The Tribune - Spectrum

, April 14, 2002

About chessmaster’s moves
R.P. Chadda

The Chessmaster and His Moves
by Raja Rao-Vision Books
PP 735 Rs 395

The Chessmaster and His MovesRAJA Rao’s The Chessmaster and His Moves first appeared in the year 1988 and in the same year it was awarded the Neustadt International Prize for Literature. The book under review is a reprint and it informs us that RR at the ripe age of 90-plus is revising the next two volumes of The Chessmaster trilogy. This book itself contains three books spread over 700 odd pages.

RR started on his literary journey in the 1930s at the age of 28. Over the years he has produced quality work, though his output or oeuvre can by no means be called prolific. The first novel Kanthapura was published in 1938 — a realistic account of the Gandhian freedom struggle in the 30s and its impact on the masses of India. The second, The Serpent and the Rope came out in 1960 — a philosophical novel abut the confrontation of cultures of the East and the West. RR got the Sahitya Akademi Award on this novel. In between, two short novels and then came The Chessmaster in 1988 and the last major work — The Great Indian Way — A Life of Mahatma Gandhi in 1998. He has also published a number of short stories and essays titled Meaning of India (1996). After living in France for a number of years, RR moved to the US where he taught at the University of Ausin, Texas.


The old trinity of Indian English writers of fiction — Raja Rao, R.K. Narayan and Mulk Raj Anand have dominated the Indian English scene for over 50 years now. They represent three different facets of India through their writings. RR constantly discusses the nationalist struggle and its revolutionary implications in terms of Hindu mythology, religion, culture and its metaphysics. The meditative quality in RR’s writings unfolds itself in his deeper concerns for man’s spiritual existence on earth and sets his characters on a metaphysical quest for the Absolute.

From The Serpent and the Rope, through The Cat and Shakespeare and to The Chessmaster — which is also about man’s pilgrimage to seek deliverance from the self (into the Self) — RR’s quest for the metaphysical continues. Put together, these three novels embody the qunitessence of RR’s genius and philosophy of life. In the novel under review, the author reveals his deep interest in Indian metaphysics. His earnest desire to know the reality discloses that he has an ontological awareness. ‘I have abandoned literature for good and gone over the metaphysics’ is a remark which is often touted for his interest in quest for truth. In all his novels, RR has captured the cadences of the subcontinent. In this novel he ventures beyond and has included Europeans, Africans and Jewish characters besides the Indians, in his cast of characters. — confined to just nine main characters.

For once, he explores a seemingly tragic love affair between an Indian mathematician, Sicarama Sastri living in Paris and a married woman, a Rajput princess Jayalaksmi married to Raja Surender Singh. Such relationships bring sorrow and despair in its train and the next best course is to turn inwards to search for answers and meanings. This very search transforms the book into metaphysical exploration.

The novel depicts Siva’s quest for truth as well as his interest in Buddhist, vedantic, tantric ontologies. In this dramatic presentation Siva is haunted by the echoes of love and the anecdotal approach reveals the flashback technique — much popular in the times when RR set out to set this love-tale in the 60 of the twentieth century, the Nehru-De Gaulle era, published it in 1988 and reviewed again as a reprint in 2002. A span of 40 years have elapsed in-between and so many mind-boggling things have happened in the world. Sastri’s love for the French actress Suzanne or her compatriot Mireille serves to underline the differences of approach between East and West. They seek happiness in the world itself while Sastri looks for freedom from the world itself. The novel portrays the frustration and non-fulfilment of love between Siva and Jaya and also ontological deliberations on love, God, time, truth, death and a host of other things.

The symbolic meaning of the title, to my mind, is that for RR, the Chessmaster is an emblem of the creator, Brahma and the game of Chess (with its Indian origins) is presented for the work in the world and the Moves stand for Divine play. Whatever we may call it, Sivarama who speaks and describes himself and others, of course, from his experience and his angle is the Chessmaster and his Moves, for the narrative implies his growth.

Unless you grow you cannot give. And growth needs search. And search fearlessness. And all search is inward — the outer leads one to repetition. (P. 110)

Jaya, Suzanne and Mireille, the three women who cross Siva’s path contribute powerfully and comprehensively to his growth. -emotional, intellectual, his metaphysics and his perception and understanding of others. That growth deepens into one vital direction through his friendship with Michael, taking him into areas beyond the personal, the sensual, the mathematical and towards the true universality of the Absolute. The dialogue with Michael, the Rabbi, revolves around certain major themes invoked by RR’s terms — dual, non-dual, dissolution, zero, truth, God and introduces the most important theme in The Chessmaster.

"Michel, the real dialogue in the the world is not between the East and the West, but between you and me, between the brahmin and the rabbi." Michel closed his eyes... and slowly opening them again, remarked you are probably right." (P226)

This dialogue is an exploration of reasons for The Holocaust (the killing of millions of Jews by the Nazis in 1930 s and 1940s) and an attempt to expiate it.

Raja Rao’s scholarship, range and reach, his knowledge of French and Sanskrit, his compendium knowledge of Indian legends, myth, history, religion from a native living abroad for the past many decades — is inexplicable. One thing I can say with authority that this novel is not for those who are mediocre in their intellectual ability and totally lacking in enthusiasm and idealism about things Indian. Every re-reading of the novel reveals a few hidden truths, new beauties, new insights and presents the world to all in a new light. The Chessmaster, presents a vision of Indian civilisation from its radiant origins in mythology to Gandhi-Nehru’s new India of the 60s and thereafter.

It is not for nothing that The Chessmaster have earned paeans of praise from the literati all over the world. All fiction of RR takes you back to the India of yore and keeps you engaged for quite a larger while and you are forced to remember India that was Bharat not very long ago.