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.”