Context Of The Noval
The novel opens with the picturesque definition of the village and ends with its ruin. Raja Rao has faithfully captured the spirit of resurgence of India’s freedom struggle at the wake of Gandhian impact: its religious concerns, its political philosophy and its socio-economic dynamics, everything has been adequately discussed just as Gandhi had tried to bring about the all-round development of the country. It is through Rao adoption of the Gandhian theme that lends the novel its desired success. It jolts the village into action and breaks its indifferent passivity, to bring out the hidden patriot in each of the residents of Kanthapura. The novel also delineates Gandhi’s own strife to reach out to the remotest villages of the country to wake her up from the complacent slumber she had been under colonialism. Gandhi’s invisibility in the novel is not to be regarded as his complete absence; rather, he is more than just a physical presence in the story who make the novel alive and telling. He is a powerful presence through his influencing ideals.
The novel adequately records the spirit of sacrifice in each of the village folks, and not just the spectacular sacrifice of a few prominent figures whose names surface in the Indian history. They are not the political leaders who spearhead freedom processions, but little names and figures who form the faceless, nameless-anonymity of these processions for freedom. They all shed their differences and assemble together in order to respond to the clarion call of Gandhi to free their country from the clutches of the British rule. While writing this novel, Raja Rao was in France which gave them the necessary distance to perceive the events in his country from a vantage position. He could objectively be a spectator and commentator of the violence and atrocities of the British on one hand, and the non-violent handling of the matter by the Indians, on the other.
Raja Rao, in order to serve his purpose as a detached recorder of the nation’s history, chooses to represent Kanthapura as a microcosm of India during her freedom struggles. The narration of the story begins with the chanting of Harikatha where the Mahatma emerges as the deliverer of the country from the serpentine trap of the British, portrayed as Kali, the Serpent. The Mahatma comes to the scene and embraces all- from a Brahmin to a Pariah, and tries to eradicate the rigid, conventions that had enslaved India since time immemorial. He tries to lift the dismal situation that suffocates the country’s economy and social system under foreign rule. The real credit goes to his ability to produce staunch patriots from each little province where only his voice, his messages or his ideals are able to seep through. Moorthy is presented as “little Gandhi”, the visible avatar, of the “invisible God”, the Mahatma.
Moorthy, the protagonist of the novel, was a college student when he was greatly influenced by Gandhian ideals on national freedom. Leaving aside his college studies half-way, he joined the processions and thereafter, courted arrest. In his life, he never had any form of first- hand experience with Gandhi but admits of bearing Gandhi’s vision addressed to a crowd of common people. This vision transforms a simple village youth to a staunch or hard and fast Gandhian follower. The novel reaches epic dimensions with what follows hereafter. Moorthy becomes an avowed Satyagrahi, with a single-minded mission of awakening thousands of villagers against the atrocities meted out to them by the British. He mentors them into forming the Congress Committee in the village that is constantly in touch with the city, and through pamphlets and newspapers, he remains informed of the recent agendas of the committee across the country. It is Moorthy who invites the Harikatha man, mingles politics and religion together to make it more accessible and legible to the masses, and compares the Mahatma with Rama and the Redmen with Ravana. He moves from door to door as a mendicant with his begging bowl to collect money for a series of ceremonies that would entail the active participation of the masses from the Brahmin and non- Brahmin quarters of the village. He stirs up a mass movement through his humble attempts. This attempt is made to unite all sections of the society and bring about a sense of brotherhood among them. His mission is to use this integrated energy against the British policies of segregating Indians on improper grounds like caste and communal identities. Moorthy has the liberty to reach out to all the sections of society like Gandhi did, to the extent of earning the taboo of being an outcast. He gives a practical dimension to the Gandhian philosophy behind his Swadeshi movement by explaining the significance of the Charkha to the rural folks. He inspires the womenfolk of Kanthapura to take up spinning and organises the Women’s Voluntary Corps in his village. The village is greatly stirred by these programmes and the atmosphere becomes charged with patriotism and enthusiasm. An awakening is seen among the masses as Gandhi’s Dandi March reaches Kanthapura.
With the Dandi March, a simultaneous procession is initiated in Kanthapura that renders a religious colour to the political scenario. Gandhi was considered the ‘Sahyadri Mountain’, as Raja Harish Chandra, and as a pathfinder who was followed by thirty thousand people on his way to Dandi. The volunteers are seen as pilgrims and Moorthy becomes the ‘Small Mountain’, a minor pilgrimage site.
