Kanthapura is as much about a people displaced as about a place that loses its people. As the legendary history of a village, the book emphasizes the topography of Kanthapura’s region as people actually experience it and suggests an inherent link between the villagers and their land. But this sense of belonging unravels throughout the book as the villagers’ national identity surpasses their local one, the coolies (indentured laborers at the Skeffington Coffee Estate) move into Kanthapura, and the British wrest control of the village from its people. Ultimately, the pariah woman Rachi’s decision to burn down Kanthapura reflects its people’s decision to abandon their local identity after the British have decimated their population, representing the way that colonialism—as well as the anticolonial nationalism necessary to defeat it—forces people to sever their traditional bonds with land.
Achakka’s narration pays close attention to the geography of Kanthapura and the region around it. The village and Western Ghats are saturated with symbolic significance, demonstrating the way the villagers’ identity is founded on place. In the book’s opening paragraph, Achakka situates Kanthapura in relation to the broader world by telescoping out from the village to the mountains that surround it and the global networks of colonial power in which it is embedded. Kanthapura is clearly a peripheral place in relation to global networks of power, since the goods that traverse it are sent across the “seven oceans into the countries where our rulers live,” but it is also clearly the center of her own universe (and therefore the book’s). Kanthapura also has its own local goddess, Kenchamma, to whom villagers pray for rain and good health; the red Kenchamma Hill, which is always on the horizon and which Achakka almost always mentions when anyone travels into or out of town, symbolizes the goddess’s providence over Kanthapura’s people and marks the boundary of the territory in which the villagers’ identity is embedded. At the beginning of the book, Achakka explains that the hill is red because, ages ago, Kenchamma killed a demon there—the people’s connection to the land is so ancient that it seems eternal. Further reinforcing the connection between place and identity, Achakka pays close attention to the layout of the village, frequently noting how characters get from one part to another and often using place names as epithets for the story’s characters (e.g. Front-House Akkamma and Temple Lakshamma). And the villagers are so tied to their land that, even though many of the novel’s important events take place far from Kanthapura, Achakka’s narration never ventures beyond the Skeffington Estate that borders Kanthapura. The narrative voice itself, like Kanthapura’s inhabitants, is confined to its village.
The villagers’ traditional ties to their land contrast with the colonial attitude toward land as property, existing only to be exploited in the pursuit of wealth. The Skeffington Coffee Estate is the primary example of this ideology: it grows exponentially over the years, to the point that nobody can tell how large it is. Achakka’s epic description of it at the beginning of the fifth section demonstrates its unfathomable size. And this colonial attitude is not limited to actual colonists: Bhatta, who owns much of the town’s land and continues to accumulate more, initially has more power than anyone else in the village besides perhaps Patel Rangè Gowda (whose power also stems from his land holdings). Everyone, from pariahs to brahmins, “owe[s Bhatta] something.” Ultimately, after the colonial police forces its residents out, Kanthapura is bought out by wealthy city-people from Bombay. In this way, land is shown to be a commodity in the eyes of colonialists, whereas for the villagers land is deeply comingled with their sense of having a collective identity. Even the way colonists traverse the landscape manifests their empty relation to it: whereas the policeman and owners of the vast Skeffington Estate take cars, the disempowered villagers and indentured workers are forced to walk through the landscape—new workers have to march up the mountains to the Skeffington Coffee Estate, and one of them, Ramayya, even has to push the maistri’s bicycle through the mountains instead of riding it. When they finally abandon Kanthapura, the villagers “trudge” by foot to Maddur.
Ultimately, the Indians in Kanthapura abandon their roots and disperse, reflecting their shift from a local to a national vision of territorial belonging. The coolies are uprooted twice: they come to the Skeffington Estate from villages across India that can no longer support their own agriculture, then move to Kanthapura once the village’s Gandhians start clashing with the Estate’s European owners and the colonial government that backs them. During the government’s final assault on Kanthapura and its people, a pariah woman, Rachi, finally decides to “burn this village” because she “can bear the sight [of the British assault] no more.” If Kanthapura’s people cannot have the village, she implies, nobody can—and, indeed, the novel itself serves as their post-facto assertion of their true ownership over the land. While the villagers ultimately disperse to neighboring villages (and some to faraway jails), they maintain a unified identity around the “Brother saint” Gandhi. In the end, the villagers’ embrace of Gandhian nationalism reflects a conceptual shift in the idea of ownership and belonging: whereas before the people belonged to the land, now the land belongs to the people collectively as a nation. To an extent, then, the villagers in the novel take on the colonial attitude toward land, destroying their traditional ties to their village and abandoning their goddess Kenchamma—but only because their struggle for national independence demands it. Postcolonial independence is not about evicting the colonizer and reverting to an earlier way of life, but rather about transforming the colonial state into something that works for a colonized people as they begin to conceive themselves as a nation.
