Home » India » Raja Rao » The Chessmaster and His Moves

Raja Rao: The Chessmaster and His Moves

Though readily available from online book sellers, this novel has never been published either in the UK or in the USA. It is not difficult to see why. While dealing with similar themes to The Serpent and the Rope, it is far longer (over seven hundred pages). As with the earlier novel, it tells the story of an educated, intellectual Brahmin, who tries to marry Indian and Western culture but does not really succeed. As with the earlier novel, he falls in love with a French woman, has a semi-incestuous relationship with his sister and travels between India and Europe (primarily France) on his intellectual affairs.

As it is such a long novel there are differences. He has a complicated love affair in India. He has known Jayalakshmi since childhood but went off to France to study mathematics. One of his many attempts at marrying the two cultures is to consider the relationship both between Indian maths (Indians, he claimed, invented zero) and Western maths but also maths and Indian religion. When he returns to India, Jayalakshmi has married a friend of his but he still has an affair with her. However while in Paris, he gets lonely and is enchanted by a French theatre actress, Suzanne Chantereux. He falls in love with her and they have an affair. As with Madeleine in The Serpent and the Rope, she is fascinated by Indian culture and by Siva, our hero. But, for a spiritual man, he is decidedly pragmatic with her. She wants to marry him and have a child (she had lost a child in her marriage). But he wants none of that so turns his attention to another French woman, Mireille. But his real love remains Jayalakshmi. Not only are they a sexual match but also an intellectual and spiritual one. Her husband is only interested in money and she has little interest in him but, for cultural and religious reasons, has to stay married to him.

The main themes of the novel are Siva’s quest for the spiritual, the way life is but a game of chess (events are shapen by the rules of this chess game, which has not four orders of pawns but a million) and the conflicts between Indian and Western culture. Siva is a mathematician and he is always comparing Indian and Western approaches to maths but we see it in other areas – philosophy and religion, of course, but also in such areas as medicine where the two are seen as complementing each other, though both Jayalakshmi and Siva’s sister come to the West for treatment. As with Rao’s earlier work, it is certainly a fascinating read, though the complexities of Indian philosophy and religion may well be a struggle for many westerners. After his death, two further books in a trilogy, of which this is the first, remained unpublished.

Publishing history

First published in 1988 by Vision Books, Delhi