“Our village,” the narrator Achakka begins, “I don’t think you have ever heard about it—Kanthapura is its name.” The village is high in the Western Ghats, “the steep mountains that face the cool Arabian seas” in India’s southwest. Past Kanthapura, “cardamom and coffee, rice and sugarcane” are funneled down rudimentary roads that wind through the mountains and forests toward “the great granaries of trade” and then on “across the seven oceans and into the countries where our rulers live.”
The distinctive style that Rao describes in the preface becomes immediately apparent through Achakka's lengthy first sentence, which situates her village in the broader context of India and the British empire as a whole. She does this from the viewpoint of someone traversing the landscape. The flood of place names she provides demonstrates her deep familiarity with the place and establishes her as an authority on her village.
“Cart after cart groans” through Kanthapura’s roads, all day and all night, heading over the mountains to the sea. When Rama or Subba Chetty is out selling merchandise, the carts stop in town and Subba loads up his own. Everyone can hear the “long harsh monotony” of them taking off into the night, until they pass over Tippur Hill and out of earshot. People sometimes hear this as the Goddess of the River playing with the Goddess of the Hill. “Kenchamma is the mother of Himavathy,” explains the narrator.
Kanthapura's economic role in empire is obvious to its inhabitants through the noise of the carts that pass through town. That the noise disappears past the Kenchamma Hill and Himavathy River suggests that these landmarks delimit the boundaries of Kanthapura. locality and the local goddess Kenchamma's domain.
“Great and bounteous” Kenchamma is the town’s goddess. Once, “ages, ages ago,” a demon came to take Kanthapura’s children as food and wives, and the goddess fought him back all night. The battle soaked her namesake Kenchamma Hill in blood, and now the part above the Tippur stream is red, which is proof that the battle happened. Kenchamma settled in the town, and has never failed to answer the villagers’ prayers for rain.
The villagers' traditional religion is tied to the place where they live in the sense that the goddess they worship is embedded in the landscape and that landscape records the history of what has happened in the village. The villagers do not need documents or scholars to record their history; rather, the physical landscape and locals' memories are their history books.
The goddess Kenchamma also cures disease. By walking through a holy fire, everyone has been cured of smallpox (besides one child), and by offering Kenchamma “a sari and a gold trinket,” the town has saved all from cholera except some “old ones” who “would have died one way or the other anyway.” And yes, the narrator admits, one woman died of it too—but “her child was born ten months and four days” after her husband died, and “such whores always die untimely.” Two others who died of cholera in Kanthapura were not from the town; they should have stayed in their own, the narrator claims, and prayed to their own goddess.
Achakka quickly contradicts herself, establishing her unreliability as a narrator. She suggests that the fates of those who died from disease are tied to those people's moral failings. The lack of smallpox and cholera in the village also suggests that it has had relatively little direct contact with European colonizers. Kanthapura's universe is saturated with religion: even disease is attributed to Kenchamma.
The narrator prays that Kenchamma will protect the village “through famine and disease, death and despair.” She promises that the villagers “shall wake thinking of you, sleep prostrating before you,” and perform a ritual dance and song all through harvest night. The next morning, people will come from the plantation estates around Kanthapura with offerings and sing.
Even during her story, Achakka carefully acknowledges the goddess and her continuing role in protecting Kanthapura's people. The fact that people from the plantations surrounding Kanthapura descend upon the village to pray to Kenchamma demonstrates both that the village is an important center within its immediate region and that it is not completely isolated from the outside world or the effects of colonialism.
There are 24 houses in Kanthapura, from Postmaster Suryanarayana’s large two-story home to much smaller ones that “were really not bad to look at” and Patwari Nanjundia’s, which has a fabulous veranda. So does the Kannayya-House, but Waterfall Venkamma is constantly furious that her widowed sister-in-law Rangamma gets to live there. Venkamma has to squeeze into a house she believes is too small (although the narrator explains that, in truth, her house is “as big and strong” as the Kannayya-House) while Rangamma gets to bring her family of “city-bred fashionable idiots” from Bombay to stay at the Kannayya-House in the summers. One day Venkamma tells the fellow villager Akkamma how she wishes to poison the family, and “Front-House Ankamma” runs inside her own house.
Achakka introduces a number of characters all at once with little context, overwhelming the reader with her extensive and detailed knowledge of seemingly everyone and everything in Kanthapura. She attaches epithets to many of the characters, generally based on personality traits or where they live within the village. Characters’ houses clearly reflect their social status within the village. Here, Achakka introduces Venkamma’s bitter and confrontational character, as well as her feud with Rangamma. The villagers’ opposition to city-people is also clear from the start.
Akkamma’s sister-in-law’s cousin, “Coffee-Planter Ramayya,” is staying with her on his way through town. He parks his Ford across the river and an enormous crowd descends on Akkamma’s house to see him, including Dorè, whom everyone calls “the ‘University graduate.’”
