Ancient Sanskrit poetics has defined the concept of Sahrdaya or the ideal reader as one who, with the mirror of his mind clarified through repeated readings of the text, becomes identified with what is objec tified in it, and whose heart becomes one with the heart of the writer In fact this identification is achieved through sahrdaya samvada, the process by which tanmayibhavana yogyata-the ability to lose one’s selfhood and become one with the universal self of the writer-is achieved. This could also be seen not only as self-transcendence but as transformation of the other into the reader’s self. This process is facilitated by a series of responses which are more in the form of par tial resistance than of abject surrender. No two readers read the same text; for in the process of reading the text is identified in terms of the resistance it produces in the reader. This means reading is a dynamic activity. If one invokes the indeterminacy principle as suggested by Wolfgang Iser, one may relate it to text-reader interaction. Iser says,

“the text provokes continually changing views in the reader, and it is through these that the asymmetry begins to give way to the common ground of a situation. But through the complexity of the textual structure, it is difficult for this situation to be defini tively formulated by the reader’s projections: on the contrary, it is continually reformulated as the projections themselves are readjusted by their successors.¹

The ideal reader’s response to a literary work is one of continual resistance. He is “provoked” by the text even as he, in the act of reading, provokes the text to yield fresh meanings. The reader thus assumes a creative role.

The woman reader is a resisting reader, especially if the text is by a male writer and if she is not a conditioned reader dominated by male aesthetics. The freedom of the woman reader to read any text creatively is endorsed by feminist critics. Annette Kolodny, whom Showalter describes as “the most sophisticated theorist of feminist interpretation,” observes,

All the feminist is asserting, then, is her own equivalent right to liberate new (and perhaps, different) significances from these same texts, and, at the same time, her right to choose which features of a text she takes as relevant because she is, after all, asking new and different questions of it.²

The woman reader is a questioning reader; she asks new and dif ferent questions about the text; like any creative reader, she looks for what is not obvious. There is nothing shocking or outrageous in this venture. Like the post-colonial reading of colonial texts, like the Marxist reading of non-Marxist texts, the feminist reading helps to identify the sub-texts. In other words the woman reader reading a different text altogether, and in that process creating a female text out of the ostensibly visible male text made available to her.

When such a reader turns to Raja Rao’s The Cat and Shakespeare, a text supposedly given to eulogising the feminine prin ciple as expounded in Indian philosophy, she will be subjecting the text to a new kind of reading. The text may resist it for two reasons: (1) it is by a male author, and (2) the author adopts a masculine viewpoint and projects the in relation to the male. Raja Rao is rather well-known for his belief that woman can achieve her salvation, can realize herself and achieve fulfilment, only through man. In The Serpent and the Rope, Ramaswamy, the central figure, expresses his dislike of Dante’s Beatrice whom he calls an “impos sible tyrant” for wanting “to show the Truth to Dante”: She who should see the light through him, now wants to show the light to him. It is the inversion of Truth.” (357)

Raja Rao’s disapproval of Dante-Beatrice is borne out by the preference he gives to Yagnyavalkya-Maitreyi in both The Serpent and the Rope and The Cat and Shakespeare. Sage Yagnyavalkya’s story is found in The Brhadaranyaka Upanishad. His two wives, Maitreyi and Katyayni, picture two totally different aspects of woman-one intellectual and aspiring for knowledge and the other completely domesticated with no interest whatever in the pursuit of the intellect. But even Maitreyi, the intellectual woman, can realize herself only through her sage-husband. The reiteration of the refer ences to this upanishadic story in his novels and other writings makes clear the author’s “masculinist” stance. The text proves all the more resisting to the (resisting) woman reader because of the unques tioned superiority and emphasis placed on the male figures.

Resistance may arise from approaching text from a point of view dif ferent from the author’s. Just as a Marxist looks at a non-Marxist text and generates a Marxist reading, so does a resisting female reader generate a new Feminist subtext. The generation of a subtext through resistance is an act of textual subversion.

