Saturday, Jan 28, 2023

Reverie Of An Exile

A forgotten poem written by Indian-English novelist Raja Rao in his mother tongue, in 1931 is re discovered by a literary enthusiast

Reverie Of An Exile
Reverie Of An Exile

Raja Rao was an English novelist and a French journalist. He wrote acclaimed novels such as Kanthapura,' The Serpent and the Rope and Chessmaster and his Moves among others. In the 30s he wrote on India for French magazines like Mercure de France and Affaires Etrangeres.' But did he write in Kannada, his mother tongue?

The exhaustive Raja Rao bibliography compiled by the Raja Rao Endowment lists just three Kannada essays he wrote from Europe for a Kannada literary journal published from Dharwad, titled Jaya Karnataka in the early 30s. The journal was edited by Alur Venkata Rao, a writer-scholar and the most prominent voice of the Karnataka unification movement. The essays were titled (in translation): 'Pilgrimage to Europe' (1931); 'Europe and Ourselves'(1931) and 'Romain Rolland, the Great Sage.' (1933). But what is missing from t his bibliography is a longish Kannada poem, almost a reverie, a chant of an exile, that he published in the same journal in 1931. This has now been discovered by a literary enthusiast, N S Sharadaprasad, from the dog-eared pages of the magazine, which has been defunct for more than half a century now. Sanchaya, the little magazine, plans to reproduce it in its forthcoming issue, 80 years after it was first published.

Curiously, Raja Rao himself denied that he ever tried his hand at poetry. In a 1989 interview to Indian Literature (July-August 1988, No. 126), to a very pointed question on the subject, he had said "I have never written poetry." In the same interview he did not make much of his knowledge of his mother tongue and also, did not make much of Kannada's ability to give expression to his thoughts either. To paraphrase, he had said although his mother tongue was Kannada he grew up in Hyderabad and as a result his Kannada was not all that sparkling. For his intellectual experiments he found Kannada severely limiting and therefore chose English as his medium. On English, he said, he moulded the language to his needs and did not believe in writing it like the English or the Americans and hence his style was uncommon as many have pointed out. He further elaborated on his writing process of thinking through various languages he knew and said that when he wrote on France he tried to think as far as possible in French. When he wrote about Mysore, he tried to think in Kannada. When he wrote about Delhi, notwithstanding his moderate grasp of Hindi, he made an effort to think in that language.

Let's now focus on the poem - 'Pashandana Prayashchitta' (The Repentance of a Heretic). In the byline he reclaims his birthplace and calls himself Hasanada Rajarayaru ('Hasanada' means 'from Hassan' and 'Rao' is often 'Rayaru' in Kannada). The dateline says 'Paris'. For a strange reason, when I first read the poem I was reminded of Polish Nobel laureate Czeslaw Milosz's 'My Faithful Mother Tongue.' When I revisited Milosz anthology of selected poems (bilingual edition, 1996, Wydawnictwo Literackie, Krakow), a serendipitous joy awaited me. I found a poem dedicated to Raja Rao ('To Raja Rao,' Berkeley, 1969) by the master. And surprise of surprises, this poem too reflected the theme of Raja Rao's forgotten poem. It read:

"Raja, I wish I knew
the cause of that malady.
For years I could not accept
the place I was in.
I felt I should be somewhere else...

Somewhere else there was a city or real presence,
of real trees and voices and friendship and love.
Link, if you wish my peculiar case
(on the border of schizophrenia)
to the messianic hope/of my civilization...".

Here are the translated lines from the poem. It has a gentle play of words, which is pretty difficult to catch in translation:

Listen, ladies and gentlemen, listen
The lament of Karnataka's humble servant
Listen, ladies and gentlemen, listen.

Born in Hassan,
The lotus-heart of Karnataka
Raised in Bhagyanagar
In thrall of a mother who came second
Wandered on the banks of Ganga and Jamuna
Now has come to make the west his abode.