Ramayya and Dorè represent the kind of city-people that the villagers disdain and see as tied to the colonial government. Ramayya’s car contrasts with the villagers’ limited means of transportation, reflecting his power and ties to the city.
Dorè’s parents died and sisters married when he was young, so he found himself “all alone with fifteen acres of wet land and twenty acres of dry land.” Actually, Dorè never made it to his second term at university but “had city-ways, read city-books, and even called himself a Gandhi-man.” When he came back to town two years ago, he started wearing a dhoti and khadi, and he even quit “his city habit of smoking.”
Dorè is clearly a charlatan, using his brief sojourn in the city as an excuse to proclaim his superiority to the others in his village. He also gives Achakka a means to introduce Gandhi, whose movement later becomes the main focus of the characters in Kanthapura.
But honestly, the narrator remarks, “we never liked [Dorè]. He had always been such a braggart,” unlike “Corner-House Moorthy,” who lived “like a noble cow, quiet, generous, serene, deferent and brahmanic” and was loved by all. The narrator, who reveals in passing that her name is Achakka, would even have married her granddaughter to him if she had one. Moorthy and Achakka’s son Seenu are the same age and were always close friends. Coffee-Planter Ramayya was there to offer his own daughter to Moorthy—however, “the horoscopes did not agree. And we were all so satisfied…”
Moorthy embodies the ideal Gandhian and contrasts strongly with Dorè. Achakka finally reveals her name as an aside, underscoring the wending nature of her narrative. The failure of Moorthy’s marriage to Ramayya’s daughter illustrates both the dependence of Kanthapura’s society on the institution of marriage and also the extent to which Indians of all stripes in this book—including Moorthy and Ramayya from the city—follow astrology to make important decisions.
Achakka notes that, so far, she has only talked about the village’s Brahmin Quarter—there are a number of others, and perhaps “ninety or a hundred” huts in total. Achakka explains that she would never go into the Pariah Quarter, but she estimates that there are “fifteen or twenty” huts there. “Pock-marked Sidda” has a huge house there, but he recently had to take his wife to Poona for treatment because she “went mad,” and he lost much of his land to clever Bhatta, who already owned “half Kanthapura” and “was sure to become the Zamindar [landowner] of the whole village” even though he walked around in only a loincloth.
Recognizing the way caste divides Kanthapura, Achakka zooms out from the world in which she lives in and acknowledges her lack of insight into the lives of lower-caste villagers. Bhatta’s economic power over Kanthapura is evident, as is the sharp division between the villagers’ traditional ways of life, organized around the religious power of the brahmin caste, and the new social structures introduced by colonialism, which revolves around money and property.
The Potters’ Street is the smallest, with five houses and five inhabitants: Lingayya, Ramayya, Subbayya, Chandrayya, and the dying Kamalamma, who lives in “a little broken house at the end of the street” with her son. With “modern Mangalore tiles” taking over the market, the Potters are suffering and most have turned to agriculture.
The potters’ disappearing lifestyle illustrates how Kanthapura is increasingly shifting toward a market economy, and how the majority of its citizens are forced into the lowest rungs of that society: they become farmers, while landowners (both British and Indian) profit from their labor.
Patel Rangè Gowda, “a fat, sturdy fellow, a veritable tiger amongst us,” lives just past the Temple Square with his fortune in gold and bangles. He works his sons-in-law “like slaves” even though they also own land; “his words were law in our village.” Achakka considers him an “honest man” who has “helped many a poor peasant”—but he is also “a terror […] to the authorities!” He protects his fellow sudras, who “were always badly dressed” and never paid their debts on time.
Rangè Gowda has immense power in Kanthapura despite being low caste, which demonstrates how wealth is increasingly displacing caste as the dominant hierarchy in the village. He is both revered and feared for his power as a revenue collector, since his willingness to use the same cruel tactics as the colonial government makes him Kanthapura’s best defense against the British.
Across the Sudra Street is the Brahmin Street, where Achakka herself lives, Subba Chetty has his shop, and the local temple stands. The street is the “centre of our life,” but only three years old, and “that’s where all the trouble began.”
The temple is both the physical and religious center of Kanthapura, and Achakka insinuates that “the trouble” that unraveled Kanthapura can be traced to the brahmin quarter.
One day, Moorthy found a “half-sunk” linga (an idol that represents Lord Siva) in Achakka’s backyard and convinced the other brahmins to clean and build a small shrine for it. Postmaster Suryanarayana proposes a Sankara-jayantha—the Brahmins jump at the opportunity to participate and start later that day. Ramakrishnayya, the most “serene and deep-voiced” of all the Brahmins, reads the Sankara-Vijaya day in and out with his “calm, bell-metal voice” while the brahmins watch and weep. A series of boys served dinner “like veritable princes,” then Lingayya plays a bhajan on his trumpet before the brahmins go to bed “with the god’s face framed within our eyes.”
