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Sunday, 20 November 2011





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Self-deception as a literary theme

One has begun to witness, in recent times, the rise of an undeniable interest in novels written in English by Indians and Indian-born writers. The kind of careful and sustained attention that novelists such as Salman Rushdie, Amitav Ghosh, Amit Chaudhuri, Vikram Seth, Arundathi Roy, Rohiton Mistry and Aravind Adiga have attracted is indicative of this trend.

Although the current generation of writers gets widely noticed by literary commentators it is important to bear in mind that an earlier generation of writers such as R.K.Narayan, Raja Rao and G.V. Desani paved the way for this interest.

In this column I wish to focus on two popular novels by Raja Rao and Narayan respectively. (I got to know Raja Rao quite well while I never had the opportunity of meeting Narayan.)

The two novels I have selected for exploration are The Serpent and the Rope and The English Teacher. Let us consider The Serpent and the Rope first. Ramaswamy is an Indian student who has arrived in France to pursue his higher education. There, he meets a lecturer in history called Madeleine. He is attracted to her and a love relationship develops between the two of them.

Eventually, they get married. It was Ramaswamy’s plan to complete his doctorate and return to India with his wife Madeline. This, unfortunately, does not happen. Ramaswamy gets the news that his father is terminally ill and he decides to return India. What this return trip does for him is to generate in him a deeper attachment to India and its cultural heritage and legacies. Transformed by this experience, Ramaswamy goes back to France; he now begins to realize that there are profound incompatibilities and divergences between him and his French wife. Consequently they begin to drift apart .On his return to India he happened to meet Savithri who was then researching in England.

They become lovers. Ramaswamy obtains a divorce from Madeleine. The relationship with Savithri does not conclude in marriage. Ramasway increasingly finds him becoming a recluse who is committed to giving up worldly attachments. Savithri decides to marry someone else. We are made to understand that he is filled with a sense of mystical yearnings and aspirations. Indeed his objective now is to achieve a kind of spiritual enlightenment. This in essence is the story of Raja Rao’s The Serpent and the Rope.

A summary of this novel almost certainly leads to the conclusion that the protagonist of the novel has fallen prey to a kind of self-deception. We are left with the somewhat uneasy feeling that he is straining to convince himself that he has no interest now in worldly attachments and that his goal is far nobler namely to experience a higher reality uncontaminated by worldly desires. It is, of course, possible to argue with good reason that Ramaswamy is seeking to conceal his inadequacies and failures by projecting himself as a person who has moved on to a higher and more sublime plane of reality. In other words, he has become a victim of self-deception.

The second novel that I wish to examine briefly is the English Teacher by R.K.Narayan. The story can be summarized as follows. Krishna is a teacher; he is married and has a daughter. He lives in the school hostel leading a typical austere life of a teacher. His parents repeatedly ask him to leave the hostel and find a house so that he could live with his wife and daughter under one roof. He decided to follow their advice. Three years later, Krishna and his wife Susila look for a new house. In the mean time she catches typhoid and succumbs to it. Understandably, Krishna is devastated by the unexpected turn of events. He now lives with his daughter. As time passes a series of events that took place fortify his belief in the possibility of communicating with the dead through supernatural means.

It is Krishna’s belief that he is able to communicate with his wife through a medium and actually has a vision of her. It can be argued with great plausibility that Krishna is only deceiving himself, or that he is pressing into service a form of self-deception that would allow him to overcome the unpalatable reality.

Both these novels, then, appear to highlight the problem of self-deception and how it can influence us.

However, when we begin to situate the respective experiences in cultural contexts of action, we begin to recognize that there are alternate readings that suggest themselves. Self-deception is interconnected with self-legitimization, self-justification, self-doubt, self-knowledge, self-image and a variety of related discourses. Indeed, these discourses are closely interwoven with the fabric of culture. What this suggests is that a de-contextualized and mentalistic summary of the narrative of the novels does not allow us to understand the culturally embedded meanings that are so vital to the significance of the experiences.