Moorthy faithfully follows Gandhi’s dictum: “Fight, but harm no soul”. Responding to Gandhi’s clarion call, Moorthy pleads for non-violence. But it is not easy for a college drop-out like Moorthy to challenge burly men in the village like Bade Khan who threatens to squash another man called Range Gowda ‘‘like a bug’’, where the Sahibs violate the dignity of the village virgins, and where the police torture the simple-minded village folks. Moorthy’s appeal to the villagers illustrates his faith in nonviolence: “No beatings in the name of the Mahatma”, “We are not soldiers in arms…but soldier saints”. Moorthy preaches that Swaraj is the three-eyed deity where self-purification, Hindu-Muslim unity and Khaddar are the three eyes. He inspires the women to get involved with the Khaddar and form their own Sevika Sangha. One does see the Mahatma coming to Kanthapura, but the news of his arrest takes the whole village by surprise and there is an angry tide of protest among the village folk. Men, women and children gather before their temple to form the “Don’t Touch the Government” campaign.
The air is charged with a nationalistic spirit and everyone seems to be united under the impact of this spirit. Although the villagers are physically battered yet their spirit is not crushed easily. The battle fought is an unequal one, and while some of the Satyagrahis are maimed some die, and those alive reach another village, Kashipura, where they settle down. Some of the Satyagrahis including Moorthy, Ratna and Rangamma are arrested and compelled to spend some time in the jail. But the Gandhi-Irwin pact that entails the political truce necessitates their release in a short period. The main narrative in the novel, thus, is that it highlights the influence of Gandhi on the village folks of the village Kanthapura. It is in this context that Raja Rao weaves his tale of a remote sleepy village transformed into a rebellious one, and which achieves epic dimension through the novelist’s skilful handling of the narrative.
Summary of The Novel
The story begins in the oral tradition of the Harikatha narrated by an old woman, probably the oldest in Kanthapura, named Achakka. It all begins when Moorthy, a college dropout, along with his companions, discovers a half-buried linga and decides to build it into a sanctum. From here starts the regular practice of chanting of the Harikatha. Bhatta, the Chief Brahmin, comes forward to offer the first libation of Bananas to the presiding goddess of the village, Kenchamma. However, Moorthy, being a city educated, modern youth, has other plans. He arranges the Harikatha man (Jayaramachar) to read out the Scripture as an allegory of India under the foreign rule. He visualises India as Sita, Gandhi as Rama, and Ravana as the British who rule the Indian nation. Soon, some suspicious-looking policemen put a stop to these gatherings, fearing them to be propagandist in nature.
Kanthapura, like any other village at that time, is shrouded in superstition and casteism. There are watertight demarcations or divisions between quarters- broadly, the Brahmin Quarter, the Potter Quarter, the Sudra Quarter, the Weaver Quarter, and the most pathetic one the Pariah Quarter. The people who worsen those divisions are Bhatta and Range Gowda. They are against any policy that germinates into harmony among these social groups. But people like Moorthy and Ratna toil hard to bring about stability in their village.
Moorthy represents that group of youngsters who fiercely adhere to the ideologies of Gandhi, and share Gandhi’s views about Hind Swaraj. He keeps in touch with the city through pamphlets and newspapers. Ratna and Rangamma also join hands with Moorthy and they collaborate to awaken the woman power in the village. Together they organise the Sevika Sangh. It is Moorthy, along with his companions, who preach the necessity of spinning in each house, irrespective of the caste division rampant in Kanthapura. The character of Waterfall Venkamma is insidious and she nurtures a sense of hatred for Moorthy, because, the latter refuses to marry Venkamma’s second daughter. She is filled with vengeance and instigates the whole village against Moorthy and his secular ways.
The village suffers another misfortune in the form of Bade Khan. He is a terror to the village, and cannot stand the sight of picketing. Bhatta and Range Gowda are already the opportunists who reap the hard-earned money of poor peasants. Moorthy fights for the cause of eradicating the caste system prevalent in the village, and against untouchability. Enraged, Bhatta suggests Moorthy’s ex-communication. When poor Narsamma learns about her son’s misfortune, she passes away. Thus, Moorthy is taken under the wings of the benign Rangamma. He is invited by the elite Brahmin clerks working at Skeffington Coffee Estate to create awareness among the coolies working there. When Moorthy stands up for them, Bade Khan hits him. This enrages the pariah coolies and they turn up brutally against Bade Khan. Moorthy is disappointed at this sight, being a non-violent fighter himself. Ranchanna and her family are thrown out of the estate to rebel against Bade Khan. Moorthy has to spend a prison spell
of three months. Meanwhile, Rachanna, Gowada, Seenu and Rangamma are elected as the office bearers of the Committee. Moorthy refuses to come out of his prison even on bail that Rachanna and Rangamma offer. After his release, Moorthy emerges stronger. Picketing and demolishing Boranna’s toddy
grove are activities that Moorthy indulges in after his release from jail. Atrocities reach its heights when women are equally made victims of the lathi charges made by the police to resist their procession. At the end of the novel, the villagers of Kanthapura settle down in a nearby village, Kashipura, while people from Bombay come to occupy Kanthapura.