Maurya Simon (review date 9 April 1989)

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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 institution of Indian kingship (as old as the “Mahabharata” itself) remained constant and ubiquitous throughout the subcontinent until the mid-20th Century.

At the time of the first British colonies, India was ruled by 565 princely states. These states were most remarkable, perhaps, for their multiplicity and diversity. The very palaces and forts of the dynastic rulers varied remarkably, as well, in size, architecture, history and occupation: from a chieftain's well-appointed, tapestried tent to a maharajah's 400-room marble palace housing thousands of servants and retainers, rose-water-filled swimming pools, exotic zoos, squash courts, modern movie theaters and great, gilded durbar halls.

Among the princely rulers were hedonists and ascetics, scholars and sportsmen, tribal chieftains and Oxford graduates, despots and reformers. However, regardless of their wealth, religious background, or aptitude for leadership, most royal leaders of British India initially welcomed imperial rule, for one of the Crown's first acts was to freeze the borders of many kingdoms, thus providing a security and tenure heretofore unknown to the rulers and their predecessors. But there was a stiff price to pay for such security: British paramountcy, a system whereby Indian kings became beholden not to their own rule or people, but to the British Raj, as embodied in the person of the viceroy, and as directly overseen, in each kingdom, by a resident officer.

Suddenly India's powerful kings were demoted to “princes” and “native chiefs,” and their vast and ancient domains regarded simply as princely or native states that were subjected to exorbitant taxation by the British Crown. During a 90-year period, India's rulers submitted to a deliberate and gradual erosion of their power, to the threat of divestment and forced abdication of their thrones. Often they were ousted or exiled on the grounds of “princely misconduct” (such as an indiscreet or scandalous sexual liaison), or because they were accused of treason, sedition, or disloyalty to the Crown.

No wonder, then, when the seeds of nationalism began to propagate in the 1920s, many of India's most powerful rulers found themselves in an intractable political dilemma. They felt torn between their often tenuous and ambivalent loyalty to the British Raj and their own loyalty to their traditions and their subjects, who were beginning to demand “home rule” and a more democratic governance.

Gita Mehta's fine novel, Raj, accurately documents and compellingly dramatizes the maelstrom of allegiances and conflicting loyalties that beset the Hindu, Muslim and Sikh rulers of princely India. Spanning the era from Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee in 1897 to partition and independence in 1947, Mehta chronicles the British Raj's effect both upon the princely states in general, as well as upon the personal life of an Indian princess, Jaya Devi.

Born and reared in the desert kingdom of Balmer, Princess Jaya is guided by conflicting influences throughout her childhood: by her deeply religious mother and by her modern, anti-British father. Contradictory forces direct every aspect of her home life and schooling: Jaya studies Sanskrit and the ancient Rajput laws of sovereignty with the palace...

(This entire section contains 1049 words.)

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guru, womanly demeanor with the purdah ladies in thezanana (women's quarters of the palace), current events with her austere and fiercely nationalistic tutor and polo with the British political officer assigned to Balmer.

A series of tragic events leads, eventually, to Jaya's departure from Balmer and to her arrival, as a teenage bride, in the Kingdom of Sirpur. The princess' life here, too, is contradictory and confusing. Her new husband, Prince Pratap, an Oxford-educated playboy, expects his bride to become Westernized enough to don red nail polish and risque saris, yet he demands that she conform to his traditional expectations of an appropriately submissive and reticent Hindu wife. Prince Pratap, and his brother the Maharajah Victor, energetically court the favors of the British Raj, while openly indulging their tastes for foreign actresses, Indian prostitutes, for extravagant banquets and lavish balls, for expensive cars and planes.

Early in her marriage, Jaya recognizes the tyranny of the Raj, as it renders her husband and brother-in-law politically impotent and embittered, and as it encourages the excesses of other rulers, whose only permissible act of defiance seems to be to outdo the exhibitionism and materialistic grandeur of English royalty. Jaya's exile from Balmer, and her estrangement from her husband, allow her to gain an objectivity and clarity rare among her friends and associates. Eventually, she comes to see herself, her adopted kingdom and British India as being painfully compromised: All three flounder toward an ideal of self-respect and autonomy, yet each remains dependent upon the good offices of either husband, resident officer or British Crown.

Regardless of her clear political vision, Jaya's personal evolution is clouded by fear and uncertainty of self, by her reluctance to challenge tradition. Nonetheless, her gradual personal transformation is convincing and poignant. Ultimately, as Regent of Sirpur, Jaya learns how to act on her own behalf, even as she acts on behalf of the people she rules. Adroitly, the author parallels the heroine's ascendancy to personal power with the decline of autocracy and British rule.

Many distinguished and capable British authors have depicted and examined life in India under the British Raj (Kipling, Forster, John Masters and Paul Scott, to name but a few), but their views are inescapably British and all too often reflect the prejudices of imperialism. How necessary and instructive it is to hear the story of British colonial rule from descendants of those who were subjugated by it, damaged by its injustices. Doubly refreshing, then, is Mehta's ambitious and successful book, for it allows its readers a fascinating and vivid glimpse into one Indian woman's long moment in history, as she charts her own course and as she witnesses the painful evolution of the most populous fledgling democracy in the world.

Ian Buruma (essay date 18 May 1989)

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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 often think you are the only one of us who knows who you are.”

“But you are the Maharajah, hukam. You are Sirpur.”

He looked at her and Jaya was shocked at the unhappiness in his eyes. “Only by birth and the tolerance of the British Crown, not because I believe I am a king. I am acting and actors should be allowed to marry actresses.”

That is of course precisely what they were, the rajahs, maharajahs, nawabs, and Nizams of India, actors on a stage set by the British. Effectively emasculated by the Raj, they were useful as vassals to the British Crown, ruling chunks of India, red blotches on the map in a sea of pink, virtually as proxies with British residents watching their every move. Tradition and the mystique of divine kingship lent historical weight to British ideas of “good government.” As long as they acted their parts, the Indian princes could spend their lives at play. And some chose very odd plays indeed.

Mehta uses to wonderful effect a celebrated occasion when the Nawab of Junagadh staged a dog wedding, inviting the crème de la crème of Indian aristocracy for the occasion: “The marriage of the two dogs, Roshanara; veiled and covered in gems, to Bobby, shivering in his wet silk pajamas, was conducted with all the ceremony that would have accompanied the marriage of a royal princess.”

Andrew Robinson, in the latest glossy book for the Indian nostalgia trade, describes the funeral of the Maharajah of Alwar: his impeccably dressed corpse seated stiffly upright in his favorite golden Hispano-Suiza, the rear of which was a copy of the British coronation coach, complete with carriage lamps and gold crowns. Alas, there are no pictures of this occasion. We have to make do instead with Sumio Uchiyama's colorful photos, mostly of the charming Maharajah of Jodhpur (Eton and Oxford) striking traditional poses.

Another noteworthy player, cited by Robinson, was Sayaji Rao, the Gaekwad of Baroda, who trained his parrots to ride silver bicycles and perform dainty dramatic scenes. His granddaughter, Gayatri Devi, remembered one in particular “in which a parrot was run over by a car, examined by a parrot doctor, and finally carried off on a stretcher by parrot bearers. The grand climax of their performance was always a salute fired on a silver cannon.”1

All this is fun to read of course. The excesses of bored men with unlimited means always are. But Mehta's novel, greatly to her credit, is more than a catalog of bizarre fancies. The story of Jaya is a story of liberation: the liberation of a woman, whose story begins in the opulent seclusion of a palace harem and ends in a court of law, where she registers her name as a political candidate in a newly independent India. But, again to her credit, it is not simply a story of brave, freedom-loving Indians versus arrogant oppressive Brits. It is much more ambivalent than that, for the agents of change, and ultimately of freedom, are often the very same things that oppress and destroy.

Two symbols recur frequently throughout the book: the machine and the bracelet. Glass bangles or glittering gauntlets are forever clinking on Jaya's wrists like manacles, symbols of her young servitude to tradition. Dressed by servants for her marriage to a man she has never even met, she felt “suffocated as the women scratched her body with jeweled gauntlets and heavy anklets.” But when the young Englishman she had loved dances with her at a ball, her bangles break in his white glove. And when her maidservants haul bags of contraband salt into a train in defiance of the British monopoly their glass bangles break against the window bars.

The machine is introduced as a destructive force, often in conjunction with money. Thus we learn early on how drought turns Jaya's ancestral country into a wasteland “to be exploited by the machines of a new age without customs or humanity.” Thus it is that the palace guru believes that by adopting the machines and institutions of the British, “we would adopt their ways, and in the process lose our souls.” Jaya's father is shocked by the idea of investing money in stocks, for moneylending is undignified; it is against the dharma of a Rajput warrior. “Dungra's thick lips, stained red with betel juice, opened in laughter. ‘Dignity? Dharma? You live in the past, Jai. Such words have lost their currency. Now the world runs on money.’”

The old world of customs and warriors against the new world of machines and moneylenders; no wonder at least one maharajah is said to have had portraits of Hitler in his study. He was not to know that Hitler, despite his love for Aryan nobility, was hardly interested in saving the Indian soul.

Jaya's attitude toward the machine age is one of sad resignation:

She thought of her father's mustache falling like a broken wing onto his white tunic as he told the Balmer Raj Guru that machines had ended the dharma of the warrior, and with it the dharma of the king.

For much of her life, inevitably for an Indian woman in the first half of this century, her destiny is controlled by men. They all represent something: her father, the old world Rajput; her husband, the confused, self-hating Anglicized playboy; her Indian lover, the Bengali babu nationalist; her English friend, the liberal who loves India. These are well-known types, but, as with Jaya, it is their ambivalence that saves them from being cardboard cutouts. For her father may be an old world Rajput, but he also tries to be modern, forcing his wife to break purdah and help the starving villagers during a famine. Osborne, the English friend, may be a liberal who loves India, but he remains loyal to his viceroy, to the point of spying on Jaya's activities when he decides they are against British interests. And the Bengali babu, Arun Roy, is strongly drawn toward the very woman whose power he must destroy.

Sex is of course one of the most fascinating aspects of colonial society, the way sex became mixed up with politics. The early British settlers in India, soldiers and traders, employed by the East India Company, had no qualms about taking Indian mistresses; this was one of the “perks” of living in the tropics. But after the British began to rule India, not as traders but as a kind of superior caste, sex with the natives became a taboo, something upper-caste Hindus understood very well. The taboo was no doubt broken on some occasions, but this degraded the white sahib in Indian as well as British eyes. So even though every encounter between Jaya and Osborne is charged with erotic attraction, nothing happens, nothing can be allowed to happen. Even sex between the sahibs and memsahibs had to be discreet to maintain face in the eyes of the more fastidious natives. Nirad Chaudhuri, for one, was shocked by the sight of white couples carousing on Indian beaches, thereby “bringing disgrace upon the great European tradition of adultery established by all the historic adulteresses from Cleopatra to Madame de Stael.”2

The penchant among Indian aristocrats for seducing as many white women as they could was degrading in a different way. It was part of their playacting—collecting Hollywood starlets was not so different from collecting Hispano-Suizas. But it was also a kind of racial revenge, though the revenge was not as sweet as it should have been, for it was infused with self-hatred. Mehta catches this well in her description of Jaya as a new bride, still very much the traditional Rajput princess, pining for her absent husband. She asks her older friend and mentor, Lady Modi, otherwise known as Bapsy, why she appears to fill her husband with disgust:

“Is it the color of our skin? Our hair? Are white women so much more beautiful than we are?”

“Of course not, darling. It's just that you represent everything the British Empire has taught Pratap and Victor to despise. …”

So what should she do about it?

If you want to attract your husband, Princess, you must make the British envy Pratap, not patronize him. You must make yourself into a woman who is desirable to white men.

This still rings true today, from Bombay to Tokyo, where some women continue to have their eyes fixed to look more Western. Of course this is not for the benefit of Western males, who, in any case, tend to prefer exotic Asian beauty, but to suit their own notion that physically the West is best.

Jaya tries her best to dress like a European flapper, but never becomes the caricature that her cocktail-swilling friend Bapsy is. Nor does she become quite like Bapsy's opposite, Jaya's teacher, Mrs. Roy, a nationalist from Calcutta, dressed in white cotton saris; earnest where Bapsy is frivolous, loyal where Bapsy is fickle, intellectual where Bapsy is shallow. Jaya never becomes like Mrs. Roy, because she remains an aristocrat to the end, even when registering her name as a candidate in India's first independent elections.

Jaya's rebellion is not an intellectual one as Mrs. Roy's is. She wanted to be a dutiful wife, but, rejected by her husband, she ends up hating him and everything he stands for. Refused his love, she gains his power. When she agrees to extricate him from a disastrous affair with an Anglo-Indian demimondaine formerly employed in a Calcutta brothel, she demands that she become regent of his state in the case of his death, which, as so often happens with shiftless playboys in novels, comes rather soon.

Gita Mehta's novel is important because, for once, it deals with the Raj without nostalgia or bitterness. She is at her best when describing the twisted human relations in a colonial society. The first part of the story, Jaya's childhood, interested me less than Jaya's adult life. As a child she is only among Rajputs, with the occasional intrusion of a white man or a Bengali teacher. But it is in the milieu of nationalist radicals, Anglo-Indian mistresses, cynical politicians, decadent maharajahs, and Indian flappers that the novel really comes alive. It is, one feels, a milieu Mehta knows very well: that small, still-existing society in India, where East meets West, a sometimes fruitful, sometimes hilarious, sometimes disastrous encounter. The novel ends with Indira Gandhi's parliamentary bill of 1970, discontinuing privy purses and abolishing the concept of rulership. It was the formal end of princely rule in India. But in few countries is the legacy of history, in spirit and form, so apparent as in India.

The worst legacy of modern colonialism, in India and elsewhere, has been the idea, very much in the foreground of Mehta's novel, that superior race gave Europeans a divine right, even duty, to rule the world. It has left Westerners with a crippling sense of guilt, dangerously affecting their judgment of non-Western affairs. And it has left resentment and a confused sense of inferiority among the former colonial subjects. (The Japanese are a separate case; they tried to outdo the West by claiming they were the divine race destined to rule the world.)

But—and this is one of the strongest themes in Mehta's book—it was the same West, with its machines and institutions, that inspired freedom and democracy, that broke the bangles of feudal bondage. The rhetoric of Indian nationalists was picked up in England, from the Fabians and the London School of Economics. The Bengali babus were in the vanguard of nationalist agitation because—unlike most of their British rulers—they were au courant with European ideas; they had read the books people read in London, Oxford, and Cambridge.

