Women in Raja Rao's Kanthapura

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Towards a Limited Emancipation: Women in Raja Rao s
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"Kanthapura

S E N A T H W . P E R E RA

Kanthapura thus far have focussed for the most part on the manner in which the novel characterizes the "Indian renaissance" under Gandhi's leadership. The approaches taken by M . K. Naik and K. S. Ramamurti are typical in this regard. Naik declares, in Dimensions of Indian English Literature, that

WIU IS UD T E ^ D NE A N T E RK

O F

Raja Rao's Kanthapura ( 1 9 3 8 ) is easily the finest evocation of the Gandhian age in Indian Englishfiction.This story of a small south Indian village caught in the maelstrom of the Gandhian movement successfully probes the depths to which the nationalistic urge penetrated, and getting fused with traditional religious faith helped rediscover the Indian soul. ( 1 0 5 - 0 6 ) K. S. Ramamurti, similarly, considers Kanthapura a "miniature version of resurgent Bharath in which we see the pilgrim's progress of a great nation marching towards the promised land of freedom carrying on its shoulders the burden of poverty and hunger" (64). While these "standard" approaches are significant to the study of Rao's oeuvre, they often fail to recognize that the novel could be read also as a rite de passage undertaken by Indian women during the struggle for Swaraj—a process which led these women to re-examine archaic institutions that they had unquestioningly accepted for so long, to abandon many of their prejudices, and to control their destiny in a way they were not able to do before. The level of emancipation achieved, of course, is very limited; what is patent, however, is that these women who initially banded themselves together to battle the Raj succeed in initiating a movement which is imbued with its own dynamic ARIEL: A Review of International English Literature, 2 3 : 4 , October 1992

100

SENATH

W.

PERERA

and rationale—a movement that could be thwarted but not destroyed. It is now commonplace to draw parallels between colonialism and the position of women in society. Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin claim in The Empire Writes Bach, for instance, that women share with colonized races and peoples an intimate experience of the politics of oppression and repression, and like them they have been forced to articulate their experiences in the language of their oppressors. Women, like post-colonial peoples, have had to construct a language of their own when their only available "tools" are those of the "colonizer." ( 1 7 4 - 7 5 ) Feminist commentators take this argument a step further. To Susan Sontag, all women live in an "imperialist" situation in which men are colonialists and women are natives. In so-called Third World countries, the situation of women with respect to men is tyrannically, brutally colonialist. In economically advanced countries (both capitalist and Communist) the situation of women is neocolonialist: the segregation of women has been liberalized; the use of physical force against women has declined; men delegate some of their authority, their rule is less overdy institutionalized. But the same basic relations of inferority [sic] and superiority, of powerlessness and power, of cultural underdevelopment and cultural privilege, prevail between women and men in all countries. ( 1 8 4 - 8 5 ) Kanthapura, of course, was written long before the upsurge of interest in Women's Studies; still, it is apparent that the claims made by these commentators are to some degree valid for this novel. Soon after the women establish a Sevika Sangha in Kanthapura, Najamma experiences this nightmare: I dreamt my husband was beating me and beating me, and I was crying and my bangles broke and I was saying, "Oh, why does he beat men [sic] with a stick and not with his hands?" and when I saw him again, it was no more my husband, it was Bade Khan. ( 1 0 6 - 0 7 ) Bade Khan, the most odious representative of the Raj in Kanthapura, merges with Najamma's husband in this...
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