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The Serpent and the Rope by Raja Rao (Overlook: $18.95; 407 pp.)

August 24, 1986|Pratapaditya Pal | Pal is senior curator Indian and Southeast Asian Art, Los Angeles County Museum of Art. and

Awelcome fallout of the current "Festival of India" has been the publication of numerous books, both fact and fiction, about India and the Indians. Some are new; mostly in the form of exhibition catalogues and such miscellany as travelogues and cookbooks, others are reprints of books that were published several decades ago. One such is the well-known Indian novelist Raja Rao's "The Serpent and the Rope," a novel about a young Indian student's encounter with Europe soon after World War II. When the book was first published it was much admired by critics including Lawrence Durrell and E. M. Forster. Forster, whose "A Passage to India" is also about the encounter of two very disparate cultures and minds in British India, considered "The Serpent and the Rope," as "perhaps the best novel in English to come from India." High praise indeed from a master of the genre!

The basic story is quite simple. Rama, a young South Indian Brahmin from an orthodox family goes to France to do research on an obscure historical subject. Twenty-one years old, he falls in love with Madeleine, a French virgin who is four years older than he. They are married and have a son who dies soon after birth. The loss of the child is rarely ever brought up again but Rama and Madeleine inexorably drift apart. In fact, most of the time they are physically separated, and their relationship is glimpsed either from his musings and entries in his diary or a few of her letters. Twice he returns to India, once following his father's death and again to attend a sister's wedding. On the first trip back he meets Savithri, an emancipated, north Indian princess and is instantly attracted to her.

Later they meet in Cambridge, England, where they engage in philosophical discourses and in an affair, even though she is engaged to a rising star in the firmament of Indian civil service whom she does not love. During his second visit to India, even as he dreams of Savithri, while a guest in a friend's house in Bombay, Rama shares the wife's bed as the husband prefers "white women." Madeleine, of course, never learns about his philanderings and, for reasons not explained, becomes immersed in Buddhism. Ultimately the two are separated.

Although the book has been praised as a classic in the confrontation of two cultures, it really recounts the cultural and emotional problems of a 21-year-old Brahmin whose roots are much too deep in Indian civilization for him ever to be transplanted to Europe. Rama's loneliness, not an uncommon experience for many Indian students abroad, attracts him to the older Madeleine, but clearly he prefers Indian women. Madeleine, a remarkably passive French girl, is a devotee of Indian culture, and, hence, their relationship does not reflect a conflict of two cultures. Rather, the book provides an eloquent account of a young Indian's reluctance to accept the European way of life, even though he does seem to be amoral in sexual matters and remarkably well-versed in both European and Indian philosophy, mythology and literature.

All in all, "The Serpent and the Rope" is a highly cerebral novel that will be enjoyed primarily by intellectual readers. The author's style is felicitous and the descriptive passages, whether of Benares or Cambridge, are both eloquent and witty. At the same time, however, the dialogues are often much too erudite and, sometimes, even contrived. Appreciating the frequent quotations of Sanskrit, French, and Italian poetry (the last two without English translation) will require some linguistic calisthenics on the part of the ordinary reader. Those who are interested in "Comparative Literature and Religion" will enjoy the book immensely, although a Sanskrit pundit may wonder at the very sloppy use of diacritical marks in the many Sanskrit passages as well as the obvious Dravidization of the language.

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