Poetry and Fiction - Raja Rao: Sacred wordsmith
by Life Positive
The spirit of this quest permeates all his works. All of Rao's protagonists struggle
with the same concerns—What is Truth? How can one find it? The means may
be as diverse as the Jnana
Yoga of the intellectual Rama in The Serpent and the Rope or the Karma
Yoga of the Gandhian Moorthy in Kanthapura. Even his short fiction
and nonfiction is imbued with this spirit of inquiry. Savor the deeply philosophical
and spiritual essence of Rao's works in the following extract from The Serpent
and the Rope, and a short story called Companions. Both have been excerpted
from the anthology The Best of Raja Rao, a Katha publication.
THE SERPENT AND THE ROPE
At Barbirolli's I ordered a Chianti, and said, as though it had some meaning: "And now you must learn Italian. Io ritornai dalla santissima onda/rifatto si come piante novelle/renovellate di novella fronda/Puro e disposto a salire alle stelle," I recited. "You must learn Italian, for God has texture in that language. God is rich and Tuscan, and the Arno has a bridge made for marriage processions."
"So has Allahabad," Savithri added, somewhat sadly. "And appropriately it is called the Hunter Bridge."
"May I go on with my Superman?" I begged.
"The biological sense of warmth having come back to me-and how nice this Chianti is"—she raised her glass—"I can now follow any intricacy of thought. I like to play chess with you in history."
"The Minister is the Superman," I started.
"And the King?"
"The Sage. The Vedantin, himself beyond duality, is in himself, through duality and nonduality."
"That's too difficult with Chianti. I wish, Rama-shall I call you that from now? I wish you could sing me a song, and I would lie on your lap, far away where there is no land or road, no river or people, no father, fiancée, filigree, palace or elephants-perhaps just a mother-and on some mountain..."
"In Kailasa..." I said.
"You would sit in meditation."
"Pray, that you might awaken and not burn the world with that third eye—that eye which plays with history," she laughed.
"And parrots would sing, and the mango leaf be tender, be like copper with morning sunshine."
"And I would go round you three times, once, twice, thrice, and fall at your ash-colored feet, begging that the Lord might absorb me unto himself... I am a woman," she added hesitantly, "a Hindu woman. Meretho Giridhara Gopala...
Mine the mountain-bearing Krishna, My lord none else than He."
History, Stalin and the Superman had vanished. Trying to solve the puzzle of history, like some hero in a fable, I had won a bride. A princess had come out of the budumekaye, but the moment I had entered the world of the seven sisters the Prime Minister's son had led a revolution in the palace, had imprisoned the other six, and put us two under arrest. King Mark of Tintagel awaited his Iseult. I would have to give her to him, but having drunk the potion of Granval, I would meet her by brooks and forests; I would be torn by dragons, but someday we would lie in the forest, the sword between us. Some day love would be strong enough to shatter the rock to fragments, and we should be free to wander where we would, build an empire if we cared.
"And we shall have a bambino," she said, and laughed as though she had caught my thought.
"Two," I added. "One is Ganesha and the other Kumara."
"And we shall throw colors on each other at Holi under the mountain moon. Our Indian Eros shoots with a flower, so why burn him?"
"Why not?" I asked. "The third eye opens when the attraction has ended. I hope you are not attracted by me?"
"Oh, no," she said. "If I were attracted by attraction, there would be no one like Hussain. He looks like someone from a Mogul painting, lovely with a long curve of eyebrow, a thin waist, very long gentle hands-and inside here," she pointed to her head, "all empty. His heart is filled with popped rice, curly and white and isolated. Muslims know how to please a woman," she finished, rather sadly.
"And a Hindu?"
"A Hindu woman knows how to worship her Krishna, her Lord. When the moon shines over the Jumna and lights are lit in the households, and the cows are milked, then it is Janaki's son plays on the banks of the Yamuna in Brindavan. The cattle tear their ropes away, the deer leave the forests and come leaping to the groves, and with the peacocks seated on the branches of the Ashoka, Krishna dances on the red earth. What Gopi, my Lord, would not go to this festival of love? Women lose their shame and men lose their anger, for in Brindavan Krishna, the Lord, dances. We women are bidden to that feast. Come," she said, as though it was too much emotion to bear.
As we wandered down the streets, Piccadilly with its many colored lights, the Tube entrances and the bus queues gave us a sense of reality. Finally I took her to some women's hostel off Gower Street-where she always had rooms reserved for her and where she was looked after by her friend Gauri from Hyderabad, round as Savithri herself, but loquacious, big and protective. I was always so afraid of Savithri getting lost. It was not only a matter of bringing back her glasses or pen, but one always felt one had to bring Savithri back to Savithri.
