35 pages 1 hour read

Raja Rao


Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1938

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Summary and Study Guide


Kanthapura is a 1938 novel by Indian author Raja Rao. Set during the early days of the Indian struggle for independence, the novel chronicles the impact of the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi on a small south Indian village named Kanthapura. This is Raja Rao’s most well-known and acclaimed books and primarily serves as a critique of the traditional Indian caste system. The book is narrated in the form of a purana, or old manuscript, by an old woman of the village, Achakka. In the village of Kanthapura, the caste system is strict and the village is run primarily by the high-caste Brahmins, while the lowest caste is known as Pariahs. The village is only truly united during festivals, when all castes interact. The villagers believe they are protected by a local deity named Kenchamma.

Moorthy, a young Brahmin, is the main character of Kanthapura. He has recently left the village to study in the city and has become versed in the philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi. He soon becomes an activist, speaking out about the caste system and eschewing British clothes and manners for a more traditional Indian style. This causes no small conflict in the city, and he is soon excommunicated by the village priest. Moorthy’s mother dies, her health impacted by the shame she feels over her son’s excommunication, and Moorthy winds up living with Rangamma, an educated and politically active widow who pulls him into the Indian independence movement.

The Brahmin clerks of a local coffee estate invite Moorthy to speak at their meetings, hoping to create a greater awareness of Gandhian teachings among the local lower-caste laborers. However, when he arrives, the local policeman, Bade Khan, beats him and attempts to scare him off. The laborers attempt to stand up for Moorthy and beat the policeman, but they are thrown out of the estate for this. Moorthy becomes more politically active, eventually becoming a staunch ally of Gandhi. Although the violence he was a part of weighs on him, he commits to non-violence. He stages a three-day fast to protest against India’s colonial rulers, and feels liberated by the experience. A unit of Gandhi’s independence committee is formed in Kanthapura, and Moorthy becomes their leader.

Moorthy is blamed by the British government for instigating violence and is arrested. While the committee volunteers to pay his bail, Moorthy refuses their money and spends the next three months in prison. While he is locked away, the women of Kanthapura take the reins and form a volunteer corps under Rangamma’s leadership. She motivates the women by telling them stories of strong women from Indian history. Although they face much hardship and violence from the police and British army, culminating in the village being burned, they remain loyal to Gandhi’s ideals. When Moorthy is released from prison, he is greeted as a hero by the village, which is now united across caste lines. Moorthy and the rest of the town look towards the future and continue their fight for independence. 

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