04 January 2011

Where the serpent lives by Ruth Padel

Real, imaginary and figurative serpents
Where the serpent lives is basically about what a beautiful, marvellous world we live in, and the terrible, disastrous things that are wrong with it.
As a book about the environment it paints a picture of magnificence but also takes us to wildlife reserves in different parts of India where officials entrusted with protection are the ones responsible for depredation and slaughter. In tracts of forest in Devon, a county in England, louts kill badgers for sport. And in London, illegal traffic in goods such as African bushmeat, luxury products and Asian medicine endangers animals as it funds criminal networks across the globe.
As a book about relationships, its lovely heroine is so frailly human that she walked away forever from her father on the basis of a few malicious sentences, by a drunk at a party, which she never bothered to verify. Only to marry a man who turned into a clichéd philanderer, fuelled by a large income and an unlimited supply of Viagra. Then the bubbly son once so easy to please transformed into a surly, uncommunicative adolescent.
A supporting cast includes a man through whom we learn that one may live with an intrusive fantasy but when the time comes to fulfill it, a lifetime of craving may prove unequal to a real relationship. A young woman shows us something of Croatian culture and expatriate life. There are real, imaginary and figurative serpents. We even get glimpses of the London bombings and the Tsunami.

As a book based partly in India, Ruth Padel’s observations are insightful. The diversity in the forests provides a context for the diversity in the gods. The nuances that pass between two Indians who meet for the first time will tell them more about each other in a few seconds than someone from another culture would ever know. But then, alas, we encounter an unlikely Englishman working in Indian forests who eats dal and rice for not just lunch and dinner but, and hard to imagine in reality, for breakfast too. He even cooks his own dal, because the plot requires him to be alone in the house.

The language in this book is clean and descriptive. Paragraphs pertaining to scientific matters stand out self consciously, a little like gleaming patchwork on rich tapestry and quite unlike the insider approach to science of others like, say, Ian McEwan. Ruth Padel is, after all, one of the most famous poets in the world, partly because of a short and controversial stint as the very first, ever, female Professor of Poetry at the University of Oxford.
Disappointingly, all turns right in the end: the devil gets his due, and satisfying closure is experienced by every character.

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