India: A Fable by Raja Rao, 1978

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by Raja Rao, 1978

Raja Rao's acknowledged reputation as a major Indian novelist in English has perhaps obscured the importance of his work in short fiction, though he has written some of the finest short stories to come from modern India. Remarkable as his early stories are for their strong social and political awareness, it is in the later stories that we find his characteristic worldview expressed more substantially. "India: A Fable" is a typical example of this.

"India: A Fable" is a meaningful parable treating the cognate themes of the discrimination between illusion and reality and the radical contrast between India and the West. The narrative element in the story is slight, but every single detail is telling and reverberates with symbolic significance. The Indian narrator, dressed in a long coat with gold buttons, visits Luxembourg Park on a spring day and sits under the statue of Queen Anne of Austria. There he meets Pierrot, a small French boy accompanied by his young nanny, who is escorted by her lover. Pierrot has lost his mother, and his father is an army officer in Morocco. He plays with his wooden toy camel, around which he has constructed a whole world of romantic fantasy: the animal is a wedding present from Rudolfe, "Prince of the Oasis," to Princess Katherine. Taking the Indian to be a prince, Pierrot asks him about India, and the narrator's tale contrasts the French boy's world of fantasy and the essential India: the desert of the former with the teeming forests of India, the oases with the Ganges, and the camel with the Indian elephant. In place of Princess Katherine the Indian prince has two goddesses, on his left and right, respectively, who are riding elephants, and they are to be married, one by the light of the sun and the other in moonlight. Showing enthusiasm at this description, Pierrot discards his own world of fantasy, throws his toy camel into the garden pool, and imagines himself riding an elephant at the wedding of the Indian "prince." When the boy and the narrator meet again several days later, Pierrot has a new, middle-aged nanny, and he, too, seems to have grown. He wears a new suit with gold buttons and declares, "I know now, I am a Maharaja. I ride the elephant. The wedding is over."

The epigraph to this strange narrative suggests its central theme, which is from the ancient Indian philosopher Sankarāchārya: "Non-duality alone is auspicious." The realization that this world is an illusion, that the individual soul is identical with the divine soul, alone leads to the fulfillment of the spiritual quest for salvation. The title "India: A Fable" indicates how this quest has actually been achieved in India.

The setting itself is symbolic, for the garden, with its traditional divine associations, is the right place for the spiritual education of the protagonist. The season is spring, the archetypal time for rebirth. The difference in the ages of the French boy and the middle-aged Indian indicates the spiritual maturity of India, as opposed to Western immaturity. Pierrot himself is contrasted with his other countrymen in the park, none of whom has his imagination: the old men read newspapers; the old women gossip; the youths sleep; and the serious-minded Sorbonard girls read D'Alembet, the scientist, and Henri Becque, the social satirist.

The narrow vision of the Sorbonard girls is only one aspect of the limitations of Western womanhood. Another is seen in Queen Anne of Austria, a symbol of an unhappy wife. Since wedding, the union between the individual soul and the oversoul, is a key symbol here, the fact that Pierrot's father lost his wife early is significant. The father, a colonel in Morocco, is the image of the Westerner as conqueror and colonizer, around whose romantic notions of the Orient Pierrot's world of fantasy is built. The arid desert of this world is pitted against the spiritually fertile Ganges region of India, the camel of the desert being replaced by the elephant, which has divine associations in Hinduism and Buddhism.

The suggestion behind the boy's replacement of Prince Rudolfe with the Indian narrator is clear. The Indian is obviously a plebian, although his gold buttons are more real than Rudolfe's "horse of gold," and the symbolic "wedding" can be achieved in India even by a plebian. The two goddesses who replace Princess Katherine are reminiscent of the two consorts of the god Ganesha or of the two wives of the purusha, the divine as the male principle. Pierrot's throwing of the camel into the pool and his own fall into it suggest his discarding of his world of romantic illusion after his enlightenment by the Indian, as well as his own baptism into a new life of spiritual awareness. When the two meet again, Pierrot has therefore grown, and his middle-age nanny is a symbol of his new maturity. (The wedding motif is again suggested by the fact that the previous young nanny has perhaps married.) Pierrot's final comment reveals how his education from illusion to reality is now complete. Earlier, he was only a witness to a fantasy wedding in a nonreal desert. Now, he himself is a maharaja, and he rides the elephant—"The wedding is over." Its effective symbolic statement of Hindu philosophical thought makes "India: A Fable" one of the finest short stories to come from India.

—M. K. Naik