Moreover, it can be fairly said that many of our current explorations into the phenomenon of self-deception are excessively and disproportionately interpersonal. It is obvious that the issues pertaining to cultural dimensions of self-deception invite closer attention. We need to constantly bear in mind the fact that the complex and convoluted ways in which people seek to make sense of their behavior and construct meaning-systems and strategies of interpretation are anchored to the terrain of culture.

Consequently, any investigation into the phenomenon of self-deception must perforce take into consideration the determining power of the cultural discourse with which it is crucially linked. With this imperative before us, let us examine the two novels more carefully.

Cultural dimension

Before I do that I wish to comment briefly on the idea of self-deception and why it figures so prominently in philosophical discussions. The philosopher Raphael Demos in a seminal essay titled ‘On Lying to Oneself’ describes self-deception in the following way. ‘Self-deception exists, I will say, when a person lies to himself, that is to say, persuade himself to believe what he knows is not so..In short, self-deception entails that B believes both P and not-P at the same time.’

It is evident that Demos id here focusing on one important dimension of self-deception. The disagreements over the phenomenon of self-deception are many and varied and they enter into discussions of topics such as consciousness, intentionality, rationality, belief and so on all of which are of great significance to philosophers. In today’s column I wish to focus on the cultural dimensions of self-deception which are often ignored or under-emphasized by philosophers.

Some years ago Prof. Roger Ames and I wrote a book titled ‘Self and Deception: A Cross-Cultural Philosophical Enquiry’ (published by Sate University of New York Press) which addresses some of these tangled issues. Let us consider the two Indian novels that I referred earlier to as a way of gaining entry into this problematic.

The protagonist of The Serpent and the Rope is a Brahmin – he grew up in a Brahmin households and absorbed the Brahmanic cultural values. It is patent that his attitude to society and human interactions was colored by this cultural context. The opening passage of the novel calls attention to this important aspect of his subjectivity.

I was born a Brahmin – that is, devoted to truth and all that. Brahman is he who knows Brahman and all that etc. etc….but how many of my ancestors since the excellent Yajnyavalkya, my legendary and Upanishadic ancestor, have really known the truth accepting the sage Madhava, who founded an empire, or, rather helped to build an empire, and wrote some of the most profound of Vedic texts since Sri Sankara. There were others, so I am told, who left the hearth and riverside fields, and wandered to mountains distant and hermitages to see God face to face….’


This opening passage, with his religiously motivated tropes and tone establish very clearly the way being a Brahmin is pivotal to his self-constitution, self-image and self-understanding. The novelist is also forcing an old idea to glow with newer luster.

Brahmins have a justifiable reputation for their deep interest in learning; they, in many ways, represent the vitality of classical Indian culture along with its concomitant exclusivity. When Ramaswamy arrives in France, his Brahmanic roots are activated and he is attracted by the centuries-old high culture and cultural dynamism of the land. In his eyes, Madeleine comes to symbolize these virtues. Ramaswamy is entranced by her beauty, elegance independence and quickness of mind. However, when he is called back to India to be at the bedside of his dying father, he feels a newer sense of cultural belonging; he feels that he is connecting to the glories of the Indian past in a fundamental way. The topography, the natural beauty, the myths and legends of India rise up in his imagination with a renewed vigor. He embraces his Indianness as never before. Transformed by this cultural rebirth, he returns to France only to realize that he and Madeleine are steadily drifting apart and that their incompatibilities are assumimg threatening proportions.

Similarly we can understand better his relationship with Savithri if we keep in mind the fact that his outlook is incontrovertibly shaped by his Brahmin outlook. She is a student studying for her degree at Cambridge, and is attracted by his intellect and sharpness of mind. He says that in her presence, he is capable of realizing the essence of femininity, the non-dual status as that of Shiva and Shakti, or Radha and Krishna. This is indeed a condition of mind that he could never achieve with Madelaine. What we observe here is that the narrative strategies that produce Savthri grow out of Hindu religious inter-textualities.