They were despised by the British for having done so, for acting above their station, imitating absurdly the ways of a superior race. The British much preferred Indians to remain exotic, hardy warriors, loyal Johnny Pathans and dependable Sikhs, colorful in dress, traditional in behavior. One of the paradoxes of the Raj, deeply confusing to educated Indians, is that the British encouraged emulation on the one hand and hated it on the other. They taught the Indian princes how to play cricket and sent them to English schools, but sniggered at the result: the half-baked Englishman, at home only in places like the Calcutta Turf Club. As Lord Curzon said about the princes at a gathering in 1902:

Amid the leveling tendency of the age and the inevitable monotony of government conducted upon scientific lines, they keep alive the traditions and customs, they sustain the virility, and they save from extinction the picturesqueness of ancient and noble races.

Note that word picturesque. Above all, India had to be picturesque and, of course, ancient—not so different from the attitude to Asia of the modern Western tourist, or even the well-meaning liberal: ancient and noble culture, not democracy, traditions, and customs, not the modern blight of materialism, machines, money. Under the Raj, the British took care of the money and the machines. And as long as the princes behaved traditionally, that is, as long as they were loyal to the British Crown, like feudal knights to their lords, they could have their champagne parties and golden cars. And it had to be said, those maharajahs threw some damned good parties.

It was the British, more than the Indians, who first attempted to define and preserve traditional India. This irony is often forgotten by writers who see Western colonialism only as an assault on traditional values. No doubt the Raj changed much in India (pace those who argue that it was nothing more than a swift ripple in the unchanging and largely inert ocean of Indian history), and all change is a challenge to what existed before. But it is a mistake to pit Western modernity (the machine) too neatly against the fragile glass bangles of Indian tradition. Indeed, some of the picturesque customs of India were of a British make.

Nirad Chaudhuri has pointed out how “the orientalism which became one of the two elements in the modern Indian synthesis, was not the native and traditional Sanskrit learning, but the new learning about the East created by the European orientalists.”3 And in his wonderful essay in The Invention of Tradition,4 Bernard S. Cohn writes how Victorian Englishmen fretted about the Indian “heritage.” They decided which monuments ought to be preserved, collected arts and crafts, translated classic texts, and compiled Indian history. “The British rulers,” writes Cohn,

were increasingly defining what was Indian in an official and “objective” sense. Indians had to look like Indians: before 1860 Indian soldiers as well as their European officers wore western-style uniforms; now the dress uniforms of Indians and English included turbans, sashes and tunics thought to be Mughal or Indian.

Injecting nationalist anthropology into politics was a popular idea in nineteenth-century Europe. That was what the Olympic Games were all about: the pageantry of man, each nation in its own uniform, singing its own lusty folk songs, waving its own banners. And this, on an imperial scale, is what the great durbars were about, when the British viceroy, or on one occasion the king-emperor himself, held court in Delhi, like the Mughal emperors before them, to the assembled aristocracy of India. The Indian princes were each issued their own coat of arms, designed by one Robert Taylor, a civil servant and amateur heraldist. Queen Victoria was proclaimed Kaiser-I-Hind in 1876, a brand new title suggested by G. W. Leitner, a professor of Oriental languages.

Cohn gives a hilarious description of the first Imperial Assemblage in Delhi, commemorating Victoria's promotion to empress. Eighty-four thousand Indians and Europeans had pitched their tents over a space of five miles. On January 1, 1877, to the sounds of the “March of Tannhauser,” the viceroy Lord Lytton and his wife made their appearance, waving regally from their silver seat perched on top of the largest elephant in India, owned by the Rajah of Benares.

The point of all this is that the British deliberately used picturesque Indian tradition to strengthen their own power, creating a hierarchy of flags and banners, gathered like a great patchwork under the banner of the Kaiser-I-Hind. The diversity of race, religion, and languages of India, demonstrated at these jamborees, made it clear how unity was only possible under the “good government” of the British Crown.

This may not have been entirely a matter of playacting or cynical manipulation. Lord Curzon, like most people of his class and time, truly believed in tradition and customs and ancient and noble races. Certainly Benjamin Disraeli, the architect of British India and the prime mover behind that glorious Imperial Assembly of 1877, did. Hannah Arendt made the persuasive argument that Disraeli dazzled British aristocrats by promoting the myth of his ancient Jewish racial heritage, more ancient and far purer than that of the British aristocracy, which had seen too many infusions of new blood over the years. Race, said Disraeli, was the key to history, and there “is only one thing which makes a race and that is blood,” and there is only one aristocracy, the “aristocracy of nature,” which consists of “an unmixed race of a first-rate organization.”5 The first-rate organization, in his feverish imagination, was the British Empire and he, as a natural aristocrat, stood at its pinnacle with his beloved queen.

Racial pride, in the new scheme of things, was about all the Indian princes had left. The Rajput warrior, boasting of his ancient bloodlines, dazzled upper-class Englishmen in the same way Disraeli did. This is one reason, apart from the dashed good shooting parties, why the British still looked up to the princes, no matter how absurd their behavior, while despising the Bengali babus.

There was certainly an element of this in the British worship of Ranjitsinhji, Jam Saheb of Nawanagar, a famous cricketer before World War I. (Ranji, sometimes known as “the black prince,” makes a brief appearance in Mehta's book, riding to King George's durbar in a solid silver coach.) A. G. Gardener, one of Ranji's British admirers, wrote a celebrated homage to the great cricketer, which is still recited in Indian schools:

The caste system of our own cricket field as of our own society has only the basis in riches. You cannot be a Runjeet Singh—to give the Jam Saheb the true rendering of his much abused name—unless you have the blood of the lion race in your veins, but you may join the old nobility of England if you have made a brilliant speculation in rubber. …

Disraeli would have been amused.

So while the British machine helped to destroy the dharma of the warrior, as Jaya's father lamented, the Raj may actually have helped to strengthen the mythology of warriorhood. The so-called martial races were the Indian corollary of the cold-bath-can-do spirit of the British White Man's Burden. Many Indian princes outdid themselves to fight for the British Empire in both world wars. It was one way for Rajput warriors to retrieve their dharma, even though it quickly became apparent that, as Jaya's father put it, “This is no war for men. It is a war between the mechanisms of slaughter.” The salvation of the Hindus, said Swami Vivekananda, who toured the US with great success in the 1890s, lay in three Bs: beef, biceps, and Bhagavad-Gita. It was his answer to the “muscular Christianity” of Dr. Arnold's England. He said it, it is true, in a moment of despair about British colonial rule. But his response, to match the discipline (a key word of the Raj) and virility of the conqueror, with the same qualities, was typical. To add yet another irony to the history of the Raj, it was a decidedly unmartial Bengali intellectual, Subhas Chandra Bose, who finally gave political expression to militarism.

“Discipline,” said a Rajput rajah, showing me around early this year in the Rajastan desert, where Gita Mehta's novel is set, “discipline is the only thing we learnt from the British worth learning, and Indians have lost that. No more discipline.”

One hears the same in Singapore and Malaysia: discipline and racial pride, the two prongs of British colonial ideology, are now part of postcolonial propaganda. Social Darwinism, largely discredited in the West, is very much alive in the minds of many Asian leaders. This is the final irony of the empire whose sun never set, that men like Lee Kuan Yew, who fought the British for their countries' independence, now castigate the West for being flabby and decadent, for having forgotten discipline, pride, in short, the old White Man's Burden. The “traditional values” of Singapore, touted as Confucian, are also the values of the Raj. The Darwinist ideas promoted by the likes of Malaysia's prime minister Mahathir would have been warmly applauded by Rudyard Kipling.

Where does this leave the Indian princes, the Rajput descendants of Gita Mehta's heroes? They seem as ambivalent as ever.

The rajah visitor pointed at the desert villages from his jeep: “Look around, life is just as it was before it was disturbed by the British.”

“How was it disturbed?”

He waved his hand dismissively: “Oh, they built electricity, railways, all that.”

“Was that a bad thing?”

“It was nothing at all. Look what has been achieved in forty years of independence. Compared to that the Raj was insignificant. They gave us some cars. A few Rolls Royces, here and there. But now we have our own Indian cars. We have airlines, we have nuclear power. Of that we are very, very proud.”

And so, a proud man, he returned to his palace, now a tourist hotel, where he received his guests with the courtesy one expects from a Rajput educated like an English gentleman at one of the former princely schools. Some of the lady guests, an Australian painter, a British schoolteacher, a French antique dealer, were dressed up in silk saris. One blond woman had daubed a red spot on her forehead, as though she were a Hindu. On her wrists glittered a mass of glass and silver bangles.


  1. Quoted from Gayatri Devi's memoir: A Princess Remembers (1976).

  2. Thy Hand, Great Anarch! (Addison-Wesley, 1988), p. 167.

  3. The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian (University of California Press, 1951), p. 447.

  4. Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger, eds., The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge University Press, 1983).

  5. In Hannah Arendt, Anti-Semitism (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1968), p. 73.

Yasmin Alibhai (review date 16 June 1989)

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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 life of political commitment and power as she applies to be a candidate in the first free elections in her country. Jaya's story is obviously also meant to symbolize the history of India itself as it moved turbulently from the end of the 19th century to independence in 1949 and the liberation of Indian women as these historical convulsions rocked the social structures of the society.

It doesn't work and the problem may well be the aureate bowl. There is far too much meaningless detail, far too much cloying fascination with the exotic. In an article in the Observer a few years ago, Salman Rushdie attacked the kind of Raj Revival Enterprise that had started to flourish in Britain in the eighties. It represented, he said, the recrudescence of an imperial ideology, because the revival was only really interested in creating “a false orient of cruel-lipped princes, dusky slim-hipped maidens, ungodliness of fire and the sword … where the natives are surrounded by the branding of human flesh, snakery and widow burning”. So why has Gita Mehta, an Indian writer, joined in this exploitative enterprise?

It can, of course, be argued that she is only being historically accurate, that these things did happen. It is clear from the various acknowledgments and references that much research has gone into the book. Gandhi, Nehru, Curzon, Naidu, Jinnah, Dyer all get a mention, and many others besides. But this is supposed to be a novel and not a boil-in-the-bag history/social anthropology lesson and the imaginative leap that is needed to transform historical realities into fictional realities is rarely made. Unlike the British writers and film makers who have an addiction to the subject, Mehta does try to show how the colonials used their power to manipulate people and destroy systems which had evolved through the centuries, but the impact of this is reduced by the overwhelming presence of opulent decadence.

There is hardly any development of character. Jaya ponders in the same idiom, and with the same awareness, as child and adult. At the age of ten, we are required to believe that she “realized with an aching sense of loss that she had ceased to be a child”. She never does anything solid or memorable. Her power comes to her simply because all those who would have had it conveniently die, one by one. First her father, then her brother, then her despicable husband and finally her son. This may be how the outside world treated Indian women, but does Jaya's internal life have to respond with such lassitude? Writers like Ila Mehta and Mrinal Pande also deal with the powerlessness of Indian women, but their heroines seethe and plot and joust, at least within the safe confines of their brains.

Mehta occasionally gives us a glimpse of what she is capable of writing, a peep behind the purdah. And these are moments when she shows her real feelings. She is angry when she describes how the British reduced the Maharajahs to impotent puppets—“Your empire absorbed our armies, castrated our nobles, confused our scholars, diminished our priests …”—and appalled at the humiliation of Jaya at the hands of her husband when he finally rips into her body “until her glass bangles smashed into the jasmine garlands and blood stained the crushed petals”. She is afraid when she writes, “Fear opened like a trapdoor beneath the Maharani.”

Mehta is also very good when she describes the pain of the west exerting its influence over the east, when Indian sons lose themselves in the arms of French whores and despise their own people. “Are white women more beautiful than we are?” asks Jaya, and is then persuaded to make herself into a woman who is desirable to white men so that her husband will want her. The shadowy figures who come and go also work because they remain ambiguous and escape the verbal overloading that the main characters are burdened with.

But these brief moments do not rescue the book from its superficiality and cliched obsessions. As Rushdie says: “The jewel in the crown is made these days of paste.”

Sarah Curtis (review date 7 July 1989)

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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, Jaisalmer, Patiala and the other real States mentioned in the book as allies and neighbours. The idea of scanning the disintegration of the Rajputs through the lattice chinks of the zanana from which Mehta's heroine has to emerge is an ambitious and attractive one. The device of a hero born at a historic hour was used by Salman Rushdie in Midnight's Children, but there the parallels cease. Unfortunately, Mehta shows neither his narrative skill nor his imaginative gift.

Jaya is caught between conflicting traditions. Her father, the Maharajah Jai Singh, has taught her the traditional four arms of kingship: Saam—a king must serve his people's needs; Daan—he must provide for their welfare; Dand—he must punish injustice; and Bhed, he must protect the kingdom with treaties and alliances. He is himself much troubled by Bhed, for which he has to appease the rapacious, arrogant British, who tax the loyal princes out of existence and ignore the ancient wisdoms of their land. He sends his heir to England in order to be educated, then killed fighting in the First World War; and yet he hires as his daughter's tutor Mrs Roy, whose brother is a leader of the independence movement.

As disaster after disaster befalls her house, Jaya is contracted in a marriage of convenience to Pratrap, the playboy Prince of ancient Sirpur, more interested in his mistresses than his responsibilities. She responds with a loyalty bred of her upbringing, plays a waiting game and suffers humiliation after humiliation, not least when being shaped into a more sophisticated consort by the strange Lady Modi, a character out of Waugh who is given the odd perceptive line: “You represent”, Lady Modi tells her charge, “everything the British Empire has taught Pratrap to despise.”

Perhaps Jaya's passivity symbolizes that of mother India; but it has the effect of exposing the mechanics of the plot. The duplicity of the British, the incapacity of the princes to combine to protect their traditions, and the divisions between India's religions, are exhaustively reported. Sometimes a historical character such as Annie Besant or Rabindranath Tagore is inserted into an episode, sometimes there are pages of exposition covering the conferences and events of the year. Like the detail of religious ritual, life in the harem, festival and ceremony, all this is fascinating in its own right but never satisfactorily integrated. Even the satirical accounts of the ludicrous excesses of princely decadence lose their edge because they are set-pieces.

The most interesting character in the book is Jaya's mother, changing from a widow who would have liked to have committed suttee on her husband's funeral pyre to a follower of Gandhi on his salt march. But she does this off-page, and we only hear about it briefly; she is really only a vehicle to represent an aspect of the Indian scene Gita Mehta wanted to project. The English officer of the Raj, with whom Jaya has been half in love since they were both children, serves a similar dual function, as romantic interest and as a symbol of the more acceptable aspects of the British. In the modern Indian tradition, sexuality pervades the book, but we are spared most of the detail.

