During the holy month Kartik, lights of all colors illuminate every corner of Kanthapura, and the village’s residents see gods pass by in the flickering lights. At night, children keep the lamps alight and, one morning, there is a commotion in the courtyard outside Suryanarayana’s house.
The festival’s lights help manifest the gods’ presence in the physical world, offering the villagers proof that their prayers are answered and Kanthapura is under watchful eyes.
The villagers debate who has died, and Waterfall Venkamma notices a policeman at the home’s front steps. Seenu goes to investigate, but the policeman tells him that nobody can enter. The rest of the villagers follow to the front steps, they hear Rangamma’s mother yell from inside, and then Rangamma and Ramakrishnayya come outside.
The people of Kanthapura assume that such a commotion on a holy day must indicate a death in the village, but once Venkamma sees a policeman it is clear that the commotion relates to the Gandhian movement.
They go to the villager Sami’s house for a better vantage point and see Moorthy talking with the Police Inspector while policemen rummage through his boxes of books and cloth. They cannot hear anything yet but see that Moorthy “nods and nods and seems to smile at nothing.”
Although the police are clearly after Moorthy, he treats them with an attitude of either Gandhian love toward his enemies or utter naivety, smiling as the police threaten his role in the village’s Congress.
Suddenly, the Police Inspector shouts to Badè Khan: “bind this man!” Rangè Gowda stands at Rangamma’s door with “Pariah Rachanna and Madanna and Lingayya and Lingayya’s woman” and shouts at the policemen, “what are you doing with our master?” A policeman tells them to shut up, but they insist that they will not stay silent and Rachanna even dares the policemen to “beat me if you have the courage.” Rangamma tells him to stop, but he insists.
The villagers view Moorthy as “our master,” validating the police’s understanding that he is responsible for the village’s turn to Gandhism and extending the parallel between Moorthy and Gandhi. Although Rachanna does not attack the police, he seems to want to prove his loyalty to Moorthy and Gandhi by provoking a confrontation.
When she sees Moorthy, Rachanna shouts “Mahatma Gandhi ki jai!” More and more policemen rush in and beat the group with lathis, and even local animals start crying out at the scene’s chaos. Rachanna continues to shout “Mahatma Gandhi ki jai!” and the Police Inspector orders his underlings to arrest Moorthy and “give [the rest] a good licking.” They attack the crowd, including women and children.
Rachanna’s chant introduces one of the book’s most important nationalist slogans, which translates to “victory for Mahatma Gandhi.” The police clearly have no moral qualms about beating nonviolent protestors (and even children), which confirms that the colonial regime considers Indians to be of little value.
With the Police Inspector's permission, Moorthy stands on the veranda and demands that “in the name of the Mahatma, let there be peace and love and order.” The spirit of Satyagrahi, he argues, requires letting themselves be arrested, just as the Mahatma has done. But, when he mentions the Mahatma, the Inspector drags him back toward the doorway and then slaps him in the face.
Rachanna again shouts “Mahatma Gandhi ki jai!” and “in sinister omen” the Kartik lights suddenly go out. The officers arrest him and the two people standing behind him, spitting on them and tying them with rope, then kicking their heads and stomachs. Rangè Gowda rushes across over and knocks out a policeman with “one bang on the head.” The Inspector demands that the policemen “disperse the crowd,” which they instead simply continue to beat down.
The lights that illuminate the gods’ presence in the world suddenly extinguish at the precise moment when the police begin indiscriminately beating the Gandhians. The scene suddenly shifts from holy to vulgar, and the violence of the colonial state obscures the gods who are powerless to save the villagers in this instance. Rangè Gowda demonstrates that he follows Gandhi only in name when he attacks a policeman, violating his oath of nonviolence.
Shouts of “Mahatma Gandhi ki jai!” come from the brahmin quarter, and the policemen go there to beat them, too. Ramanna and Dorè proclaim their loyalty to Gandhi and “the policemen beat them till they were flat on the floor, mud in their mouths and mist in their eyes.” All in all, they arrest 17 villagers, lock them up in the police station and beat them further, and then release them one by one—except Moorthy.