Hey, ladies and gentlemen, listen
The lament of Karnataka's humble servant
Have not heard of Ranna's name
No question of knowing who Pampa is
'Someshwara Shataka' is beyond me
'Jaimini Bharata' didn't jive with me

Been bewitched by the beauty of Cauvery
Sauntered across the banks of Hemavathy
Was bedazzled by Beluru
Have mourned the ruins of Halebid

Didn't recite Kanaka's hymns
Nor the compositions of Purandara
Shankara's philosophy was beyond me
Basava's devotion didn't touch me.

Saw the Mysore of Krishnaraja
Hated the pretence of Bangalore
Sands of Talakadu was my playfield
Terukanambi tank was a joy to behold.

Listen, ladies and gentlemen, listen
The lament of Karnataka's humble servant.


I haven't slept the whole night
Tossing and turning
Tossing and turning

The cold winds blows from the Alphs
There's the emerald glow of Lake Leman
The moon shines
In the cloudless sky.

Pleasant outside
Ruinous inside
Beauty outside
A mourning inside.

See I have fallen again
See I have risen again.

Tell me Lord
What's my mistake?
Tell me!

Unknown fears...
There are mountains dancing all over!

Finally, the rooster calls at daybreak
The cow beckoned its calf
It is not the intensity of the champaks
But the subtle fragrance of roses.
The heart sang on its own
Listen to the song:

"What if you are an untouchable
The knowledge of Brahma will come to you, wake up!
What if you are an enemy
You'll see the peace of friendship, wake up!
What if you are weak
Your soul's strength will rise, wake up!
What if you have left me
You'll remember my glory, wake up!
Wake up child, wake up!"

I opened my eyes...
Goddess Karnataka was before me!
She was draped in Malnad green
The Kolar gold adorned her ears,
Her blouse came from Dharwad
Her pearls from Mangalore...
Godavari showered her
The Nilgiris kissed her feet...
How can I describe those eyes!
The radiance of all radiance!
I saw
I sang
I became a humble servant of Karnataka.

Listen, ladies and gentlemen, listen
The lament of Karnataka's humble servant
Listen, ladies and gentlemen, listen.

The poem, as you notice begins with slight remorse and a shade of guilt. The poet admits he is not sufficiently acquainted with the culture of the land. That he has not read the literary giants in his mother tongue like Ranna and Pampa and has not studied the classics in the language like Someshwara Shataka or Jaimini Bharata. That he is ignorant of the great bhakti tradition of the culture; it is apparent when he mentions Purandaradasa, Kanakadasa and Basaveshwara. But, he says he is fairly introduced to the geography of the Kannada land (Mysore and Bangalore cities, Cauvery and Hemavathy rivers etc.). Then, there is the dream sequence, where, interestingly, he puts his ignorant self in the position of an 'untouchable' and gets an assurance from the goddess that knowledge (about the land and its culture) will visit him.

From the point of view of history, the final lines are interesting, where the poet sees the Karnataka goddess dressed in exquisite attributes from the scattered corners of the Kannada-speaking land. Dharwad and Mangalore were in the Bombay presidency, Godavari was in Nizam's Hyderabad, Nilgiri was under the Madras government. However, he sees them all in a unified form of a goddess. He is predicting the happy destiny of the Kannada land two-and-a-half decades in advance. Unification of the Kannada speaking areas happened only in 1956. The other curious element is that he precociously calls the unified land 'Karnataka.' The state which was known as Mysore, even a good 15 years after the unification, was renamed Karnataka only in 1972. When this poem was written in 1931, the Kannada reunification movement had gathered momentum and it is significant that this poem was published in Jaya Karnataka edited by Alur Venkata Rao, who was a leading figure of the unification movement.

In fact, Alur Venkata Rao has a small note at the end of the poem where he discounts the poetic attributes of what is published and draws the reader's attention to its nationalist character. He says:

"The poem is proof of the turmoil that the writer is experiencing in his mind for the sake of his mother land. Although this turmoil does not exactly reflect the high art of poetry, it is not experimental in nature. On the contrary, it has a natural flow of its own. If all Kannadigas living in foreign lands pine for their mother land in a similar fashion, it can be assumed that the halcyon days of the Karnataka goddess are not far away."

Raja Rao was only 23 when he wrote this poem. Perhaps, he genuinely forgot about it later or ignored it as juvenile indulgence or being a citizen of the world, disowned his sentimental take on the birthplace.


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