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Raja Rao: Kanthapura

This is often said to be the first major Indian novel written in English. Kanthapura is a fictional village in South India. The story is narrated by a widow, Achakka, and is set in the Thirties, against the background of increased support for Mahatma Gandhi. Ironically it was written while the author was in France and first published in London. It tells the story of how the village and the villagers gradually increase their political sensibility and resist the British owner of the local coffee estate, the police and military.

The village is very traditional. It is divided by caste, with the Brahmins at the top, followed by the weavers, potters and the untouchables. Religion is very important and the people are continuously holding religious celebrations. The hero is a young Brahmin, called Moorthy. He has seen Gandhi and been influenced by his teachings, including the weaving of cloth (to supplant foreign imports) and the integration of the Untouchables. When he starts associating with the Untouchables, his fellow Brahmins are not happy. However, he gradually persuades some of the villagers of the validity of Gandhi’s teachings and wins over some of them, particularly some of the women. Bhatta, who has worked his way up by being a money-lender, and lending at high rates, feigns support but is actually opposed to Moorthy and his practices, as is the local Swami, who sees a threat to his religious monopoly. Soon, a policeman, Bada Khan, a Moslem, is sent to the village to keep an eye on things and is not averse to beating up men or women.

The local coffee estate is owned by the Skeffington family. The original Skeffington was very cruel but his nephew, the current owner, is deemed to be far less cruel, though he does have a habit of having sex with any woman who takes his fancy and any man who does not make his wife/daughter/sister available for Mr. Skeffington can expect to be punished. Things start to heat up when Moorthy tries to convert the coffee workers on Skeffington’s estate. Moorthy is arrested and sent to prison but eventually freed after three months, because of the bad publicity. The women form a committee in support but their men are upset, as they feel that it will curtail their dinner being on the table when they want it and their sexual life. The villagers then try to block access to the toddy stall, which sells toddy just outside the Skeffington estate to the workers, as they leave their jobs. They are partially successful but are met with fierce resistance and the women, as well as being beaten, are put into a lorry and carted many miles out of the village.

Eventually the police attack the village and destroy much of it but the women decide to burn it down to prevent their oppressors taking it and it is soon completely destroyed. The villagers move to another village, the prisoners are eventually released and Moorthy moves on. It is, of course, very one-sided but shows the oppressive nature of the British occupation and how they used the locals to suppress their own people and how they had no qualms about beating and killing innocent people, including women and children. Rao gives us a rich picture of a village and its people at the time but it is, above all, the story of the independence movement, seen from the perspective of a small village, that makes this novel interesting.

Publishing history

First published in 1938 by Allen & Unwin