Surprisingly, the village brahmins (including the charlatan Dorè) have also come around to support the Gandhian movement. The police’s excessive use of force and decision to release the protestors one by one suggests that their tactics are designed primarily to inspire fear amongst the protestors, who are not breaking the law.
The village prays and fasts, hoping that the gods will bring Moorthy home, and “the gods indeed did hear our feeble voices”—since a flood of lawyers starts stopping by and offering to defend Moorthy. He rejects the help, saying repeatedly that Truth will vindicate him, but Ranganna reminds him that the government is designed to protect the British and their police, not Indians and their Truth. Moorthy does not budge, and the frustrated Ranganna slams Moorthy’s cell door.
The villagers still turn to the gods for help, seeing the Gandhian lawyers who try to defend Moorthy as evidence of divine providence. Moorthy’s insistence on Truth proves to be empty talk, as he neither explains what constitutes this Truth nor recognizes that the colonial legal system pays no mind to it.
Sadhu Narayan, who was living a life of meditation on the riverbank, comes to tell Moorthy that his imprisonment is unjust and he has to speak out—otherwise, all his religious practice is for naught. But Moorthy rejects him, too, saying that he wants “no soul to come between me and Truth.”
Even a wise Hindu sage who spends his time contemplating Truth and the divine cannot convince Moorthy to speak out against injustice, for Moorthy irrationally believes that justice will naturally come about if he waits long enough.
Finally, Sankar, the Secretary of the Congress Committee in the nearby city of Karwar, comes to visit Moorthy and explains that he supports his decision because “a Satyagrahi needs no advocates,” even though he himself is an advocate (or lawyer). Moorthy falls at Sankar’s feet, asking for his blessings as “my elder and a householder,” and he agrees to let Sankar hold meetings for his cause.
Sankar is the only person capable of convincing Moorthy to fight back against his imprisonment because he works for the city Congress and occupies a higher position in the national Gandhian movement’s power structure than Moorthy, not because he has any personal credibility or wisdom. This demonstrates that, despite his belief in equality and love, Moorthy still reveres hierarchy within the Gandhian movement.
Sankar enlists Advocate Ranganna, Khadi-shop Dasappa, and a number of other volunteers to bring in a crowd for the meeting about Moorthy. At this meeting, Sankar, Ranganna, and Dasappa give speeches praising Moorthy and lampooning the government, reminding the crowd of Gandhi’s principles and affirming the Mahatma’s support for Untouchables. A man from the crowd announces that “our religion is going to be desecrated by you youngsters,” and Sankar offers him the stage.
The city Gandhians immediately mobilize their resources to help Moorthy, and again public meetings offer Gandhians a natural forum for consolidating their support base. They idolize Moorthy because he has sacrificed his physical security for his principles and hold him as a role model for the Gandhian movement.
The man comes to speak, describing himself as a “toothless old man” who has “seen many a change pass before me.” If the colonial government left tomorrow, he argues, the “disorder, corruption, and egoism” that governed India before the British would simply come back. He sees the British as India’s protectors, come (like Krishna) to defend its dharma. He praises “the great Queen Victoria,” India’s “Beloved Sovereign” whom Hindus honored upon her death, and says that she defended the Hindu faith “better than any Mohomedan prince.” He says he fears “the corruption of castes and of the great traditions our ancestors have bequeathed us.”
The old man exemplifies the contradictions of native Indian loyalism to the British, at once claiming to speak for timeless Indian traditions and considering that traditional way of life full of “disorder, corruption, and egotism.” The mythology of colonialism that he offers inverts the one Jayaramachar presented in the book’s first section, portraying the British as protectors sent by the gods (rather than invaders betraying the gods).
As the man steps down, someone asks if he follows the Swami—which he affirms he does—and then announces that the Government has just given the Swami 1200 acres of land. “The Swami is a Government man?” asks the young heckler, and the old man claims that the Swami simply defends “all who respect the ancient ways of our race.”
The government’s alliance with the region’s brahmins is undeniable once it is revealed that the Swami has also been paid off. The entire caste system is emptied of its original religious basis, and instead Hinduism becomes a scheme for profit.
