Raja Rao to C. M. Naim: 12 Letters


Raja Rao to C. M. Naim: 12 Letters




I was a graduate student in Linguistics at Berkeley when Raja Rao’s The Serpent and the Rope came out in 1960. I had not heard of the author before and came upon the book only because in those days there was a lovely reading room in Dwinelle Hall where one could read literary magazines, listen to recorded music, plays and poetry, glance through the latest acquisitions in poetry and fiction, or simply doze off in one of the old-fashioned lounge chairs. No one bothered you. The room was large and quiet, and people still believed in allowing quiet private spaces to others in shared public places. It was one of my favorite haunts, for I could go there and try to catch up on all that I had missed out on in Lucknow. It was there one afternoon that I found Rao’s novel among the week’s highlighted new acquisitions.


As I flipped its pages, its language fascinated me. A month later I was able to borrow the book to read at home at leisure. I soon discovered that I enjoyed the language much more if I read it aloud to myself. The sentences moved forward but often also seemed to curl back on them. Not only the narrative but its narration too invited you into experiencing a kind of circularity that was challenging, often exasperating, but, at that time in my life, also charming and fascinating. I don’t think I would be able to read the book now for more than ten pages, but it came into younger hands then, and also at a time when I was as heartbroken in an impossible love as the novel’s protagonist. Also, like him, I was quite arrogant in my own certainties.


A few years later, in Chicago, some friends and I started a magazine that we called Mahfil—it eventually gained more fame as the Journal of South Asian Literature. Our first issue was almost exclusively on Urdu, the second on Hindi, and the third on Indian writings in English. I wanted to highlight in it the two writers I then most admired, G. V. Desani and Raja Rao, and so arranged to include short excerpts from Desani’s classic All About H. Hatterr and Rao’s The Serpent and the Rope. It entailed correspondence with the two. Some of it survived my many moves, including one to India in 1971 for more than fourteen months. Among the survivors are the following letters from Raja Rao.


I have no record and almost no memory of what I wrote to him. I’m sure I had little idea of his age and achievements when I wrote him first. I do recall inviting him later to Chicago a couple of times to give seminars—“readings” were not in fashion then—and also had him interviewed on radio by Studs Terkel. (There must be a tape of it in Terkel’s archive somewhere.) But Raja Rao never became a great hit with my colleagues at the University of Chicago. Most of them felt no desire to concede to him the status he most cherished, that of a scholar-philosopher. They viewed him merely as a novelist with certain thematic predilections. In a sense, the artist had moved on, whereas most academics only saw him as the author of an astonishing debut novel, Kanthapura (1938). Also, he was perhaps too “Continental” for the English and “Comp Lit” crowd at Chicago. He eventually found his niche—in Philosophy—at the University of Texas, Austin, where Desani had preceded him. They taught in alternate semesters, and had their devoted followings for many years. Zulfikar Ghose also taught there, but in the department of English (or perhaps Comparative Literature). But I doubt very much if the three South Asian masters of fiction writing ever appeared together on the same platform—or in the same drawing room.


Looking back after so many years I can confidently say that it was an enriching and joyful experience knowing him even so cursorily.


C. M. Naim

Chicago, March 2013


In transcribing the letters I have retained any word that Raja Rao crossed out, but marked it as such. Where he added comments on the margin, I have inserted them in the text, placing them between asterisks. Raja Rao wrote a minuscule scrawl, hard to decipher now in every instance. My guesses, in such cases, are followed by a question mark within brackets.






40 Acres Club,

Austin, Texas

May 1, [1964]


Dear Naim Sahib,


I wish I could have written to you in Urdu. You know I am an old student of Madrassa-i-Aliya in Hyderabad, and Aligarh University (and Nizam College) – so once my Urdu was not bad. Even now I enjoy listening to Urdu – it seems to have such elegance and such maturity. While in Lucknow (which I know well) I used to go to Josh Malihabadi, and hear him sing away his verses (actually one of the women sang Josh’s verses) and it was such a festival of poetry. I wonder whether in modern India today such “careless rapture” is possible. I hope it is.


While in India this time I did not have sufficient time in Delhi or Hyderabad to go to a mushaira – and those organised by the All India Radio have neither the fragrance nor the lustre of the old mushaira atmosphere.