As the story unfolds we begin to notice how Savithri becomes for him a means of realizing a state in which the ego is extinguished and the dualities that mark life sublated. The discursive production of Savithri is connected to the religious and semiotic space occupied by Advaita Vedanta (Interestingly, the two tropes referenced in the title – serpent and the rope- come out of Hindu philosophy).


When we examine more deeply the failed marriage to Madelaine and his emotional attachment to Savithri, we see the importance of locating them in a wider cultural discourse. What we perceive to be inadequacies and failures on the part of Ramaswamy are covered up, and transformed, through the powers of self-deception into religious experiences and modes of feeling. Indeed, he is a seeker after more sublime truths, and all his activities are but reflections of his questing religious voyage.

Many literary critics who have commented on this novel have chosen to emphasize this aspect of it. Kathleen Raine says that The Serpent and the Rope is a ‘most profound demonstration of Indian metaphysics.’ William Walsh and C.D. Narsimhaiah endorse this same view.

Raja Rao would like to characterize The Serpent and the Rope as a metaphysical novel. As the narrative closes, it becomes evident that Ramaswamy is determined to sever attachments to the mundane world. He has obtained a divorce from his wife Madelaine who has selected for herself a life of renunciation. Savithri has settled down to a comfortable married life.

Ramaswamy in his search for the deeper meanings of life has sought the blessings and guidance of a Guru.’I knew his face, as one knows one’s face in deep sleep. He called me, and said, it is so long, s long my son. I have awaited you. Come we, go. I went….’ The novel ends by stressing the importance of pure love, unpolluted by worldly desires. As the author himself asserted the novel thematizes the quest for the ultimate.

As I stated earlier The Serpent and the Rope is generally regarded as a metaphysical novel. However in order to represent this metaphysical self in his novel the author has to bring into fruitful dialogue two contending cultural selves; one is that of a western-oriented scholar who is deeply fascinated with western culture; the other is a man who relishes his Brahmanic cultural roots. How the two cultural selves are made to interact has much to do with our comprehension and evaluation of the idea of self-deception that shadows the character of the protagonist. Mikhail Bakhtin who has written so illuminatingly on the poetics of the novel has said that in the novel, as opposed to poetry, the interplay of diverse selves in interaction is far more common and this, according to him, is related to the use of language.

The Serpent and the Rope, then dramatizes the way in which contending cultural selves which serve to foreground the theme of self-deception. The westernized academic and connoisseur of European culture Ramaswamy sees Paris as the center of intellectual, political, and cultural activity, and his narrative discourse is replete with allusions to French history, tradition, cultural memory and topography. France, for him, assumes the aura of a cultural imaginary. On the other hand, we are also deeply aware of the fact that Ramaswamy is deeply rooted in Indian culture for which he has an inordinate attraction. The representational space cleared by the narrative bristles with semiotic markers of grandeur and majesty of Indian culture. He says at one point, ‘India is not a country like France is, or like England; India is an idea, a metaphysic.’


It is my hope that the discussion so far underscores the point that we need to situate self-deception in a broader discursive space shaped by culture. The de-contextualized summary of the novel that I started with may have left the impression that this is a novel that thematizes self-deception. However, as we situate the narrative within the representational space fashioned by culture the once simple thematization of self-deception takes on more complex appearance.

It is interesting to observe that while on the one hand culturally grounded interpretations of the novel serves to render the theme of self-deception more complex by bringing into focus a multiplicity of intersecting discourses and diverting the attention elsewhere. On the other hand, it serves to introduce a newer mode of self-deception.

It is evident that Ramaswamy, by his own admission, is in search of true self-knowledge, and he has firmly resolved to sever the attachments to the mundane world as a means of pursuing that quest. However, as Nietzsche has insightfully reminded us self-knowledge and self-invention are inseparably linked. Ramaswamy can attain self-knowledge through an act of self-fashioning and this is what the writing of the narrative entails.

The irony here is that even as Ramaswamy is straining to disaffiliate himself from the phenomenal world in his search for a higher spiritual truth, his very act of narrativizing through language mires him ever deeper in that phenomenal world that he seeks to repudiate. In other words, the very act of narrativization through language undermines, even undercuts, the protagonist’s quest for a transcendental truth, thereby ushering in a newer form of self-deception.

