‘Oh, far, very far’, I said, looking across the tree-tops to the sky.
— — — — — — — — —
There was no sand any more. There were many valleys, green, green like the fields. A lot of water. Then there were trees. A lot of trees made a forest. A lot of forests made a country. A country with a lot of forests, and many, many rivers, is called India.
The above words, which form a part of the narrator’s conversation with a French child in Raja Rao’s story India – a Fable, verbalize the narrator’s physical detachment from his native land, by referring to the great distance between India and the Luxembourg Park. Yet, India never ceases to exert her pull upon the narrator. He forgets for a moment the immediate reality, and his mind recaptures his motherland, mystified with forests and valleys, decked with greeneries, and watered by many, many rivers. The blurring of the immediate seems not to be involuntarily done; it actually helps the narrator to relocate himself in his tradition after years of detachment. His sweet remembrance thus implies an apology for isolation, and his gesture of “looking across the tree tops to the sky” suggests quite tellingly his wish to ensure for himself liberation from the shackles of spiritual exile.
All this helps us to understand Raja Rao’s India. His is not the geographical India, or a map on the globe. His India is hills, forests, fountains, fields and rivers, and thus, a conglomeration of colours – grey, green, blue and white. This India renders pulse to every limb of the body and impels the mind to follow the perennial tune of integration. Rao’s story has clearly two dimensions, first, re-defining India as an indivisible consciousness, and second, catering that perception to foreign and remoter connections so that a wider recognition of the Indian heritage becomes possible. In this, Rao had definitely anticipated what came to stir universal intelligentsia in the 1970s under the label of Postcolonialism. The present essay seeks to locate Rao’s polemical poetics in the corpus of postcolonial literatures with reference to the story India – a Fable. The story, barely acknowledged to represent any distinguishable postcolonial maneuver at the time of its publication, has the potency to give birth to newer perspectives in present times.
In this connection it is perhaps not out of place to refer back to Rao’s classic Foreword to his first English novel “Kanthapura”. Rao opines, “We (Indians) are all instinctively bilingual, many of us writing in our own language and in English”. But what follows immediately is that, “We can not write like the English. We should not. We can not write only as Indians. We have grown to look at the large world as part of us”. The first part of his observation may be said to stand explanatory of colonized India – a bilingual identity, simultaneously seeking recourse to the vernacular and English for expression. The first two sentences of the second part, on the other hand, represent an anti-colonial stance, which was later valorized by Edward Said and Frantz Fanon during the second half of the twentieth century. Particularly the words “We should not” add special emphasis to the need of reclaiming the native heritage as highlighted on by both Fanon and Said. But what strikes us more, is the remaining words, “We can not write only as Indians. We have grown to look at the large world as part of us”. That we can not write only as Indians is evident, because the Indian identity has never been definable in rigid terms. The Indian culture had ever demonstrated heterogeneous traits, and its composite nature became even more prominent with intellectual hybridization following British invasion and subsequent spread of Western education. Moreover, Rao’s final words do not directly point to the reclamation of a native or indigenous identity in the manner of Said or Fanon, They rather explain the complex nature of postcolonial contemplations in twentieth century India from a broader and inclusive plane. Rao here banishes all notions concerning binaries, and his India is neither the India of an Orientalist, nor is it a homogeneous block solely definable in nativist terms; it is rather that India which comes into contact with “the large world” with colonization, and then looks upon “the large world” as its own part. Rao’s theory therefore relies not on the notions of thesis and antithesis, but on synthesis. Interestingly, instead of valorizing hybridization in the manner of an average postcolonialist critic, his efforts rather seem to be directed towards a refutation of Western notions of binary, of the Occident and the Orient, thesis and antithesis; and secondly, towards the rediscovery of a culture whose unified sensibility is in fact as old as all its diversities. And the story “India – a Fable” brings out this polemical outlook primarily through the idioms of the Indian philosophy of Advaita Vedanta (Unqualified Monism), which bears its contemporary relevance in the attitude of seeing “the larger world” as one’s own part. The past here mingles with the present, the black with the white, the fountains of the Luxembourg with the rivers of India, the day with the night, the man with gods, as the East witnesses a new dawn of intellectualism, as India spiritually comes out free of the shackles of narrowness, both “native” and “Occidental”. The “wedding” that began with Rao’s Foreword to “Kanthapura”, indeed gets “over” with “India – a Fable”.
