In the Foreword to his book, Kanthapura, Raja Rao lies to his readers saying that English is a language which seems ‘alien’ to him and telling this story in English has not been easy. But once you read the book you realize that it was a straight out lie and that Rao is an exceptional writer who paints this beautiful story before us.
Kanthapura could have easily turned out as a preachy story about a few villagers fighting for independence, surprisingly, it is everything but that. True, it is filled with slogans and inspiring words of leaders, particularly Gandhi, but there is more to it. Raja Rao is not interested in the story of the mighty but in that of the nameless.
Set in a fictitious village of Kanthapura, somewhere in southern India, the story plays out in the backdrop of the Indian freedom struggle. The story depicts the transformation of its characters as they fight the English using the Gandhian ideas of non-violence and truth. There is no one lead character instead it is an ensemble of characters who all play their part in influencing their fellow villagers in the struggle.
The story has been narrated by a grandmother as some epic tale like the Ramayana or the Mahabharata to an outsider who has come to the village.
The book opens with a much-needed description of the landscape of the village and the people there. Considering its a fictitious village we do not know anything about it and it helps us get into this world. The words are so well articulated that I felt as if I were literally in the Pariah street, or the Main Road, or the Potter’s Lane. I could literally see all of it playing out in front of me.
But what makes the story so real and relatable is the way it has been said. Use of words like ‘our’ before some names or referring to people as someone’s something takes the story to the ground because that is how we actually converse in our daily lives. Often times while writing a work of fiction we go so deep into the story that we don’t realize we’re missing on such minute details but this is where Rao thrives.
What made me interested in the story was the fact that this fictitious village was set in Southern India and we often times neglect the impact of the freedom struggle in that part of the country probably we feel so because according to popular belief the impact of the struggle was only on the northern region due to the partition.
But at the same time what doesn’t feel right is that the story never goes beyond Mahatma Gandhi, and not many other leaders are mentioned anywhere in the book. It felt as if there were no other leaders whose ideas interested the people in Kanthapura, Jawaharlal Nehru also makes an appearance in the text but only in the Epilogue.
Moreover, Rao’s story moves at its only sweet pace which at times felt like a lag but has been perhaps done on purpose. This also makes parts of the book quite interesting while the others seem to be put in for no clear reason, considering it’s a book with a little less than 200 pages.
There is no time period given in the book, so it is expected out of the readers to figure it out, which at times might play out as a problem. It was only after the description of the Dandi March that I was able to infer that we were somewhere in the early 1930s.
What I really liked about the book was that it was representative, it is not just restricted to the contribution of men in the struggle but also the condition of women in their household where they are meant only to work and be subject to beatings by their husbands, and how they come out of it and fight shoulder to shoulder with their male counterparts.
Kanthapura is a slow but sturdy tale which at times might feel a little too stretched but at the heart of it is a very noble attempt to give voice to the voiceless. I would surely be a great read at any of the three national holidays!
I’m going with 2.5 out of 5.