The Serpent and the Rope by Raja Rao — Story analysis
Reading and enjoying The Serpent and the Rope will be an incomplete effort unless the reader gets to know about the fascinating life of Raja Rao, the author. The footprints of his eventful life that straddles the East and the West are clearly visible in this absorbing novel. Rao had a long journey in life that started in the obscure south Indian town, (then a village) Hassan in the state of Karnataka. His education started in a Madrasha –the orthodox Muslim school where the curriculum is centered around the Holy Quran. Rao majored in English and History from the University of Madras, went to study French literature in Sobborne, Paris. Towards the last stage of his career, he was the Emiritus Professor in Philosophy at the University of Texas in America.
Although a Kannadiga, his cross-cultural journey in life morphed him to be a true internationalist. He had an inward-looking, and a very fecund intellect. These gifts enabled him to assimilate the myriad strands of both Indian and western philosophical thoughts. He was righteous in nature, and a nationalist in outlook. Through his long tumultuous journey in life, he remained anchored to his Indian roots despite his three marriages. His first marriage to Camille Mouly– a French lady with deep philosophical leanings – lasted for 8 years (1931 to 1939). This phase of his life shaped the novel ‘The Serpent and the Rope’.
The book bristles with the torment and confusion of a devout Hindu intellectual Ramaswamy, who earnestly sets out to explore the unknown world of French language and philosophy. He goes to France to do his research on Albigensian heresy. The inquisitive sensuous young man at the prime of his youth meets his wife Madeliene in the University of Caine. Both get lost in intense love, sex, intellectual discussions and a common motive to explore each other’s worlds and roots. It becomes a very rewarding and mutually satisfying marital experience for both. But, the bond ruptures and the marriage seems to head along an irreversible direction towards doom. Divorce is the result, but the fact that intrigues every reader is the great mutual respect the two drifting partners of the marriage have even on the day they sign the divorce papers. There is no anger, no rancor, nor envy. Ramaswamy and Madeliene part ways, never to meet again.
What caused this separation between two persons who had little animosity towards one another?
Raja Rao does not quite explain what brought Ramaswamy and Madeliene together; how and why they moved away leading to the dissolution of the marriage. Madeliene bore him two children who did not survive. The reader is told that Rama was a curious blend of asceticism, intellectual caliber, introspective consciousness, and lust. He had a strange longing for penance and an unshakable conviction about the robust foundations of Indian philosophical traditions.
On the other hand, his French wife was virtuous, morally very upright, devoted to her husband, and most importantly, had an abiding interest in Indology. She was impressed by the Buddhist stress on renunciation, detachment and meditation in solitude. Her interest in the philosophy and practice of the puritanical French sect, Cathars, aroused Ram’s interest in her. She also listened keenly to Rama’s long monologues on Brahminism and the Hindu view of purity of soul. Because of their harmonious relationship, the duo was the ideal husband and wife for people both in France and in India.
But this similarity of tastes and character could not bridge the gulf of difference between them. The subtle difference in the nature of their intellectual journeys inexorably pulled them apart.
The initial days of the marriage were filled with intense sensual pleasures. Raja Rao has described their torrid interludes like this. “She would make a big demand on Rama at times, and leave him to feel afterwards ‘like a summer river—the sun sizzling on the Deccan plateau, and the stones burning; the cattle waiting with their tongues out; and the neem leaves on the tree, still” (p. 163).
Madeleine serves Rama like a devout traditional Hindu wife, caring for his comforts, and well-being. Even after fissures appear in their relationships, the two succeed in not allowing their differences to undermine their mutual love. Rama never undermines her position inside his heart and Madeliene does the same.
Rama does not keep well in France. The harsh winter there affects his health. Madeliene, in a feat of great magnanimity initiates divorce proceedings, so that Rama could disentangle himself from the marriage and return to the warmer climate in India. She even prods Rama to take a young Indian wife and start his married life afresh with no sense of guilt. This concern for a man she is forsaking for good confounds the reader.
Now, let us try to unravel why the marriage collapsed.
There are umpteen complex reasons why the bond ruptured. A lay reader will have to read the novel very carefully to discover them. Many critics have tried to explain the reasons of the divorce, but only a very few have been able to fathom the discordant streaks in the characters of Rama and Madeliene that inflicted fatal cuts on their relationship as husband and wife. In this respect, one would be well-advised to read S. Nagarajan’s analysis of the problems that erupted in their marriage. He attributes the reasons of the parting of ways to the couple’s divergent world views, different epistemologies, non-dualistic and dualistic attitudes. Nagarajan feels Rama’s perception of the role of man and woman in this universe was starkly in variance with that of Madeliene. Rama understood man as the purusa, the Lord of Creation, and woman is the prakrati. Man has the inherent power to create. Woman’s function is to submit herself as prakrati to man as purusa so that he may know that in his true self he is purusa himself. Such assertion of a male’s role was contrary to Madeleine’s. She, however, is a firm believer in the independent, individual entity of the woman. This, Rama believed, lay at the root of Madeliene’s inability to transcend the subject-object relationship of lover and beloved. Rama’s idea of “the hypostasis of a cosmic order” remained an inscrutable cocept for her. ‘Madeliene’s dualism was the spoiler in the marriage,’ Nagarajan argues.
For the ordinary reader, The Serpent and the Rope is replete with numerous possible causes behind the separation. But Raja Rao does not quite describe how these reasons could have culminated in the divorce.
First, the contrasting personalities of Madeliene and Rama created the schism. Rama had lost his mother at an early age and had grown up without motherly affection. (p. 6). Madeleine, too, was an orphan. Her both parents had died when she was a child. Such common misfortune aroused mutual sympathy, but it was not strong enough to hold them together for all times.
