In A River Sutra, Gita Mehta took a new direction in her writing. In her previous works, Karma Cola (1979) and Raj (1989), Mehta had focused on the interactions between India and the Western world. In A River Sutra, Mehta changes focus and explores the diversity of cultures within India. To accomplish this, Mehta presents seemingly unconnected stories in her novel, stories about Hindu and Jain ascetics, courtesans and minstrels, diamond merchants and tea executives, Muslim clerics and music teachers, tribal folk beliefs and the anthropologists who study them. What binds these stories together are two things: the Narmada River and a "sutra." "Sutra," as Mehta explains in the glossary to her novel, means "literally, a thread or string." In the case of her novel, the "sutra" is the theme of love that runs through all the stories, threading them loosely together. The Narmada River stands for another type of "sutra." This river, known as the holiest in India, threads together the diverse people who live on its shores or who come to worship at its waters. The term "sutra" also refers to an Indian literary form, so in the novel, each story is in itself a "sutra" that presents a message. Every time the nameless narrator tries to tease out the meaning of one "sutra," he encounters another pilgrim or lost soul with another story to tell.
Critics have responded positively to A River Sutra. They remark on both the simplicity of the storytelling style—a style as old as India—and the complexity of the themes the novel explores. As the reviewer from the Washington Post Book World noted, the stories leave the reader with "the sense that things are richer and more meaningful than they seem, that life is both clear and mysterious, that the beauty and the horror of this world is both irreducible and inexplicable." Critics further praise how Mehta introduces Western readers to a world they have not fathomed. A River Sutra, however, suggests that the "sutra," or the theme of love, running through the stories can connect all people together.
The Narrator's Story
The loose collection of stories that comprises Gita Mehta's A River Sutra are connected by three things: the Narmada River, the theme of love, and the narrator's inability to understand the various tales of the human heart he hears. Mehta gives very little information about this narrator. The reader never knows his name, much less the secrets of his heart. It is through this nameless man that the reader learns the stories of uncommon pain and joy that the narrator has collected during his tenure as the manager of a government rest house on the banks of the Narmada River.
The Monk's Story
Ashok is the first of many people to tell the narrator his story of love. The monk is probably only thirty years old, and yet he has already tired of a world that offered him anything he wanted: extreme wealth, a loving family, and the opportunity to better other people's lives through charity. The monk has willingly decided to become a monk in a religion where, as other monks tell him, he will suffer almost constant pain. Ashok believes these sacrifices are worthwhile because in his renunciation, as the same monks tell him, he "will be free from doubt."
The narrator cannot understand Ashok's adherence to a religious order where the highest level of enlightenment will probably come, as Ashok's father says, from "starving himself to death." The narrator shudders to think that one day he will see Ashok's body, just as he has seen so many other priests' bodies, as a corpse floating down the Narmada River. After listening to the monk's story, the story's meaning is still a mystery to the narrator. The old Muslim mullah Tariq Mia must finally explain that the Jain monk's story was about "The human heart...Its secrets." His frozen heart thawed by "compassion...for the human helplessness that linked us all," the monk finally feels connected to the world. His renunciation of the world, paradoxically, is his celebration of that connection.
The Teacher's Story
As Tariq Mia seeks to enlighten the narrator about the true meaning of the monk's story, he offers him another story, one of a teacher's love for his student. This story, like the monk's, is meant to show the secrets of the human heart. A music teacher, Master Mohan fell in love with the sound of a blind pupil's perfect voice. Imrat's music represented a haven to Master Mohan whose own life had been filled with disappointment. Braving the wrath of his family, who despise him, he adopts the boy and nurtures his gift. He selflessly helps to further the boy's singing career, seeking no financial gain for himself. Master Mohan's greedy wife is outraged by her husband's actions. Out of revenge and greed she arranges for the boy to sing for a wealthy patron. Wary of the man's motives and seeking to protect the boy, Master Mohan had refused the rich man's request for a private concert. Tragically, Master Mohan's instincts were correct. As Imrat sings his devotional Muslim songs in front of the wealthy man, the man slits the boy's throat. Hearing Master Mohan's tale, Tariq Mia can only assume that the "great sahib" killed the boy so that Imrat could share his voice with no one else. Devastated, Master Mohan makes his pilgrimage to the Muslim saint Amir Rumi's tomb, where Imrat had dreamed of singing. Instead of going back to his wife and children, Master Mohan throws himself in front of a train. If the rich man killed the boy so that no one would hear his voice again, Master Mohan kills himself because he cannot imagine life without the boy. A world without the boy's purity of soul and voice is not worth living in.
The Executive's Story
Soon after hearing this story, the narrator meets Nitin Bose, a young tea executive. Apparently insane, Nitin hands the narrator his diary and implores him to read it. Once a careless executive living the high life in Calcutta, Nitin had accepted the stewardship of a tea plantation nestled in the Himalayan foothills. Isolated, he began reading and rereading the legends of the Puranas, collections of legends dating from between the first century B.C. to the sixth century A.D. He was delighted to learn of the "mythological tales dealing with the very area in which my tea estate was situated, legends of a vast underground civilization stretching from these hills all the way to the Arabian Sea, peopled by a mysterious race half human, half serpent." As he confided to his diary, however, he didn't for a moment believe the legends.
After two years, however, the legends Nitin had read began to merge with his real experience. Night after night he imagined that one of the half-serpent women seduced him. For a...
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