"Ah, I am very real," she protested. "And tomorrow you will see how clever I am at taking buses. I'll jump into a 14 at Tottenham Court Road and be in Kensington at ten precise," she promised as I left her. I knew that at ten she would still be talking away to Gauri about some blouse pattern or somebody's marriage in Delhi. I knew I would have to telephone and ask her if she knew the time. "I promise you, you need not telephone. Tomorrow I will be punctual as Big Ben." With Savithri the profound and the banal lived so easily side by side.
I touched her hand at the door, to know I could touch her, and carried the feel of it home. It was like touching a thought, not just a thought of jug or water, or a pillow or a horse, but a thought as it leaps, as it were, in that instant where the thought lights itself, as the meteor its own tail. I felt it was of the substance of milk, of truth, of joy seen as myself.
Next day, when I was washed and dressed and had meditated and rested-I was in a muslin dhoti and kurtha-there was still no sign of Savithri at ten or at ten past ten. Not long after, she entered in a South Indian sari of a color we in Mysore call "color of the sky", with a peacock-gold choli, and a large kumkum on her forehead. She looked awed with herself, and full of reverence. As I went to touch her I refrained-something in her walk was strange.
"I have been praying."
"To Shiva," she whispered. Then she opened her bag and took out a sandal-stick. Her movements were made of erudite silences. "Please light this for me," she begged.
By the time I had lit the sandal-stick in the bathroom and come out she had spread her articles of worship about her. There was a silver kumkum-box. She had a few roses, too, fresh and dripping with water.
"Bring me some Ganges water in this."
I put some plain water in her silver plate. She put kumkum into the water.
"Will you permit me?" she asked. "Permit this, a woman's business?"
"Oh, no!" I protested.
"But it was you who told me-at home a man obeys a woman, that it's Hindu dharma."
"I obey," I said.
Then she knelt before me, removed one by one my slippers and my stockings and put them aside gently-distantly. She took flower and kumkum, and mumbling some song to herself, anointed my feet with them. Now she lit a camphor and placing the censer in the middle of the kumkum-water she waved the flame before my face, once, twice and three times in arathi. After this she touched my feet with the water, and made aspersions of it over her head. Kneeling again and placing her head on my feet, she stayed there long, very long, with her breath breaking into gentle sobs. Then she gently held herself up. Taking the kumkum from the box I placed it on her brow, at the parting of her hair, and there where her bosom heaved, the abode of love. I could not touch her any more, nor could she touch me, and we stood for an isolate while. Then suddenly I remembered my mother's toe-rings.
"Stop where you are for a moment," I begged.
"I can go nowhere," she answered, "I belong to you."
Gently, as if lost in the aisles of a large temple, I walked about my room, opened my trunk and slowly removed the newspaper cover, then the coconut, the betel nuts, the kumkum that Little Mother had destined for her daughter-in-law. "I, too, had come prepared for this morning," I said.
"Really?" she smiled, for in me nothing astonished her.
"Yes, but it was a preparation made a very long time ago-a long, long time, Savithri. Not a life, not ten lives, but life upon life."
"Yes," she said. "This Cambridge undergraduate, who smokes like a chimney and dances to barbarian jazz, she says unto you, I've known my Lord for a thousand lives, from Janam to Janam have I known my Krishna."
"And the Lord knows himself because Radha is, else he would have gone into penance and sat on Himalaya. The Jamna flows and peacock feathers are on his diadem, because Radha's smiles enchant the creepers and the birds. Radha is the music of dusk, the red earth, the meaning of night. And this, my love, my spouse," I whispered, "is from my home. This is coconut, this is betel nut, this is kumkum and these the toe-rings my Mother wore, and left for my bridal."
Slowly, I anointed her with kumkum from my home, offered her the coconut and the betel nuts-there were eight, round and auspicious ones. "And now I shall place the toe-rings on your feet."
"Never," she said angrily. "You may be a brahmin for all I know. But do you know of a Hindu woman who'd let her Lord touch her feet?"
"What a foolish woman you are!" I said, laughing. "And just by this you show why a Brahmin is necessary to educate you all, kings, queens, peasants and merchants. Don't you know that in marriage both the spouse and the espoused become anointed unto godhead? That explains why in Hindu marriages the married couple can only fall at the feet of the Guru and the Guru alone-for the Guru is higher than any god. Thus, I can now place them on your feet."
So much theology disturbed and convinced her, and she let me push the toe-rings on to her second toes, one on the left and the other on the right. The little bells on them whisked and sang: I was happy to have touched Savithri's feet.