The Cat and Shakespeare demands a veritable resisting reader to unearth the concealed layers of meanings that are there in spite of the masculine pen. It is a text that provokes the woman-reader and the woman-reader can in turn provoke the text to yield meanings that are denied to the non-resisting reader. Here the obvious emphasis is on the Tengalai school of Visistadvaita. Visistadvaita gives a central place to the Feminine Principle and has come to be called Shri Vais navism because of the importance it gives to Sri (Lakshmi, spouse of Vishnu); both the Tengalai and the Vadagalai schools of thought place stress on the maternal aspect of divine grace. In the former, the Supreme Being is the Mother Cat; human beings are passive and helpless like the kitten. (This is known as the Marjara-kisora nyaya or Cat-hold theory.) The Vadagalai school lays stress on the free will of  the human spirit by adopting the Markata-kisora nyaya or Monkey hold theory. Just as the young monkey clings to its mother, human spirit can hold on to the Supreme Being. Raja Rao adopts the philosophy of the Tengalai school in The Cat and Shakespeare-the predominant image of the Mother Cat embodying the Feminine Principle and that of Shakespeare perhaps embodying the Mas culine. Govindan Nair glorifies the role of woman as mother in his eulogy of the Mother Cat: “Ah, the kitten when its neck is held by its mother, does it know anything else but the joy of it being held by its mother?…I say the kitten is the safest thing in the world, the kitten held in the mouth of the mother cat. Could one have been born without a mother? Modern inventions do not so much need a father. But a mother-I tell you, without a mother the world is not.” (9-10)

The image of the self-sacrificing mother as one who takes upon herself the sins of the world is looked down upon by the western feminists who do not encourage women to cultivate negative self-im ages. Breaking out of the shackles of the illusory glory of motherhood is one of the ways to achieve liberation. Raja Rao looks upon the Mother Cat as Jaganmatha. The Malayalam word for the female cat, as Ayyappa Paniker has pointed out in his interview with the author, is chakki, which is derived from the Sanskrit word sakti which is a form of Parasakti.³ Prakriti is held superior to purusa in Saktism and Tantrism. Raja Rao makes Govindan Nair, the purusa, a supreme being, but prakriti, Shantha, is placed on an obviously lower scale. While Govindan Nair has an individuality of his own, Shantha is seen only in relation to Pai, as a means employed to accelerate the initia tion of the uninitiated. In the interview mentioned above, Raja Rao refers to Pai as “the man-man” and Govindan Nair as “the man beyond-man,” the former as Arjuna and the latter as Sree Krishna. (111) Shantha is presented only as a worshipper of “the man-man,” Arjuna. She is in fact superior to Pai in intelligence and knowledge, she can understand perfectly well the enigmatic talk of Nair, which seems to Pai to be a mixture of The Vicar of Wakefield and Shakespeare. But she is pictured as the sort of woman who appears to derive emotional content from surrendering herself to the man who is in many ways her inferior.

This points more or less to the attitude of the author towards woman in general. Raja Rao has portrayed woman only as playing an auxiliary role in his novels. Shantha’s role in the novel is to aid Pai to self-discovery by being a help-mate to him. This role-casting prevents her from developing into a full-fledged character; otherwise the Govin I might have emerged as the embodiment, in the literal sense, of the Feminine Principle, as strong and sturdy as the character of and in wife”. dan Nair. But she is created to worship Pai, for, as Raja Rao has ob worshipping a man she makes a man man.” (Dialogues, 114-15) Pai served, “Pai rose to himself because of Shantha feels that she has become his mistress because she “felt feet were there for her to worship. My weaknesses were there for her to learn; my manhood, at least such as I possess, for her to bear children.” (22) Man, according to Raja Rao, is an abstraction to him self and to others. Hence Govindan Nair, who is a complete abstrac tion, is indifferent to the consequences of his actions. Shantha is created as “a typical Indian woman with all her devotion, her humanity, her simplicity and her truth,” (Dialogues, 114) in order to help Pai to understand in concrete terms the abstraction that he is to himself and to others. “My

Shantha who is made to look upon herself primarily as a duty bound help-mate seems to be content with her womanhood. “He has given me his manhood that my womanhood be.” (52) But in the course of the novel, for a fleeting second, Shantha’s character seems to break free of the subservient role imposed by the male pen when she curtly tells Pai, allowing the cinder of rebellion in her to sparkle for a little while: “Good it is that I am a Hindu woman and you are my lord. If I were not that, but one of those big-bosomed women of the European films, smoking and kissing in public. I would not say yes to you all the time, I would say no.” (90-91)