Madeleine was passionate about the causes she identified herself with. Rama was conscious of this and assumed that Madeleine really loved him “partly because she felt India had been wronged by the British, and because she would, in marrying [him], know and identify herself with a great people” (p. 18).
A long-lasting marriage between two highly educated and free-thinking persons cannot be sustained when there is such dichotomy of views. The fact that Rama and Madeleine often loved to suffer sorrow needlessly made enduring closeness between the two difficult. Rama, often, spoke about the evolving void in his life, his tiredness of spirit, and his melancholic mood. Such depressing monologues injected a sense of forbidding loneliness to their home in Aix in France.
When one examines the problems caused by the deep cultural divide between the two, one can guess how and why the schism led to estrangement. Rama failed to reconcile himself to Madeleine’s indifference to his Hindu gods. Her summary disapproval of the many superstitions that are intertwined with Hinduism was upsetting for Rama, a devout Hindu. He realized that marrying Madeliene necessitated accepting her beliefs. Rama struggled in this respect, but he tried. On the contrary, Madeliene made no such effort.
With passage of time, Rama’s love for his wife deteriorated to the state of being abstract and impersonal. Rama painfully realized that Madeleine couldn’t lend herself to the sacrifices entailed in this transcendental approach, for she “smelt the things of the earth, as though, sound, form, touch, taste, smell, were such realities that you could not go beyond them—even if you tried” (p. 18).
For Madeleine, celibacy, sadly, became an avowed virtue. She began to shun all physical and sexual contact with her husband. To his great disgust, she began to beseech Rama to take to ‘Brahmacharya’ – a practice of abstinence eulogized in Hinduism. After some time, even a touch of her husband repelled her. She hid her bare body from the gaze of her husband, despite all the loving words of her husband. When Rama discovered her sitting in her room in yogic posture with beads in hands and chanting mantras, Rama wryly smiled and lamented his fate saying, “This was the Madeleine I had made” (p. 314).
Rama, on the other hand, could go to bed with Lakshmi, the wife of a friend of his, without any moral qualms. Similarly, he could revel in the adulation and love showered on him by Savitri. Paradoxically, for him purity was a trait for the mind, not for the body. For his wife Madeliene, the lines between purity and perverseness were not at all blurred.
Another factor that widened the gulf between Madeleine and Rama was the way they perceived India. To her, India meant saris, reverence of the cows, and Buddhism. Rama’s India was far more expansive. It was not as myopic as his wife’s. India was a country proud of its rich tradition and culture of mind-boggling diversity.
The astounding depth and spread of India’s literary and philosophical traditions kept reminding Rama about his motherland. Philosophers like Yagnyavalkya, Maitreyi, Shankara and Madhava, and poets like Kalidasa, Bhrtrehari, Kabir, Tulsidas, and Mira were the brightest minds ever to live on earth. Rama recounted their works with great sense of pride. The river Ganges was the symbol of God’s mercy and compassion. The majestic snowy peaks of the Himalayas were awe-inspiring for Rama. He recalled the countless small and big things that were so typical of India. He loved the sight of Indian women in their traditional costumes and jewellery. He fondly remembered his joint family that was always full of hustle and bustle of life. The many Indian rituals, social chores, and festivals returned to his mind again and again. He loved the jasmine from Coimbatore and champaks from Chamunki; the hallmark attar of Lucknow, and the cuisine of his home state in the South. These special attractions that lifted Rama’s spirits had no such effect on Madeliene. She felt these to be too mundane to be inspiring.
The episode of the toe rings brought to sharp focus her inadequacies for adopting the Indian ethos. The toe rings were a precious possession of Rama’s family, and had been worn and sanctified for generations. Rama’s stepmother, mother, grandmother, and so on, all wore it with pride. After the death of Rama’s father, Rama was given the prized toe ring to be passed on to Madeleine. It was a unique heritage gift that would have symbolized Madeliene’s formal absorption to the family’s lineage.
Rama eagerly carried them to France to gift them to his wife. Curiously, the toe rings remained in his suitcase, and Rama couldn’t bring himself to give it to Madeliene. Ultimately, he lovingly gifted the unclaimed family heritage to Savitri.
Coincidentally, Rama found that they were just the right size for Savitri’s toes. They would have been too large for Madeleine’s toes. This is a small but symbolic portrayal of the widening separation between the Indian husband and his French wife.
In all fairness to Madeleine, it can be said that she earnestly tried to transcend her own cultural orientation, but her success did not match Rama’s expectations. She failed to become an Indian ‘Hindu’ wife in the true sense. On the contrary, Rama learns and masters French language with great elan. His lectures are lapped up by his French audience. But, the kernel inside him remained stoutly Indian – a Brahmin from Hariharapura of Mysore, and a grandson of Kittanna.
Raja Rao, knowingly or unknowingly does not coalesce these differences to build-up a situation ripe for divorce. More confusion is caused by their declarations of everlasting love. They reiterate their mutual love when both are mulling a final separation! The reader is left in a quandary to understand the rationality of such expressions of love. The mutual love persisted even till the divorce proceedings are set in motion.
Raja Rao himself could not decide what brought about the separation of Rama and Madeleine. The inconclusiveness must not in any way, negatively impact on Raja Rao’s skill to create the two characters with such dexterity. He has succeeded to create a difficult real life situation, which defies logic and rationality. No wonder, this novel is so highly rated by critics. Any other mediocre writer would have reduced the plot to a banal East versus West story. Hats off to Raja Rao’s genius.