The trouble is that like most of her characters, Mehta has been over whelmed by conflicting aims. Her serious attention to her theme saves the book from being a mere blockbuster yarn or historical romance; but she shows how difficult it is to combine epic sweep with an exploration of one individual's dharma.

Betty Abel (review date October 1989)

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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 plot concerns Jaya, a Princess raised in purdah who inevitably falls in love with a handsome young Englishman. Forced to marry a dissolute, unattractive Indian Prince, she later has an affair with a politically radical but heartless Casanova. Nonetheless, Jaya emerges a resolute, politically mature and well-balanced lady, bearing a suspicious resemblance to Indira Ghandi. But there is more to the novel than it seems so trite a plot could bear.

Written by an Indian woman, one moreover who finished her education at Cambridge, the book is marked out by its acceptance of the traditional culture of the Maharajahs which the author can show effortlessly, without self-conscious explanations of the kind which even Paul Scott, being English, needs to deploy in Jewel in the Crown. Gita Mehta also understands, without trying, the peculiar chemistry of the Anglo-Indian relationship. She depicts the irresistible attraction of the Western ethic for high-born Indian nationals. The contrasts between the extreme poverty of the masses and the wealth of the Indian elite are shown with exceptional clarity, yet with an innate understanding of the philosophy of the Princes and of the bloodthirsty warrior class in all its medieval arrogance. Simultaneously she knows the meaning of the conservatism of her parents, already an anachronism in the early 1900s, and the choice of a freer democracy for her own generation.

The two alternatives, conveyed by the men in her life, show Mehta the failings of both sides of the Indian struggle, the British and the nationalist. But above all they reveal the inherent contradiction in the English habit of requiring the Princes and professionals to adopt British ideas of democracy and at the same time treating all Indians, whether high or lowly born, as inferior. The women came out of purdah into a different but equally unhappy bondage: it seemed like slavery with a twist, and was just as unacceptable. On the other side, the Nationalists imagined a smooth transition to Western theories of statehood for the inhabitants of an already deeply divided land, full of physical and spiritual contrasts.

The heroine's decision to embrace political life might well be seen as a reflection of Indira Ghandi's life: her ambition was to reconcile the aspirations of Westernized, educated Indians with those of the masses for reasonably stable living conditions. The author's feeling for the innermost desires of all the protagonists makes her contribution to the fiction and history of present-day India an important one.

Lavinia Greenlaw (review date 4 June 1993)

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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 novel follows the experiences of an Indian bureaucrat who retires to run a government resthouse, in the jungle by the sacred Narmada river. He has become a vanaprasthi, “someone who has retired to the forest to reflect”. The Narmada is the focus of his meditations, and its many historical and mythological associations mean that he finds life literally flowing past his door; for the river attracts pilgrims and refugees of all kinds. Their stories are brief but intense human dramas that not only explore the desire for enlightenment but also express the complex roots of India's cultural and political heritage.

The bureaucrat's first encounter is with a Jain monk. The son of a diamond merchant, he has forgone a life of luxury in order to seek a greater truth. The pattern of this story is repeated throughout the book: the outcome is apparent from the start but contains a powerful mystery, luring the reader into the tale. Drawing such devices from traditional storytelling, Mehta also seems to be challenging the reader with the idea that the natural focus of interest is not meaning but motivation: as much is revealed in how the characters express themselves as in what they say. The monk casually announces that his father spent 62 million rupees on the ceremony to mark his “departure from the world”. Despite his assertion that “Ritual means nothing if you do not know the longing that precedes it”, it is the chaotic splendour of this three-day event, with its silver chariots and painted elephants, that holds the bureaucrat's attention.

Repeatedly, the lesson to be drawn from the bureaucrat's encounters seems to be that the knowledge he is seeking will not be found through study and observation, but through experience and, in particular, the experience of desire. “How can you say you have given up the world when you know so little of it?” asks his friend, Tariq Mia, the mullah, who teases him with erotic Sufi songs and, in turn, relates the chilling story of a failed singer turned music-teacher whose ambition for his angelic-voiced pupil leads to the child's death.

Each story contains profound upheaval—a moment when the protagonist is forced to accept a painful revelation or to let go of long-held beliefs: a cynical executive is literally seduced by tribal ritual when he leaves the city to manage a tea garden; a courtesan sees the irrelevance of her ancient art when faced with the conviction of the outlaw, who kidnapped her believing they were married in a former life; and an ascetic rejects the constraints of his austere religious order, to save a young girl from prostitution, acting once more in the secular world.

An interesting fusion of cultural influences evokes a world in which the forces of tradition and change are equally visible: the music teacher takes his pupil to a Calcutta park where the homeless sleep beneath English oaks caught in the red flash of nearby neon light; goatherds graze their flocks next to a Victoria memorial and store their milk in aluminium cans; and the future of the young singer is decided on by a recording studio, then denied by a murderer whose status places him beyond the law. Mehta is gifted at identifying the vivid moments and concise observations that can illuminate such a complex society. Her book about the impact of Western culture on India, Karma Cola (1979), was acclaimed for this achievement, and her first novel Raj (1989) is packed with historical detail, expressed through the narrative rather than imposed on it.

The voice of A River Sutra is quieter and more formal. It has a clarity and a dignity that contains these stories of endurance and loss, avoiding any excess of sentiment or pathos. The harshness of life is inescapable and the value of its lessons paramount. Whenever the bureaucrat is distracted by esoteric abstracts, his assumptions are challenged and he is reminded of the book's epigraph: “Man is the greatest truth. Nothing beyond.”

Gita Mehta has a strong sense of dramatic tension and the ability to construct powerful intrigues in the briefest exchange. A River Sutra ends with a brilliant narrative twist, revealed just when the bureaucrat, and the reader, have perhaps become a little too sure of their understanding. With gentle humour, Mehta removes the possibility of a definitive answer. This is ultimately a satisfying conclusion, as the bureaucrat's much-patronized servant Chagla shyly asserts: “Nothing is ever lost, sir. That is the beauty of a river view.”

William Dalrymple (review date 5 June 1993)

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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 (seduced—of course—by kidnapped virgins on ‘thin cotton quilts’ in the jungle), ‘charms that give men the strength of elephants in rut’ and, most extravagant of all,

an underground civilisation stretching all the way to the Arabian sea, peopled by a mysterious race, half human, half cobra.

Forget marital infidelity in NW1: in A River Sutra top executives do it with snakes.

All this comes as something of a surprise from a writer who first made her name—at the end of the flare-flapping, tie-dyed Seventies—by demythologising India. In Karma Cola: Marketing of the Mystic East, Gita Mehta had great fun mocking the gullible Westerners who unloaded their purses into the open palms of crooked gurus and bhagwans cruising past in their pink Rolls Royces en route for the deposit counter of the nearest Grindlays Bank. Under chapter headings like ‘Om Is Where the Art Is’ and ‘Sex and the Single Guru’, Mehta lovingly dissected the fraudulent hocus pocus which saw them being so readily lapped up by the credulous hippies wandering India in search of grass and nirvana.

Thirteen years (and a Hindu revival) later, Mehta's tone is very different. This time Hinduism is treated with more reverence: there are no gags in this book about sexy swamis and holy hash. The key question is: has Gita Mehta finally embraced the mumbo-jumbo she so ferociously mocked in Karma Cola?

Although at first sight it may seem so, Mehta is far too clever and careful a writer to let herself fall into this trap. She walks a thin line, demonstrating her love for the poetry of Hindu mythology and her admiration for the genuine spirituality of rural India—while always managing to distance herself from anything overtly mystical: she quickly sends up any of her characters who seem in danger of taking the shakti too seriously. In A River Sutra Mehta has a pretty good crack at having her Karma cake and eating it.

The narrator of A River Sutra is an elderly bureaucrat who, on the death of his wife, retires from the red tape of the City and takes a job as the humble manager of a government rest house on the banks of the Narmada. The book develops through a series of self-contained stories and fables told to the rest-house manager by his guests and acquaintances. The stories are united not only by their being told on the banks of the river, but also by their themes, all of which reflect the river's name: Narmada derives from the Sanskrit word for desire. The stories are parables, each bearing a Chaucerian title (“The Monk's Story,” “The Musician's Story”) and illustrating a different aspect of the destructive nature of love and lust: some also examine the possibility of renunciation.

For all their fantastic subject-matter—demon lovers, naked wanderers, and so on, the fables are beautifully told in a wonderfully stark and simple prose style. The stories sometimes read like modern fairy tales, and in both style and content A River Sutra owes a lot to R. K. Narayan, the Indian writer Gita Mehta most admires. She shares Narayan's ability to secrete a powerful and serious message in writing of deceptive naïvety, and as with Narayan it is often only on reflection that the true weight and import of a story dawns on the reader. Indeed the book's brevity and concentrated economy belie the importance of its concerns.

It is only when we move in the territory of courtly India that Mehta's descriptive faculties begin to spin out of control. In the “Courtesan's Story” we get pages of this sort of thing:

[My grandmother] spoke of being rowed to lake palaces under a star-filled sky. Of gossamer nets hanging over beds strewn with jasmine blossoms. Pearls scattered on the sheets. Arched doorways opening to balconies, below which the water lapped softly against the stone foundations.

And so on and on. As many others before her have demonstrated, the courts of the Maharajahs are perilous places for a writer to enter, as they have a tendency to envelop even the finest books on India in a hot mist of purple superlatives. Ruth Prawer Jhabvala is at her most unconvincing when dealing with pearl-hung rajahs; even Paul Scott ran into trouble with an excess of peacock fans.

Yet despite this, A River Sutra most resembles an album of courtly Mogul miniatures. While these images lack the solid proportions and carefully calculated perspectives of their Western counterparts, they still have an exquisite charm of their own. In Western art, men are portrayed as men. In Mogul miniatures they are elevated to saints, sufis and heroes, gorgeously attired in bright primary colours, and arranged in compositions which hint at the possibility of the fabulous. So it is with this book. The result is certainly every bit as unexpected and enigmatic as the jewelled images produced in the mysterious ateliers of the Great Moguls.

Merle Rubin (review date 2 July 1993)

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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 India's holy river, the Narmada.

This peaceful retreat proves to be fertile ground for studying the amazing variety of human behavior. Drawn to the sacred river, a wide array of pilgrims, ascetics, saints, and sinners—even an archaeologist—furnish stories to fascinate, bemuse, and astonish the rest-house manager.

There are stories of people deranged by love, of discouraged people who come to the river in the hope of healing. A young Jain, heir to his family's fortune, tells how he cast off his worldly possessions to follow the harsh, self-denying life of a Jain monk. A Muslim music teacher describes the tragic fate of his most gifted pupil, who had the ability to transport listeners into a state of mystic Sufi rapture. A little girl is rescued by a wandering Hindu ascetic from a life of degradation—with ever more surprising results.

Artists, musicians, outlaws, monks, and mullahs, Hindus, Muslims, Jains, believers, and skeptics—all these diverse individuals and types are presented as tributaries of the great river of Indian culture. Mehta, author of two previous novels, writes with power and simplicity, cleverly weaving the stories into a well-designed whole.

Rahul Jacob (review date 11 July 1993)

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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 by turning to books for counsel.

The notion of writers as a secular clergy is not a novel one, but Gita Mehta would seem an unlikely candidate for that literary pulpit. It was she, after all, who, in her sometimes excessive satire Karma Cola, took—and gave—such delight in skewering the thousands of American and European flower children who traipsed across India in the 1970s in search of enlightenment. They usually met hucksters instead of holy men, and Mehta reveled in the confusion: “They thought we were profound. We knew we were provincial.”

In A River Sutra, Mehta returns to the same spiritual territory, examining afresh the tendency to disengage from the world rather too quickly. Hers is a humanist interpretation. The novel begins with the words of a 14th-Century Indian poet: “Listen, O brother. Man is the greatest truth. Nothing beyond.”

The novel's narrator is a civil servant who gives up an important post to manage a government guest house on the banks of the holy River Narmada. In the Hindu tradition, he is now “a vanaprasthi, who has retired to the forest to reflect.” He rises before dawn to meditate. At twilight, he watches the river “flickering with tiny flames as if catching fire from the hundreds of clay lamps being floated downstream for the evening devotion.”

It turns out, though, that the narrator is at the intersection of a busy human thoroughfare. The power of the river draws all kinds of travelers, who have fantastic, often savage stories to tell. At a bazaar, he meets a gifted musician who is making a pilgrimage to the river Narmada because a broken engagement has left her unable to play a note. Her story also provides the stage for a melodic and accessible discourse on Indian classical music. In another tale, the narrator learns of a music teacher who adopted a blind beggar with a singing talent of which a jealous patron will say, “Such a voice is not human. What will happen to music if this is the standard by which God judges us?” Despite the story's tragic ending, it is apparent that the boy has filled a void in the teacher's life.

Steering cavalierly clear of emotional entanglement, on the other hand, can leave a hole in the heart. An executive at a tea company arrives at the rest house, seeking a riverside temple where he can rid himself of the curse of a tribal woman he has jilted. She has retaliated by capturing his soul between two halves of a coconut during a lunar eclipse. Now he believes he is possessed. The narrator is appalled, but his assistant is sanguine about the young mans predicament: “Without desire, there is no life. Everything will stand still. Become emptiness.” These tales, more Grimm than fairy, are deeply unsettling for the narrator. “I suppose all this emotion alarms me,” he confesses. “It strikes me as somehow undignified.”

By the end, the narrator realizes that “destiny has brought me to the banks of the Narmada to understand the world.” The reader feels similarly enlightened. Mehta uses parables, myths, even hymns to weave a book of unusual wisdom, one that gently questions our tendency to quarantine ourselves from the exhilaration and disappointment of attachment. Love and desire are shown to be both noble and barbaric, and not always—indeed, not often—in our control. She suggests that we are never more alive than when we go with the flow of our passions and ambitions; our lives will not be as tidy perhaps, but they will be more fulfilling. On occasion, though, Mehta seems to worry that her readers may not get her drift. She then hammers it home with jarring zealotry.

The structure of the novel is deliberately Indian. The use of a narrator or a sutradhar (someone who knits the story together) harks back to the oral tradition of Indian epics. And, instead of the taut, linear narrative of a Western novel, A River Sutra (literally a thread) moves like a spinning wheel. Every yarn begins the lazy circle again, another variation on the novel's central themes. Each story ends with a beguiling tug into the next one. The simplicity of Mehta's writing nicely complements the novel's profound concerns. Nor does the wheel stop when you finish the book. It keeps turning, turning, turning for days afterward, assuaging your doubts, questioning your certainties.