So, as you see, like my old friend Ahmed Ali (we were at college together – he is now in Pakisthan [sic]) I am a nostalgic person – not necessarily for what is old, but for the sensibility it created.


I shall soon be with you – on the 18th I arrive, and we will take up this talk. It is so easy to demolish the old – but one day even the new will become old. Ghalib must have said somewhere such a thing, I am sure. *For the very thought of Urdu makes me think in an Urdu thinking intellectual’s manner.*


My coming to Chicago is entirely of your making, so may I thank you for it sincerely, and believe me, sincerely yours,

Raja Rao




Saratoga Springs, N.Y.


June 14, [1964]


Dear Naim Sahib,


I was – I am – certainly very ungracious in not having written to you after all the kindness and hospitality you showed to me. The fact is my energy is inadequate to my needs, and as I am physically less strong, my work is also more demanding – in fact with increased maturity, one’s work becomes more and more precise, and thus one gives to one’s work the major portion of one’s strength. For sometime here I live in much noble solitude, and except for an appearance at dinner, one is left completely alone. And so little by little I catch up with my mail. And yours is among the first letters I am writing.


What was Chicago like to me? I wrote to Milton Singer to say (he had asked me to read one of his manuscripts and comment on it, which I at last did last week) – I said I was just beginning to know Chicago when I left. The day before I left was extremely rich in meetings, and about everybody I met, I should have met seen several times. Also I was overwhelmed by certain perspectives on Chicago which seemed authentically (?) deeply satisfactory, and completely unexpected. Perhaps I will one day come back to Chicago – who knows? I never know what calls me where and when? (sic) For life is such a series of gifts. I did not know even six months ago that I was going to come to Chicago. Nor for that matter to Yaddo.


I will probably go towards the middle of July to California, and will perhaps drop in at Philadelphia for a day or two. Please drop me a line at the above address giving me your address whereabouts in Philadelphia.[1] I would like you to know some of my friends there.


Your “short story” I read with very eager interest. I think that you have a very good story, and it seems to me that the story has to be much reduced in size. The idea is poetic but the treatment is too straightforward. It needs bypasses (?) and complexities of approach in language and structure so that the theme is discovered in the conclusion – your beautiful conclusion. If we could have read it together I would have told you more explicitly. A short story is a poem, in many ways, and so it needs a bare statement of fact to overwhelm the reader. There is a similar story by Liam O’Flaherty (I do not know if you know it. It’s also about a donkey about to die and of birds wanting (?) to finish up the animal before life has left it.) I think even O’Flaherty is too old fashioned. The short story today is a highly sophisticated form, and if I were you I would go on to the novel. After the novel the short story seems more pure in spirit easy of understanding. This is only a friendly suggestion. After all each writer has his own pattern of work. And work indeed is purely personal. And usually no writer is right about another writer’s work.[2] However since you had the kindness to show your short story I thought I would say what I felt. I would like to see more, if you have any you could spare.


With affectionate regards,

yours very sincerely

Raja Rao



Do you think I should write a formal letter to Marc Galanter? I shall in a day or two. Give him my regards, please.[3]


(Inflight Pan Am Clipper. Airline envelope.

c/o A E Jolis, 589 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY.)

Between Paris and New York


January 15, [1965]


My dear Naim Sahib,


Forgive me, will you, for this mad silence where everything seems to move but no one knows where. I have been working as I have rarely worked before (that is the work I did in New York) and then I rushed off to my friend’s (?) flat on the Mediterranean, at Grasse, to work on my new book. In the vitality of air and beauty that shines on Grasse, I lived and worked successfully, and partly recovered my failing health. I am returning to New York for the publication of my new book (Jan 18) and after a week there I will go to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, for a four month visiting Professorship. I have of course Chicago on my programme (sometime towards the end of May perhaps) so that I could see you and Ramanujan, and Mircea Eliade. I got to know Chicago and began to love it.


Did you get a copy of my new book? I think I put your name down for copies to be sent to. If you haven’t received it let me know.


How is your work going on, and your own writing [?] In all frankness I must admit I have been so busy I have had no time to go through your story. But I hope to in Baton Rouge.


