RAJA RAO’S FABULOUS retelling of Mahatma Gandhi’s life, The Great Indian Way: A Life of Mahatma Gandhi, is about to be republished, with a new, 50-page introduction, which I have written. (First published by Kapil Malhotra of Vision Books in 1998, the book’s new edition published by Penguin Random House is scheduled to be released in September. Portions of this column have appeared in my ‘Introduction’.) Rao had called it ‘an experiment in honesty’, adding that the ‘Pauranic style… is the only style an Indian can use’. This marvellous recitation of Bapu’s life in the form of a modern Purana is probably the most exciting literary tribute to Gandhi as his sesquicentennial anniversary celebrations draw to a somewhat tepid close.
My mind goes back to a memorable one-day symposium, ‘Word as Mantra: The Art of Raja Rao’, on March 24, 1997 at the University of Texas in Austin, US. Rao had taught philosophy from 1966 to 1986 and then settled into a quiet, private retirement with his third wife, Susan, in their small, rented apartment on Pearl Street, not too far from the campus.
I remember sitting on the wooden floor at Raja Rao’s feet, while he reclined comfortably on his bed. Rao was a small, distinguished-looking man, with fine features, aquiline nose and longish, unkempt white hair. He was just a year short of 90, but his eyes were full of sparkle. He seemed the very embodiment of life and light. He spoke to me softly, almost in a whisper, yet his mind was razorsharp, capable of the most abstruse ideas and complex conversations.
I was part of a small group of admirers and scholars who were there to felicitate him on being conferred the Fellowship of the Sahitya Akademi, India’s national academy of letters. The Fellowship is its highest form of recognition, usually given to our most eminent writers for a lifetime’s contribution to literature.
Rao’s award was announced the previous year, in 1996, but he was unable to travel to India to receive it. Now, the then President of the Sahitya Akademi, himself one of India’s great writers, UR Ananthamurthy, had come all the way to Austin to bestow it upon Rao. The ceremony had already taken place earlier in the day at the Center for Asian Studies in the university, along with the symposium in Rao’s honour organised by Bob Hardgrave, his former colleague.
In my presentation earlier in the day, ‘Seeing with Three Eyes: Raja Rao and the Gandhian Way’, I had tried to unravel the mystery of Raja Rao’s Gandhi. Given the hundreds of books on the Mahatma, what was so special about Raja Rao’s biography? Why had Mulk Raj Anand called it ‘among the most authentic accounts of the Mahatma’s life and work’?
The clue came from Rao himself: ‘Facts of course are there, but facts are shrill.’ Facts, in other words, do not tell the whole truth: ‘They have a way of saying more than they mean, and disbelievingly so. The silences and the symbols are omitted, and meaning taken out of breath and performance.’
What else do we have other than facts? Rao calls it the ‘rasa, flavour, to makes facts melt into life’. Complex and multilayered, requiring a special style to express it, even in modern times, ‘the Indian experience is such a palimpsest, layer behind layer of tradition and myth and custom go to make such an existence: gesture is ritual, and each act a statement in terms of philosophy, superstition, historical or linguistic provincialism, caste originality, or merely a person alone, and yet it’s all a whole, it’s India.’
Given the hundreds of books on the Mahatma, what was so special about Raja Rao’s biography? Why had Mulk Raj Ananad called it ‘among the most authentic accounts of the Mahatma’s life and work’? The clue came from Rao himself: ‘facts of course are there, but facts are shrill’
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Something similar Rao had declared in the ‘Preface’ to his first novel, Kanthapura: ‘We cannot write like the English. We should not. We cannot write only as Indians. Our method of expression… has to be a dialect which will someday prove to be as distinctive and colourful as the Irish and the American. Time alone will justify it.’ This statement became almost the manifesto of Indian writing in English, foretelling the chutneyfication of English by later experimenters such as Salman Rushdie.
Speaking of his own experience in writing about India, Rao had admitted, ‘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. One has to convey the various shades and omissions of a certain thought-movement that looks maltreated in an alien language.’ Of course, English is not entirely an alien language to Indians but, as Rao believed, it is not the language of our ‘emotional make-up’. That is how he came to create a new style, a new mode of narration.
In his book on Gandhi, Rao takes his experimentation to a new level of stylistic and metaphysical boldness: ‘Thus to face honesty against an Indian event, an Indian life, one’s expression has to be epic in style or to lie.’ In other words, facts alone cannot tell the Indian story, nor can myths, rituals or fables by themselves.
That is how Rao reinvented the pauranic style. Not in the manner of the old Puranas which, from the point of modern history, are hobbled by their unverifiable material. Nor the contemporary accounts which are slaves to facts. But a unique combination of both.This I called ‘seeing with three eyes’.
The first eye sees only facts. The second espies the fable behind and around the fact. It is only the third eye, the eye of wisdom, that can combine both to see into the depths of things, their secret significance and meaning. This special way of seeing is what Rao calls ‘fact against custom, history against time… geography against space’.
In his book on the Mahatma, this is precisely what Rao accomplishes, making ‘life larger than it seems, and its small impurities and accidents and parts, must perforce be transmuted into equations where the mighty becomes normal, and the normal in its turn becoming myth. Prose and poetry thus flow into one another, the personal and the impersonal, making the drama altogether noble and simple.’
The cancel culture and Black Lives Matter (BLM) movements have not spared Gandhi. Along with other notables such as Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill, Gandhi’s statues were also desecrated on both sides of the Atlantic, in both Washington DC and London. In March 2016, a 9ft bronze statue of the Mahatma had been unveiled in Parliament Square, London, by the late Arun Jaitley, then Finance Minister, in the presence of then UK Prime Minister David Cameron. That statue was defaced with the expletive ‘racist’ on the its foundation and spray painted in white by protesters on June 8th.
But Gandhi, as Raja Rao, himself often reiterated, belongs very much to a pauranic tradition which cannot easily be disfigured or disregarded. Rao himself told me that on the eve of Independence, he and a few close friends were desperately looking for a miracle that might avert the partition of India. They thought a true sage might, through an act of supreme sacrifice, avert it. Instead, Gandhi, the Father of the Nation, himself was assassinated. Rao said, ‘Sadly, it was too late. Gandhi died to save India from going up in flames. It was, at best, a desperate, last-ditch effort, after most of the damage had already been done.’
To Rao, it was Gandhi, more than anyone else, who represented the integrity of the non-dual that India stands for. That is what Gandhi wanted to realise in his idea of Ram Rajya and swaraj. But the oneness of Hindus and Muslims that he gave his life for could not be accomplished, nor the horrors of partition averted.
The Great Indian Way is Rao’s retelling of and tribute to Gandhi’s extraordinary life.