisation are primarily Brahminic: arthi, puja, conches, bells, Vedanta, bhajan etc. They do not include the cultural practices of the lower castes though their participation is prominent.

The overall idea I have of the novel is that it is an immensely clever novel that very ably reflects much of the nationalistic themes including the patronising attitude towards the lower caste society. The novel, much like hegemonic Indian nationalists, deploys anti-caste postures to dissemble the projection of brahminical culture as the legitimate national culture.

14 responses »

  1. I’m editing an anthology of CASTE AND INDIAN ENGLISH NOVEL. I wish to include this good article. Please correspond.

  2. Dear Kamalakar,

    I have read your piece with interest and have addressed very similar issues in my doctoral work on Raja Rao back in 2008. The thesis, which is now becoming a book, is titled “A Narrative of India Beyond History: Anti-colonial Strategies and Post-colonial Negotiations in Raja Rao’s Works.”
    I am editing an anthology on Rao’s work, contact me asap if you would like to contribute.

  3. Dr Letizia Alterno, Thanks for your visit and comments. Your book sounds interesting, will read. Would love to contact you, please give your email address.

  4. It was wonderful read. I had just finished Kanthapura and after reading the article , I felt now I will be able to think more deeply as I have got good pointers , in good words too. Thank You.

    I was disturbed before reading your article ,as the last article I read , denounces the novel . Current students of literature , of Delhi , Pune universities , say that it is a boring text and so on …
    But thanks to your article , I am again back into my Spirits. :)

  5. I must say that your article helps me a lot in case of analysing the critical aspects of this novel. I’m a novice in this huge world of novels that deals with nationalism,postcolonialism etc. and your article provides me the searchlight. Thank u very much.

  6. Your article gave me a deep insight in to the poetic process of Raja Rao . I cherished reading it.

  7. must say indepth interepretation of the novel….its going to be helpful for my tomorrows contemporary indian writing exam

  8. Thanks for this great help. . .got to know about the novel, its interpretations, thematic aspects and summary as a whole. . .this study would help me work out many notes gathered from this brief piece…

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