When we generally begin to read a book based on the Indian freedom struggle, particularly on the ideology of Mahatma Gandhi, we expect something different from all the others in the genre. And each book has something new to offer. Kanthapura does not disappoint readers in this regard.
Most of us have grown up listening to stories from our mothers and grandmothers. The USP of Kanthapura is the similar feeling it gives us, when we turn the pages.
One must get used to the narrative, which is like no other I have read before. An old woman, reciting a long story in her classic village gossip style is not something that one may expect to gel with the story of an independence struggle. And Raja Rao has managed to pull off exactly that, with finesse.
"We have neither punctuation nor the treacherous “ats” and “ons” to bother us—we tell one interminable tale. Episode follows episode, and when our thoughts stop our breath stops, and we move on to another thought. This was and still is the ordinary style of our story-telling. I have tried to follow it myself in this story".
The most unique thing about the narrative is the stream-of-consciousness style which is juxtaposed into a classic legend oratory 'sthala-puraana', which brings the cultural and historical essence of Indian villages to life. Further, it is refreshing to read a novel set in South India, rural Karnataka to be precise. The nuances of the Kannada language, the people and the cultural essence have been captured effectively by Raja Rao.
Each line has so many repeated phrases that one may either get annoyed by them or may get pulled into the lines so completely that they enrich the feel of the story. At times when the protagonist-narrator Achakka tells us about people, we agree that what she reveals to us is relevant enough, and what she leaves out is irrelevant. When she tells us about tense episodes in the struggle, we hold our breath as she nonchalantly narrates instances of violence, death and disaster. Her unending sentences fire and feed the excitement of the moment and fuel the rush of feeling during the episodes.
As for the characters, one needs immense memory to remember the peripheral ones. Moorthy, as the pioneer of the freedom struggle in the fictional village Kanthapura of course, stays throughout the book and is the actual protagonist, so to speak. His Gandhian ideas and his steadfast commitment to his principles are noteworthy. It is interesting when at one time, he fights his Brahmin conscience to enter a Pariah home and accept milk from a pariah woman. This is just one instance how Rao’s characters are real, and behave like real people do.
But what really captures the readers’ attention are the epithets that Achakka gives most of them. The one that caught my attention at once was Waterfall Venkamma, the vocal critic who tries to minimize the pollution of the castes.
Pock-mark Siddha, Beadle Thimmiah, Postmaster Suryanarayana, corner house Moorthy, Four-beamed-house Chandrashekarayya, Postman Surappa, Alur Purnayya, Temple Rangappa, Front-house Suranna, Advocate Seenappa, etc are some others. The way the humor of the epithets complement the information about the character is exemplary.
The character of the wealthy Bhatta who manipulates the villagers shows the shrewdness of Indians who take advantage of their own ilk by colluding with the conquerors. Even the absent characters like Swami who oppose Moorthy have powerful roles to play, as they showcase the regionalized, obscure processes of colonial rule. Moorthy's mother Narasamma’s character is heart-wrenching towards the end when she dies a miserable death.
Irrespective of whether they play a vital or passing role in the story, Achakka’s unique narrative brings them to life in a raw, vital and engrossing way. Bhatta and Waterfall Venkamma provide the opposing antagonism to Moorthy’s initiatives.
Apart from the Gandhian principles that are predominant in the story, we see the effect of the same on other related themes such as the caste system and colonialism. This leads to the theme of change, that erodes the strong elements of religious superstition related to the myths of the land. One such example is how Moorthy finding a lingam in Achakka’s backyard leads to building a temple for Lord Shiva, who is a more universally worshipped deity than the Kanthapura Goddess, who is known as Kenchamma. This is despite the strong legend of Kenchamma who has slayed a demon over the scarlet-coloured hill which is believed to be stained by his blood till date.
The other themes are the social structures that are gradually eroded too. Achakka, the staunch Brahmin ends up being part of a movement that includes all the other castes, including pariahs too. The irony is powerful in many instances too. One among them is how Ratna the young widow is not only a rebel, which is surprising in itself, but also a character who grows from being ostracized by the women to becoming their leader towards the climax.
The Skeffington coffee estate and Boranna’s Toddy farm are symbolic of the colonial mastery and oppression of the poor by the British.
Ratna symbolizes the ostracisation of women in society and also the empowerment of equality that Gandhi provided them with. Narsamma’s opposition to her son’s activities symbolize the power of the caste system within the fabric of rural Indian society.
There is no fixed story-line as such, because the meandering narration moves ahead with key events related to the freedom struggle. The book grows on the reader and the breathless pace keeps us hooked. The best scenes are those related to the women actually resisting the police, especially the ones in which they are taken away, beaten up and abandoned in a distant forest. How good leadership makes them build their resilience, garner their united strength and march miles across the landscape to return to their village makes for a thrilling read. It is heartening to read about simple women who rise in rebellion against colonial rule, are crushed and yet return like phoenixes to reclaim their goals.
The scenes where a baby is born prematurely amidst a raging fire in the vicinity, where they are escaping from violent attackers would make a thrilling scene if filmed in a movie. Also, the way the women support each other, when locked in the temple is outstanding. The irony of a pariah girl rescuing the ladies is not lost on the reader.
The best line in the book that gave me goosebumps:
‘And when the beds were laid and the eyelids wanted to shut, we said, ‘Let them shut,’ for we knew that our men were not far and their eyelids did not shut.’
It is gripping when the women run helter-skelter to escape the police and realize that the menfolk who had disappeared overnight, were actually hidden in the lantana growth in the nearby backyard.
Kanthapura is a unique read, that deserves a rating of 4.7 out of 5. The feminists of today would love the powerful evolutional characterization of the women, narrated by a woman of ample grit, intelligence and substance. And to have been penned by a male author gives it more weightage for sure.
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