Land, Geography, and Belonging ThemeTracker
Land, Geography, and Belonging Quotes in Kanthapura
We have neither punctuation nor the treacherous “ats” and “ons” to bother us—we tell one interminable tale. Episode follows episode, and when our thoughts stop our breath stops, and we move on to another thought. This was and still is the ordinary style of our story-telling. I have tried to follow it myself in this story.
Our village—I don’t think you have ever heard about it—Kanthapura is its name, and it is in the province of Kara. High on the Ghats it is, high up the steep mountains that face the cool Arabian seas, up the Malabar coast it is, up Mangalore and Puttur and many a centre of cardamom and coffee, rice and sugarcane. Roads, narrow, dusty, rut-covered roads, wind through the forests of teak and of jack, of sandal and of salt, and hanging over bellowing gorges and leaping over elephant-haunted valleys, they now turn to the left and now to the right and bring you through the Alambè and Champa and Mena and Kola passes into the great granaries of trade. There, on the blue waters, they say, our carted cardamoms and coffee get into the ships the Red-men bring, and, so they say, they go across the seven oceans into the countries where our rulers live.
Sometimes people say to themselves, the Goddess of the River plays through the night with the Goddess of the Hill. Kenchamma is the mother of Himavathy. May the goddess bless us!
There was something deep and desperate that hurried her on, and [Narsamma] passed by Rangamma’s sugarcane field and by the mango grove to the river, just where the whirlpool gropes and gurgles, and she looked up at the moonlit sky, and the winds of the night and the shadows of the night and the jackals of the night so pierced her breast that she shuddered and sank unconscious upon the sands, and the cold so pierced her that the next morning she was dead.
The Skeffington Coffee Estate rises beyond the Bebbur Mound over the Bear’s Hill, and hanging over Tippur and Subbur and Kantur, it swings round the Elephant Valley, and rising to shoulder the Snow Mountains and the Beda Ghats, it dips sheer into the Himavathy, and follows on from the Balepur Toll-gate Corner to the Kenchamma Hill, where it turns again and skirts Bhatta Devil’s fields and Rangè Gowda’s coconut garden, and at the Tippur stream it rises again and is lost amidst the jungle growths of the Horse-head Hill.
[Pariah Siddayya] tells you about the dasara havu that is so clever that he got into the Sahib’s drawer and lay there curled up, and how, the other day, when the sahib goes to the bathroom, a lamp in his hand, and opens the drawer to take out some soap, what does he see but our Maharaja, nice and clean and shining with his eyes glittering in the lamplight, and the Sahib, he closes the drawer as calmly as a prince; but by the time he is back with his pistol, our Maharaja has given him the slip. And the Sahib opens towel after towel to greet the Maharaja, but the Maharaja has gone on his nuptial ceremony and he will never be found.
We are out for action. A cock does not make a morning, nor a single man a revolution, but we’ll build a thousand-pillared temple, a temple more irm than any that hath yet been builded, and each one of you be ye pillars in it, and when the temple is built, stone by stone, and man by man, and the bell hung to the roof and the Eagle-tower shaped and planted, we shall invoke the Mother to reside with us in dream and in life. India then will live in a temple of our making.
The whole world seems a jungle in battle, trees rumbling, lions roaring, jackals wailing, parrots piping, panthers screeching, monkeys jabbering, jeering, chatter-chattering, black monkeys and white monkeys and the long-tailed ones, and the flame of forest angry around us, and if Mother Earth had opened herself and said, “Come in, children,” we should have walked down the steps and the great rock would have closed itself upon us—and yet the sun was frying-hot.
“Satyanarayan Maharaj ki jai!”
“Vandé Mataram! Inquilab Zindabad! Mahatma Gandhi ki jai!”