Is there anything I can do for you[?]


I saw Ali Yavar Jung in Paris; he is going to Aligarh. He wants to bring in many important changes in the way the university is run.[4] I hope you will go back to it one day.


After Baton Rouge, I return (after having seen you) to New York and then to Paris. I may go to Africa (French-speaking) briefly, and in September I return to India for a year of hard work.


How beautiful, Naim Sahib, life can be  – in the miracle of emergent circumstance – of devoted friendships, of intellectual penetrations to the world of poetical suchness. Is it intellectual? No, it’s just the play of truth discovering itself in terms of a seeming otherness. Life is meant for happiness.


Is there anything I can do for you [?} Just take me for an older brother and let me know.


Yours affectionately,

Raja Rao



(Written on an aerogramme that apparently got torn, and so was mailed in an envelope)

c/o A. E. Jolis

589 Fifth Avenue

New York, NY


June 8, [1965]


My dear Bhai Saheb,


I am so unhappy I could not make Chicago. I will tell you one day the good, the auspicious reasons, why I had to skip Chicago. I know you will forgive me, and so will our friends.


I am here till the end of this month, and if you come to New York let me know, and give our friends in Chicago (Ramanujan, Mircea Eliade, etc.) my address here, so that if they come here they could contact me. My whole programme is somewhat uncertain – India in a few months is certain, so is Europe next month. And what are your plans?

Your affection will forgive me.

Yours always affectionately,

Raja Rao



(The following came in response to what I had arrogantly written after reading The Cat and Shakespeare (1965). Sadly, the letter somehow got torn into two, and now I find that one of the pieces is missing.)


Dear Bhai Sahib,


I was moved by the fact that you understood indeed the trick (that I played – in The Cat and Shakespeare) and I am grateful to you for it. *And I realise why you do not want to read the book again.* Yes, those who have only seen in the book the side of high comedy or of metaphysical exaltation have missed the fact that to apply the Mother-cat and kitten philosophy  to one’s own life is to lose one’s life – yet, to gain all! For what is life worth if you cannot gain it all!

Yes, do send me the Sillapadikaram and I will do my own sort of review, as long as you…. [5]

Yours always,

Raja Rao

P.S. I will be going to Texas University from April 18th to May 5, for a series of lectures. I will be at the old address: 40 Acres Club, Austin, Texas.


(Mailed on 20 September 1965)

Palais Provencal

Grasse. A.m. France


Dear Bhai Sahib,


Forgive me, I have taken all this time to reply to your affectionate letter. The fact is when I work I find letter writing somewhat difficult.  So I will be brief but there is such warmth in me for you, and such devotion, I hope we will one day be long enough together to discover this common link. You call me a brother, and I feel a brother.


I must also tell you I have been settling down to the prospect of married life. Katherine is an American (from Texas), an actress by profession, deeply serious, young and intellectual. You will probably meet her in Paris – that is if our dates coincide.


I reach Paris on October 8th or 10th. I cannot find your letter, and that is why I do not know when you propose being in Paris. If I am there I would of course look after you, but I suggest in any case that you contact Mr. Hashmi (HASHMI) who is also from Aligarh, and who is first secretary. *(Indian Embassy’s address in Paris.)* I do not know him that well but I am told he is interested in literature. And he seemed to me to be a man of infinite charm and of intellectual curiosity. I shall write to him today, and will speak to him of you. If you need accommodation, of this too will you write to him. Thank you.


Mahfil came the other day, and I and Katherine were most impressed with the review of The Cat and Shakespeare.[6] What a remarkably intelligent statement (?) it is – though not entirely accurate, but always pushing forward to new propositions, and so of new meanings. I will probably write to the reviewer one day.


Meanwhile what sorrow fills our hearts, yours and mine, at this plight of India and Pakisthan (sic). Must one be so stupid (both of them), and be so reckless about dear human life. How I wish intellectuals could do something – yes, they can – but it will bear fruit in a century.


I hope I will not miss you in Paris, but if I do we will meet in Chicago next year.


Be well in Aligarh, and write to me at the above address – letters will always be forwarded.


yours always affectionately,

Raja Rao


P.S. Rajeshwar Dayal, present Ambassador to Paris, was the Collector of Barabanki – and that is how I know Barabanki![7]



(An aerogramme, divided into five sections.)