I have already spoken of the central motif of Rao’s narrative that involves an allegorical revelation. It is now time for us to assess how Rao attempts to extend his perception abroad and particularly to those minds infused with hackneyed binaries concerning the Occident and the Orient. Rao’s polemical outlook is discerned even more prominently in his choice of the setting and the hearer of his tale. Writing in a global language like English was enough for him to reach a wider audience, still Rao chose a European boy to start spreading his perception with. The question is, why a boy? One possible answer may be that a little boy of Pierrot’s age has an innocence which may respond to fascinating tales based on binaries with a boyish curiosity, but can not be wholly tainted by them. So, it is better, as Rao might have felt, to begin at the very beginning and to sweep away from the innocent mind all separatist propensities and to replace them with an understanding of harmony. There is yet another possibility. For, a boy’s sensibility is immature and he has to be provided with proper lessons so that he can discern the world in the light of truth. Here Pierrot is a little European boy, and evidently he represents Occidental worldviews. Is it that Rao considers the European ideology of distinction as child’s play or an instance of childish immaturity, and himself as the representative of an unbroken heritage puts on the robe of a teacher? These are all high questions. And in this connection the image of the little boy sitting on the narrator’s lap and the narrator pampering him and telling him a story that conceals a deeper implication, becomes significant all the more.
Whatever may be the proper explanation of Rao’s choice, it is clearly perceivable that from the very beginning of his story he attempts to diminish binaries; the image of the child sitting on the narrator’s lap and listening to his story may reveal Rao’s polemical attitude, but at the same time, it also creates a charm that looks beyond all separatist and narrow worldviews. This is the quintessence of the postcolonial stance of India, and Rao gives it a special emphasis by dint of the epigraph he attached to his story. The epigraph “Advayataiva Siva” is taken from Acharya Sankara’s “sutras” concerning non-duality, and Rao immediately gives its English rendering: “Non-duality alone is auspicious”. The words themselves demonstrate how Indians sought for unity amidst all diversities through ages. Moreover, the word “auspicious” adds a peculiar solemnity as well as sonority to the entire phrase. As a conscious artist, Rao wanted to rephrase the view of non-distinction in words that would not only revive forgotten outlooks, but also valorize them in contemporary parlance. He further employs two brilliant images in the story that serve to reinforce the sense of integrity that lost much of its vigour under the spell of colonial hegemony.
The first image is that of the narrator’s gold buttons having “faces on them”. The buttons initially draw Pierrot to the narrator. The child is fascinated at this sight, though a mature mind would immediately decipher the enigma. For, the “faces” are nothing but miniature reflections of the faces of visiting people on the narrator’s gold buttons glistening in sunlight. What draws the boy, is the mere reflection, but symbolically, the gold button may stand for undivided India, India as an inseparable whole, with a congregation of faces on it. They are only “faces”, faces of human beings, and hence, not expressive of any distinction of caste, class, colour, nationality or sex. This is the symbol of India in the microcosm, with her entire lot of people, known as a single community named mankind, and belonging to a single religion named humanity. Moreover, the shape of the button is round, and seen thus, this not only recalls the shape of the world, but also reinforces the image of India as the entire world in microcosm. Such a deeper perception and recognition of non-duality is not to be expected from a child, but undoubtedly what provides food for a wise man’s mind, also attracts the child’s eyes. And it is the matter of sight that finally makes way for the matter of the mind. Little Pierrot had naturally no idea of the complex philosophy of non-dualism, but he saw the “faces” together, and for him this is the first lesson of harmony which enables one to look beyond the boundaries of space and time. And for Pierrot, as we see towards the middle of the story, there is no worldly bar that could prevent him from coming to India – not as an outsider with a different worldview, but as a natural member of the family who comes amidst a kingly reception. And this India is the India of the mind, this India is a consciousness that flows from the narrator’s mind to Pierrot’s, and mingles with his breath, with each rhythm of his heart, and makes him forget in an instant all fascinating tales of the “Orient” that he might have learnt from his elders.
