Imagine India in 1941, the year I entered St. Xavier's in Bombay. The war in Europe had taken an ominous turn, Gandhiji was
whipping up our nationalistic fervor, we had wild dreams of independence, and in less than
a year Japanese troops were threatening our borders. In this upside down world, where my professors were delivering learned lectures on Shakespeare
and Milton and the Lake Poets, on Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy, at a secondhand bookshop on Kalbadevi Road I picked up a cheap Penguin
edition first of Untouchable, and then of Coolie. My friends and I had never read
anything like these two powerful novels before--we could smell the Indian earth underlying the Indian English. Not the King's English any more,
because Mulk Raj had snatched it away from the Brits and made it our own.
Though Raja Rao's Kanthapura had been published by Allen and Unwin in
London in 1938, it did not become widely available in Bombay until Oxford University Press produced an inexpensive edition in 1947. Its theme of dissent
and repression remained relevant, but the impact on us was more political than literary; even today, on rereading it now and then, I feel it comes across as a
political (I could have said revolutionary) tract written at white heat. It is at once
brief, and also long enough.
R. K. Narayan made a different sort of impact. Where Mulk Raj and Raja Rao had produced stirring novels that held our attention and engaged our emotions,
RK's first three (Swami and Friends, The Bachelor of Arts, The Dark
Room) were apolitical; we found the facility engaging; but the simplicity put us off,
because as teenagers in those tumultuous times we were far too earnest to appreciate his true worth. Time, of course, remedied that.
One great lesson we young aspiring writers learned from these three masters was
that the lives of poor, "ordinary" men, women and children could provide riveting
literary material. But while Mulk Raj and R. K. Narayan continued to be prolific,
it is unfortunate for us that Raja Rao did not produce another novel until The
Serpent and the Rope, published in London in 1960, and in New York three years
later. But what a novel that was! By then my wife and I had long been settled in
New York, and reading just the very first few paragraphs sent me into a deep introspection. And sadness! I realized for the first time just how much of a rich
tradition and heritage I had missed in growing up (and being brought up) in a Westernized milieu; this is not a feeling I had ever had in reading either Mulk Raj or
R. K. Narayan, and it produced a profound and lasting ache within me. Even now, should I find myself feeling too smug about myself, I only have to read the opening
paragraphs of The Serpent and the Rope, and am instantly cut down to size.
Over the past few years I found occasion to phone Raja Rao in Austin and had a couple of brief but fruitful conversations on matters of no
great consequence; his wife, always charming, usually picked up the phone first. She once warmly invited me to come and visit, but I had a
quadruple bypass shortly after and I never followed up on her invitation. Too late, I wish I had.
R.K. Narayan first, Mulk Raj Anand next, Raja Rao now. A generation of great writers has indeed passed away. Their legacy lingers, but alas,
too few of us are aware of it.
Victor Rangel-Ribeiro is the author of the novel Tivolem and the collection of short fiction titled,
Loving Ayesha and Other Stories.
Also See: The
Raja Rao Website
Thank you to all those who have taken the trouble to read the article and share their thoughts. Out of the arguments made here, there are two that perhaps need answering. So here they go.
1. The first part of the article compares outcomes (relative percentages of population of the religions concerned) irrespective of the process that led to those outcomes - whether immigration, relatively faster population growth or conversions. This was for two reasons. One, to put the figure of 2.3 per cent in "numerical perspective", as the article itself explained. The second reason was that outcomes are ultimately what the crux of debate is about. The rest of the article in any case dealt with process - or conversions in this case, from both a contemporary and historical perspective.
2. Some commenters have tried to cast doubts on the reliability of Census 2001. Those who do this should bear in mind that Census 2001 was conducted by a BJP government. Considering the extreme importance that BJP gives to this issue, it would be reasonable to expect that IF it had perceived a problem with the methodology that was distorting the numbers, it would have fixed it. As the article mentioned, BJP or BJP-supported governments have been in power for 10 of the last 40 years, or about a quarter of the time, and the only reasonable conclusion one can arrive at is that any misreporting of numbers, real or perceived, would be marginal and hence, not of importance.
To all other arguments made, my answer is the following: Please read the article again, with particular focus on the quotations of Vivekananda and Monier Williams, and the history of the missionary efforts in Bengal and their outcome.
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