After the old man steps down, “youngster after youngster” comes to defend Moorthy against the Swami, who excommunicated him. Ranganna stands and declares that he, too, has been excommunicated. He receives a “violent ovation” and recounts his recent meeting with the Swami, who proclaimed his desire to fight “pollution” by stopping “this pariah business.” The Swami said that Gandhi met with him and suggested that he misinterpreted the dharma sastras, but he insisted that he obviously knows better. Ranganna asked how the Swami could accept foreign rule, since foreigners are Untouchables according to the dharma sastras, but the Swami argued that “governments are sent by the Divine Will and we may not question it.” Ranganna walked out and “took the vow to open our temple to the pariahs,” which he did shortly thereafter.
The Gandhians are proud to have been excommunicated because it demonstrates that the brahmin-government alliance views them as a legitimate threat. Within their parallel anti-caste form of Hinduism, which follows Gandhi’s egalitarian interpretation of the dharma sastras, the Swami never had any legitimacy to begin with. The debate over interpreting the ancient dharma sastras illustrates how texts, far removed from their original contexts, nevertheless determine the structure of society and government in Hindu and colonial contexts alike.
The Police Inspector arrives and arrests Advocate Ranganna, showing him an order from a magistrate, and the crowd immediately begins marching before the police break it up with violence. Rangamma’s paper brings news of these events to Kanthapura the following morning, and the villagers realize that Bhatta, too, is being paid off by the government. Looking up at the stars, Ramakrishnayya assures the rest that there are still good people in the world, and the villagers chant “the Holy Name” until they leave “with the light in our souls.” “Somewhere beyond the Bebbur Mound and the Kenchamma Hill,” Achakka assures the reader, Moorthy “had grown even more sorrowful and calm.”
As with the previous protest in Kanthapura, the police’s violent response to the assembly for Moorthy is initially effective, but only strengthens the Gandhians’ cause in the long run. When they find out that Bhatta has been paid off by the Swami, who has in turn been paid off by the government, the villagers realize that all their worries about purity and pollution were essentially an ideology imposed on them to preserve the colonial system and its control over India’s wealth.
More and more of the villagers begin ordering Rangamma’s Blue paper, including illiterates like Rangè Gowda (who has his son read it aloud), and they discuss it every night after Ramakrishnayya’s discourses on Rangamma’s veranda. Seenu and Vasudev bring news from their trips to Karwar and the Skeffington Estate, respectively, and the Gandhian villagers agree that the goddess Kenchamma will free Moorthy—except Vasudev, who thinks the government will hold him for “a good six months.” Rangamma and Nanjamma decide to go visit Moorthy in Karwar to visit Seetharamu, who is also an advocate.
Rangamma’s newspaper becomes a crucial means of translating faraway events into local action, since it brings information about the Gandhian movement to Kanthapura even though many of the villagers are illiterate. By creating a network of information, it helps the villagers organize protests and recruit others to their cause. Suddenly, Moorthy’s arrest in Karwar has turned Kanthapura’s village-level struggle into a regional one.
Seetharamu brings Rangamma and Nanjamma to Sankar, and they agree that Moorthy is saintly and capable of “holy deeds.” Sankar explains that the police blamed Moorthy for “the assault of the pariahs on the Police,” and that there is nothing they can do to get him out.
Although the Gandhians are well-organized, they ultimately cannot find remedy with the colonial legal system that views them as enemies and exists primarily to preserve British colonists’ property rights.
Just after the harvest, various people from Kanthapura ask Rangamma about Moorthy and continue to talk against the government. Rangè Gowda loses his “Patel-ship,” which means the government has broken “the ancient laws,” and the villagers pray that Kenchamma will destroy the government.
Rangè Gowda is fired from his position as Kanthapura’s revenue collector, which incenses the villagers because it means that the government no longer respects their choice of village headman. His dismissal shows the villagers that they have been formally disenfranchised. Although Kenchamma is a local goddess, the villagers still believe she has the power to destroy the national government.
Rangamma returns to Karwar, where she stays with Sankar to help manage his Congress papers. Waterfall Venkamma claimed that Rangamma was breaking her religious obligations as a widow by moving in with another man, but actually Sankar refused to remarry after losing his own wife, a “god-like woman” named Usha, at age 26. His family pushed him to remarry but soon realized that Usha was irreplaceable and gave up.