Let us now focus on the second novel – the English Teacher by the well-known writer R.K.Narayan. he is regarded by many as a pioneer of English fiction-writing in India, and many writers and critics, most notably Graham Greene, thought of him as a superb story-teller. His novels are set in the imaginary town of Malgudi with its odd but charming blending of Hindu and British cultural legacies.

He wrote primarily about the problems and hardships of middle-class people, teachers, journalists, candy sellers, money lenders, painters of signs and so on. The English teacher is Narayan’s fourth novel and in many ways can be described as his most autobiographical novel. The protagonist of the novel is Krishna is an English teacher. He gets up ‘at eight every day’ reads ‘for the fifth time Milton, Carlyle and Shakespeare’ and ‘looks over the compositions, eats a quick breakfast and rushes out of the hostel just when the second bell sounded at college.’

It is the deeply felt desire of his parents as well as his in-laws that he should move out of the hostel and arrange to live with his wife and daughter. Accordingly, he moves out of the austere life of the hostel into a new house and begins a new life with his wife and daughter. Everything seemed to have fallen into place and Krishna and his wife, Susila appeared to be leading a very happy life. ‘She gave me coffee.

We let the kitchen, and sat down in the hall. The child went over to her box in a corner and rummaged through the contents and threw them about and became quite absorbed in this activity. My wife sat at the doorway leaning against the door and watching te street. We spent hours or more, sitting there and gossiping…’

Comfortable house

Three years later, Krishna and Susila decide to look for a newer and more comfortable house. They succeed in identifying one such house. However, while house-hunting, Susila catches typhoid and eventually dies.

This unexpected turn of events shatters Krishna’s comfortable world. He is totally devastated. He continues to live in the old house with his daughter. One day he receives a message from an unknown man who reportedly has been in communication with the deceased Susila.

Krishna continues to receive messages from his wife through this medium. He is happy to communicate with his wife. The novel ends with Krishna coming home from his last day in college (he has agreed to become the headmaster of the nursery school that his daughter had attended) overwhelmed by a distinct vision of his wife. It is interesting the way the author has laboured to give flesh and substance to a shadowy reality.

‘Oh wait, I said and got up. I picked up the garland from the nail and returned to bed. I said to her. For you as ever. I somehow felt that she wouldn’t take it….she received it with a smile, cut off a piece and stuck it in a curve on the back of her head. She turned her head and asked; is this all right/ wonderful I said smelling it. A cock crew. The first purple of the dawn came through the window, and faintly touched the walls of our room.

Dawn she whispered and rose to her feet. We stood at the window gazing on a slender, red streak over the eastern rim of the earth. A cool breeze lapped our faces. The boundaries of our personalities suddenly dissolved. It was a moment of rare, immutable joy – a moment for which one feels grateful to Life and Death.’


Many have found the ending of the novel to be sentimental and have claimed that it represents a case of self-deception. Once again it is important that we understand the frame of mind of the protagonist from within his own specific cultural universe. Here, too, we observe the interaction of two warring selves.

On the one hand, Krishna is a westernized person who is interested in English literature; he is highly observant and is, at times, of a satirical disposition. On the other hand, he is a brooding, introspective man who believes in the efficacy of supernatural powers.

It is as if he grew up in two interlocking cultural worlds, and selves in contention are a reflection of that bifurcated experience. In the end, the power of his own personal tragedy forces him to be even more accommodating of supernatural forces.

In his autobiography Narayan makes the following observation on the English teacher. ‘More than any other book, The English Teacher is autobiographical in content, very little of it being fiction. The English teacher of the novel, Krishna, is a fictional character in the fictional city of Malgudi; but he goes through the same experience I had gone through…’later on Narayan makes the comment that out of all the tragic and abnormal experiences he has encountered, there developed within him a newer and expanded concept of self.

To Narayan, his communication with his dead wife was real. To be sure, it is not always essential or even useful to consult the author regarding the meaning of his fictional creation.