Gabriele Annan (review date 15 July 1993)

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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 much aphorisms as parables. They are as easy-to-read, unanalytical, and, in some cases, as violent as the ones in the New Testament—or the tales of Scheherazade, for that matter. This gives them an antique patina in piquant contrast to the jeeps, sound recorders, air conditioning, and relics from a later period of antiquity—like a copy of Goren's Contract Bridge moldering in a tea plantation bungalow or the clerk in the guest house who sounds just like the babu in Kipling's Kim.

The string part of the narrative is provided by a senior bureaucrat who has chosen to become “a vanaprasthi, someone who has retired to the forest to reflect”—though not to the point of radical asceticism. “I knew I was simply not equipped to wander into the jungle and become a forest hermit,” he says. His compromise is to apply for the humble post of managing a government rest house deep in the jungle on the banks of the sacred Narmada River. The parables are brought to him by guests, pilgrims, and fugitives of one kind or another who wash up there, and by his friend Tariq Mia. Tariq Mia is the octogenarian mullah of a Sufi shrine near the rest house. The bureaucrat is a Hindu. Their values don't differ too much, because “Indo-Sufism is based on the concept of mystical love.” But the bureaucrat has no gift at all for spiritual insight, so the mullah gets plenty of opportunity to instruct him and the reader at the same time. An idealistic rationalist doctor who runs a six-bed hospital in the nearest little town makes up the trio of ideological positions from which they comment on the six stories that emerge, one by one, from the holy river.

In the first a millionaire playboy leaves the world to become a Jain monk. The second is about a poor Sufi musician who adopts a blind boy with a beautiful voice and trains him as a religious singer. He sings so divinely that he is offered a recording contract, and a rich patron tries to buy him. When his offer is refused, he cuts the boy's throat. In the third story, a sophisticated young tea broker from Calcutta is sexually bewitched by a tribal woman on a tea plantation. He has a breakdown, and is cured only when he submits to a tribal cleansing ritual in the Narmada. The fourth story is the most dramatic: a distinguished courtesan teaches her daughter the high arts of her profession—music, dancing, manners, and grace—while strenuously guarding her virginity. A bandit falls in love with the girl and abducts her. She defies him at first, but eventually his passion wins her over. When he is killed in a police raid she drowns herself in the sacred river.

The fifth story describes another musical education, this time with much technical detail. A great musician has an exceptionally ugly daughter. He trains the little girl to play the veena, a stringed instrument, and when she is adolescent he accepts a young man as a pupil on condition that he marry her. The two young people are drawn together by music, and become engaged. But the man breaks his promise and the unhappy girl loses the gift of playing. The last story is about a Naga Baba, a naked ascetic follower of the god Shiva who travels the land with a skull for a begging bowl. He rescues a little girl from a brothel, brings her up, and teaches her to sing, so that she can earn her living as a river minstrel.

This story has a surprising ending which skillfully and disconcertingly jolts one's perspective on the other five: an archaeological expedition complete with crates of scientific equipment and female students in jeans arrives at the rest house. Its leader is Professor V. V. Shankar, “the foremost archaeological authority on the Narmada,” and a brisk rationalist. While he is out on an expedition, a river minstrel appears and sings for the bureaucrat. (The lyric of her song fills nearly eight pages, and there are a great many more pages of verse throughout the book.) The professor returns, and the girl bows to touch his feet: he is the Naga Baba, and she the former child prostitute. The bureaucrat is outraged: “Is this your enlightenment?” he says. “Is this why you endured all those penances?” The professor

gave me an ironic smile. “Don't you know the soul must travel through eighty-four thousand births to become a man?”

He turned and I almost didn't hear him add, “Only then can it reenter the world.”

The professor jumps into his jeep and offers the minstrel a lift into town. The bureaucrat is left gazing at the river on which the votive lamps flicker in the moonless night “as the current carried them toward the ocean.”

Mehta is telling the West something about Indian spirituality, but I'm not quite sure what it is. Perhaps she is saying that it is to be taken seriously, but not solemnly; that it is what people make it, and possibly not as transcendental as they would like to think. Anyway, she takes for her epigraph a humanistic-sounding invocation from a fourteenth-century Bengali poet:

Listen, O brother.
Man is the greatest truth.
Nothing beyond.

If she doesn't reveal one big truth, she makes up for it with lots of intriguing and enlightening smaller facts: about archaeology, anthropology, mythology, cosmology; about tribal women, and criminals, and adultery among the sophisticated rich in the big cities; about the Indian musical scale and about which is the hardest vow of abstinence to keep: “This may surprise you,” says the Jain monk. “Nonviolence. It is very tiring to be worrying all the time that you may be harming some living thing.”

In her first book, Karma Cola, Mehta mocked Western infatuation with Oriental religion. She is more tolerant and explanatory here, but an undercurrent of impatience surfaces now and then as irony, and relieves the intensity with which she writes about music, poetry, and love. Critics of her previous novel Raj complained that it had no heart. At least three of the River Sutra stories—“The Teacher's Story,” “The Courtesan's Story,” and “The Musician's Story”—have enough heart to be quite harrowing; though perhaps in the first two the effect is partly due to the violence of their endings.

Still, it is an achievement to have got so much feeling into a book so post-modern and contrived in construction, and so didactic in purpose. The most striking lesson is the importance of learning itself: every relationship in these stories is a pupil-teacher relationship. Even the tribal coolie woman has something to teach the Westernized young executive about the power of sex.

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

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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.]


A River Sutra is Gita Mehta's third novel, the other two being Karma Cola and Raj. While the first two novels are in the well-known comic-ironic mode, this novel can be said to be, roughly, in the allegorical mode. Further, one wonders whether A River Sutra can be called a novel at all. Having the Western Don Quixote and the Indian Dasakumara Charitha as its models A River Sutra exploits the formal possibilities of the genre to the fullest. It is a framed narrative. It is the story of an I.A.S. Officer, who, after retirement, chooses to be the manager of a Guest House, on the banks of the Narmada river in the Vindhya range. Since at this spot, there are pilgrimage centres of Hindus, Jains, Buddhists and Muslims, the manager constantly comes a cross many pilgrims; and, occasionally, the pilgrims tell him their strange/tragic tales. The novel, after the preamble, begins with “The Monk's Story,” and ends with “The Song of the Narmada.” In all there are seven inset-stories.

Although ancient Indian aestheticians were content to distinguish between Katha and Akhyayika on the basis of who the narrator is, and didn't explore the narrative further,1 if we bring together such long narratives as Kathasaritsagara, Panchatantra, Kadambari and Dasakumara Charita, we can construct an Indian narrative tradition and identify its constituents. To start with, all Indian narratives—be they epics like Mahabaratha, fiction such as Kadambari, or folk-narratives like Vethal Panchavimshati—are framed narratives. In fact, the strategy of ‘framing’ seems to be essentially oriental, which reached Europe during the Middle Ages through Arabic. Many of Boccaccio's and Chaucer's tales have been traced back to India.2 Often there is a ‘double or triple framing’.3 Secondly, the narrative mode in the Indian (or Oriental) tradition is non-realistic and fantastic. Thirdly, the framed stories are often variations of certain broad human experiences, no attempt being made to particularise either the characters or incidents in time and space. In fact, almost all narratives can be said to be variations played on a few archetypal patterns of human behaviour.

In a framed narrative, the frame could be passive or dynamic. A passive frame is one which functions only as a mechanical link among the diverse stories (as in Decameron). On the other hand, in a dynamic frame, there is constant mediation between the frame and the inset stories; each qualifying and commenting on the other (as in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales). Again, a dynamic frame may function as a counterpoint to the inset stories, providing the work multiplicity of point of view or polyphony to use Bakhtin's term4 (as in Boll's The Lost Honour of Katherina Bloom.) Or, the frame may provide a specific spatio-temporal context, as A. K. Ramanujan argues,5 to the inset story/stories (as in The Hand Maid's Tale.)

Generally, frames in Indian narratives are passive; they just serve to bring together assorted stories. Only in the case of Panchatantra, the frame has some dynamism in it: the five princes who are told the various stories learn something from each story and at the end their maturation is complete. From this point of view the frame in A River Sutra is both functional and dynamic.

The narrator in the frame, the retired bureaucrat, isn't a know-all wise man. Often, he doesn't either understand a tale told him or only partially understands it. After listening to the first tale (“The Monk's Story”) he is ‘disturbed’; and discusses the meaning of the story with his older friend Tariq Mia. Even Tariq Mia's explanation (that “the human heart has only one secret, the capacity to love” p. 48) is beyond his comprehension. Similarly, after listening to the second story, the frame-narrator is perplexed and angry. He tells the readers: “I was upset by the old Mulla's accusation that I did not understand the World” (p. 92). Sometimes, even Mr. Chagla, his assistant, appears to be more knowledgeable. When Mr. Chagla states, as if he is stating the obvious, that “without desire there is no life”, the frame-narrator is baffled. “I stared at him in astonishment”, he adds (p. 142).

The point to be noticed here is that the frame-narrator also grows as the novel progresses. In fact, from one point of view, he could be considered the centre around whom and whose process of perception and understanding of men and society, the entire novel revolves. When the novel begins, he is a ‘Vana prasthi’, and he is determined to be totally detached from the world, from the elevated position of self-assumed wisdom. But at the end, his older friend, Tariq Mia tells him: “Destiny is playing tricks on you. Don't you realize you were brought here to gain the world, not forsake it?” (p. 228) The retired bureaucrat is annoyed and claims that he knows the world well enough. Later, however, he realizes that still he is groping in the dark: “I stared at the flashes of illumination, wondering for the first time what I would do if I ever left the Bungalow” (p. 282).

More importantly, what is to be stressed in the structuring of the novel is its multiple focalisation.6 Tariq Mia, the friend-philosopher of the main narrator, is also limited in his grasp of men and matters. In fact, there is no single character in the novel whose knowledge of the world is not imperfect. Each tale, narrated from a limited point of view, is later discussed, analysed and commented upon, again in their limited comprehension, by the two frame characters, who share a sort of teacher-pupil relationship. In other words, the novelist here, consciously, seems to adapt the framework of the Upanishads—the pupil sitting close to the teacher and entering into a dialogue with him. In the very beginning of the novel, the writer underscores this point, making her principal narrator say: “Do you know what the word Upanishad means? It means to sit beside and listen. Here I am, sitting, eager to listen.” (p. 13)

Now, coming to the framed tales, each of the seven tales is designed as a variation on the single theme of ‘attachment.’ While the frame-narrator is one who has renounced the world, the first inset-story is of the heir to an international diamond merchant, who also resolves (following the model of Mahavira) to renounce the world, yearning to be free from the world. But, after becoming a Jain Monk, having renounced every possession, he realises he has newer bonds with the world. After narrating his tale, he states, he has to hurry and join his brother monks. “I am too poor to renounce the world twice”, he admits (p. 41). And this admission bewilders the principal narrator. The succeeding tales also, similarly, play off the themes of ‘attachment-detachment.’ Whereas passionate attachment leads to tragic consequences in the “Teacher's Story” and “The Executive's Story,” “The Musician's Story” and “The Minstrel's Story” uphold detachment. But again, the last story—“The Song of the Narmada”—registers the futility of detachment. The Naga Baba returns to the world as an archaeologist and undertakes Narmada excavations. In other words, each tale either contradicts or qualifies the implications of the earlier tale/s (as in Canterbury Tales); and all the inset-tales are qualified by the frame. Consequently, what we get at the end of the novel is a multiple vision of the ‘many-coloured dome’—Life.

The vision of life implied by the totality of the text is a paradoxical position of both ‘attachment-detachment.’ The frame and a few inset-stories mount a serious critique of attachment to the world in the form of wealth, power and sensual indulgence. While the principle narrator is sick of a highly placed bureaucrat's life and voluntarily becomes a ‘Vanaprastha’, the narrator of the “Executive's Story” is even more critical. He observes in his diary that he and his ‘estate boys’, in their drinking, gambling and wenching, indulged in “Careless self-destruction.” Similarly the singer in “The Musician's Story,” transforms her unrequited love to the love of divine music.

However, the novel rejects the concept of total detachment as well. At one point, Mr. Chagla gravely states to the frame-narrator: “But, Sir, without desire there is no life. Everything will stand still. Become emptiness. In fact, Sir, be dead” (p. 142). Prof. Shankar alias Naga Baba declares towards the end, dismissing the divinity of the river Narmada: “If anything is sacred about the river, it is the individual experiences of the human beings who have lived here” (p. 267).

Such profound affirmation of life and human experience is reinforced by repeated motifs of love and rebirth. The allusions to the penance of Uma to achieve Shiva's love, to the five arrows of Kama (Panchasayaka) which none can withstand, to the death of Kama (Kamadahana) which makes Kumara's birth possible, to the origins of Veena created by Shiva to immortalize Uma's immortal beauty, to the seven notes of music which are all drawn from Nature—all these allusions indirectly uphold the divinity of love, and conjugal bliss. The lyrics of the great Sufi poet Rumi, quoted here and there appropriately, again strengthen this motif—of love, both human and divine. In fact, the entire novel, A River Sutra, is a fascinating mosaic of rich and repetitive images, motifs, and allusions.

What places the novel at the centre of Indian narrative tradition is that each inset story seems to have been selected and elaborated with an awareness of the Indian Rasa theory. For instance, the Monk's story, based on renunciation, has ‘Shanta’ as its Sthayi, and Karuna as Sanchari rasas. The Teacher's story, centred on greed and jealousy, evokes Bhibhatsa and concommitant Karuna. While the Courtesan's story evokes Sringara and Vira, the Executive's story Adbhuta and Hasya. While Vipralambha Sringara and Karuna are communicated through the Teacher's story, Adbhuta and Karuna dominate the Minstrel's story. It is appropriate from this point of view that the novel's title is partially Indian: the River ‘Sutra’.

