The Stories in My Life: Raja Rao's timeless tale of a juggler and a serpent's quest for salvation

  • First published by Oxford University Press in 1947, this was one of Rao’s early stories and is possibly now remembered only by Rao specialists.

  • The story has a parable pitch which locates it in a mythic temporality rather than in historical time.

  • One can clearly experience the author’s presence, a gentle sage telling a timeless tale.

There are stories, read long ago, which live on in the backrooms of the mind, becoming perennial furnishings of our mental lives, refusing to fade even after the passage of decades. In this column, every second Saturday of the month, I shall share one such story with you, a story which has nourished my inner life and which deserves to be unpacked and aired in the hope that it will bring you the same pleasure and insight that it brought me.

The opening story of this series is called Companions. I read it in the 1980s in a volume of short stories by Raja Rao called The Cow of the Barricades. First published by Oxford University Press in 1947, it was one of Rao’s early stories and is possibly now remembered only by Rao specialists. I would call it a Sufiana story written decades before the word Sufiana gained currency. It has a parable pitch which locates it in a mythic temporality rather than in historical time and you can clearly experience the author’s presence, a gentle sage telling a timeless tale.


There was once a basket-maker named Moti Khan who had a curious dream. ‘A serpent came in the form of a man, opened its mouth, and through the most queer twistings of his face, declared he was Pandit Srinath Sastri of Totepur, who having lived at the foot of the Goddess Lakshamma for a generation or more, one day in the ecstasy of his vision, he saw her, the benign Goddess straight and supple, offering him two boons.’

Promptly he demanded a pot of gold and liberation from the cycle of birth and death. The Goddess, noticing the order of his priorities, granted both gold and moksha — with a catch. For his greed he would first have to be reborn as a juggler’s serpent, and having exhausted his avaricious karma dancing, doing tricks and amusing people to a juggler’s tune, would attain moksha in his next life. But a juggler’s serpent needs a juggler and for this purpose. The man assigned to him by divine ordinance, said the Goddess, was a man named Moti Khan, who himself had an interesting karmic history. In his previous life he had been an ascetic who sought Allah but in this one he lived a lecherous life, seeking only women.

 The Stories in My Life: Raja Raos timeless tale of a juggler and a serpents quest for salvation

The Cow of the Barricades, by Raja Rao. Image courtesy:

Both the pandit and the basket-maker had their personal salvations to work out and they couldn’t possibly do it alone. Each needed the other. So, said the serpent to Moti Khan, here he was in fulfillment of a karmic decree.

Moti Khan protested: ‘Your race has caused the fall of Adam’.

‘I sat at the feet of Sri Lakshamma and fell into ecstasy. I am a Brahmin,’ insisted the serpent.

And although Moti Khan did his utmost to shake him off, there was no getting rid of the creature. When, waking, he strove to walk away from his disturbing dream, he had scary hallucinations of serpents everywhere. Until, defeated, he gave in, returned home, made a largish basket and put it in the corner. And sure enough, presently a real serpent appeared, curled up in the basket. As a juggler’s serpent he had to dance at village fairs and squares, before temples and mosques, ever wandering northwards with his juggler, the one in quest of moksha, the other in quest of Allah, each following a call from a previous incarnation and compulsorily expiating a personal karma. And since Moti Khan’s besetting sin was women and the serpent’s was money, these were the very things forbidden to them. The juggler was compelled to decline all payment for there was a clause to the spiritual injunction on them both: if either of them had so much as a vision of a silver rupee, the serpent would attack his master and bury his fangs into his flesh. Likewise, if Moti Khan so much as glanced at a winsome woman, a ‘long, rippling light’ flung itself at him, frightening both him and the woman.

So, arguing intensely, hating one another, they wended their tortuous way across mountains and valleys and plains and deserts, looking for salvation. The quarrels between them were bitter: ‘If only I could see a woman!’ ‘If you want God forget women, Moti Khan.’ ‘… You are only a fanged beast. And here I am in the prime of life with a reptile to live with.’ And inevitably, when things got too hot and personal, mysterious temple bells rang out and the muezzin’s cry echoed from some minaret and Moti Khan ‘fell on his knees and bent himself in prayer.’ Lashed on by one another’s taunts, they plodded on until they reached Fatehpur Sikri. At the tomb of the saint Sheikh Salim Chishti, Moti Khan sank to his feet and swore that he would not walk an inch further until the soul of the saint came to his rescue.


The tomb of the saint Sheikh Salim Chishti. Image courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

‘Sheikh Chishti, what is this Fate has sent me? This serpent is a very wicked thing. He… hisses and spits fire at every wink and waver. He says, “Find God”. Now, tell me, Sheikh Chishti, how can I find Him? Till I find Him I will not leave this place,’ he pleaded. Sitting in a trance beside Sheikh Chishti’s tomb for twenty-nine days, Moti Khan’s consciousness travelled far into the inner universe of his subterranean self, forbidden realms of the secret mind, and then across vast dimensions of his higher being, until on the twenty-ninth night Sheikh Chishti awoke and came to him and granted him eyes to see Allah, blessed the serpent, his companion, and also granted his prayer for peace for all humankind. And what is more, the very next morning, a man came and offered Moti Khan his daughter’s hand in marriage. Released now from the curse about women, Moti Khan married her and settled down near the saint’s tomb as its caretaker. The serpent stayed on happily with them. They lived out their days and died within a few days of one another.


On the road from Agra to Fatehpur Sikri stands Moti Khan’s mazar. Beside it, emerging from the serpent’s clay tomb, is a massive pipal tree, planted by some passing Brahmin. The spot is sacred to village folk who come to offer camphor and incense to the inseparable souls of the exasperated juggler and the wrangling serpent who both found salvation, each his own kind, together.

It is a very special story and it transmits its gentle vibe to me every time I read it. Look out for it and read it for yourselves.

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Updated Date: Jul 02, 2019 13:04:38 IST

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