Moorthy initiates the events of the book by discovering an idol to Siva, a prominent Hindu god who is worshipped across India. This foreshadows the villagers’ gradual shift to prioritizing Siva over their local goddess Kenchamma. Ceremonies like the one Moorthy proposes are the centerpiece of public life in Kanthapura, for they offer the villagers their main chance to assemble and make important communal decisions.
Sometimes, the poet Sastri delivers Harikathas—he has been honored by the Maharaja of Mysore and, according to rumors, even has a permanent role lined up in the court. Sastri makes “the god-world” feel “true and near and brilliant” to the brahmins and they can watch him perform for hours.
Sastri is an important figure in the village because of his oral discourses, but as a powerful brahmin he also allies with the maharaja (whose court is indirectly ruled by the British).
The next morning, Moorthy proposes holding festivals for the gods Rama, Krishna, and Ganesh. He asks Achakka for money, which would enable them to bring the best Harikatha-men from afar to perform in Kanthapura. She gives him a rupee—a lot of money for her—and Moorthy continues around the village collecting money, even from the Potters, Weavers, and Sudras. Achakka worries when she hears Moorthy even went to the Pariah quarter, wondering whether “he is one of these Gandhi-men” who disregard caste. “How does it affect us?” asks Achakka, who asserts that “we shall be dead before the world is polluted. We shall have closed our eyes.”
Achakka’s willingness to give Moorthy a rupee demonstrates that religious purposes are still deeply important for her, as for most of the other villagers. Therefore, getting an important Harikatha-man to come to Kanthapura would be a great source of honor. At the same time, Achakka is put off by Moorthy’s willingness to mix with people from other castes; Moorthy at once appeals to the other villagers’ devout religiosity and defies one of their religion’s central tenets.
Altogether, Moorthy collects 147 rupees. Rangamma is generous—she does not know what to do with all her money—and the festival is extravagant. The famous Harikatha-man Jayaramachar performs, telling a story permeated with lessons about Swaraj. Then, he tells the story of Gandhi’s birth—Venkatalakshamma complains to her son Postmaster Suryanarayana that she wants to hear about Rama and Krishna, not Gandhi, and weeps through the Harikatha.
Rangamma is one of three wealthy characters in Kanthapura, alongside Bhatta and Rangè Gowda, but unlike the other men, she rejects the colonial ideology that values hoarding money. Venkatalakshamma’s aversion to the story about Gandhi reflects the villagers’ (and especially the brahmins’) deep commitment to the caste system and traditional Hindu scriptures.
Achakka summarizes Jayaramachar’s story. A sage approaches the creator god Brahma in the Heavens and laments that Brahma has forgotten Bharatha (the Sanskrit word for India), his “chief daughter” and “the goddess of wisdom and well-being.” Now, Bharatha has been invaded by men who “trample on our wisdom” and “spit on virtue itself.” The sage asks Brahma to incarnate a god on Earth to save “your enslaved daughter,” and Brahma promises that “Siva himself will forthwith go and incarnate on the Earth and free my beloved daughter from her enforced slavery.”
Jayaramachar presents the image of a unified Indian nation, which contrasts sharply with the Kanthapura villagers’ distinctly local way of life. Few think about the world outside their village, and unlike Siva, their goddess does not reliably help them when they travel beyond the hill that bears her name. However, for Jayaramachar, India herself is a goddess who has been attacked from overseas, and he calls Indians to act in their god’s name.
In Gujarat, Jayaramachar’s story continues, “a son such as the world has never beheld” is born. His room glows “like the Kingdom of the Sun” and he immediately “began to lisp the language of wisdom.” Like the lord Krishna started fighting demons as a child, Gandhi began fighting India’s enemies, assembling villagers around the country “to slay the serpent of the foreign rule.” He preaches nonviolence, asceticism, and love for all—he proclaims that wealth hides Truth, his only God, and encourages people to spin and weave their own cloth so that they can keep “the money that goes to the Red-man” within India. Jayaramachar declares Mahatma Gandhi a saint who converts his enemies to followers with love.
Jayaramachar presents Gandhi as divinely ordained from birth to end colonialism and introduces the key tenets of Gandhism that become the villagers’ core beliefs later in the book. His story offers a religious basis for following Mahatma Gandhi, whom he likens to Siva. This implies that the villagers must choose between Gandhi’s (true) stand of Hinduism and the (outmoded) caste system that supports the colonial government.
Jayaramachar tells other stories, but afterwards a policeman talks to him and he is never seen again in Kanthapura. Moorthy becomes “sorrowful and calm” thereafter, but he soon starts converting the villagers to Gandhi’s cause. After two days, Policeman Badè Khan moves into the village.
The colonial government and the Indian police who enforce its will immediately see Jayaramachar’s discourse as a threat to their control over Kanthapura and take measures to demonstrate their power in the village.