The all-pervasive central symbol in the novel is the river Narmada. The novel captures her varied moods from varying angles. The river, born in the Vindhyas and flowing westwards, is the meeting point of all the central characters in the climatic moments of their lives. She is the “Delightful one”, “forever holy, forever inexhaustible.” If sometimes she appears as a bride, flowing to meet her bridegroom, the ocean with all ardour, some other times she has the allurement of a whore. In fact, as Dr. Mitra explains to the bureaucrat, ‘narmada’ in Sanskrit, also means ‘a whore.’ What interests Dr. Shankar, the archaeologist, in Narmada is not that it is a ‘holy’ river but that it is an immortal river. That is, “the Narmada has never changed its course. What we are seeing today is the same river that was seen by the people who lived here a hundred thousand years ago. To me such a sustained record of human presence in the same place—that is immortality” (p. 264). The cave drawings in the vicinity of Narmada are among the “oldest evidence of human life in India.” The ancient Alexandrian geographer, Ptolemy, wrote about the Narmada. Vyasa is supposed to have dictated his Mahabharatha on this river bank and Kalidasa's works graphically describe the river and the nearby Vindya range. “It is as if reason and instinct are constantly warring on the banks of the Narmada. I mean, even the war between the Aryans and the pre-Aryans is still unresolved here” (p. 153).

Obviously, Narmada symbolises Life in general, and Indian culture and society in particular. The river, with Shiva and Supaneshwara temples on one side, the Muslim mosque and the tomb of the Sufi poet, Rumi, on the other and many Jain, Buddhist and tribal temples and shrines scattered over its course, symbolises the culture that is both ancient and modern, both monotheistic and theistic, and both Aryan and non-Aryan. In fact, A River Sutra could as well have been titled ‘Bharath Sutra’.


Gita Mehta blazes a new trail after her Karma Cola's “entertaining account of the consumerist West struggling to gobble up Hinduism and choking itself in process.”7 The enlightenment she tried to pass on to the West must have prompted her to probe deep into the intricacies of Hinduism that needs reinterpretation in a language that the modern world can comprehend. Her A River Sutra is, in contrast to her Karma Cola, a serious probe not only in the mythology but also in the psychic depths of the conscious/sub-conscious/unconscious. It was no surprise that scholars tried to vie with one another in examining it at the Sixth International Commonwealth Conference held at Hyderabad (Oct. 93).8 Another Conference on Indian Writing in English held at Indore (Dec. 93) also evoked interest in the book.9

While campaign to “Save Narmada” has already been launched by environmentalists and social activists like Medha Patkar, Baba Amte, Shabana Azmi; interest in Narmada as a river acquires great significance. It would be in the fitness of things to examine first what Gita has to say about Narmada.


Shankaracharya's poem on the river is a sublime hymn to Siva's daughter (p. 2, 5). She is Siva's kripa [(Grace) p. 272]. Surasa [(cleanser) p. 273], Rewa [(dancing deer) p. 274]. She is Delight (p. 274) and at the same is also the evoker of Narma (lust) (p. 274). She is twice-born, first of penance and then of love (p. 275). If she evokes desire she also soothes. The serpent of desire is tamed on her banks (p. 6). Though suicide is a sin it is a release from the cycle of rebirth if it is on the banks of Narmada (151-52). Because of its eroding power every pebble assumes the shape of a lingam as goes the proverb along her banks Har kankar ek Shankar (every pebble is an object of worship). In order to attain Moksha one has to take a dip in the holy Ganges; but mere sight of the river ensures salvation. The devotees call her “Narmade Har!” (Cleanse us, Narmada, the Mother). The novel in this sense is not A River Sutra but A River Stotra (Stuti): An eulogy to the great river.

In addition to the mythical probe that Gita brings to her work she also substantiates it with scientific data. Mr. Shankar, the archaeologist, explains why he loves Narmada:

I'm afraid I only care for the river's immortality, not its holiness.

(p. 263)

It has a very fast current, which erodes the river bed, cutting deeper and deeper into the rock. But the Narmada has never changed its course.—To me such a sustained record of human presence in the same place—that is immortality.

(p. 264)

This river is an unbroken record of the human race. That is why I am here.

(p. 268)

“You have chosen the wrong place to flee the world, my friend”—“Too many lives converge on these banks.”

(p. 268)

At this juncture we have to remind ourselves that if mythologically Narmada is Siva's daughter; here is a Shankar trying to explain its archaeological significance. By her choice of “Mr. Shankar” Gita Mehta has lent the narrative a subtle nuance.

From the literary point of view the river is not a sutra but a sutradhar. No, the narrator is not the real sutradhar. It is the river that unifies all the episodes into a great human drama. It integrates the tales into a coherence that several scholars fail to notice when they examine it from the narrator's perspective. Not only this, the river integrates Assam with the valleys of Vindhyas, the plains of Malwa. The tribal belief of Assamese folklore integrates Himalayas with the Vindhyas through Narmada—her capacity to cure the “possessed”. There might seem an inner contradiction when we find that the two banks have different racial cultures, calendars, histories. Ved Vyas dictated The Mahabharat on the banks of this river. People still search for Abhimanyu, the elephant in the valleys of the Vindhyas. The Immortal Warrior of Supnaswara gives an indication of the legend. Though we are told that “instincts and reason” (p. 153) are warring here, yet people came here to seek solace and salvation. In this way, the title and the novel have an artistic relationship that establishes itself superbly.


If Melville's Moby Dick can be regarded as a whale of books in context of the Whale it describes, A River Sutra has several sutras to lead to myriad interpretations. It can be explored in terms of narrative technique, psychological insight in probing the unconscious/sub-conscious as well as the racial consciousness; sociological, archaeological, mythological explorations could also be fascinating. Equally fascinating would be the philosophy of music as enunciated in two separate tales.

From the narrative point of view the fifteen chapters flow from the origin to its final destination in a natural gush with frequent detours yet returning again and again to the main current: flowing placid sometimes but quite often with gusto.

While the narration by Narrator-1 is removed once from the actual participants, those by Narrator-2 (Tariq Mia) are distanced twice from the actual actors.

This paper, after such lengthy digression, seeks to study the characters under two categories: the fugitives and the steadfast. One must remember the fate of the fugitives in search of peace and serenity in the Karma Cola, though in this case Gita Mehta begins a healing touch and grants them the desired enlightenment. The steadfast after their initial convulsions are rooted firmly and chase none; whereas the fugitives escape from some evil/fear to grasp some sheetanchor. The steadfasts are optimistically and confidently adhering to their piece of land. Their vision has reached beyond the horizon and have neither fear nor envy.

It must be noted that the characters are complementary. One can identify the mirror-images; the “other self” which when juxtaposed together can give fullness of character lending them the much desired symmetry.

Person His/Her Counterpart
Narrator-I Narrator-2 (Tariq Mia)
Ashok (Monk) Naga Baba
Master Mohan Old Musician (father)
Nitin Bose Rahul Singh
(one running away from women and becomes derailed) (craving for a particular woman and becomes happy)

It is in the union of these opposites that we have a fuller view—the narrator-I who shuns society and abhors all mundane human activities (as mere Maya); Tariq Mia has the Sufi's wisdom to recognise “Don't you realize you were brought here to gain the world, not forsake it” (p. 228). Similarly, the Monk in Search of Nirvana has yet to reconcile to the idea that Naga Baba could grasp:

Is this your enlightenment? Is this why you endured all these penances?

(p. 281)


S. No. Person Escaping from The Quest for
1. Narrator-I Public life hustle bustle Peace, Tranquillity of mind.
2. Ashok (Monk) Wealth, Luxuries, Carnal pleasures, Power of Money Nirvana/Freedom, Seeking answers to philosophical questions.
3. Master Mohan (Teacher) A cantankerous wife, Fear of failure Success and fame through the adopted child Imrat.
4. Nitin Bose (Executive) Mod Society, Desire of sex/wine, Claustrophobia Primitive mode of living. Restoration of calm after becoming “possessed”.
5. Rahul Singh (bandit) Police and the society 1. Vengeance 2. beloved of previous births 3. a home and hearth
6. Musician's disciple Ugliness 1. Sublimity as musician 2. beauty in his bride
7. Naga Baba (Returning as) Pleasures Stages of enlightenment mystic power
8. Mr. Shankar (archaeologist) Mythology Rationality, Love for mankind

Don't you know the soul must travel through eighty four thousand births in order to be a man?

(p. 281)

Having earned life as man he does not want to squander it by renouncing. Hence as soon as wisdom dawns on him “Only then can it re-enter the world” (p. 281). Escape does not behove a man—the crown of creation, Ashraful Makhluqat (as the Muslims regard man). One cannot attain enlightenment through asceticism but through action—rational and benevolent. It is at this juncture that we discover the significance of the couplet from Chandidas' love song that acts as the foreword to the novel:

Listen, O brother.
Man is the greatest truth.
Nothing beyond.

Hence any sect that secludes man is myopic. This is what Tariq Mia was trying to convince the narrator.

Master Mohan, who failed as musician, tries to see rays of redemption in the blind disciple he adopted and yet was deprived of fulfilment of his ambition; the old father had his shock when his chosen disciple “escapes” and marries some other girl in place of the ugly daughter of the maestro. In one case the teacher was the failure, the disciple a success; in other, the teacher was a genius but the disciple a mediocre. If in one case there was a greedy and cantankerous nagging wife, in another, a patient and tolerant daughter.


S. No. Person Virtue Quest
1. Tariq Mia Sufi wisdom (p. 86) × p. 230 p. 270
2. Courtesan's daughter faithfulness, sense of honour × prefers drowning
3. Uma (Minstrel) Devotion Having met the Naga Baba quest comes to an end
4. Mr. Shankar Rationality and humaneness Realised that to love humanity is the essence of all penances.

We see that these steadfasts are no longer goaded by any quest. Their patience, forbearance has been amply rewarded banks of a river like Narmada. Her magic presence radiates the cure that can be an antidote to snake bite, or malevolent effect of the Saturn (p. 153).

The old musician's daughter, the courtesan's daughter and the Naga Baba could act as nature and balanced person only because of the serenity that the river radiates on to people. Ugliness of body was compensated by nobility of soul. She is trying to become what her father wants her now to be:

—that I must meditate on the waters of the Narmada, the symbol of Shiva's penance until I have cured myself of my attachment to what has passed and can become again the ragini to every raga.

(p. 225)

I must understand that I am the bride of music, not of a musician.

(pp. 225-226)

That love, the noblest passion, should drive the bandit to risk his life to please his beloved is a fact that the ‘socialities’ will find difficult to swallow. The world where “drink, shoot, and fuck” (p. 112) reigns supreme; adoration for a woman might seem ridiculous. But having appreciated the sincerity and warmth of his love, the Courtesan's daughter forgets her “royal” expectations. Theirs became a companionship in which “we could be together for ever, and sometime we set to search for the warrior but never found him, distracted by our desire for each other” (p. 185). After her husband's death instead of returning to society's luxurious life as a Courtesan, she willingly drowned herself so that their love could remain untarnished.

The Naga Baba through his penances in the Himalayas and the deserts had developed capacity to conquer the limitations of the body. But his real diksha began when he was enjoined by his guru to beg at the houses of those who were untouchables, unclean or profane. This discipline to respect the humblest, to hate none, to find divinity even in the most depraved is initiation to wisdom. It is during such errand that he rescues a child from a brothel resulting in a transformation of “chand” into Uma. The “moonlight” was transformed into “peace of night” (p. 252).

By the serenity they have attained. We are reminded of Milton's line: “They also serve who stand and wait.”

The three persons who emerge out of the trial and painful experience undergo a process of transmutation. The stage that the Brahmin is asked to attain through Yoga, where grief and joy no longer disturb the soul, has been attained by them. Such alchemy is possible only on the

The message is crystal clear. None can triumph by negating the MAN. The first step towards enlightenment is to be humble:

you will be a social outcast.
you will be insulted.
you will be hounded.

(p. 37)

But this is only the beginning. One cannot renounce the world so long as there are teeming millions in agony. One cannot afford to leave the toiling and suffering humanity to its fate and achieving Nirvana/Moksha only for oneself.

Naga Baba's transformation from a fossilised ascetic to a compassionate person who cares for the child and after rescuing her from brothel becomes her teacher and guardian is subtle. The teacher, in this process, himself learns to be kind and considerate. The enlightenment he attains enables him to realise that to shun people is not as challenging as to love and rear man. While the monk was unwilling to renounce the world twice; Naga Baba returns to the world he had renounced.

Tariq Mia, the mullah of a small village seems to the narrator “frozen in time untouched by the events of a larger world” (p. 270) but this is the stage that Yogis aspire to. He has “games for older men” (p. 230) because the ignorant is the most certain of his wisdom, “the young believe they understand the world” (p. 230).

Not only these three but even the fugitives do not miss their cup of bliss! The narrator and the executive become wise and more mature, balanced, calm and serene when they are brought to the proximity of primitive life: folk dance, nature's abundant austerity teach them the bliss of solitude.

Taken as a whole the novel is a significant contribution to Indian writing in English—specially to the feminine writing which has all of a sudden in its aggressive stance resorted more to libido than to good sense. In addition, having debunked the conmen of India in Karma Cola an attempt to restore the real saints to their pedestal was a necessity long felt. She has done her penance in a dignified manner.


  1. After Kathyayana distinguishes between ‘Katha and Akhyayika’ Agni Purana analyses them in detail. One major difference between the two is that Akhyayika is narrated by the hero while Katha by others. However, Dandi, in the 7th Century argues that there is no difference between the two.

  2. See W. F. Bryan and G. Dempster, eds., Sources and Analogues of Chaucer's “Canterbury Tales” (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1941).

  3. For instance, The Mahabharatha has two sets of narrators and audiences. First, a sage called Vaishampayana narrates the epic to the king Janamejaya, as it had been narrated earlier by Suta Puranika to an assembly of hermits in the Shaunaka Hermitage. The Panchatantra, of course, has many involved stories within stories.

  4. Mikhail Bakhtin coins the term ‘polyphony’, in his long article on Dostoevsky in 1929. Its English translation came out in 1984.

  5. A. K. Ramanujan uses the terms ‘context sensitive’ and ‘context free’ in his essay, “Is There An Indian Way of Thinking?: An Informal Essay,” in India through Hindu Categories, ed. Mekim Marriott (StGE Publications, 1990).

  6. Gerard Genette's concept in Narrative Discourse (English tr. 1980.)

  7. Gita Mehta Karma Cola, 1990 (ed.), Minerva: London. (Blurb on this edition).

  8. Sixth Commonwealth Conference, Hyderabad (October 93). Four papers were presented. One was presented at Indore.

  9. Gita Mehta A River Sutra, 1993, Viking (Penguin India), New Delhi, (All quotations are from this edition.)

Marlene Fisher (review date winter 1994)

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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 narrator of the stories he hears as he participates vicariously in the passionate lives of those whom he encounters on his daily walks.

