Gita Mehta Essay - Critical Essays

Mehta, Gita

Introduction

Gita Mehta 1943-

Indian novelist and essayist.

The following entry presents an overview of Mehta's career through 2001.

With her first collection of essays, Karma Cola: Marketing the Mystic East (1979), Mehta joined a growing number of critically and popularly acclaimed female Indian authors who write primarily in English. Although the essays in Karma Cola function as sarcastic responses to the West's infatuation with India, her novels Raj (1989) and A River Sutra (1993) seek to create a deeper understanding of Indian history, culture, and mysticism. Mehta's fiction displays a preoccupation with the inherent difficulties behind social interactions, either through examining the cultural disconnects between Great Britain and India during the era of colonial rule or through the myriad social and cultural divisions within traditional Indian society.

Biographical Information

Mehta was born in 1943, in Delhi, India. Her father, Biju Patnaik, was a political activist in the Indian Independence movement who was arrested for his activism three weeks after the birth of his daughter. At the age of three, Mehta was sent to be raised in a convent in Kashmir, allowing her mother to travel and campaign for her husband's release. After India regained sovereignty from Great Britain in 1947, Mehta's father was released from prison and resumed his political career. Mehta travelled to England for higher education, earning her university degree at Cambridge University. While at Cambridge, she met and later married Ajai Singh “Sonny” Mehta, with whom she has a son. Having chosen a career in journalism, Mehta has covered a number of significant world events, including the Bangladesh War of 1971 and the first elections in the former Indian princely states. She has also written and directed several television documentaries for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and the National Broadcasting Company (NBC).

Major Works

Mehta's first work, Karma Cola, was written as a critical response to the ways that the Western counter-culture community has regarded India and Indian culture. Due to the fascination of spiritualists, hippies, and popular rock musicians The Beatles with Hindu mysticism, large groups of Americans flock to India each year in search of religion, drugs, and enlightenment. Through the essays in Karma Cola, Mehta seeks to debunk the notion that all Indians are experts on spiritual matters and to contrast the irony of Western materialism being used to obtain traditionally Eastern religious beliefs. In such essays as “Om Is Where the Art Is” and “Sex and the Single Guru,” Mehta humorously and sarcastically exposes the emptiness behind placing one's hopes for the future in the hands of gurus and transcendental meditation. Set in the early- to mid-twentieth century, Raj recounts the life of a sheltered Indian princess, Princess Jaya, as she witnesses the end of British imperial rule in India. Her father, once a powerful man in the community, is slowly being forced into obscurity by the strict rules imposed on him by the British Raj—the British government in India. Jaya is eventually sent to marry a prince in a neighboring kingdom, though her husband—like many in India at the time—is obsessed with emulating the British. Her husband's preoccupation with Western values causes him to view anything Eastern as inferior, including his wife. After the era of colonial rule ends in 1947, Jaya is finally able to exert her own independence by registering for a position in the newly formed Indian government. The style and structure of Mehta's second novel, A River Sutra, has frequently been compared to Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales. The plot is constructed around a series of short sketches—“The Monk's Story,” “The Teacher's Story,” “The Executive's Story,” “The Courtesan's Story,” “The Musician's Story,” “The Minstrel's Story,” and “The Song of the Narmada”—which are brought together as a whole by a nameless narrator who speaks in the first-person. The narrator is a bureaucrat who leaves his government position to manage a small inn along the banks of India's holiest river, the Narmada. The Narmada becomes a recurring motif in each of the stories as well as the narrator's inability to understand the tales of love he hears from his guests. Through these narrative threads, Mehta illuminates the interconnectedness of the diverse range of cultures within India while expounding on the universalities of love. In Snakes and Ladders: Glimpses of Modern India (1997), Mehta returns to her critical examination of Indian culture, this time focusing on Indian history since the end of British rule. The essays cover a wide range of subjects from current Indian political thought to the growing influence of American pop culture on Indian youth. Mehta also discusses the duality of India's continuing relationship with Britain and the stagnancy of certain Indian social movements, contrasting them with her father's own passionate activism.

