Winner of the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1964, The Serpent and the Rope is undoubtedly the magnum opus of Raja Rao. Regarded as one of the greatest figures in Indian English literature, along with R K Narayan and M R Anand, Raja Rao has explored the indefinite path of Indian philosophy, spirituality and Hindu Darshan in this novel. Many critics believe, and it apparently appears to be the case, the author has based the storyline of this novel on the philosophy asserted by Adi Shankara – non-duality. And hence, the title of the novel becomes symbolic – The Serpent and the Rope. Also, it is a fact well-known that this novel draws its inspiration from the real events in the life of the author. It is semi-autobiographical in nature.
The story of the novel unveils itself as a profound and introspective exploration that delves into the intricacies of identity, spirituality, and the ceaseless pursuit of significance (of oneself and the world). Nestled within the temporal confines of post-independence India, the narrative envelops the life of its protagonist, Ramaswamy (referred to as Rama), a pensive young soul ensnared in the delicate web spun by his Western education and the resolute tether to his ancestral Indian heritage. And this very nature of Rama’s personality leads him into a cobweb of existential crisis as he cannot fathom which reality he desires – the reality that he sees or the reality that has completely ignored. Amidst the vast tapestry of existence, Rama’s path meanders through the ethereal realms of love, matrimonial commitments, and intellectual quests, where the enigma of dualism ensnares him in its captivating tendrils, compelling him to question the very essence of reality and his intricate position within the cosmic abyss that seems dark, infinite and frightening, at times. Rama is married to a French woman he loves, Madeleine. However, in the course of life, he meets Savithri, an Indian woman whom he falls in love with, almost naturally. However, Savithri is about to be married to a guy she does not love. She eventually married that guy and turns to the Buddhist path renouncing everything. On the other hand, Rama divorces Madeleine (suffering the deaths of two of their children) and embarks on a journey seeking a Guru who could lead him on his path. Imbued with ethereal verse and profound philosophical introspection, Rao’s masterful plot weaves an enchanting chronicle that plumbs the depths of the human psyche. Thus, it illuminates the perennial battle waged between the antithetical forces of tradition and modernity, while simultaneously unveiling the arduous pilgrimage towards self-discovery in a world marked by incessant metamorphosis and relentless flux.
Raja Rao’s writing style in The Serpent and the Rope unveils his literary adroitness in full scale, with poetic language flowing seamlessly through its pages. Each sentence draws the attention of readers, adorned with vivid metaphors and symbolic imagery that grace the narrative with an ethereal beauty, enticing readers to get into further depths and explore the essence of existence and nature of reality with Ramaswamy. Moreover, Raja Rao’s profound grasp of philosophy and his deep studies of Hindu texts emerge as he deftly weaves philosophical musings into the very fabric of the novel. His characters, engaged in astute introspection and enmeshed in philosophical dialogues, embark on a contemplative odyssey that probes existential quandaries about the nature of reality, the enigmatic self, and the unending pursuit of knowledge. These philosophical digressions impart intellectual richness to the narrative, urging readers to transcend the confines of conventional thought and embrace the profound. However, this very quality of the novel might be the reason that The Serpent and the Rope remained at a safe distance from the common readers. These philosophical musings and a poetic flow of language keep the narrative at a certain level of loftiness compared to other works published in the same period. Even though loaded with philosophical and existential probes to an extent, The Guide by R K Narayan does not involve rhythmic and poetic language like Rao’s novel. Perhaps, that remained a reason for Rao’s magnum opus not reaching its full potential in terms of a wide readership.
While we look for the achievements that Raja Rao touched on with his unmatched writing in this novel, we have, at least, another one to mention. Rao’s writing style further serves as a testament to his serious exploration of the paradoxical clash between tradition and modernity. To be precise, Rao successfully explores the ‘confinements’ of Hinduism, as many would claim, and how effective it is in terms of being satisfied with life and its limits compared to what the West has to offer. Meticulously entwining threads of Indian culture and Western influences, he portrays the protagonist’s internal struggle to reconcile these opposing forces. The narrative resonates with the intricate interplay of Eastern and Western ideologies, offering a nuanced perspective on cultural dissonance and the formidable trials of navigating an ever-evolving world. Ramaswamy offers a patchy portrayal of Raja Rao himself, with his explorations and conundrums in the West.
The Serpent and the Rope, unlike other novels by Rao where we find a simple story extending its dimensions and mingling with the ambitions of people around the Indian independence, offers a complex storyline that involves philosophical and psychological explorations. And therefore, I cannot say it will support everyone’s urge of reading novels by the Indian legendary trio of Anand, Rao and Narayan. This title is something else… something beyond the grasp of casual readers who want to entertain themselves with a one-day encounter with straightforward literature. Be warned; if you are looking to lose yourself in the search for meaning and also the palpable interpretations of events and symbols that keep changing with time, pick up the masterpiece work of literature by Raja Rao and it won’t disappoint you. However, if you want to understand Rao’s writing style and begin with something less intense, I would suggest reading Kanthapura first.
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Review by Manish for Active Reader
The Serpent and the Rope by Raja Rao – Book Review
- Active Reader's Literary Rating
Not meant for beginners… the narrative is complex, and in its complexity lies the profundity that may keep a reader perplexed about the meanings of life, existence and the very nature of reality. Raja Rao’s magnum opus, a literary masterpiece by an Indian English novelist, is unmissable for those who take pleasure in reading quality literature by the Indian English novelists.