The narrator's naïveté and failure to comprehend what he is told act as foil and counterpoint to the lusts and greed and aching desires—to all of the human passions—that had never once consumed his own days. Again and again he asks old Tariq Mia what happened and why: “I was sorry for the young man, but his story made no sense to me”; “I asked what he meant.” In response to Professor Shankar's question, “What do you want to know?,” he replies, “Why you became an ascetic, why you stopped. What all this means.” In fact, the very innocence of little brother, and his puzzled responses to the stories unfolded to him, enhance the tone throughout A River Sutra of understatement, of implicit but very real menace, and of the pulsating sense of powers and passions beyond human control.

A River Sutra is a lovely book. Its stories of the monk, the teacher, the executive, the courtesan, the musician, and the minstrel revolve around the character of the Narmada River itself. It is a river whose sources are all the human actions and longings embodied in mythology, archeology, and anthropology. As Professor Shankar, an ascetic who has returned to the world, tells his host at the rest house, the river is sacred because of “the individual experiences of the human beings who have lived here.” And when little brother explains that he has retired from the world, his guest tells him that he has “chosen the wrong place” to do so, that “too many lives converge on these banks.” So, too, had his friend the mullah admonished him: “Don't you realize you were brought here to gain the world, not forsake it?” Little brother never quite understands.

More than anything else, the Narmada River, that “unbroken record of the human race,” harbors love and desire in all their forms. The stories to which the ex-bureaucrat is privy are “only” stories of the human heart: “Listen, O brother. / Man is the greatest truth. / Nothing beyond.” These lines that preface A River Sutra inform Professor Shankar's revelation to his host: “I have no great truths to share, my friend. I am only a man.” Hearing this, little brother is astounded that so much grief and pain led merely to something so obvious. Gita Mehta's tone of quiet irony is sustained to the end. The river flows ceaselessly, and so does human life.

Indira Karamcheti (review date January 1994)

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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 proliferation of Indian self-expression and interpretation of the world. It's not that we're wholly ignorant of it, but, typically, we're familiar with only one name at a time. India's entire fertile film industry has been fetishized in Satyajit Ray, whose works have enormous responsibility for representing “India” and the equally enormous power that comes with it.

Still, relatively more people know about India's film production than about its literary production, which follows a similar trickle-down, or should I say trickle-up, model—“up” at least in the sense that Western markets offer infinitely larger possibilities for profit and prestige (and success in the West translates into increased sales and stardom at home). As with movies, at any given time most of us “over here” are aware of only a few writers from “over there.” And when it comes to women writers from India, the numbers shrink even further. Again, it's not that there aren't any; it's just that any given era furnishes only a few names: Sarojini Naidu; Anita Desai, Kamala Markandaya, Santha Rama Rau; Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (by way of Poland and now New York). In more recent times, Bharati Mukherjee's books have been accorded a similar acclaim and a similar, almost exclusive, power to represent immigrant experience, Indian female experience.

Gita Mehta is less well known, although she has now published three books. Karma Cola is a witty and sophisticated analysis of contacts between Westerners in search of Eastern enlightenment and Indians becoming Westernized; Raj, a less well-received novel labeled “historical,” reads more like a generic hybrid between gothic romance and orientalist harem fantasy. Her new book, A River Sutra, came out this past summer.

All other things being equal, in many ways this is a satisfying book, full of lovely stories. A frame narrative, along the familiar model of the Decameron or the Canterbury Tales, links stories around the spine of a single central character and a country inn. A unifying theme is announced by the title word, “sutra,” which the thoughtfully included glossary defines as “Literally, a thread or string. Also a term for literary forms, usually aphoristic in nature.” So Mehta, using the Narmada river as a narrative structuring device to thread these stories together, at the same time suggests that a philosophical or ethical principle can be pulled, perhaps in aphoristic form, from the river's symbolic presence in the stories. And the first of these suggests that those to follow will be variations played on the theme of love and its power, desire and its cost. The sutra: what we wouldn't do for love.

A widowed bureaucrat retires. Of a philosophical cast of mind, he seeks to contemplate the meaning of his life, and so accepts a position running a government rest house on the banks of the Narmada river, holy both to pilgrims and to the aboriginal Nagas of the region. Born of the god Shiva's sweat, the river first appeared on earth as a beautiful, tempting, changeable virgin. Shiva named her Narmada, the Delightful One. Her holy properties include absolution for attempted suicide, as well as cures for snakebite and madness.

From his vantage point as manager of the Narmada rest house, the retired bureaucrat hears (and we hear with him) six stories, variously titled “The Monk's Story,” “The Teacher's Story,” “The Executive's Story,” “The Courtesan's Story,” “The Musician's Story” and “The Minstrel's Story.” They are full of oriental philosophy and extravagance, physical passion and spiritual possession, lust and loot, beauty and booty, renunciation and titillation.

A rich mans renunciation of the world is celebrated with an orgy of spending, of trumpeting elephants, of crowds rioting after gold coins and gems thrown into their midst. An urbanite tea company executive is possessed by the snakelike Rima, an aboriginal tribal woman whose sexual favors he has first enjoyed then rejected, and must undergo an aboriginal rite before the goddess of the Narmada to exorcise her spirit. In an ironic commentary upon the genesis of academic articles, he thereupon writes a piece on tribal practices which he is encouraged to submit to Asia Review for publication.

The ferociously ugly daughter of a genius musician father, betrayed by the man she loves, forswears music forever. A child prostitute, rescued from a brothel by an ascetic monk, grows up to become a river minstrel; the ascetic, who has disappeared years before, shows up as, of all things, an academic, the foremost archaeological expert in the country. (One can't help but suspect a serious subtext in this book about academics, a desire to cut them down to size by depicting them as possessed profligates who get converted to ethnography or as naked and raging saints hidden in the potbellied masks of professors.)

Now, as I said, I've got absolutely nothing against all this. I can enjoy a good romantic story full of Sturm und Drang, toil and turmoil, with the best of them. And A River Sutra gives me six, count 'em, six, such stories, with all the sensational elements of unimaginable wealth, murder, lust and magic (or sex and hex, as I like to think of them).

What it doesn't give is much reference to any of the disquieting contemporary events, movements, desires, fears, that are currently rending and reshaping India: the growing religious feelings that have led to the razing of a mosque and nationwide riots alienating Hindus and Muslims; the regional identities that encourage talk of creating a separate national homeland for Sikhs; the growth of a middle class, urbanized and Westernized; the push to industrialize, to create a national community and identity through media technologies.

This is not a matter of doing the right thing. Contemporary cultural conflicts are neither more important nor more “truthful” than other stories. An author has no obligation to tell the “truth”—slant, or straight, or in any other direction. Lying is not only the prerogative of the author, but his or her professional practice: it is simply the power to create fictions. In any case, how are we to judge whose India is more authentic, which India more Indian? And, after all, the idea of an India inclined to spiritual dalliance does seem familiar, and thus authentic, to those of us who have read our E. M. Forster and Rudyard Kipling.

But, of course, all other things are not equal. Like it or not, we live in a world where what the West knows, or thinks it knows, about the rest, matters very much to the fate of countries like India. By their myths we shall know them, and by those myths we act upon them too. The myths that A River Sutra gives us about India are familiar ones. This is the well-known world of the oriental mystique, compounded equally of poverty, mystery and a spirituality that, by desiring to transport its readers from the particulars of history to a realm of supposedly transcendent “humanity,” allows us to choose a romantic, exotic fantasy over another view that may be less familiar, and perhaps less pleasing.

The delicacy, the pleasures, of this book do not, after all, completely satisfy me. It's as if I am trying to enjoy rosewater trifle when what I really want is a spicy, salty and lemony, cashew- and chili-filled pulihara. My dissatisfaction is an aesthetic one. That is, it concerns the nature of the reading experience, particularly the aesthetics of reading cross-cultural texts. Without the local habitations and names that an anchor in specific social, political, historical, contexts gives, an anchoring usually provided by the reader's own familiarity with the culture the text is set in, this book reads as too slight, too airy an entertainment, a reinforcement of what is held to be already known rather than an enlargement of mind and spirit with the challenge of the new.

We need, it seems to me, not necessarily other stories to be told, but other ways of telling—or reading—stories and retelling familiar ones that will challenge us to think more and dream less—or, perhaps, to encourage us to construct our dreams on the critical ground of our thinking, and to infuse our thinking with the power of our dreams.

Reading these beguiling tales of the exotic orient, I couldn't help but use what little I know about actual events as a kind of narrative counterpoint, supplementing Mehta's stories with others whose ironic, piquant, or corrective chords would enrich and complicate these too simple, too harmonic melodies. The Narmada is a real river, not a fictional one, and indeed holy, as the book claims. A River Sutra becomes even more interesting, evocative, multi-layered when we know something about the Narmada's current role in the national debates about India's industrialization and modernization.

India, financed to some extent by the World Bank, plans a grand total of “30 big, 135 medium and many small dams on the Narmada and its tributaries” (India Today, September 30, 1993). The largest of these dams, the massive Sardar Sarovar, with a completion date of 1998-99, has a projected cost of 9,000 crore rupees (a crore equals ten million, so a total of ninety billion rupees), and will displace over one lakh (100,000) of people, many of them tribals or otherwise poor, rural, or nonindustrialized. The building of these dams, the resistance and removal of the people “who have lived for centuries on its banks,” as India Today puts it—the very ones depicted in A River Sutra as a picturesque background frieze of randy peasants filled with folk wisdom—have been at the center of loud, furious and protracted conflict between politicians, industrialists, representatives of the World Bank and global multinational capitalism and environmentalists, as well as tribals and aboriginals and their defenders.

But perhaps the book's silences about India's industrialization and Westernization are themselves the point. Perhaps the omission of these Indian social texts is not so much a way of denying them as a way of demonstrating what is being lost because of them. This seems to me not only valid, but an important and valuable point to make, and one that hits home more effectively through literary representation than through bald polemics.

However, such a point can only be taken if the novelist directs the reader to it, and can count on knowledgeable readers. Readers in India or Indians abroad would probably be able to draw the connection I am making between the two Narmadas and the erasure of Westernization, but it doesn't seem to me that the novel is directed towards them. (Both the actual narrative and a glossary include explanations of all kinds of Indiannesses that would be superfluous for an Indian audience.) As long as the targeted market is a Western one, then the dialogue with Indian social realities will not occur.

This does not make the book meaningless; it just changes what particular meaning is being communicated. It shows that a certain vision and version of India is being sold to that Western market. And how and what exactly is being marketed is worth examining. If the book internally promotes certain myths, as all books do, its own marketing—from its size and shape to the cover art, the blurbs and endorsements, to the various articles, reviews and publicity releases about it—also helps to construct what we think the book is about and what it means.

Book covers, although only one aspect of marketing, shape our understanding of what we read in a subtle but powerfully effective way. The platitude chides, “Never judge a book by its cover.” While this may be all very well when it comes to learning not to judge people by the grace or disgrace of their faces, when it comes to books, it's a different story. Always judge a book by its cover.

I don't mean this as a prescription for what we ought to do in the future. It's a description of what we do now and always have done when it comes to our reading material.

How do we know that we're reading a “good” book? It comes out first in hardcover before it goes to paperback. A classic? For the Romans, a “classic” author was one who earned enough on his (invariably his) books to merit the imperial tax-collector's interest. Now, a classic author is accorded his (and occasionally her) due by being bound in soft leather and gilt edges. And the opposite of this high culture is revealed by the covers of books intended for the popular markets, such as supermarkets and drugstores: invariably paperback, lurid colors, busy designs, raised lettering and ornate script.

How do we discover gothics and romances, candlelit and silhouetted? How else but by the bodices heaving and panting on the covers? (Where else do we ever see bodices these days?) A western? A mystery? A science fiction story? All of these genres are uncovered by the highly conventional, almost formulaic art work on their covers.

Women's books, as well as books from the Third World, are no exception to this rule. In my years of teaching postcolonial literature (it was called Third World literature when I began), I've been struck not only by the images on the faces of books that draw us into the narratives, but also by the way these images graphically direct our understanding of those stories.

Jorge Amado is an esteemed writer from Latin America who has been taught and read in the US at least since the 1970s. Many of his works use central female characters. Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon works out the gradual civilization of a land, a town and a nation by plotting the relations between men and women in the Brazilian city of Ilheus. The 1988 Avon paperback edition restricts the space given to print, including the title, the author's name, and a quote from a New York Times review, to about one-quarter of the cover. The rest contains a stylized, flattened picture of a naked woman, surrounded by large white lilies and other flowers distinguished by their whiteness, in emphatic contrast to the brownness of her body, the darkness of leaves and stems, and the livid yellow of the sky. It's the image that travel agents project of the tropics: love under the sun, romance without responsibility, the antidote for civilization, the gratification of the male body by nature and society. And it's also typical of such graphic images, whether on the covers of books or in commercial travel advertisements, to employ female bodies to convey the notion of a benign, welcoming, and accessible nature.

A more complex example of the same thing can be seen on the cover of Jessica Hagedorn's 1990 novel, Dogeaters, a coming-of-age meditation on the corruption of Filipino political economy and sexual politics, seen through several eyes, but primarily those of an adolescent girl. The hardcover's jacket illustration, like Amado's, suggests the profusion, the fertility of the natural world, but here it is somewhat threatening, overwhelming. In fact, what's amazing about this cover is the sheer amount of produce that covers it and the human figures on it: banana bunches hanging from the tree, banana leaves, banana groves, roses, lilies of the valley, one pansy, chillies, at least three different kind of bananas displayed for sale, two kinds of squash, purple grapes, tamarind fruit, custard apple, watermelon, as well as any number of unidentifiable (by me) fruits and vegetables. These natural objects overwhelm and diminish the human beings, as if to suggest that the tropics' fecund, natural forces will defeat human attempts to impose order and reason upon them.

Janice Radway's comment about romance readers' belief in the reality of the fictional world is pertinent and useful here.1 Even if the events themselves are incredible, says Radway, the physical environment is believed in, so that “anything the readers learn about the fictional universe is automatically coded as ‘fact’ or ‘information’ and mentally filed for later use as applicable to the world of day-to-day existence.” And a cover is judged as good if it “implicitly confirms the validity of the imaginary universe by giving concrete form to that world designated by the book's language.” Romances, like postcolonial literature, are often set in exotic, unfamiliar geographic locations; covers, like other, extra-narrative material, can be used to provide “facts” to be filed away for the reader's later use.

I was intrigued enough by this matter of cover art to ask a few people in the publishing world about how a cover design is put together and what they think about its function.2 I was initially greeted, not with suspicion, but with a kind and gentle puzzlement, of the sort that greets the inquiries of the village idiot about the perfectly obvious. What was there to say about cover art? They told me that there really isn't any codified policy, no business-like strategy about cover art. All insisted on the individuality of the effort, that each cover is tailor-made for each book. Editors and art directors, after reading the books, submit and discuss ideas for the cover, so that the final cover comes out of communal effort. The single determining factor, I was told, is the desire to represent the spirit of the book accurately. Nan A. Talese, who published A River Sutra for Doubleday, compared cover art to a poster for the book, translating the linear experience of reading into a holistic image.