Critical Reception

Since the publication of Karma Cola, critics have heralded Mehta as a fresh new voice in Indian literature. Reviewers have consistently praised her wit and insight into Western misconceptions of the East and cross-cultural relations. However, Raj has received a mixed critical reaction, with some arguing that the protagonist is overly passive and the narrative is lacking in plot. Others have complained that Raj focuses too heavily on historical minutia and fails to create compelling characterizations. A River Sutra, conversely, has drawn wide acclaim for its emphasis on the multiculturalism of India and the importance of individuals within a community. The novel has additionally been complimented for Mehta's use of interlocking short stories to cumulatively paint a vivid picture of India's rich spiritual beliefs. Lavinia Greenlaw has remarked that A River Sutra, “has a clarity and a dignity that contains these stories of endurance and loss, avoiding any excess of sentiment or pathos.” Snakes and Ladders has also garnered a favorable critical reception, with reviewers commending Mehta's insight into current Indian political trends. Michael Gorra has commented that, despite the collection's “disjointed structure,” the essays in Snakes and Ladders are ultimately “marked by warmth and charm.”

Principal Works

Karma Cola: Marketing the Mystic East (essays) 1979

Raj: A Novel (novel) 1989

A River Sutra (novel) 1993

Snakes and Ladders: Glimpses of Modern India (essays) 1997

Criticism

Maurya Simon (review date 9 April 1989)

SOURCE: Simon, Maurya. “A Princess Remembers the Fall of British India.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (9 April 1989): 10.

[In the following review, Simon observes that Raj is an eloquent and engaging novel, noting that Mehta provides a unique feminine perspective on Indian literature.]

“Providence,” wrote Rudyard Kipling, “created the Maharajahs to offer mankind a spectacle.” That spectacle flourished for several millennia within India, prior to the establishment of imperial rule in 1858 by the British Crown. Despite successive waves of foreign invasions and migrations over many centuries, and despite the passing and reformation of dynasties, the...

(The entire section is 1049 words.)

Ian Buruma (essay date 18 May 1989)

SOURCE: Buruma, Ian. “Good Night, Sweet Princes.” New York Review of Books 36, no. 8 (18 May 1989): 9-10, 12.

[In the following essay, Buruma discusses the British colonial rule of India and its social and cultural effects as portrayed in Mehta's Raj.]

[In Raj: A Novel] Gita Mehta sets the scene well: India, the Roaring Twenties, the Royal Calcutta Turf Club. Jaya, wife of Prince Pratap of Sirpur, is watching the races, dressed in red and indigo, the Sirpur colors. She is joined by her brother-in-law, Maharajah Victor, a gentle man in love with a Hollywood star:

“The Sirpur colors seem to belong on you, Princess. I...

(The entire section is 3838 words.)

Yasmin Alibhai (review date 16 June 1989)

SOURCE: Alibhai, Yasmin. “A False Orient.” New Statesman and Society 2, no. 54 (16 June 1989): 34.

[In the following review, Alibhai criticizes Raj as a meager and bland novel, deficient in characterization and inventiveness.]

There is a thin novel somewhere in this fat one [Raj]. Thin as a gruel that hardly satisfies the appetite it raises, in spite of being served up in an aureate bowl on a table heavy with exquisite silver. The story is the personal odyssey of Jaya, a Rajput princess who moves from a life of seclusion and exclusion in a sumptuous palace, first as a daughter and then the wife of a Maharajah, during the days of British rule, to a...

(The entire section is 798 words.)

Sarah Curtis (review date 7 July 1989)

SOURCE: Curtis, Sarah. “Through the Lattice Chinks.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4501 (7 July 1989): 739.

[In the following review, Curtis praises Mehta's eye for detail in Raj but argues that the plot is uninspired and poorly narrated.]

In Raj, Gita Mehta, who was born in India and educated at Bombay and Cambridge Universities, chronicles the last years of the Rajput realms of India, from the turn of the century until 1950 when under the new Indian constitution the rulers of the kingdoms surrendered their powers. She does so through the eyes of Jaya, Princess of Balmer, whose fort and palaces on the edge of the desert have touches of Jaipur,...

(The entire section is 693 words.)

Betty Abel (review date October 1989)

SOURCE: Abel, Betty. “Quarterly Fiction Review.” Contemporary Review 255, no. 1485 (October 1989): 214.

[In the following excerpt, Abel asserts that Raj eloquently illustrates the lives of Indians, particularly Indian women, and their interpersonal relationships with each other and with British colonists in the early to mid-twentieth century.]