The toe-ring were the precise size for her. Little Mother was right: for Madeleine they would have been too big.
Savithri sat on my bed, and the sun who had made himself such an auspicious presence fell upon her clear Rajput face as she sang Mira.
Sadhu matha ja.Sadhu matha ja.
O cenobite, O cenobite, do not go.
Make a pyre for me, and when I burn,
Put the ashes on your brow,
O cenobite, do not go.
We were at Victoria by nine o'clock. We were so happy and so sad altogether, as though no one could take us away from each other and nobody marry us again. We were not married that morning, we discovered, we had ever been married-else how understand that silent, whole knowledge of one another?
"My love, my love," she repeated, as though it were a mantra, "my love, and my Lord."
"And when will Italy be, and the bridge on the Arno, and the bambino?" I asked.
She put her head out of the window of the train, and for the first time I noticed the collyrium that tears had spread over her cheeks and face.
"I promise you one thing," she said.
"And what, Princess, may that be?" I replied, laughing.
"Parvathi says she will come to Shiva, when Shiva is so lost in meditation that were he to open his eyes the three worlds would burn."
"Meaning?" I was so frightened that my voice went awry and hollow.
"I'll come when you don't need me, when you can live without me, O cenobite." I knew the absolute meaning of it, the exactitude, for Savithri could never whisper, never utter but the whole of the truth, even in a joke. But it was always like a sacred text, a cryptogram, with different meanings at different hierarchies of awareness.
"I understand and accept," I answered, with a clear and definite navel-deep voice. I can hear myself saying that to this day.
"Italy is," she continued, relentless, "when Shivoham, Shivoham is true."
"Meanwhile I go back to Allahabad and become Mrs Pratap Singh."
"And run the household of the new Governor," I added, to hide my acknowledgment and pain. For by now Pratap had become Personal Secretary to His Excellency the Governor of some Indian Province. "Palace or Government House, they're equal and opposite," I laughed.
"And what will the learned historian do?" she asked.
"Finish the history of the Cathars, and well-wed and twice-wed, become Professor of Medieval European History at some Indian University. India is large and very diverse," I pleaded.
"I shall always be a good pupil," she joked. The train whistled, and took her away.
I took a taxi, went back to the Stag-or the Bunch of Grapes, for I do not remember exactly-and stood a drink to some bearded painter who talked abstract art and had a beautiful face. Holy is a pub when one is holy oneself.
Alas till now I did not know My guide and Fate's guide are one. - Hafiz
It was a serpent, such as one sees only at a fair, long and many-colored and swift in riposte when the juggler stops his music. But it had a secret of its own, which none knew except Moti Khan who brought him to the Fatehpur Sunday fair. The secret was: his fangs would lie without venom till the day Moti Khan should see the vision of the large white rupee, with the Qutub Minar on the one side and the face of the Emperor on the other. That day the fang would eat into his flesh and Moti Khan would only be a corpse of a man. Unless he find God.
For to tell you the truth, Moti Khan had caught him in the strangest of strange circumstances. He was, one day, going through the sitaphul wood of Rampur on a visit to his sister, and the day being hot and the sands all scorching and shiny, he lay down under a wild fig-tree, his turban on his face and his legs stretched across a stone. Sleep came like a swift descent of dusk, and after rapid visions of palms and hills and the dizzying sunshine, he saw a curious thing. A serpent came in the form of a man, opened its mouth, and through the most queer twistings of his face, declared he was Pandit Srinath Sastri of Totepur, who, having lived at the foot of the Goddess Lakshamma for a generation or more, one day in the ecstasy of his vision he saw her, the benign Goddess straight and supple, offering him two boons. He thought of his falling house and his mortgaged ancestral lands and said, without a thought: "A bagful of gold and liberation from the cycle of birth and death."
"And gold you shall have," said the Goddess, "but for your greed, you shall be born a serpent in your next life before reaching liberation. For gold and wisdom go in life like soap and oil. Go and be born a juggler's serpent. And when you have made the hearts of many men glad with the ripple and swing of your shining flesh, and you have gone like a bird amidst shrieking children, only to swing round their legs and to swing out to the amusement of them all, when you have climbed old men's shoulders and hung down them chattering like a squirrel, when you have thrust your hood at the virgin and circled round the marrying couples; when you have gone through the dreams of pregnant women and led the seekers to the top of the Mount of Holy Beacon, then your sins will be worn out like the quern with man's grindings and your flesh will catch fire, like the will-o'-the-wisp and disappear into the world of darkness, where men await the birth to come. The juggler will be a basket-maker and Moti Khan is his name. In a former life he sought God, but in this, he sits on the lap of a concubine. Wending his way to his sister's for the birth of her son, he will sleep in the sitaphul woods. Speak to him. And he will be the vehicle of your salvation." Thus spoke the Goddess.