But the seemingly straightforward responsibility to keep aesthetic faith with the text in this way becomes immensely complicated by the commercial mechanism of selling books. There are an awful lot of aesthetic needs to satisfy, a lot of tastes to tease and appetites to whet. The cover art not only provokes desire, it also creates the recognition that this is the article that will fill that need. When the needs of the audience conflict with the wishes of the author, the audience will be put first. Indeed, when it comes to creating cover art, it's possible to know too much about the story, to get lost in subtleties that may make no sense without a prior knowledge of the book, and so make no appeal to the potential buyer.

Marge Anderson, Art Director at Pantheon Books, pointed out that there are already graphic traditions, a kind of graphic shorthand the cover designer can rely on. A cover for a novel by an African American might use a painting by Romare Bearden. When it comes to books from the Third World, designers draw on an available vocabulary of “cultural symbolism” such as, I suppose, tropical vegetation and young, beautiful women. But, of course, this is also a delicate balancing act: for both aesthetic and political reasons, the cover needs to get away from exotic stereotypes, to do something a little unpredictable with the recognizable.

Since there just aren't enough books by Indian women to have created a graphic tradition of this kind, the cultural symbolism tends to be a little more obvious. The hardcover version of Bharati Mukherjee's novel Jasmine uses an image that reflects a recurring motif in the story: three shards of a broken jug, each painted with an image of Jasmine in India, New York and Iowa, suggest the story's three major settings and the infinite permeability of identity. But the paperback replaces the narrative-specific image with a more generic, more “culturally symbolic” one: a young woman with kohl-rimmed eyes and luscious, lip-gloss-tinged mouth, stares out of an unpainted wooden window frame at the reader, recalling the direct gazes of the women in the Amado and Hagedorn covers. The young girl wears a bright orange blouse, which looks like the choli worn under a sari, but the sari itself is missing. The graphic shorthand is clear: confinement and lack of freedom are suggested by her placement behind the window; poverty by the unpainted window frame; sexuality by the challenging gaze, the lack of sari, and the glossy mouth.

On the paperback cover of Gita Mehta's Raj, a young, beautiful girl with heavily kohl-lined eyes, a bindi and plump, lipsticked mouth again hooks the reader's gaze. But her face is half covered with an ornate, gilded screen, which suggests the confinement of purdah. The image again speaks the Indian woman's lack of freedom, the opulence of the oriental-despot royal families (which contrasts with the extreme poverty of their people) and the secret sexuality of the harem—all of which figure in the narrative itself. Interestingly, one of the reviews quoted on the back cover links these elements to the graphic image of fabric: “Richly decorated and densely worked … oversewn like a length of brocade with sex, landscape, polo, politics, tragedy …”

A more recent book by an Indian woman writer, which did not receive nearly as much attention as either Mukherjee's or Mehta's work, is Indrani Aikath-Gyaltsen's Daughters of the House, a story about manless women who suddenly need to adjust when one of them brings home a husband. The paperback copy of this book that sells in India has a fairly simple, somewhat stylized drawing of a woman in a sari, standing in the inner courtyard of a house and holding a lotus, certainly an Indian symbol of womanhood, in her hand. The book was later released in hardback in the US: now the jacket has a delicate sixteenth-century painting from South India, of three women with skin of three shades of brown. The painting has lots of breasts, lots of jewelry, and yes, lots of fabric. Its opulence is emphasized by the ornate and copious gilding of the background and title.

All of these covers are intelligent, ingenious and beautiful artifacts—and answers to the complex aesthetic and commercial needs a book cover must address. The cover of A River Sutra, designed by Mary Sarah Quinn, has an elegant simplicity and efficiency of expression that seem like genius. The title runs in a broad band of gold like a banner across the top of the cover, balanced by the author's name at the bottom. Against a plain white background, a twisted splash of closely-pleated scarlet silk pours from under the title banner down the page. The twisted, pleated scarlet silk is a wonderfully complicated image: simultaneously evoking the running folds of a river, the sensuous hour-glass of a woman's body and the sinuous curving of a snake—all “true to the voice” of the stories.

Publisher Nan Talese was very emphatic about the individual attention that every book and its cover receives, stressing that her interest was always in conveying the talent of the author. She would be appalled, she told me, at the thought that “we do Third World authors any differently from any others.” Given the strong desire to treat each work as unique, and to shun the “ghettoizing” of ethnic, cultural, national identification, it is all the more ironic that the individuality of Mehta's work should be so powerfully expressed by a graphic shorthand for “Indian” and “woman”: a rich silk fabric like a scarf and in a woman's shape.

A River Sutra's cover is as delicate and skillful as the narrative itself and, finally, as bound by the West's need to recognize an East that is culturally familiar to it. This does not mean that narrative and graphic art are only stereotypes. To say that would be, indeed, an injustice to the work, the author and the artist. But the new, the unpredictable, that the cover designer aims at, does not seem to be able to get very far away from the predictable, the recognizable. We here in the West seem able to perceive the differences of the East only in the terms that we already know. Yet we are living in a world that is less and less content to be represented in the old, familiar terms—which in most cases were developed as a by-product of imperialism and colonialism. That we are reading Gita Mehta rather than Rudyard Kipling is already something: but surely we should be able to understand something different from Rudyard Kipling in what Gita Mehta says. A River Sutra delivers everything its cover promises, but nothing more.

In a way, I'm posing the problem of Modernism, as it touches upon the West's reception of postcolonial texts. I once heard Modernism defined as the famous imperative “Make it new!” and postmodernism as the dictum “Everything old is new again.” If so, then in approaching Third World women's texts we have bypassed the new (and thereby skipped the avant-garde) and gone directly to the old, the familiar—merely recycling bits and pieces of existing images and ideas.

How then does newness enter the world? How can these writers increase or modify our knowledge about a part of the world most of us do not know firsthand, but only through the conventionalized terms of art? And the task is not only theirs. How do we, as readers, increase or modify our knowledge? The representational bind, the liberty to do “something a little unpredictable with the recognizable,” covers our ability to learn, recognize and allow the new into our understanding. But the representational bind seems to resemble representational bondage. It seems to me that the ability to learn the new is exceedingly slow; like the tailor worm, it can measure only an inch at a time, even if eventually it will measure us for a new suit of clothes. Meantime, we, all of us, authors, readers and publishers alike, continue to recirculate old ideas, old images, old stories in a seemingly closed system, like the recirculated air in multistory office buildings.

I want something bracingly new. And so the lovely, carefully crafted stories in A River Sutra do not, finally, satisfy me, because they do not inch very far away from the images of India as we know them, impoverished India, sensual India, meditative, contemplative India. When I was a child, I was told a joke I thought hilarious: “An Indian yogi sat contemplating his navel. He looked, and he looked, and he saw it going round and round and round. Suddenly, he got an idea. He reached down and started to unscrew his navel. He unscrewed and he unscrewed and he unscrewed. And his bottom fell out.”

I'm not suggesting that the bottom is about to fall out. But I am saying that it's time for some fresh air.


  1. Janice Radway, Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1984).

  2. I would like to express my thanks to Marge Anderson, Art Director for Pantheon; Laurie Brown, Associate Publisher of Vintage Books; and Nan A. Talese of Nan A. Talese/Doubleday for their generosity in talking with me. Their precise articulation of what they do and why was thought-provoking, to say the least. I hope that I've represented their viewpoints accurately and fairly. I am aware that my questions must have struck them as somewhat naive at least some of the time, and their forbearance in not pointing this out to me was and is much appreciated.

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

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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 bookshelves, custom-built when the couple moved to New York from London in 1987 when Sonny replaced Robert Gottlieb as Knopf editor-in-chief.

In conversation, Gita Mehta is as voluble as her husband is (famously) taciturn. Formidably well-informed rather than ostentatiously intellectual, she'll jump in one breath from the right kind of water filter to get for a kitchen sink to the currently trendy field of microeconomics. She has the practiced partygoer's ability to focus intently on whomever she's talking to, but she also seems genuinely warm, interested in anyone who crosses her path. She halts her easy flow of discourse only to answer the occasional phone call dealing with various odds and ends that need to be straightened out before her departure in two days for Europe. She's remarkably calm for someone about to embark on a two-month tour of Germany, India and England to promote her new book, a collection of essays entitled Snakes and Ladders: Glimpses of Modern India, just out from Doubleday/Talese.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of India's independence from the British Empire, an event that indelibly marked Mehta's childhood. Her parents were active in the struggle for liberation; her father was arrested by the English two weeks after her birth in Delhi in 1943, “and I was sent off to boarding school at the age of three, because my mother was racing around trying to get my father out of jail.” Even her name recalls those tumultuous times. Gita means song—“as in song of freedom,” she explains in Snakes and Ladders. “It was the 1940s and it seemed freedom was finally at hand.”

Although her husband's publishing career has required Mehta to live in the West for most of her adult life, as a writer she is drawn to India by the same powerful current that pulls her back there every winter for a long family visit. Her first book, Karma Cola: Marketing the Mystic East (1979), took a sardonic look at the Western belief that instant spiritual enlightenment could be acquired by hopping a jet to India and finding the nearest guru.

Raj (1989) covered the 50 years preceding Indian independence in the fictional story of Jaya Singh, daughter and wife of maharajahs who ruled two of India's nominally independent kingdoms. Her second novel, A River Sutra (1993), blended Indian mythology with piercing depictions of love in its many aspects to show a disenchanted bureaucrat learning about life from the stories of six pilgrims making their way to the banks of India's holiest river.

“You stand on geography as a writer,” Mehta says. “Even if you're writing about Superman, you have to invent a planet for him to come from; you can't write in a void. In Snakes and Ladders, even though it's a series of essays, my hope was that they would have an accretive effect, so that by the time you finish the book and I'm telling you what it is that I love about India, it has become familiar to the reader.”


The content dictated the book's form, she explains. “India is a place where worlds and times are colliding with huge velocity: we're putting satellites into space, and we have bullock carts; there's that constant tension and contradiction of immense sophistication and an almost pre-medieval way of life. I thought the only way I could describe that collision was anecdotally, by taking snapshots, as it were.”

Among the essays are a moving portrait of a cooperative bank that enables women to buy themselves out of bonded labor and start their own businesses; a tribute to the “faceless, nameless all-enduring Indian voter” who has continued to believe in democracy despite notorious government corruption and Indira Gandhi's 1975 State of Emergency declaration (under which Mehta's father was again imprisoned); and a delicious evocation of India's colorful pavement booksellers and the kind of reading “uninhibited by literary snobbisms” they promoted.

By saying, in effect, “I am a camera, and the reader can see through my eyes,” Mehta felt she created an obligation to reveal something of her personal history as she surveyed her native land. “I thought that readers had to know where I was coming from, so that they could judge whether they felt my position was valid. Just because I'm an Indian doesn't mean I know India. I did not want this to be a book where I play the expert and the reader plays the student; in every book I've written I've been very much against that,” she explains.

Karma Cola, in fact, was sparked by Mehta's annoyance at being seen as an automatic India expert. In the late 1970s, Sonny Mehta was at Picador in London and in that capacity visited New York each year to scout American writers for his list. Accompanying him to a Manhattan publishing party, Gita Mehta “was in a sari, as I usually am when it's not the height of winter,” she says, alluding to the fact that today she's wearing gray leggings and a black sweater. “Somebody grabbed my arm and said, ‘Here's the girl who's going to tell us what karma is all about.’ I thought it was astonishing that just because I was dressed this way he thought I could explain this profound philosophical concept. Trying to rise to the occasion and be a wisecracking American, I said, ‘Karma isn't what it's cracked up to be.’ And Marc Jaffe, who then ran Bantam Books, said, ‘Write it.’ I thought he was barking mad!”

Nonetheless, she sat down and banged out Karma Cola in three weeks. This was 1979, the year of Jonestown, the mass suicide in Guyana by members of a bizarre religious sect. “The subject was, as they say, hot,” Mehta recalls. “It was taking the mickey out of [cultish spirituality] at a time when people were really scared about it.”

Elaine Markson sold the book to Alice Mayhew at Simon & Schuster, while British agent Deborah Rogers guided it to Jonathan Cape. “I couldn't have asked for a more perfect agent for Karma Cola than Elaine, and Alice understood completely what I was trying to say. But I don't have a primary editor—I show my books simultaneously to the British and American publishers—and I really don't go in much for the editorial process. I think it's uniquely American, this intense relationship between the editor and the writer. There's no question that at the level of copyediting Americans are terrific; but there's an alarming passivity in America, where the writer is prepared to share the responsibility for his book. That I do not think is correct. You shouldn't take up public space unless you have something that is really worked out as well as you can do it.”

Mehta's distrust of overediting was reinforced by her experience with Raj, which took a painful nine years to produce after she signed a contract with S&S. “The problem with Raj was that I was being bent all the time to a kind of fictional American shopgirl reader. I think Simon & Schuster's idea was that I would write this blockbuster, which I'm not capable of doing—I'm not good enough to do it!”

She declines, however, to criticize Raj's editor, Michael Korda. “The fault was mine, not the publisher's. I hadn't written a novel before, I didn't know what it was like.” On the whole, Mehta was satisfied with the final result, though she feels she rushed the ending and oversimplified complex material.


It's hard to imagine this intelligent and self-assured woman being intimidated by any editor. Other writers will undoubtedly find it comforting to know that being married to one of the most powerful people in international publishing doesn't ease authorial insecurities. “It inflames those insecurities,” Mehta reflects. “Imagine: you're working on a book, and Gabriel García Márquez comes for a drink—you think, ‘Does the world really need me?’ And these nightmare sales figures for other writers; I hear Sonny say, ‘Well, we've sold 1.2 million copies’ of something, and I think, ‘Oh my God!’ That's why, when I'm really into a book, I go to London [where the Mehtas' son lives]; I can't be an appendage to Sonny's work when I'm writing.”

Yet she takes enormous pride in her husband's work at Knopf. “I think his is the unique publishing span: he can do thrillers, he can do blockbusters. He used to publish Jackie Collins in England, and when he came here Jackie said, ‘Oh, Sonny, you're going to publish somebody with an unpronounceable name, and he's always going to be one ahead of me [on the best-seller list] in America.’

