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‘Kanthapura’ by Raja Rao

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  • Pages: 8
  • Word count: 1938
  • Category: Novel

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Raja Rao’s first novel Kanthapura (1938) is the story of a village in south India named Kanthapura. The novel is narrated in the form of a ‘sthalapurana’ by an old woman of the village, Achakka. Kanthapura is a traditional caste ridden Indian village which is away from all modern ways of living. Dominant castes like Brahmins are privileged to get the best region of the village whereas Sudras, Pariahs are marginalized. The village is believed to have protected by a local deity called Kenchamma. Though casteist, the village has got a long nourished traditions of festivals in which all castes interact and the villagers are united.

The main character of the novel Moorthy is a Brahmin who discovered a half buried ‘linga’ from the village and installed it. A temple is built there, which later became the centre point of the village life. All ceremonies and festivals are celebrated within the temple premises.

Hari-Kathas, a traditional form of storytelling, was practiced in the village. Hari-Kathas are stories of Hari(God). One Hari-Katha man, Jayaramachar, narrated a Hari Katha based on Gandhi and his ideals. The narrator was arrested because of the political propaganda instilled in the story.

The novel begins its course of action when Moorthy leaves for the city where he got familiar with Gandhian philosophy through pamphlets and other literatures. He followed Gandhi in letter and spirit. He wore home spun khaddar. Discarded foreign clothes and fought against untouchability. This turned the village priest, a Brahmin, against him who complained to the swami who was a supporter of foreign government and Moorthy was ex-communicated. Heartbroken to hear it, his mother Narasamma passed away.

Bade Khan was a police officer, a non hindu of Kanthapura. He was brought and supported by the coffee planters who were Englishmen. Considered as an outsider, Bade khan is an enemy of the people who refuses to provide shelter to him.

After the death of his mother, Moorthy started living with an educated widow Rangamma, who took part in India’s struggle for freedom. Moorthy was invited by Brahmin clerks at Skeffington coffee estate to create an awareness among the coolies of the estate. When Moorthy turned up, Bade Khan hit him and the pariah coolies stood with Moorthy. Though he succeeded in following Gandhian non violence principle, the incident made him sad and unhappy.

Rachanna and family were thrown out of the estate because of their role in beating Bade Khane. Meanwhile, Moorthy continued his fight against injustice and social inequality and became a staunchest ally of Gandhi. Taking the responsibility of the violent actions happened at the estate; Moorthy went on a three day long fasting and came out victorious and morally elated.Following the footsteps of Gandhi, a unit of the congress committee was formed in Kanthapura. Gowada, Rangamma, Rachanna and seenu were elected as the office bearers of the committee and they avowed to follow Gandhi’s teachings.

Fearing the greater mobility of people of Kanthapura under the leadership of Moorthy, the foreign government accused him of provoking people to inflict violence it and arrested him. Though Rangamma and Rachanna were willing to release him on bail, he refused. He was punished for three months rigorous imprisonment.

While Moorthy spent his days in prison, the women of Kanthapura took charge of the struggle for freedom. They formed Women’s Volunteer Corps under the leadership of Rangamma who instilled patriotism among the women by presenting thr historical figures like Laxmi Bai of thansi, rajput princess, Sarojini Naidu etc… Moorthy was released later and he came out as strong as he was. People thronged at his house were dispersed peacefully.

Dandi March, Picketting of Boranna’s toddy grove were other activities led by Moorthy after his release. Arrest of the satyagrhis, and police brutality to women became a part of the everyday life of the people in Kanthapura. Atrocities against women added miseries of the people. In the last part o the novel, it is mentioned that people of the village were settled in Kashipur and Kanthapura was occupied by people from Bombay.

The Story
The story, at the beginning, is very boring. That sort of sets the tone for the entire book. Kanthapura is the story of a village in South India called, very predictably, Kanthapura. The narrator is a widow named Achakka. Kanthapura, according to her, is much like other villages. It is divided along caste lines, but is, at the same time, harmonious and united. All the villagers are mutually bound in their social and economic functions. Religion plays an important part in the village, and the two main religious influences are ‘Kenchamma’, the village Goddess, and Himavathy, the river flowing near Kanthapura. The various ceremonies and festivals held in the village hold the villagers together religiously. The story has two main individual leaders, Mahatma Gandhi, who, very wisely, chooses to remain out of the novel, and Moorthy, the main protagonist.

The story takes off, if it ever does, when Moorthy, a young Brahmin, suddenly gets influenced by the Mahatma. He starts spreading the Mahatma’s message among the villagers. He visits the city sometime during the beginning of the narrative, and returns a ‘Gandhi Man’. The villagers, in the absence of anything better to do, start taking Moorthy seriously. Moorthy gets support from Rangamma, a kind old widow, Ratna, a hot young widow, and Patel Range Gowda, a man. Together, they form a Congress committee in Kanthapura and, as per the Mahatma’s philosophy, start mingling with the lower castes. They face skeptisicm from many, like the foul-mouthed Venkamma. They also face opposition from Bhatta (an ass) and Swami (a local religious leader), who threatens them with excommunication.

