By Life Positive July 1999 Arguably, Raja Rao is the most brilliant master of Indo-Anglian writing. Inarguably, he is the only true philosopher-novelist of Indian English. Although settled in France, Rao, born in 1908 in Karnataka, never ceased to be an Indian in sensibility. His desire for spirituality made him visit India frequently and led to his meeting various masters, notably Ramana Maharshi, Mahatma Gandhi and Atmananda Guru. 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.' 'And you?' '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 whom?' '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 w
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