The strategies Rangamma learns from Sankar in the city ultimately help her better organize Kanthapura’s Gandhians on a larger scale, and although Sankar is a lawyer trained in the colonial education system, he also embodies the ideal of the noble Gandhian ascetic.
Sankar’s father helped Dasappa run the khadi shop, where he sold cloth from around India and distributed political leaflets to aspiring Gandhians. His mother hoped he would make more money, to his chagrin, but Satamma cited Sankar’s reputation as the “Ascetic Advocate” who refused to take a false case. He threatens to withdraw from any case in which he finds out his client is lying, and he has done this a number of times before.
Dasappa’s business shows how Indians can operate a fair economy parallel to and independent from the British colonial one. Sankar insists on using Truth for justice, which contrasts with Moorthy’s insistence that Truth will liberate him by itself, without anyone’s interference or support.
Sankar once withdrew from a case against a Rahman Khan, who supposedly tried to murder Sankar’s longtime client shopkeeper Subba Chetty. Khan had gone off with Subba’s mistress Dasi—Subba Chetty insisted that he did not want Dasi, who was “very ill,” to appear before the court, but Sankar put her on the bench nonetheless, and Subba Chetty became furious as Desi cried on the witness stand and claimed to know nothing. Sankar asked the magistrate to adjourn the court and Subba Chetty finally told him the truth: hoping to win Khan’s coconut-garden, Subba had paid Dasi to seduce Rahman Khan and anger him into making a threat. Sankar made Subba Chetty confess to the magistrate, and he went to jail alongside Dasi and Rahman Khan.
Beyond confirming Sankar’s honesty, the case against Subba Chetty shows how greed (and especially the desire to own land) leads villagers to lie and deceive one another. Dasi is victimized by every side in this case as Subba Chetty manipulates her and the government imprisons her, showing that women often become the worst and most powerless victims of the colonial economic system that agrees with the caste system in treating them as property.
Since the Subba Chetty case, Sankar has become the most popular lawyer in Karwar—people know he never takes a false case, he only takes minimal fees, and, unlike other lawyers, he neither dresses extravagantly nor spends his after-work hours drinking at the Bar Club.
Sankar’s moral purity pays off, leading him to social prominence and stable work. Even so, he sees his purity itself as valuable, rather than merely valuing the benefits it brings him.
Rather, Sankar takes Hindi classes above the khadi shop, since Hindi will be India’s national language. He does not greet people in Kannada, but says “Ram-Ram” in Hindi, and even talks to his own mother in Hindi even though she “understood not a word of it.” Anytime he speaks a word of English, he drops a coin in a jar that he donates to the Congress—and he makes his friends do it, too. He only wears khadi and refuses to go to any event or wedding whose attendees do otherwise; he makes his family fast on days of his choosing and spins 300 yards of yarn every morning.
Sankar’s commitment to the idea of India as a nation verges on absurdity: the ostensibly common national language of Hindi, which is indigenous to the north of India, is incomprehensible to most of the people in his part of southwestern India. This anecdote helps explain Rao’s decision to write this book in English, which (despite being a colonial language) is equally accessible to all Indians.
According to Rangamma, nobody was happier or healthier than Sankar, and after staying with him she felt the same. She even spoke about Moorthy at some Congress meetings, and two days after she returned to Kanthapura the villagers discovered that Moorthy had been sentenced to three months in prison. They decided to fast.
Much like Moorthy wished for himself during his fast, Sankar’s love and positivity benefit those around him, helping Rangamma transform herself into a better satyagrahi and more effective public flag-bearer for the Gandhian movement.
It rained the next day, and Ramakrishnayya stumbled into a pillar and fell unconscious, never to wake up. The villagers worry how they might cremate him during the rains, but the pariahs diligently wash his corpse and set up the funeral pyre the next morning. As they light the flame, the Himavathy river swells up and washes away Ramakrishnayya’s body. All night, it rained hard and no cow would yield milk—Achakka exclaims, “Lord, may such be the path of our outgoing soul!”
As when children fell sick with fever after rains on the Skeffington Estate, here the rains again predict injury and death. Although the villagers fail to cremate Ramakrishnayya as planned, the holy Himavathy river seems to honor him by washing away his corpse and Achakka understandably wishes that the other villagers will be similarly reintegrated into their precious natural environment.