K. Ratna Shiela Mani


Raja Rao brings into the Indo-Anglian novel a sense of metaphysical intensity and visionary emphasis. Raja Rao is virtually the first major Indian writer in English to realise that the ‘Indianness’ of this writing should make for not only a typically Indian content but a characteristically Indian form as well. This is true of all his novels and particularly of his third novel The Cat and Shakespeare. The troubled feelings of failure and frustration and the wounded tenderness underlying The Serpent and the Rope are left behind; instead it “contains” the expression of inner joy embedded in Raja Rao’s recent experiences, including the discovery of America and the re­discovery of the metaphysic of life in ‘the way of the kitten’ – “surrender to Destiny”.


Raja Rao calls this a ‘metaphysical comedy’. It is a novella in outer form, but ontological comedy in inner form. The ‘Prahasana’ is wholly Indian in spirit and texture. The novel lacks the range and vitality of its predecessors but is rich in its symbolic particulars and close to the rhythms of life and reality. The physical details of the novel, the cat, the rat, the wall, and the ration shop are all subsumed into the details of the myth and the allegory. The dialectical form of the novel thus lends to it the conceptual unity and the centrality of the theme on hand. It carries the philosophy of self-surrender and acceptance of the world as a necessary step towards metaphysical identification. In short, ‘Visishtadvaita’ (non-dualism) that is, mere devotion to the Divine is enough.


The Cat and Shakespeare is a complex work since it encompasses quite divergent strands: metaphysics and satire. The two main characters Govindan Nair and Ramakrishna Pai symbolize the polarity in the human predicament. Pai is the protagonist and narrator, the dreamer and the realist, the acquisitive man and lover of Shantha, whereas his friend Nair is a complex character. His mind and spirit are governed by the Hindu view of total ‘surrender’ before God, Surrender to the Mother-Cat as a cardinal principle of faith. His credo is centred in the Vedantic concept of Marjala … The ‘Mother-Cat’ to whose protective mouth all kittens surrender themselves. “Ah, the kitten when its neck is held by its mother does it know anything else but the joy of being held ... The Kitten is the safest thing in the world, the kitten held in the mouth of the mother-cat” (pp. 9-10). All men are kittens carried by, the cat, the mother principle: to accept is the best way ‘to be’ and ‘to know’.


Regarding the symbolism of the title, Man must learn the ways of the kitten if he has to gain release from the rat-ridden blind alley (‘we have no feline instinct’). We live like rats called the Ration Shop in the novel, which in Shakespeare appears as the stage. Shakespeare represents the profoundest knowledge and awareness of all layers of life; ‘the ripeness that is all’ (King Lear) implicit in the dilemmas and perplexities of existence. To Shakespeare life is both illusion and reality, maya and truth; to Pai and Nair it is both fantasy and reality, Mother cat and Karma encompassing the varied realms of fiction and reality and the way these seemingly irreconcilable characters are reconciled in the harmony of art. Nair says that the kingdom of Denmark is just like a ration office.


Shakespeare knew every mystery of the ration shop. Here however we haven’t to murder a brother to marry his wife. Here we marry whom we like. ... We slip, Sir, from sleep to wake from wake to sleep. ... We marry Ophelia in dream and wake up having Polonius to bury. We live in continual mystery ... When one commits murder in a dream, is that murder or not? (pp. 81-82).


It is an affirmation of the possibilities open to Raja Rao in his world, such is his sense of freedom, present here and absent there, because while the moral categories of Shakespeare’s world are in their very nature limited, the metaphysical categories are many – the state of sleep, of dream, of wakefulness.


The novel is a chronicle of two ordinary individuals, being presented as a tale of two ways of living, and assumes the piquancy of an allegorical fable. The way of the Cat (Marjala­-Nyaya) represents the world of grace and detachment while the way of Shakespeare stands for the Hamletian world of conflict and self-division. The climax of the novel is Pai’s discovery of the world beyond the wall that passes his house and marks the boundary of his routine life. It is symbolic of the new awareness of life, of reality, which Nair and Shantha have helped him to attain. Thus, the metaphysical identity which is elusive and inconclusive in The Serpent and the Rope is presented, here, as an achieved reality, Raja Rao’s use of the mother image is a continuation of his preoccupation with the Feminine Principle - Shantha in The Cat and Shakespeare who is ‘married without being wife’ merges in it as Savithri did in The Serpent and the Rope. Shantha tells Pai: “I say, to say I love you is to say I love myself” for “Sage Yagnavalkya said so.” and later, “I can see you have never been across the wall for there you could touch me and see yourself touch me.” (p.91). The cat is metaphysical equivalent of the divine sacredness of woman – woman whose function is to reveal in man the truth of himself to himself.