"Now, what do you say to that, Moti Khan?"
"Yes, I've been a sinner. But never thought I, God and Satan would become one. Who are you?"
"The very same serpent."
"Your race has caused the fall of Adam."
"I sat at the feet of Sri Lakshamma and fell into ecstasy. I am a Brahmin."
"You are strange."
"Take me or I'll haunt you for this life and all lives to come."
"Go, Satan!" shouted Moti Khan, and rising swift as a sword he started for his sister's house. He said to himself: "I will think of my sister and her child. I will think only of them." But leaves rustled and serpents came forth from the left and the right, blue ones, white ones, red ones, copper-colored ones, long ones with short tails and short ones with bent tails, serpents dropped from treetops and rock-edges, serpents hissed on the river sands. Then Moti Khan stood by the Rampur stream and said: "Wretch! Stop it. Come, I'll take you with me." Then the serpents and the hissing, both disappeared and hardly home, he took a basket and put it in a corner. Then he slept. When he woke, a serpent had curled itself in the basket. Moti Khan had a pungi made by the local carpenter, and putting his mouth to it, he made the serpent dance. All the village and the animals gathered round him, for the music of Moti Khan was blue, and the serpent danced on his tail.
When he said good-bye to his sister, he did not take the road to his concubine but went straight northwards, for Allah called him there. And at every village men came to offer food to Moti Khan and women came to offer milk to the serpent, for it swung round children's legs and swung out, and cured them of all scars, poxes and fevers. Old men slept better after its touch. Women conceived on the very night they offered milk to it. Plague went and plenty came, but Moti Khan would not smell silver. That would be death.
Now sometimes, at night in caravan-serais, they had wrangles. Moti Khan used to say: "You are not even a woman to put under oneself."
"So many women come to see you. So many men come to honor you. Only a king could have had such a reception, though you're only a basket-maker."
"Only a basket-maker! But I had a queen of a woman. When she sang her voice was all flesh and her flesh was all song. And she chewed betel-leaves and her lips were red, and even kings..."
"Stop that. Between this and the vision of the rupee."
Moti Khan pulled at his beard and, fire in his eyes, he broke his knuckles against the earth.
"If only I could see a woman!"
"If you want God, forget women, Moti Khan."
"But I never asked for God. It is you, who bore me with God. I said I loved a woman. You are only a fanged beast. And here I am in the prime of life with a reptile to live with."
But suddenly temple bells rang, and the muezzin was heard to cry Allah-o-Akbar. No doubt it was all the serpent's work. Trembling, Moti Khan fell on his knees to pray.
From that day on, the serpent had one eye turned to the right and one to the left, when it danced. It looked at the men and then at the women. Suddenly it used to hiss up and slap Moti Khan's cheeks with the back of its head, for his music had fallen false and he was eyeing women. Round were their hips, he would think, and the eyelashes are black and blue, and the breasts are pointed like young mangoes, and their limbs so tremble and flow that he could sweetly melt into them.
One day, however, there was at the market a dark blue woman, with red lips, young and sprightly; and she was a butter woman. She came and stood by Moti Khan as he made the serpent dance. He played and he played on his bamboo pungi and music swung here and splashed there, and suddenly he looked at her and her eyes and her breasts and the nagaswara went and became moha-swara, and she felt it and he felt she felt it; and when night came, he thought and thought so much of her and she thought and thought so much of him, that he slipped to the serai door and she came to the serai gate, flower in her hair and perfume on her limbs, but lo! like the sword of God came a long, rippling light, circled round them, pinched at her nipples and flew back into the bewildering night. She cried out, and the whole town waked, and Moti Khan thrust the basket under his arm and walked northwards, for Allah called him thither.
"Now," said Moti Khan, "I have to find God. Else this creature will kill me. And the Devil knows the hell I'd have to bake in." So he decided that, at the next saint's tomb he encountered, he would sit down and meditate. But he wandered and he wandered; from one village he went to another, from one fair he went to another, but he found no dargah to meditate by. For God always called him northwards and northwards, and he crossed the jungles and he went up the mountains, and he came upon narrow valleys, where birds screeched here and deer frisked there, but no man's voice was to be heard, and he said: "Now let me turn back home;" but he looked back and he was afraid. And he said: "Now I have to go to the North, for Allah calls me there."
