Thursday, July 20, 2006

India is a state of idea, a metaphysic

If I were asked who was the greatest Indian novelist of the 20th century, I would undoubtedly point to Raja Rao -- who passed away Saturday July 8th 2006 in Austin, Texas, just two years short of the century mark. Alone among all other writers of his time, including Mulk Raj Anand and R.K.Narayan, it was his destiny to unfold a profound insight for many readers into the eternal India. And in this, his works stand in contrast to the many new Indian novelists who see India through Western or Westernized eyes.
What makes Raja Rao’s unique is not just the highly innovative, experimental, and dynamic English prose style that he developed much before Salman Rushdie, but the deeply spiritual content of his works. His spirituality is not of a New Age feel good kind, but philosophically rigorous. He is a novelist of ideas, but the idea is always suggestive of something beyond itself, pointing, ultimately, to the Absolute.
As Professor Makarand Paranjape of Jawaharlal Nehru University tells us: “Raja Rao considered his writing a sadhana, a spiritual discipline. Reading him is also a sadhana. Like the great Russian writers Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, his fiction elevates the spirit, taking the reader to a higher plane of consciousness."
In many ways he was the quintessential writer of the Great Indian Diaspora, a harbinger for the likes of Salman Rushdie, Vikram Seth, Bharati Mukherji, Jhumpa Lahiri and many others who followed. His legacy lingers; but, sadly, few of the modern writers, who crowd the literary marketplace, are aware of or acknowledge this legacy. And long before writers such as Rushdie made it trendy, Rao was infusing unique Indian literary genres, including interior monologue, retrospective narrative and symbolism, into the narrative of English fiction.
In India Raja Rao would be, as he himself once put it, "somewhat important." But he chose to live in a modest apartment on Pearl Street in Austin, Texas, where he was on the faculty at the University of Texas from 1966 to 1980. When he retired as professor emeritus, he continued to make his home in Austin -- where both his sons were born. ..."India," according to Raja Rao, "is not a nation, like France or Italy or Germany: India is a state of being..." On another occasion he wrote that India is ‘an idea, a metaphysic. My India I carried wheresoever I went…’
India, Raja Rao implied, is open to whoever can attain it, wherever they may be. And reading his works was an invitation to taste that eternal India – of the Mahabharatha and Ramayana, of the Upanishads, of Sankara, of Aurobindo, of Tagore, of Vivekananda, and of Gandhi.

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