Life's odd interludes

As I read Raja Rao's writings, I was also to learn about the depth of his life experiences.

Strange coincidences occur in our lives every now and then, making us wonder about the mystery and unfathomableness of existence. We are compelled to accept the possibility of the impossible at such times.

In July 1963, on the eve of my leaving the campus in Philadelphia, I saw a notice in the English Department announcing that Indian English writer Raja Rao would be visiting to meet the faculty and the students. I had not heard of Raja Rao until then. One of his novels, the magnum opus The Serpent and the Rope, had been published just a few months before and the publishers were taking him around on a book-promotional tour.

Raja Rao made an exceptionally impressive figure that morning amid the assembled group of Westerners. Dressed in white pants and a long, black, Indian-style coat, his flowing hair combed back from his forehead, eyes prominent with an inward look, he was sparingly built and stunned everyone with his quiet presence. He said just a few words in his soft-spoken voice on how he did not want his name to be printed as the author of the book on the cover. He felt that a creative work should stand on its own without the individual ego of the writer being imposed on it. The publishers, however, would have none of it!

Personally, I was happy to see him that morning as I could break into Kannada after months of speaking in English! Even in those very few first moments of meeting him, I was struck by the uncommon simplicity of his manner.

Later, as I read his writings, I was also to learn about the extraordinary depth of his life experiences. I was then able to understand the importance of Raja Rao as an Indian English novelist. As he had spent most of his creative years in the Western world, his own country was slow — or reluctant — to recognise his achievement. But the publication of The Serpent... changed the reader’s perception about the novelist.

A few weeks after my return to India, I had to make a trip to the Madras Port Trust to collect my baggage which I had despatched by sea-freight. When some of the packages were being opened for inspection at the Customs’ counter, I saw one of the officials looking curiously at the books that formed a major part of the packages. When he learnt on enquiry that my subject was English Literature, he asked me if I knew about the writer Raja Rao.

Taken by surprise at the sudden, uncanny query, I exclaimed, “Yes! I just met him a few weeks ago and also saw the copy of his latest novel, The Serpent and the Rope!” The gentleman’s quiet rejoinder to this almost knocked me out, “I am his brother!” he said smiling. I stood speechless. What could I say? I thankfully collected my packages and left the Customs office.

Later, when I spoke of this experience to one of my colleagues, she said, “If you had narrated this in a short story, I would not have believed it!” Yes, indeed, life is stranger than fiction. Meanwhile, I have often wondered in what way the gentleman claimed to be Raja Rao’s brother? Whether his claim was true or not, the fact that I should have met the two “brothers” under such different circumstances during my meaningfully connected journey has left me mystified to this day.

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