In Memoriam: Raja Rao
September 9, 2006
Raja Rao, who passed away in July, was almost certainly the greatest English-language writer of Indian origin in the last fifty years. He had lived to the ripe old age of 98, and I had been fortunate enough to speak with him by phone a few times.
Raja Rao said he was pleased to speak to someone from Trivandrum, for he had lived there briefly and written ‘The Cat and Shakespeare’ there; but his asthma had gotten the better of him and had forced him to retreat to Austin. HIs guru’s ashram was nearby, so he had tried to return but had been foiled by his health.
This is what I wrote in passing about Raja Rao when I wrote an obituary for R K Narayan in 2001:
There is no doubt that Narayan, the Talkative Man, was one of the greatest Indian writers of his generation: perhaps the only other in his class is the revered Raja Rao, also a nonagenarian, Professor Emeritus at the University of Texas, Austin. I have been fortunate enough to speak with Rao a few times thanks to my friend Devakumar Srivijayan. A very gracious old man, Rao complained that he found it difficult to get publishers for his work as it was too complex.
That is the crux of the difference between Narayan and Rao. The former wrote of the simple sorrows and pleasures of the simple folks of small-town South India. The latter writes of the grand themes of Indian civilization. They could not be more different, but this makes it difficult for a reader: you have to be a very good juggler of ideas to like both styles simultaneously.
Personally, I have found that both of them are difficult for me. While I have liked the classic understatement of Narayan’s works, I am put off by the simplicity of the characters and what appears to be the lack of depth of their thoughts and actions. Perhaps I just do not see beyond the obvious to the passions and evils that lurk behind the sedate exteriors. In a strange way, the fact that these people in rural India speak perfect English also seemed jarring to me.
On the other hand, I am intimidated by the immense scholarship that goes into Raja Rao’s writing. I feel inadequate, frankly; sometimes I feel almost illiterate, for I simply don’t understand the context well enough. Raja Rao once told me how he had tried to return to India three times, attempting to settle down in Trivandrum where his guru lives; each time his health failed him and he had to return to Austin. This is sort of the way I feel about his work: every time I try, I am forced to retreat. For I fail to comprehend the “four of five levels” on which his work can be read as he himself suggested.
But I am grateful to Raja Rao for having bothered to spend a little time talking to me over ten years ago. It meant a lot to me. For I had been intimidated by the depths of his writing, and was apprehensive about speaking with him. However, his kindness put me at ease, and it was a pleasure listening to him.
I cannot begin to claim that I have understood ‘The Serpent and the Rope’, his masterpiece. Densely imagined, it defeats me because I am simply not educated well enough about India to follow it fully, or even in half-measure. I am unfortunate, but then so are almost all of my compatriots: for the entire system of Indic learning has been wiped out in fifty years by an indifferent and often hostile State.
Requiescat in Pace, Prof. Rao. It may be just as well that you did not return to India, for it is a cultural wasteland. Nobody has the capacity to understand you: we are far more interested in second-hand imitations of shallow Leftist European ideas.
Here is what a fellow-immigrant, and one who had ‘escaped’ from Leftist Europeans, Czeslaw Milosz, wrote in poetry addressed to Raja Rao.
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.
A city, trees, human voices
lacked the quality of presence.
I would live by the hope of moving on.
Somewhere else there was a city of real presence,
of real trees and voices and friendship and love.
Link, if you wish, my peculiar case
(on the border of schizophrenia)
to the messianic hope
of my civilization.
Ill at ease in the tyranny, ill at ease in the republic,
in the one I longed for freedom, in the other for the end of corruption.
Building in my mind a permanent polis
forever deprived of aimless bustle.
I learned at last to say: this is my home,
here, before the glowing coal of ocean sunsets,
on the shore which faces the shores of your Asia,
in a great republic, moderately corrupt.
Raja, this did not cure me
of my guilt and shame.
A shame of failing to be
what I should have been.
The image of myself
grows gigantic on the wall
and against it
my miserable shadow.
That’s how I came to believe
in Original Sin
which is nothing but the first
victory of the ego.
Tormented by my ego, deluded by it
I give you, as you see, a ready argument.
I hear you saying that liberation is possible
and that Socratic wisdom
is identical with your guru’s.
No, Raja, I must start from what I am.
I am those monsters which visit my dreams
and reveal to me my hidden essence.
If I am sick, there is no proof whatsoever
that man is a healthy creature.
Greece had to lose, her pure consciousness
had to make our agony only more acute.
We needed God loving us in our weakness
and not in the glory of beatitude.
No help, Raja, my part is agony,
struggle, abjection, self-love, and self-hate,
prayer for the Kingdom
and reading Pascal.