The second image is that of the two goddesses, having four arms each, whom the narrator claims to marry at day and night respectively. To a mind trained under long-cultivated notions of Occident-Orient binaries, this image bears nothing other than an “Oriental charm”, an idea that has for ages taught the West to look down upon India as a land of magic and half-naked fakirs. The concept of the goddesses might be a fabricated one, but what really matters is the concept of marriage. Ordinarily marriage refers to wedlock between two persons of opposite sex, but in its broader signification it also implies a spiritual union. Here we find a man who says that he marries one goddess at night and the other at day. Whether in day or night, the same action, i.e. coalescence, thus goes on. Binaries are once again rejected, overtly the binary of night and day, and of the two hemispheres in further implication, for when in one hemisphere it is night, in the other it is day invariably. Such a deep and complex perception is also beyond Pierrot’s reach, but he understands this much that the narrator marries both goddesses of day and night and coalesces them together in perfect harmony, and the child wishes not to miss the marriage ceremony which takes place everyday amidst equal grandeur, and which is far greater a union than the sad and temporary union of Prince Rudolfe and Princess Katherine of his fables.
At this point Rao’s fable actually gets over. Both his purposes are served. The purposes of re-defining India, re-ensuring his communion with his heritage and secondly, conveying that perception to remoter connections being fulfilled, the story moves towards its logical conclusion. And the conclusion is also drawn in an effective manner by the use of two striking images. The first image is that of the toy camel being tossed into the fountain by Pierrot. The apparent rejection of the toy symbolizes a greater rejection of the European separatist and binaristic ideology, and it rests under water like the forgotten pleasure dome of Kubla Khan. And the client of this entire institution of binaristic opinion, here the little child, starts his journey afresh from the dryness of “sands” towards refreshing and mellow “greeneries”.
The second image consists in the reinforcement of the concept of marriage. As I have already pointed out, marriage in its larger signification implies a spiritual union. The story ends with a hint of the marriage of Pierrot’s nanny with her young lover at the outset, but more significantly with the words “The wedding is over”. In this concluding section of the story we see Pierrot dressed in a Sherwani, having gold buttons on it, and as soon as he sees the narrator, he rushes towards him saying that he has “faces” on his buttons too. That his journey is complete is already indicated by his dress; this final declaration of having “faces” on his buttons too, only confirms the completion, the total assimilation of the note of harmony and the rejection of binaries. The union is thus complete, the sensibility reaching towards perfection, and Rao possibly would not have found better words to conclude his story with: “The wedding is over”.
I shall conclude with a reference to Rao’s prose style as a writer of Indian-English fiction. That an Indian story can not be narrated in a perfectly English manner has been already stated in his Foreword to “Kanthapura”. The difference is largely due to the innate spirit, and added to this there is the repetitive, rhythmic quality of expression as well as the breathless speed of narration that makes an Indian story really Indian even if it is told in some other tongue like English. And in the present tale we find the truth of such observation. The repetitive style maintained in phrasing pictorial details, the rhythmic and onomatopoeic sounds used throughout, not only add a peculiar touch of mellowness to the narrative, but also enable the readers to linger on the enjoyment of each detail. The repetitive style adds a synthesizing quality to the entire narrative, and makes the fable truly Indian. In the ultimate analysis therefore, the story stands out as an outstanding postcolonial exercise for us, the readers of present times, though in its own time, it could not have been given a better name than what it actually bears.