However, in this case, it seems to me that it is not out of place to refer to the author’s personal views to understand better the actions and reactions of his protagonist who in fact is only a thinly disguised version of the author. Hence, summarily to dismiss Krishna’s alleged communication with his wife as an act of self-deception might be to ignore the experiential world from within which he fashions that reality.

This examination the idea of self-deception as it expresses itself in the English Teacher alerts us to the intersections of self, meaning and culture, and these intersections have a clear bearing on our understanding of self-deception.

Krishna inhabits a world in which supernatural powers, transmigration of souls, and worlds beyond are very real. He sees more in social order than meets the eye. There is indeed a metaphysical dimension that gives it greater meaning. It may be that we may not believe what he believes. However, his convictions and beliefs grow out of that specific world and its meaning-systems.

The author seems to be saying that human beings are the means through which the universe becomes aware of itself. Consequently, when we endeavor to understand the nature of his self-deception we need to examine it from within his world view. Indeed, the rules of engagement proposed by that vision are different from the ones we are ordinarily accustomed to..

Social order

In the English Teacher we observe that the protagonist’s idea of social order is deeply influenced by metaphysical notions and symbolic investments. Human beings, we need to remind ourselves, are symbol creators and symbol sharers. Their social life is firmly tethered to a symbolic universe. The novel insists on the point that human interactions and behaviors are inconceivable without a shared symbolic universe.

In the English Teacher, the metaphysical dimension is indissolubly linked to the symbolic. It is as if Narayan is making the point that we can grasp the full complexity and plenitude of a specific social order only by probing into its metaphysical foundations. He contends that the order of mundane reality is inadequate to represent or incarnate the order of total human existence. This is because human beings participate in orders of being that transcend the mundane.

It is true that some of us may not agree with the vision of social order promoted by Narayan. However, if we are to comprehend the self-deception that Ramaswamy is said to be guilty of, we need to locate his experience in the wider vision advanced by the author.

To Krishna, and to the author as confessed by him, communication with the dead through the mediation of supernatural forces is very real, and this idea is a powerful presence in the cultural world that they inhabit.

Consequently, any assessment of self-deception on the part of Ramaswamy has to take into consideration this important requirement. Krishna’s interpretive framework is fashioned on the basis of these metaphysical and symbolic interests.

Now the interesting point about both Raja Rao’s The Serpent and the Rope and R.K. Narayan’s The English Teacher is that the self-deception that the respective protagonists of the two novels have been convicted of cries out to be situated in the larger cultural world that includes metaphysical and symbolic preoccupations.

Here the requisite readerly empathy, it seems to me, is vitiated by the absence of a common language of experience which could encourage the tuning in on the thought-patterns of the two protagonists.

This, of course, leads to the all too significant question: does the intervention of the cultural world into our discussion mitigate the accusatory force of self-deception? Or does it in point of fact intensify the force of the charge because the invocation of metaphysical concerns can be construed as a subtle attempt to cover up the sin of self-deception? Is the invocation of a transcendental reality a blatant act of self-exculpation? This is indeed an issue well worth pondering.


In this essay, I have chosen to focus on two Indian novels as a way of coming to grips with the vexed question of self-deception. Indeed, it is a concept that occupies a contested space. I decided to foreground these novels primarily for two reasons. First, the density and richness of life-worlds and thought-worlds provided by fiction facilitate delving deeper into issues of self-deception in terms of lived reality.

Second, it has to be recognized that novels engage issues of selfhood and individuality in productive and complex ways. Milan Kundera once asserted that the novel is the imaginary paradise of the individual. The ways in which the individual and society come together and drift apart and get in each other’s way are vividly portrayed in fiction. Hence, fiction can open a most interesting window onto the complex conceptual terrain of self-deception.

One of the central points I wish to make is that self-deception, in its true many-sidedness and complexity, can be understood only if we are willing and able to situate it in a wider cultural discourse, and novels enable that process.

What our discussion illustrates, I believe, is that philosophical concepts can be fruitfully pressed into service in literary analysis so as to broaden the critical conversation.


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