All this becomes too much for Moorthy’s mother, Narsamma, to handle. She cries a lot, and then, very prudently, makes a hasty exit from the lousy-excuse-for-a-novel. In other words, she dies. The real resistance comes from the British, symbolized by a horny white man at the Skeffington Coffee Estate, and Bade Khan. As Moorthy expands his committee, the British get impatient, and finally send policemen to arrest Moorthy. The villagers protest, but Moorthy gives himself up silently and peacefully, and urges the villagers to do the same, if and when the need arose. He is taken to Karwar, where he refuses the services of a lawyer, thinking that The Truth shall protect him. When he finds out it won’t, it is too late, and he ends up spending 3 months in jail. In Moorthy’s absence, Sankar takes his place at the head of the Congress committee. The British bribe the Swami with fertile land. The villagers fast for 3 days for Moorthy, and then the women decide to form a Sevika Sangh.

Their husbands object, ostensibly because they thought the women would neglect their chores, but actually because they thought they weren’t getting laid frequently enough. The men and women, however, soon reach a compromise (I think they drew up a schedule) and start working together for the greater good. When Moorthy is released, he picks up where he had left off. Soon after, Gandhi launches the Non-Cooperation movement with the Dandi March. The villagers follow the march carefully, and start preparing for their own Non-Cooperation movement. That’s when the toddy shop business begins. The people of Kanthapura, in a fit of enthusiastic impracticality, decide to picket the toddy shops. They are joined by volunteers from the cities, and coolies from Skeffington. So the villagers march to picket, but encounter the police en route.

The policemen have guns, and they use them. They also beat the villagers mercilessly. Moorthy and a few other people get arrested. A couple of people die. One woman gets raped, and another delivers a child. All this amidst a one-sided, LOTR-style war scene. The policemen win. They start wreaking havoc on Kanthapura. The women who are left behind decide to burn the village, rather than let the fields and houses fall into the hands of the oppressors. The village, therefore, burns, and in the end, there remains neither man nor mosquito in Kanthapura. Then begins the journey to another village. The women reach a place called Kashipura after going through many difficulties. Once there, they stay there. The Mahatma, in the meanwhile, signs a treaty with the Viceroy that frees all the non-violent prisoners.

Many villagers, including Ratna, are released, and return to tell the villagers at Kashipura the conditions inside the prisons. Moorthy, however, does not return to Kashipura. Seeing his ambitions thwarted, he reacts in a way common to the youth in those days. He goes over to the Nehru Camp. However, he soon realizes that playing second fiddle to a well-dressed, young and smooth-talking man is a much more difficult and frustrating task than playing second fiddle to an old, bald, half-naked and bespectacled one. He then becomes disillusioned with life and the Freedom Struggle, becomes an inveterate alcoholic, comes out of the closet, and, on not receiving the public acceptance and sympathy he had hoped for, commits suicide.

The Message
There are two rather important messages that the novel deals with. Firstly, the role of the National Struggle in changing the very framework under which our society traditionally functioned. Throughout the narrative, we see the gradual blurring of caste lines. We see how the village changed and became a strong unit in the face of crises, and most importantly, how the changes in the village structure came not from the outside or due to any external agent, but from the inside, due to the efforts put in by the villagers. Moorthy plays a very important role in the novel in this regard. Secondly, the Feminine Principle fundamental to the narrative.

While the novel does not explicitly question the then existing gender equations, it does tell us the rising importance of women in society, and how that rising importance was both a cause and effect of the National Movement. While subjects like equality and husband-wife relations have not been questioned, they have been commented upon. Most importantly, it has been mentioned that the women of India played an active part in India’s struggle for Independence, and while they might not have been viewed as equals by men then, they were not treated with outright contempt either.

That about wraps it up for Kanthapura.

If you just read this post, and still can’t understand a thing, here’s what you do. Memorize the following phrases. Learn them up by heart. Then use them lavishly in you minor answers. I guarantee results.

1. “Microcosm of the Indian National Movement”
2. “You son of a Concubine.”
3. Peaceful Non-violence/Non-violent Peace/Satyagraha
4. “Corner-House Moorthy”
5. “You son of a Concubine.”
6. “Kenchamma Kenchamma”
7. “Picket-Toddy-Shop”
8. “You son of a Concubine.”

On the 1st of August, from about 11 to 12, May The Force Be With You.

As a novel:
Kanthapura, as a novel, sucks. It is the first major Indian novel in English. It is also boring, long, and old. It is one of the few novels by an Indian writer in English that is almost entirely untouched by Western values or attitudes. It was first published in London in 1938, and didn’t, very understandably, sell much. It was only later, after India had gained her independence, and ineffectual courses like HUL 239 had been introduced at crappy Indian universities, that Kanthapura sales rocketed, and made Raja Rao a rich man overnight. The book has a history of inducing wild patriotism and long periods of extreme ennui among readers. It is an established cure for insomnia. And it doesn’t cost too much.

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