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Raja Rao: The Serpent and the Rope

This novel may be a bit precious for Western readers, hovering, as it does, in the higher philosophical and literary planes. Both the language and the subject are written by a man who does not seem to dwell in the ordinary world – he is an Indian über-Brahmin – so much so that even his illness is literary – the standard literary tuberculosis. This does not mean that it is a bad book. On the contrary it is a fascinating exploration of the Western-Eastern dichotomy but the style may put off some readers.

Rama, the narrator/hero (clearly based on Rao himself) is an Indian Brahmin, who is living in France, where he has married Madeleine, a French woman even more precious than he is. He is studying the Cathars and the Albigensian Crusade, as he sees a connection between the Cathars and India and it is this East-West connection that informs the novel. While remaining resolutely Indian, Rama is constantly reaching out to the West. He uses Western languages, of course, (English and French) but he is constantly considering Western religion, Western philosophy and Western literature and trying to bring them closer to their Indian equivalents. At the same time, Madeleine (and some of their French friends) dabble in things Indian, from Buddhism to Indian philosophy.

He does live an ordinary life to some degree. He is close to his step-mother (whom he calls Little Mother) and to his half-sister (Saroja), for whom he has a seemingly more than fraternal affection. He takes his responsibilities as head of the family, since his father’s death, quite seriously, and travels to India on more than one occasion for family affairs. That he loves Madeleine seems to be clear (and his love seems to be reciprocated). Even the early death of their child does not seem to shake the marriage. When they finally divorce at the end, so he can return to the more suitable climate (for his tuberculosis) of India, it is clear that the reasons are not really for health or marital relations but the idea that the Indian way of life, seen from a philosophical rather than practical point of view, is entirely incompatible with the Western way of life, despite his best efforts throughout the novel to harmonise the two. Rao is, of course, an Indian, and, for a Westerner, his love of and continual references to Indian philosophy, legends and history, may seem at times awkward to cope with, though his knowledge of French history and literature could cause also as much confusion for Anglophones. It almost works and there is no doubt that we do see the attempt to ally the two approaches but his sudden abandonment of France and his wife at the end is unconvincing.

Publishing history

First published in 1960 by John Murray