1808 Pearl Street

Austin, Texas


November 6, [1966]


My dear Bhai Sahib,


I have been waiting for the summer to be over and for the autumn to set in to write and inquire from you whether you have returned from India, when a colleague of yours (in the Dept. of Anthropology) who was here a few weeks ago told me that indeed you had returned, and I was indeed most happy to know that once again you are not very far from me. I had, if you remember, promised to visit you in Aligarh when I was in India last year but the Indian train accommodations are so difficult to get that though my train did pass from Delhi to Bombay via Aligarh I did not get down to see you (and Ali Yavar Jung, who also I had promised to see).[8] I was just afraid that I would have to wait ten days to get a decent seat on the train again. (Because of my illness I have to travel with  conditioned imp…..(?)) I wish I could have come to see you and also meet some old friends, and again see the university after almost thirty-five years. I do hope you had an (sic) useful year, and that you found your family not too uncomfortable in these very trying days in India.


I went from Bombay to Calcutta, and from Calcutta to Bombay and Kerala (for the All India Writers Conference), and thus I saw a good bit of India. I was saddened by the general demoralisation among the people, and in some areas I found a healthier spirit than the year before. I was hoping to go to India again this coming year but it looks as if I cannot manage it as I have to finalise the text of my book on the Ganges, which is almost finished (at least one volume, for there will be three or four volumes in all, perhaps, and this may come out sometime next year. I have been very ill again with asthma (since three four months) and so my work has been very slow.


I want to know how you are, and how it feels to be back in Chicago. Is your magazine continuing? It is a fine publication, and I hope it prospers. Is Ramanujan there? If so give him my warm regards. I hope someday I will return to Chicago to meet you and a few friends. Is there any hope of your coming southward to Texas? Can I do anything for you at all?


You probably know that I am not only married but have a son (six months old), and I find enchantment in the discovery of this young creature face to face with the world (this world of doors and chairs and toys and trees). How much one can learn from the learning of children, and I have been wondering why so few novelists have ever written about children. The child is such a reminder of wisdom, and of simplicity. Let us learn them from them.


I send you my very deep affection,

Raja Rao







(An aerogramme, divided into five sections.)


1808 Pearl Street

Austin, Texas

Jan. 25, 1967


My dear Bhai Sahib,


Forgive me – this silence has been improper. But I wanted to write to you an adequate letter.


Your letter brought tears into my eyes, and I shuddered at the thought of all that you must have gone through. It is difficult to understand human nature often. It seems to contradict the very basis of what is human. The wars, the massacres, the disloyalties, the subterfuges of modern living, all seem so strangely inhuman that one wonders how we can continue to live. After the massacre of nearly eight million Jews by Hitler, the Western world continues to live as if nothing had happened. After the Hindu-Muslim massacres the Indians and the Pakistanis live as if it was all a history-book affair.


So it is with individual stories. In spite of my 57 years, I still feel a child face to face with the “normal” human situation. Yet, what has enriched, ennobled me is the (?) of friendship, the sacrifice that man will make for man. People, this world, has been most kind to me – yet suffering there has been, and so much of it.


Suffering comes often from a simple misunderstanding, which ultimately becomes a symbol, and then divides.


If I want to come to Chicago it is mainly to see you, and Mircea Eliade, and Ramanujan. My plans however are still very vague because of my health (which is slowly improving), and because of my wife’s activities.  (She is an actress, and the program goes according to where and when she is acting.) But I want you to meet Katherine and my son.


Your colleague, Marc Galanter, did write to me, but he was as vague as I was. I want to know definitely if (a) the University of Chicago wants me, (b) and if so when. Your colleague’s letter does not speak of any honorarium and so I took it as being only a friendly sort of visit, and in America I find this not altogether proper. You know how I feel about money – how in America money is a serious matter. So if they want me I will come, but under my own conditions. Unless you advise me otherwise. In which case I will accept your suggestion. Otherwise I come only to see my friends. The university will have nothing to do with it. Could you explain to Galanter. I will also write to him.


