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Raja Rao, 97; Indian Novelist Wrote of the Collisions of East and West

July 20, 2006|Jon Thurber | Times Staff Writer

Raja Rao, considered one of the great novelists of modern India for his highly metaphysical writings exploring the collision points between East and West and the search for a fundamental reality in life, has died. He was 97.

An emeritus professor of philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin, he died July 8 of heart failure at his home in Austin, according to an announcement on the university's website.

More philosopher than novelist, Raja Rao considered writing to be a form of spiritual growth and used the novel to explore profound themes, including the nature of death, immortality, illusion and reality, good and evil, karma and dharma.

He wrote fewer than a dozen novels and short story collections, but he was one of the first of his countrymen to write significant works in English.

"Rao is one of the most innovative novelists now writing," said R. Parthasarathy, a poet and English professor at Skidmore College in New York. "Departing boldly from the European tradition of the novel, he has indigenized it in the process of assimilating material from the Indian literary tradition."

His first novel, "Kanthapura," published in 1938, offers an engaging portrait of a southern Indian village of seemingly little distinction, until one of the young men of the village undergoes a mystical conversion to Mohandas K. Gandhi's philosophy of nonviolence. The young man tries to press his people into a campaign of civil disobedience against British rule -- specifically an exploitative plantation manager -- and is arrested for his trouble. Told from the point of view of a grandmother in the village, the tale is filled with colorful characters, colloquial language, rituals, legends and superstitions.

English writer E.M. Forster considered it the best book written in English by an Indian.

In a forward to the book, Raja Rao noted that writing in a foreign tongue "has not been easy."

"One has to convey in a language that is not one's own the spirit that is one's own ... English is the language of our intellectual makeup -- like Sanskrit or Persian was before -- but not of our emotional makeup. We cannot write like the English. We should not. We cannot write only as Indians. We have grown to look at the large world as part of us."

Raja was born Nov. 9, 1908, in Hassan, in the state of Karnataka in south India. He added Rao to his name years later when he needed a passport. His father was a teacher and scholar and his family was Brahman, the highest Indian caste, and well-known in the region.

After earning a bachelor's degree from the University of Madras, Raja Rao went to France on a government scholarship to study French language and literature at the University of Montpellier and later at the Sorbonne.

He lived in France for much of the 1930s, publishing short stories in English and French and writing articles for leading Indian journals. In 1931 he married a French academic, but their relationship ended in divorce in 1939. He would use the collapse of his marriage as the basis for his second novel, "The Serpent and the Rope," published in 1960.

The marriage of the novel's main characters -- a scholarly Indian Brahman and a French female professor -- founders on their opposite worldviews.

According to U.R. Anantha Murthy's essay "Raja Rao," "the Brahman has the Vedantic conviction that reality is my self. His wife's Western view is that there is an objective reality outside ourselves. 'The world is either unreal or real -- the serpent or the rope,' the man tells his wife. 'There is no in-between.' "

Murthy wrote that the intellectual demands that Raja Rao placed on his readers were "unequaled in any modern novel since Thomas Mann's 'The Magic Mountain.' "

The author fled France as World War II approached and spent much of the early 1940s in India living in various ashrams, including Gandhi's. He continued writing and was active in the underground movement against the British.

After the war, he lived in France and India before beginning his academic career at the university in Austin in 1966. He specialized in teaching Buddhism and Vedantism and retired in 1980, taking emeritus status.

In 1988, he was awarded the Neustadt International Prize for Literature from the University of Oklahoma. He continued to publish books and short stories over the years. His last published work in 1998 was a life of Gandhi.

Married three times and divorced twice, he is survived by his third wife, Susan Raja Rao, one of his former students, and two sons.

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