As Raja Rao himself suggested, this novel should be treated as a Puranic parable. Beast fables are quite common in Indian Puranas, the Mahabharata, even such later works as Kadambari. Hindus, who believe in the transmigration of souls, and gods appearing on earth in the forms of men and beasts, found nothing strange or unnatural in the stories. The animal motif is found even in Buddhist and Jain writings like Jataka Mala and Panchatantra. The cat is the central figure and though it did not speak like men, it behaved like an intelligent being. Thus Raja Rao is seen continuing the Indian tradition of story-telling. The animal motif recalls R.K. Narayan’s The Man eater of Malgudi. But where Narayan is content with the allegory of the ‘anecdote’ rather than its symbolic extension, Raja Rao presents the same motif on the metaphysical level, thus achieving the added dimension of symbolism meticulously assimilated into myth. Following an Egyptian parallel, the mythical Cat is sanctified with a paper - crown by Nair, and John is forced to kiss it and kneel before it because he insulted the Cat by keeping it in a rat-trap.


In this novel too, Raja Rao uses many legends. Most important of them is that of the wicked hunter, bilva tree and Shiva, where the bilva is a symbol of God’s unsought blessing. That is why Nair exhorts Pai to have a house, so that he could plant a bilva tree in it and fulfill his long-cherished desire of seeing Siva. There are other legends related to Mother Bhawani’s secret trysting place with Lord Siva; story of grandmother of Mudali’s wife who could stop a flood with a mantra and that of Sindbad the­ Sailor. Pai also can be seen acting the role of the legendary Charavaka with an insatiable thirst for the amenities of life. C.D. Narasimhaiah says, “A word, a phrase, an analogy, a dialogue form, even an unsuspected rhythm takes the reader back and forth in an attempt to perceive the hidden pattern. For instance, Pai remembered a story from his old text-book, that of Sindbad the Sailor, who was told by a jinn to take all the royal treasury but when he opened his hands to take, his hands changed into gold. The story brings to mind the story of King Midas and his golden touch; the “drowned Phoenician sailor of the Waste Land. And ‘take’ implying also ‘give’, is connected with the ‘giving’ by Mudali and Shanta and the injunction of Prajapathi ‘to give’. The devices of fable and parable serve to reinforce the experimental range of the novel, and endeavour ‘to transmute the conceptual thinking into concrete sensations’ such that the facts of the situation acquire by themselves the power and potency of generalisation.


Paul Verghese feels that the novel sounds hardly convincing to the serious reader as it lacks solid reality. But by Raja Rao’s own admission, the novel is substantially based on certain events in real life, and not a fantasy with a veneer of aesthetic sophistication. The apparent simplicity of the novel is deceptive, hilarity merely a device to underline the serious artistic intentions of the story. The reader is enticed to ‘ponder on some metaphysical truth, some Shakespearean parallel or contrast in situation’; its symbols and images, legends and myths dramatize the racial experience which is dissolved into the details of the fable and allegory. It has been called a product of ‘fabulation’, inviting attention to the scheme of ideas underlying the pattern. The form is Puranic, but its technique is of modem poetry in which words become images, images fuse into myths, myths manifest as symbols, and the materials of the story get organised into a rich complex presentation. Reverence, irreverence, fantasy and reality, mysticism and materialism, the past with its age-old philosophy and the present with global war, the forms of the beast fable and the rogue story are mixed together, making it a teasing fable. C.O. Narasimhaiah says:


No where in Indian writing in English, or at least in any of the Indian languages I know of, is so much sought to be said in so short a compass – its length is hardly 117 pages. And yet, ‘said’ is hardly the right word, for what remains unsaid in this tale is far more important than that which is said. Thus, Raja Rao successfully explores the possibilities of a metaphysical unity in the field of fiction­-writing.