The estate of Raja Rao has donated the archive of the late author and philosopher to the Ransom Center at the University of Texas. It’s a notable acquisition in part because Rao is widely considered to have been one of India’s most noted authors, having received the Neustadt International Prize for Literature and other honors.
Rao taught philosophy at the University of Texas from 1966 to 1980. His stint at UT began after he visited Austin in the early 1960s to lecture on philosophy, invited by Texas Dean John Silber. The lectures were so successful that UT’s philosophy department hired him in 1966.
Rao wrote many works of fiction, short stories, poems and essays. His fiction included “Kanthapura” (1938), which dealt with nonviolent resistance in a southern Indian village; “The Serpent and the Rope” (1960); and “The Chessmaster and His Moves” (1988). In 1964, The New York Times called him “perhaps the most brilliant – and certainly the most interesting – writer of modern India.”
He also wrote “The Great Indian Way: A Life of Mahatma Gandhi” (1988), about Gandhi’s time in South Africa.
The archive includes his manuscripts and other materials, including unpublished works, and will be available to researchers once processed and cataloged.
Rao, who died in 2006, was born in southern India in 1908 and earned his bachelor’s degree at Madras University. He did postgraduate studies in literature and history at the University of Montpellier and at the Sorbonne, and his archive contains materials in various languages. He knew Jawaharlal Nehru, a leader of the Indian Independence Movement, and lived at Gandhi’s ashram in the 1940s.
In 1964, he won the Indian National Academy of Letters’ Sahitya Akademi Award for Literature for the “The Serpent and the Rope.” He received the Padma Bhushan Award – one of India’s highest awards for literature — in 1969. And in 1988, he won the Neustadt International Prize for Literature.
Rao retired from teaching in 1980, and afterward, he rose each morning at 6:30 to meditate and walk the hike-and-bike trail.
“It was one of the most joyous times in our life, ” his wife, Susan Rao, told the American-Statesman shortly after his death. “He would talk about Indian philosophy and just enjoy nature. We’d be walking along, and suddenly he’d stop and he’d go, ‘Susan, stop, look at that shadow on the trail; it’s so beautiful! Look, the trees are blowing, it’s like they’re waving at us.’ And he would talk to trees, and he would actually hear answers back. (Once) he told a tree that he was a Brahmin — he was very, very proud of being of the Brahmin caste in India, which was the priestly caste — and the tree told him back, ‘Yes, we’ve known about them for 4,000 years.’ ”