And he climbed mountains again, and ran through jungles, and then came broad plains, and he went to the fairs and made the snake dance, and people left their rice shops and cotton-ware shops and the bellowing cattle and the yoked threshers and the querns and the kilns, and came to hear him play the music and to see the snake dance. They gave him food, fruit and cloth, but when they said: "Here's a coin," he said: "Nay." And the snake was right glad of it, for he hated to kill Moti Khan till he had found God, and he himself hated to die. Now, when Moti Khan had crossed the Narbada and the Pervan and the Bhagirath, he came to the Jumna, and through long Agra he passed making the snake dance, and yet he could not find God and he was sore in soul with it. And the serpent was bothersome.
But at Fatehpur Sikri, he said: "Here is Sheikh Chisti's tomb and I would rather starve and die than go one thumb-length more." He sat by Sheikh Chisti's tomb and he said: "Sheikh Chisti, what is this Fate has sent me? This serpent is a very wicked thing. He just hisses and spits fire at every wink and waver. He says, Find God. Now, tell me, Sheikh Chisti, how can I find Him? Till I find Him I will not leave this spot."
But even as he prayed he saw snakes sprout through his head, fountains splashed and snakes fell gently to the sides like the waters by the Taj, and through them came women, soft women, dancing women, round hips, betel-chewed lips, round breasts-shy some were, while some were only minxes-and they came from the right and went to the left, and they pulled at his beard-and, suddenly, white serpents burst through the earth and enveloped them all, but Moti Khan would not move. He said: "Sheikh Chisti, I am in a strange world. But there is a darker world I see behind, and beyond that dark, dark world, I see a brighter world, and there, there must be Allah."
For twenty nine days he knelt there, his hands pressed against his ears, his face turned towards Sheikh Chisti's tomb. And people came and said: "Wake up, old man, wake up;" but he would not answer. And when they found the snake lying on the tomb of Sheikh Chisti they cried: "This is a strange thing." And they took to their heels; while others came and brought mullahs and maulvis but Moti Khan would not answer. For, to speak the truth, he was crossing through the dark waters, where one strains and splashes, and where the sky is all cold, and the stars all dead, and till man come to the other shore, there shall be neither peace nor God.
On the twenty ninth night Sheikh Chisti woke from his tomb and came, his skullcap and all, and he said: "My son, what may I give you?"
"Peace from this serpent—and God."
"My son, God is not to be seen. He is everywhere."
"Eyes to see God, for I cannot any more go northwards."
"Eyes to discern God you shall have."
"Then peace from this serpent."
"Faithful shall he be, companion of the God-seeker."
"Peace to all men and women," said Moti Khan.
"Peace to all mankind. Further, Moti Khan, I have something to tell you; as dawn breaks Maulvi Mohammed Khan will come to offer you his daughter, fair as an oleander. She has been waiting for you and she will wed you. My blessings on you, my son!"
"Allah is found! Victory to Allah!" cried Moti Khan. The serpent flung round him, slipped between his feet and curled round his neck and danced on his head, for, when Moti Khan found God, his sins would be worn out like the quern-stone with the grindings of man, and there would be peace in all mankind.
Moti Khan married the devout daughter of Maulvi Mohammed Khan and he loved her well, and he settled down in Fatehpur Sikri and became the guardian of Sheikh Chisti's tomb. The serpent lived with him, and now and again he was taken to the fair to play for the children.
One day, however, Moti Khan's wife died and was buried in a tomb of black marble. Eleven months later Moti Khan died and he was given a white marble tomb, and a dome of the same stone, for both. Three days after that the serpent died too, and they buried him in the earth beside the dargah, and gave him a nice clay tomb. A pipal sprang up on it, and a passing Brahmin planted a neem-tree by the pipal, and some merchant in the village gave money to build a platform round them. The pipal rose to the skies and covered the dome with dark, cool shade, and Brahmins planted snake-stones under it, and bells rang and camphors were lit, and married couples went round the platform in circumambulation. When the serpent was offered the camphor, Moti Khan had the incense. And when illness comes to the town, with music and flags and torches do we go, and we fall in front of the pipal-platform and we fall prostrate before the dargah, and right through the night a wind rises and blows away the foul humors of the village. And when children cry, you say: "Moti Khan will cure you, my treasure," and they are cured. Emperors and kings have come and gone but never have they destroyed our village. For man and serpent are friends, and Moti Khan found God.
Between Agra and Fatehpur Sikri you may still find the little tomb and the pipal. Boys have written their names on the walls and dust and leaves cover the gold and blue of the pall. But someone has dug a well by the side, and if thirst takes you on the road, you can take a drink and rest under the pipal, and think deeply of God.
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