To a reader who tries to resist the author and the text, Shantha is a woman who towers over the entire structure of the novel. She is not the image of woman as she is, but the image of woman as the male author wants woman to be. Maybe she is the protection of the female aspect of the male psyche. But if the woman reader can resist this conscious projection on the part of the author and look through the shadow, she can perceive Shantha as an entirely different figure. She asserts her supremacy through her superiority in wisdom, knowledge, love and stubbornness in spite of being dubbed “the typical Indian woman.” The woman reader should make visible such invisible ele ments in the text which perhaps are deliberately made invisible by the male author. Not taken in by the clever narrative strategies, she can retrieve what is perhaps consciously repressed by the male author and discover/uncover the countertext lying buried within. Shantha, a school teacher in the Nair Society High School, is the only earning member of her family. Just as Saroja is able to look after her estates and boats-with an efficiency that is markedly absent from Pai-Shantha is also quite able to look after her affairs. was at the Revenue Office where she went to enquire about some land division that she saw Pai. About that meeting Pai recollects: “She said she knew me to be her man the moment I went and stood against the filing ladder.” (22) In effect she found him, she selected him to be her man without worrying too much about his status as a married person. Quite a self-willed woman she delivers Pai’s child and lives with him in the house bought with her share of money too. Her stubbornness is matched only by Saroja’s, who, having lost her daughter Usha to Shantha, deliberately keeps away the son Vithal, telling him, “Your father is no father. Your real father is the sun. Worship him.” (107) To the resisting reader the reason for the break-down of Pai-Saroja marriage is clear from these statements: Pai is guilty of approaching the woman with a pre-conceived frame existant from the time of Manu the ancient law-giver: “in business like a minister; in discharge of duties like a maid, in figure like god dess Laxmi, in patience the very earth, in love a veritable mother, and in bed a courtesan” – which a new woman can never be. Shantha is cast in the Manu-mould but the sparks of rebellion still persist in her. Though she surrenders herself to Pai who is inferior to her, she is well aware of her inner strength and secret dominance over him. All through the novel the phrase “unknowing worship” is repeated, both in the context of the mythical story of the hunter whose unknowing worship of Lord Shiva idol saved him from calamity and in other contexts. A sly reversal of roles can be perceived, taking the cue from this phrase. It is mentioned elsewhere that in worshipping the spouse, the (Indian) woman is herself worshipped. So when Pai says that his feet were there for her to worship, his weakness were there for her to learn, his manhood for her to bear children, quite unknow ingly he implies that he worships her feet, learns her weaknesses and that her womanhood is there to bear his children. And when Pai states that Saroja “knows how to take,” the implication is that he knows only how to take and not to give. It is evident from his relationship with Shantha and Saroja that Pai “takes” and seldom “gives,” hence his preference of the apparently subservient Shantha to Saroja who asserts her individuality in full. To come back to theory. The resistance of the woman reader consists in her discovery of the invisible text in the deep structure of the visible text. This results in the attribution of reversed roles as ex plained in the example discussed above. In The Cat and Shakespeare, Govindan Nair and Pai are made apparently more visible in the given surface text, but the woman reader discovers through her resistance (i) that Saroja and Shantha are assigned dependent/subsidiary roles, (ii) that the idealization of Shantha in the surface text is a means of projecting her as a negative image of womanhood and (iii) that there is a Saroja in Shantha just as there may be a Shantha in Saroja. Pai/Rao does not seem to like a self-reliant socially succcessful woman. That may be the reason why the author makes Pai resort to physical violence to suppress Saroja’s will-power and this in turn can be perceived as the “authoritarian” device on the part of the author to show the woman her “rightful place.” A male reader or a non resisting female reader may not be able to perceive, recognize or ac knowledge these aspects in the buried text. Every word spoken in praise of Shantha because of her subservience is an attempt to decry the resisting wife in Saroja. Such a reading of The Cat and Shakespeare naturally helps to “re-write” the text and produce a female version of the male text.


  1. Wolfgang Iser, The Act of Reading: A Theory of Aesthetic Response (1978; London: John Hopkins Paperbacks, 1980), p. 167.
  • Quoted in Elaine Showalter, “Feminist Criticism in the Wilderness,” Modern Criticism and Theory, ed. David Lodge (London:Longman, 1988), p. 333.
  • Ayyappa Paniker, “A Dialogue with Raja Rao,” Dialogues: Six Literary Interviews (Bhubaneswar: Utkal University, 1989), p 110.