Raj by Gita Mehta, the new rival to Paul Scott, author of Jewel in the Crown, is a novel of stature. The plot is as sentimental and ordinary as many other tales of the Indian Continent under British rule: but Gita Mehta brings to this scenario a freshness and depth unusual in a romance of the Orient. Her...

(The entire section is 509 words.)

Lavinia Greenlaw (review date 4 June 1993)

SOURCE: Greenlaw, Lavinia. “A River View.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4705 (4 June 1993): 23.

[In the following review, Greenlaw applauds Mehta for constructing an insightful and flowing narrative in A River Sutra, complimenting the novel's skillful use of fables as representations of modern Indian culture.]

The glossary at the back of A River Sutra tells us that sutra has two meanings: an aphoristic literary form, and a string or thread. In this book, the two usages are simultaneously employed, as a simple narrative carries the reader through a careful arrangement of interlocking didactic tales. Gita Mehta's skillfully constructed second...

(The entire section is 842 words.)

William Dalrymple (review date 5 June 1993)

SOURCE: Dalrymple, William. “When the Mocking Had to Stop.” Spectator 270, no. 8604 (5 June 1993): 38.

[In the following review, Dalrymple commends Mehta's prose and tone in A River Sutra, contending that the separate stories within the novel are varied yet unified in direction.]

The Hampstead novel this is not. In Gita Mehta's slim new volume [A River Sutra] we meet a cast the likes of which has rarely been seen before in the precious pages of English literary fiction. Eat your heart out Anita Brookner: this book has got ash-smeared ascetics and bejewelled courtesans, shy river-minstrels and enlightenment-seeking suicides, ardent young bandits...

(The entire section is 921 words.)

Merle Rubin (review date 2 July 1993)

SOURCE: Rubin, Merle. Review of A River Sutra, by Gita Mehta. Christian Science Monitor 85, no. 152 (2 July 1993): 10.

[In the following excerpt, Rubin offers a positive assessment of A River Sutra, lauding Mehta's ability to connect the novel's individual storylines into a “well-designed whole.”]

Vacation, ideally, is an opportunity for renewal—whether it's a well-earned rest or a stimulating change of pace. The narrator of Gita Mehta's novel A River Sutra is an Indian government worker who seeks rest but finds stimulation. Hoping to relax from the hurly-burly of city life, he takes a position as manager of a rest house on the leafy banks of...

(The entire section is 294 words.)

Rahul Jacob (review date 11 July 1993)

SOURCE: Jacob, Rahul. “Down the Stream of Stories.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (11 July 1993): 3.

[In the following review, Jacob applauds the graceful and fluid stories in A River Sutra, arguing that each story adds dimension to the main focus of the novel.]

There are a great number of us who are not quite able to believe in religion, yet are unable to embrace atheism, which seems “too final, certain, closed. Itself a kind of belief,” as Salman Rushdie observes in The Satanic Verses, Caught in the middle, we have more doubts than certainties, more questions than answers. Neglectful of both Mass and mall, we seek a moral dimension to our lives...

(The entire section is 844 words.)

Gabriele Annan (review date 15 July 1993)

SOURCE: Annan, Gabriele. “Tales from the Narmada Woods.” New York Review of Books 40, no. 13 (15 July 1993): 36.

[In the following review, Annan discusses the depth of emotion in the six varied story stories that comprise A River Sutra.]

A River Sutra consists of six tales that make up a fictionalized primer on Indian attitudes to religion, love, music, and poetry. An entry in the glossary explains the word sutra:

Literally, a thread or string. Also, a term for literary forms, usually aphoristic in nature.

What this particular sutra strings together, though, are not so...

(The entire section is 1218 words.)

C. N. Ramachandran and A. G. Kahn (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: Ramachandran, C. N., and A. G. Kahn. “Gita Mehta's A River Sutra: Two Views.” Literary Criterion 29, no. 3 (1994): 1-15.

[In the following essay, Ramachandran and Kahn offer two different critical perspectives on A River Sutra. Ramachandran asserts that the multitude of themes and characters in A River Sutra act as a mirror of modern India culture—diverse yet bound to the traditions of the past—while Kahn argues that the River Narmada—not the Bureaucrat/narrator—is the main character of the novel.]

1. C. N. RAMACHANDRAN—MANGALORE UNIVERSITY

A River Sutra is Gita Mehta's third novel, the other...

