In 1996, when he was 88 years old, the Sahitya Akademi Award-winning writer Raja Rao published a selection of his non-fiction writings — decades-long deliberations on metaphysics, religion, his meetings with world leaders such as Jawaharlal Nehru, Mahatma Gandhi and André Malraux and his interpretation of what India stood for — in an anthology titled The Meaning of India. Over two decades later, the book has now been republished (Rs 399, Penguin Random House) with a foreword by writer and academic Makarand R Paranjape, a close associate of his. Rao passed away in 2006, at the age of 97. In this interview facilitated by his wife Susan Raja Rao, his student and confidant, Chennai-based R Srinivasan, speaks of the significance of the book in a vastly different time and what Rao would have thought of India today. Excerpts:
How relevant do you think is The Meaning of India nearly two-and-a-half decades after its publication, especially in a world in which the old certainties no longer hold?
India is an ancient land and has always attracted a certain kind of attentive gaze from the rest of the world. Given that the world is currently undergoing great changes, the republication of The Meaning of India is especially timely. The first essay, from which the title of the collection is drawn, is actually an early essay that Raja Rao wrote. In it, he draws attention to the significance of sacrifice. He also concludes that brief and beautiful essay by quoting a verse from the great Sri Adi Sankara, where the sage declares “Swadesho bhuvana Tryam.” This emphasis on sacrifice and universalism is indeed the message that India has to give to the world even today.
Did Raja Rao’s fascination with Jawaharlal Nehru last till the end? In contemporary India, Nehru is often held up as the man responsible for many of the country’s historical problems. How would Rao have reacted to these accusations?
Raja Rao was held in high regard by both Nehru and Gandhiji. Raja Rao met Pandit ji when he was already a celebrated Indian writer in France. There was a certain regard that Pandit ji held him in and even after he had become the Prime Minister of India, Panditji insisted that Raja Rao let him know whenever he was in Delhi. ‘He would invariably give me the last appointment of the day so that our conversations would not be rushed. At the end of it, very graciously he would walk me to the door and say “namaste.” He was a very very gracious gentleman,” Raja Rao used to say.
What was his opinion of the Congress party after Nehru?
Raja Rao saw himself first and foremost as a seeker and then as a writer. He was not very interested in party politics.
Later in life, was there any leader in India or elsewhere who he thought had charisma similar to the leaders he’d admired?
Raja Rao attracted a wide variety of distinguished visitors from India and other countries well into his 90s. He thought very highly of a labour union leader from India, the late Shri Dattopant Thengadi. Raja Rao considered him to be a rishi and deeply enjoyed his conversation with Shri Thengadi. Not surprisingly, they discussed Advaita, among other things.
The juxtaposition of ideas that Rao speaks of in The Meaning of India, the debates that he espouses, are rather absent in contemporary India. What would he have made of this India?
Raja Rao was very pleased with the way India was changing in his later years. He deeply felt that the 21st century was indeed the century of India. His conviction was based on the fact that the abstractions that now power the modern world are those that the Indian mind was naturally comfortable in. Living in Austin, a university town, he met with a number of research scholars and scientists and was almost always pleasantly surprised to see how younger Indians were navigating the modern world. He truly believed that India was moving in the right direction.
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