Sunday, April 11, 2010

Sunday Salon: Kanthapura by Raja Rao

Kanthapura is a quiet village in India. Life has gone on much the same for centuries. There are 'quarters' (though there are more than four of them) where the various classes of villagers live: the potters and the weavers, for example, and the Brahmins and the Pariahs.

According to Wikipedia it is a mistake to think that the Brahmins are just the priests. They are also the law makers and scholars. They occupy the highest position (below kings) in the Varna system (the old Hindu system of social classes). The Pariahs are the lowest social order, and the Brahmin and the Pariahs have very little to do with each other. According to some of the passages in this book it is believed that a Pariah can become a Brahmin in his next life by losing karma, but little can be done in the life they have now. It is a static place and system, and I expect some people are more content than others.

Unrest comes from an unlikely direction. One Brahmin, who so far has not directly featured in the novel but is only referred to, has become rebel. He thinks that India depends too much on the white man's money and this dependency is holding India back. He wants all Indians to commit themselves to spinning and weaving and using this labour to become self-sufficient. He also believes that the Brahmin should mingle freely with the Pariahs and there should be no social barriers. This Brahmin's name is, of course, Mahatma Gandhi.

This novel, which E.M. Forster describes as 'the best novel ever written in English by an Indian' is written in the style of the Indian folk tradition. Raja Rao said that Indians tend to think, talk and move fast and he wanted to convey that. There are long, beautifully poetic, passages of description and the dialogue is merged in with that. But for me, at least, this does not give me the sense of anything frantic but the reverse. It tends to lull me into thinking not much is happening and then I realise that something significant and dramatic has occurred and I have to go back and read again. It has taken me some time to get used to it and I am enjoying it more as I go along. Perhaps the most important thing I am gaining from reading it is that it is giving me an impression how it is to live in this ancient and sophisticated culture that is so different from my own.

N.B. For other Sunday Salonists (and there are 500 of us) see Debra Hamel's website here.


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