(The entire section is 4564 words.)

Marlene Fisher (review date winter 1994)

SOURCE: Fisher, Marlene. Review of A River Sutra, by Gita Mehta. World Literature Today 68, no. 1 (winter 1994): 214.

[In the following review, Fisher contrasts the innocence of the narrator with the personalities of the individual characters in A River Sutra.]

Otherwise nameless, “little brother,” as his mullah friend Tariq Mia calls him, is a former senior bureaucrat from Bombay. Following the death of his wife, he has become a vanaprasthi of sorts who, so he thought, withdrew from the world by accepting the position of manager of the government rest house on the banks of the Narmada River. Kindly and well-meaning, little brother is the perfect...

(The entire section is 530 words.)

Indira Karamcheti (review date January 1994)

SOURCE: Karamcheti, Indira. “Cover Stories.” Women's Review of Books 11, no. 4 (January 1994): 20-1.

[In the following review, Karamcheti compliments Mehta's imagery and cultural romanticism in A River Sutra but argues that the stories are superficial and ignore the social and political issues facing modern India.]

You'd never know it over here, but India is one of the largest makers of movies in the world. The Indian film industry is astonishing for its sheer industriousness, if not for its renown. Yet here in the US, and probably through most of the West, we don't see (and don't really know about) this extraordinary output, this twentieth-century...

(The entire section is 4587 words.)

Gita Mehta and Wendy Smith (interview date 12 May 1997)

SOURCE: Mehta, Gita, and Wendy Smith. “Gita Mehta: Making India Accessible.” Publishers Weekly 244, no. 19 (12 May 1997): 53-4.

[In the following interview, Mehta discusses her writing career, her multinational living arrangements, and the inspirations behind Snakes and Ladders: Glimpses of Modern India.]

Gita and Sonny Mehta's apartment is an oasis of tranquility in midtown Manhattan. Outside on a chilly March day, Park Avenue traffic is at its mid-afternoon worst, and the chatter of kids exiting from a school next door nearly drowns out the honking horns and screeching brakes. Inside, all distracting sounds seem to be absorbed by the crammed floor-to-ceiling...

(The entire section is 2095 words.)

Michael Gorra (review date 22 June 1997)

SOURCE: Gorra, Michael. “Character of a Nation.” Washington Post Book World (22 June 1997): 5.

[In the following review, Gorra evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of Snakes and Ladders: Glimpses of Modern India, noting that the book's weak structure “makes it neither a unified whole nor a collection of fully individual essays.”]

At a dinner party this spring I sat between two novelists from South Asia and listened to them talk about contemporary Indian politics. Was there any chance that the former prime minister, Narasimha Rao, might go to jail on corruption charges? How about the relation between the Hindu fundamentalist Bharatiya Janata Party and...

(The entire section is 948 words.)

Bharati Mukherjee (review date 8 August 1997)

SOURCE: Mukherjee, Bharati. Review of Snakes and Ladders: Glimpses of Modern India, by Gita Mehta. Times Literary Supplement, no. 4923 (8 August 1997): 12.

[In the following review, Mukherjee praises Mehta's insight into Indian social, cultural, and political viewpoints in Snake and Ladders: Glimpses of Modern India, drawing particular focus to the nostalgia of Mehta's more personal essays.]

At the time of the Raj, it was fashionable for British and American writers as diverse as Maud Diver, Rudyard Kipling, E. M. Forster, George Orwell, Beverly Nichols, John Masters and Katherine Mayo to present the Eastern and the Western thought-processes as opposed....

(The entire section is 727 words.)

Beverly Schneller (essay date summer 2001)

SOURCE: Schneller, Beverly. “‘Visible and Visitable’: The Role of History in Gita Mehta's Raj and Rohinton Mistry's A Fine Balance.Journal of Narrative Theory 31, no. 2 (summer 2001): 233-54.

[In the following essay, Schneller argues that Raj and Rohinton Mistry's A Fine Balance both use historical fact as a tool to further their plots and themes, commenting that the “deliberate and deliberative uses of history employed by Mistry and Mehta reveal these works as unique, problematic, and complex.”]

The title of this essay derives from Henry James' comments in his preface to The Aspern Papers about the qualities of the...

(The entire section is 8677 words.)