Katherine and I are driving to New York, and it is too cold and full of snow to drive up North in March or early April. People tell us this. So maybe we will come to you in Autumn. Anyway, please write to me often, and tell me how life is with you and around you, and also if there is anything I can do for you. Please write to me without any reason.


With affectionate regards.

yours …

Raja Rao




1808 Pearl Street

Austin, Texas

March 25, 1967


My dear Bhai Saheb,


So, Katherin and I, leave Austin on Sunday, April 2nd, and after an overnight stop at Dallas (where Katherine has her parents) we will leave for Chicago on Monday morning, and hope to reach there by Wednesday evening. (Roughly driving 350 miles a day.) Now, could you book us a room (a double bed or two single beds, it does not matter) with a private bathroom, and not very far from the campus. Perhaps the Windermere may still be the best, unless we could stay at the Faculty Club. Our needs are simple – only the private bathroom is all that we need, and in America that is not difficult to get.


Now, as to what we should do (apart from seeing you, and giving the talk that [Marc] Galanter asked me to give – this time unambiguously ) is to see a few persons. (1) [Edward C.] Dimock (to whom I have just written.) (2) Mircea Eliade (to whom I wrote sometime ago.) (3) [A. K.] Ramanujan. (4) Milton Singer (to whom I have not written but would be grateful if you could.) In case it is not too much of a trouble could you kindly contact them from us, and the man at the Radio Station. I forgot his name now – I was so impressed with him the last time I saw him – and any others whom you think I should see. May I leave the programming to you. *Also some interesting play or show connected with the theatre for Katherine. A very wide programme, as you see.*  And thank you for it all. We will probably leave on Saturday morning, unless there is something very important to do or to see, in which case we may be able to stay a few days more, but as it stands we will leave on Saturday.


My main purpose in coming, as I told you, is to see you. I feel you have not been too happy, and just to see one another may take away some edge of pain. At least I hope so. I hope I am right.


yours affectionately,

Raja Rao


Could you let us know here when you have reserved our room so that we could drive straight to the hotel (or wheresoever you have fixed for us to stay). Forgive the trouble. If I do not hear from you before we leave I shall telephone you on arrival.

Anyway, my telephone number: home GR7-1565, and you could always ring me collect. And please do if you feel like it. Thank you.




1808 Pearl Avenue

Austin, Texas

Dec. 8, 1969


My Dear Bhai Sahib,


In all honesty I must tell you since that day, some two and a half year ago, when I said au revoir to you in Chicago, I had promised myself to write to you, for there was a melancholy in your being, a sort of noble pessimism, a sense of craving Destiny, back to one’s Gods as it were, for sustenance and comfort – and I have sometimes been anguished at the loneliness it indicated. And to take two and a half years to write to you does not indicate that my own capacity to respond to your solitude was so very …. (?) However, believe me I have carried an envelope of yours through all my travels. For since I saw you last I have been to India twice, and then again to Africa, and my health being poor, I have had to fight against time and circumstance, and it is only since about a fortnight that my health is recovering from a terrible attack of asthma that I had on arriving in Africa last March. I see three doctors now, and I am getting better and better. But even last year my health was miserable. All this is an explanation for my silence, and not an apology. There is no apology for such sheer indelicacy, for such an idiotic negligence. Please forgive me.


Could you now tell me how you are? Do you still feel as sorrowful and solitary as I found you – not according to you perhaps, but certainly according to me. I do hope someday you will come to Austin to see me. I always feel the elder brother, if you will permit this indiscretion.


Katherine will return from India with …(?) after nearly two years in South India. She has India as her new home, and she has bought a piece of land to build a house there, in Kerala, on the river Pampa, near the Home of my Sat-Guru. What greater home has a disciple than the Home of his Guru, he who has shown the face of Truth, the Sat Guru.


I go on working on my book, and each time I seem to have finished my manuscript. I feel it needs even more work. What a noble task writing is – it asks for everything that one can give beyond oneself – and as …(?) this agony and this joy.


To you, therefore, dear Bhai Sahib, this brings my very affectionate regard.

Raja Rao


P.S. What are you working on now?

How do you …(?) cost your journal – it is a very fine journal indeed.

a. l. (?)

Please believe me this is not a Christmas letter.


Dec. 20: I once again delayed sending this to you because I was searching for your proper initials. It seems improper – unless otherwise urgent – to write to people without their full and properly formulated address.[9]


1808 Pearl Street

Austin, Texas

April 1, 1970


My dear Bhai Sahib,


I have been proposing (with my wife) to visit you, sometime early in May – that is if all goes well, and you are there, in Chicago. I did not write to you earlier for I have been busy with my own writing, and also because of my uncertain health. Anyway, my main purpose to go to New York via Chicago is to see you – and after that meet one or two friends like Mircea Eliade, and may be Milton Singer. Could you write to me at once, if possible, so that we could make our plans.


The need to see you somehow seems deep-seated. I want to be near you, and if possible to bring to you a brother’s warmth of presence (?) of awkward gesture.  So much of saying is largely immature. The Symbol seems so true, for the word, the naked word, is too concrete. The real is in dissolution – the Symbol the ritual of true meaning.


Yours affly,

Raja Rao


P.S. 1) We will be driving.

2) Have not had time to read your Ghalib.




The Guest House Motor Inn

Birmingham, Alabama

May 4, 1970


My dear Bhai Sahib,


Strange, you must think, I should write to you from here – I was invited to give a lecture … (?),[10] and I accepted it, hoping I may still be able to go to New York via Chicago. But I discovered that my conference in New York starts on the 11th (the P.E.N.) not on the 16th or 18th as I had imagine it to do, and as I have to give a brief talk I should be there on the opening day – which means once again I will miss you. But I shall try to make it on my way back, or late in August. Anyway, here is my address in New York, and I would like to hear from you.


c/o A. E. Jolis

589 Fifth Avenue

New York, NY


I am deeply sorry to miss seeing you now as I had hoped. But please write, will you. And give me news. With my warm greetings to your wife and children,


Yours affectionately,

Raja Rao


P.S. By the way Rajeshwar Dayal came to Austin last week, and we spoke of course of Barabanki.

By the way, again, I wonder if you have any way at all of helping poor Ahmed Ali to get out, even temporarily, of Pakisthan (sic). If you could, I should be so grateful.



P.S.S.  As you can see the letter was written in a hurry, so please forgive.



[1] I spent the summer of 1964 in Philadelphia, teaching at the University of Pennsylvania. As I remember, he was not able to make the stop.

[2] He was of course dead right about the story. Titled ‘The Outcasts,’ it is included in my collection of miscellaneous writings: Ambiguities of Heritage (Karachi, 1999).

[3] Prof. Marc Galanter of the University of Wisconsin, the distinguished author of Competing Equalities: Law and the Backward Classes in India (1984) and other books, was at the time a young colleague at Chicago and had been the host of Raja Rao on behalf of the Committee on Southern Asian Studies of the University of Chicago. He was also an avid reader of Indian literature, and it was he who introduced me to G. V. Desani’s masterpiece. The book had been remaindered by the publisher, and he had bought four or five copies to share with friends. Together we wrote – anonymously – the short introductory note introducing the excerpt in Mahfil.

[4] Navab Ali Yavar Jung, a distinguished diplomat, had a troubled tenure at Aligarh as the Vice-Chancellor of the Aligarh Muslim University. He was attacked and suffered bodily injuries at the hands of the students. I did go to Aligarh during that time, and in fact taught Linguistics for a couple of months in an honorary capacity at the request of my teacher, prof. A. A. Suroor.

[5] I’m not sure if we sent him the book. It was reviewed by someone else.

[6] The book was reviewed by Robert J. Ray of the Beloit College. He had earlier reviewed for us The Serpent and the Rope, and was actually quite enthusiastic about both.

[7] At our first meeting or perhaps in an earlier letter Raja Rao asked what my home town was in India, and learning that it was Barabanki he somewhat gleefully, and to my utter amazement, told me that he had been there.

[8] I am not sure if any train from Delhi to Bombay passes through Aligarh, unless he was going some place else before heading off to Bombay.

[9] He had some trouble with my initials, and the envelopes are variously addressed. I once pointed it out to him and he promptly apologized.

[10] The four words are indecipherable to me. The final, for example, could be ‘ on Mahatama’ or ‘on Malarme.’ Either would be correct in Raja Rao’s case.

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