“When Sonny published Love in the Time of Cholera here, he said, ‘I'm not going to mention that Márquez got a Nobel Prize so that people are frightened. I'm just going to sell it as a great, great love story.’ Sure enough, in hardcover I think they sold nearly 400,000 copies of that book—and Jackie was always one behind Márquez on the best-seller list!”

Her own sales have been more modest, though Raj was a best-seller in Europe. Ironically, the book she thought would be the most obscure to Western readers prompted the warmest reaction. “I wrote A River Sutra privately; I didn't tell anyone I was doing it, and I genuinely didn't think it would get published outside of India. It astonishes me that that's the one people have responded to most.” It just goes to show, she says, “that in the end you have to write for yourself.”

Once A River Sutra was finished, it didn't seem appropriate for S&S. Lynn Nesbit, who had become Mehta's agent, suggested Nan Talese. “She publishes many writers I admire, so I went with her, and she did a did a wonderful job. Nan is actually the first editor I've had for two books.”

Although Mehta intended Snakes and Ladders to be a break from a novel that wasn't going well, the switch back to nonfiction was difficult. “Balzac once said, when someone asked him why he wrote fiction, ‘Because fact is finite; emotion is infinite.’ Going from A River Sutra to Snakes and Ladders was going from the infinity of emotion to the finiteness of fact. The question is, can you make that finiteness work for the reader, and for yourself? I wrote many essays that I didn't put in the book in the end because they required too much pre-information. I wanted to make modern India accessible to Westerners and to a whole generation of Indians who have no idea what happened 25 years before they were born.”

Dividing her time among New York, London and India, Mehta is perhaps uniquely qualified to interpret her homeland for the diverse audience she aspires to. “There's a tremendous richness to living on three continents. The magic of America is the can-doism; it gives me the belief that anything is possible. Each time I finish a book and think I'll never write another, America makes me think, ‘Yeah, I'll have another shot.’ London's great virtue is that, as the capital of an empire, its libraries have staggering material on India. And because of the British reticence, it's easy to be alone and write there. My heart is in India—it's home—so when I'm there I don't write, I just let it all seep in through my pores.”

Her book tour means that Mehta won't be doing any writing for the next few months, though she hopes that A River Sutra will prove to be the first volume in a trilogy. She has said that she doesn't really consider herself a writer, quoting Chekhov to the effect that one must write at least seven books before deserving that title. Does she still feel that way? “I feel I'm still an apprentice,” she replies. “I may have to write many more than seven books before I'm prepared to say, ‘Okay, I think I've got a grip on the craft.’”

Michael Gorra (review date 22 June 1997)

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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 thugs of Bombay's Shiv Sena? Did the Congress Party really think it could bring down the government? The conversation was racily full of India's lifeblood of gossip, and I found to my surprise that I could follow it all. But then I had just finished reading Gita Mehta's Snakes and Ladders.

Published to celebrate the 50th anniversary of India's independence from Britain, Snakes and Ladders takes its title from a board game in which a roll of the dice determines “how many squares a player may move.” Landing at the foot of a ladder lets you climb it. “sometimes moving thirty squares in a single throw.” But landing on a snake means you have to slide back down “while your gleeful opponents [streak] past.” For Mehta the game provides an apt metaphor for postcolonial India, a country that sometimes seems to have “vaulted over the painful stages experienced by other countries, lifted by ladders we had no right to expect.” But at other moments, she adds, “we have been swallowed by the snakes of past nightmares, finding ourselves … back at square one.”

Mehta's “glimpses of modern India” stand as an attempt to “explain” the country to herself, an explanation that provides a user friendly guide to the many snakes who have stuck their fangs into contemporary Indian politics. She begins with an account of her parents involvement in the Independence movement that echoes Wordsworth—“Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive.” But Mehta then shows how the promised land of independence has been weakened by the dominance of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. Her analysis seems fair enough; nevertheless it will be familiar to anyone who's read much about the country. What's fresh about it is the deftness with which she weaves personal anecdote into political chronicle. So she describes attending a rally against Indira Gandhi's experiment in totalitarian rule, the “Emergency” of 1975-77, a rally held in Delhi's enormous Friday Mosque. The government cut off the electricity, and the resulting “darkness … added a somberness to the occasion … allowing us to see the great mosque as it must have been seen by” the Moghul emperors who built it, “its massive lines … undiminished by … neon.” And as for Mrs. Gandhi's claim that Indira was India and India Indira—well, I admire the drop-dead insouciance with which Mehta describes being “bored to tears” by such “overbearing leaders.”

India's ladders are more tentatively described. On one level they have to do with such things as the existence of a free press, and the continued functioning, despite massive corruption, of Indian democracy; with the fact as well that the country has become self-sufficient in food. But Mehta is also fascinated by the resilience of her fellow citizens, the ingenuity with which they manage to scrape up a living in the most difficult circumstances; in one of the book's most memorable chapters, she functions as a subcontinental Studs Terkel, interviewing ragpickers at work in Delhi's garbage dumps. And Mehta remains exhilarated by the astonishing scale of India, which beggars that of Western Europe—a country whose “lack of homogeneity” means that “most Indians view most other Indians as foreigners.” To Mehta that heterogeneity is a strength, a point that she makes by contrasting India with Japan. For when Japan, that once-closed nation, let in the West, the kimono virtually vanished. India, she writes, has never tried to banish the foreign; and the sari remains.

Mehta's strongest chapters are not, however, the ones in which she makes such large cultural claims. Instead she's at her best when her subjects seem at their most modest and most personal. I enjoyed the wicked eye with which she describes the visit to India of an American corporate group called the “Young Presidents' Organization,” a description that recalls her 1980 Karma Cola, a sharply satiric account of the marketing of Indian spirituality in the West. She offers an enchanting essay on her own childhood reading, on “lending libraries … that fit into garishly painted tin trunks, small enough to be strapped onto the backs of bicycles.” And I think I'll always remember a piece about a filmmaker who raised the money for his movies literally at the grassroots level. He hired a van and a projector, and travelled from village to village, showing classics in the rice fields; Battleship Potemkin was the villagers' great favorite.

Parts of Snakes and Ladders betray their origins as magazine articles, pieces not only for Britain's Sunday Times but for Vogue and House and Garden as well. The book seems to have a disjointed structure, its chapters loosely stitched together in a way that makes it neither a unified whole nor a collection of fully individual essays. But Gita Mehta's voice is marked by warmth and charm, and this volume serves as a fine reminder as to why India remains, in the words that she lovingly quotes from Mark Twain, “the one land all men desire to see, and having seen once, by even a glimpse, would not give that glimpse for the shows of all the rest of the globe combined.”

Bharati Mukherjee (review date 8 August 1997)

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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. These writers' pronouncements, such as “never the twain shall meet” and “not yet”, may have come as a relief to their readers. The enlightenment highway has been designed for a one-way traffic in ideas: from the rational West to the child-like, intuitive East. Even in the 1960s and 70s, when the West's affluent young discovered Hermann Hesse, Carl Jung, Buddhism, Hinduism and the I Ching, the traffic remained one way, only this time speeding from the East to the West. The Nirvana-poachers' invasion of industrializing India and the resultant “mythological osmosis” was the subject of Gita Mehta's first work of non-fiction, Karma Cola. Now after eighteen years, the novel Raj and a collection of short stories, A River Sutra, Mehta has returned, in Snakes and Ladders, to monitor the progress of the traffic in enlightenment.

Although the game of snakes and ladders may have been invented centuries ago “as a meditation on humanity's progress towards liberation”, Mehta remembers that in her childhood “the actual board was suggestive of danger”. By using the game as a way of summing up India's fifty-year experiment in sovereignty, Mehta suggests that although the political leaders after Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi are spending too much time in serpents' bellies, ladders prop themselves against walls for the use of future idealists.

Her epigraph is taken from Goethe, who was tempted to visit India “not for the purpose of discovering something new but in order to view in his way what has been discovered”. This establishes Mehta's focus: look for eccentric insights, not exhaustive analysis. Mehta, who lives in New York, but thinks of herself as an Indian, is treated in India by the locals as a not-quite or a clueless transient. Her awareness of Indians' limited tolerance of her right to speak to a wide audience about contemporary India gives her observations a touching self-consciousness.

While expatriate Indian scholars are still prospecting the gold of victimology in the exhausted mines of post-colonialism, Mehta discovers a lively population of farmers who prefer watching television to meditating, and describes urban youth in “saris and mini-skirts, anklets and Doc Marten boots, salwar kameezes and torn Levi's”, who dance Raga-rap and Indi-pop. The most singular achievement of Snakes and Ladders is that it celebrates rather than satirizes or trivializes cultural symbiosis.

In thirty-one brief chapters with titles such as “Who's Afraid of Being Indian?” and “Losing It,” Mehta speed-reads Indian political history, sociology, ecology, communications systems, land-reform movements and middle-class taste in novels and films, and comes up with this original, heartening thesis: “in a world of perpetual motion India remains a perpetual becoming, a vast and protean sea of human improvisations on the great dance of time”.

Not all the chapters are equally intriguing. Mehta is at her best when she draws on personal reminiscence instead of serving up a digest of easily available official data. Among the most lively are “Freedom's Song,” in which Mehta, defying political correctness, reviews freedom-fighting from the point of view of the child of a privileged, princely family, and “Reading,” in which she evokes the indiscriminate range and the intemperate love of reading among the literate, well-off Calcuttans of her generation. In “Freedom's Song,” Mehta's late father, who was a prominent politician and industrialist, emerges not as the ambitious, canny politician that many Indian journalists have portrayed, but as a dashing Scarlet Pimpernel who pulls off impossible nationalist feats. Reading Mehta's “Reading,” I revisited my own girlhood and the many hours spent in the collected works of second-rate Victorian women novelists, as well as those of Austen, the Brontës, Dickens, Hardy, Bennett and Galsworthy. Colonialism is heinous, of course, but, like Mehta, I find myself unable to apologize for the ecstasy and the imaginative freedom that the colonizers' books gave me.

Beverly Schneller (essay date summer 2001)

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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 novel. He liked to read about a past that was both “visible and visitable,” i.e., a past which was alive, relevant, and the creation of its author. Recent post-modern discussion of historiography has also taken a similar approach to the nature of historical narrative and the kinds of meaning historical writing produces. Hayden White, the leader in this debate, argues that there is little difference between historical narrative and the type of prose narrative associated with fictions. As is now well-known, he posits that the historian's point of view towards the material used in historical writing is equivalent to the fiction writer's point of view when creating a plot for a novel. Whether or not White is right in his analysis is beyond the scope of this essay, but what is of interest in his work is the idea that history is an authorial creation: history is a text shaped by its writer's intention and interpretation of what should be “fact.” The implications of White's ideas bear on the name and nature of historical fiction of which Raj and A Fine Balance are two recent South Asian examples.

Gita Mehta and Rohinton Mistry are writers of popular novels; hers in 1989 and his in 1995. Their subject is the sweep of Indian history; hers before independence from Britain in 1947 and his since. As historical fictions, both Mehta and Mistry are willingly engaged with the burden of the past and participate in what David Cowart has defined as the historians' task of advancing “cultural self-knowledge” typically associated with such “humanistic studies” as history (25). Mehta chooses a female central character, Princess Jaya of Balmer, as the lens through which she transmits her versions of late empire; in contrast, Mistry creates a cast of interrelated characters whose lives offer different but complimentary visions of lower caste Indian life in the 1970s. Neither novel has received much critical attention with most of the existing commentary coming from book reviews in popular periodicals. My purpose in this essay is to compare these two novels in their uses of history; to show how they rely on historical information which they shape to fit their plots; and to discuss how these popular novels perform as history for their readers. To broaden the focus of the essay, I briefly compare how Mehta and Mistry use history in their novels to some recent work by Bapsi Sidwha, a Pakistani novelist, and by Hanif Kureshi, an Indian novelist living in Britain. Because Raj and A Fine Balance are historical novels of differing types, they provide a window on the ways novelists can incorporate history into their works to teach as well as to delight. Historical novels, in light of Hayden White, may now be considered as kind of historiography and it is as historical novels that Raj and A Fine Balance need scrutiny.

In the opinion of some book reviewers, Mehta's and Mistry's use of history is problematic. Some have asked the question, “Are we reading history or fiction?” While a few, such as Ian Buruma, identify the challenge facing the South Asian historical novelist. In The New York Review of Books, Buruma wrote, “in few countries is the legacy of history, in spirit and form, so apparent as in India” (9). For Pico Iyer in Time, Mistry has created “the Great Indian novel” (85) while for The New Yorker's anonymous reviewer, A Fine Balance is “a novel that can stand with the best of Dickens” (93).1

Mehta, praised by Buruma for writing of the Raj “without nostalgia or bitterness” (9) sets Princess Jaya's story across the end of the colonial period including the first elections for the Indian Congress, in which she places her name as a candidate. Mehta's story flirts with the traditions of romance—bad marriage, the loss of a son, the attraction to a British soldier, and the heroine's successful quest for identity in a country where repression of women is culturally enforced. Mistry writes a social commentary illustrating how oppression is not always brought to a country from farther shores. Indians are the villains and the heroes in A Fine Balance and what the people do to each other seems as bad if not worse than what happened during the colonial period. Both novelists complicate the easy distinctions between history and fiction in their depictions and interpretations of India's colonial and post-colonial pasts.

Like Forster, Mistry and Mehta make India a character in their novels, and their two novels compare well in other ways, too.2 Both Mistry and Mehta construct plots which focus on family issues and family loyalty as an extension of nationalism; both write with historical accuracy and use history as an operating principle in their narratives; the scope of both novels is broad as a result. Evolution of the individual in the nation and the evolution of India as a free country provide a common, parallel quest in both works, even if the focus of their histories of India diverge conspicuously. Princess Jaya is a member of the ruling class, who eventually becomes the Maharani of her Indian Kingdom and a politically active woman. She is largely sheltered and protected from the common people until she sees the tide has turned with independence. She finds her own voice and her own mission in the new country. The Hindu tailors, Ishvar and Omprakash Darji, whose lives intersect with those of Dina Dalal and Maneck Kohlah, are of the lower castes. They all become victims of the turbulence caused by the State of Emergency and find their lives changed utterly as a result of their vulnerability in this critical period of Indira Gandhi's rule in the 1970s.

The novelists' styles differ as Mistry follows more in the footsteps of Rushdie's Midnight's Children (1980), with its use of the grotesque, the shocking, and the ironic. Mehta's style is more straight forward, using the allegory of the birth of India and the new woman in a recognizable manner. Neither novelist wants to break new ground in literary style, but both seem to want to take the South Asian novel in a direction which differs from those of such contemporaries as Bapsi Sidwha and Hanif Kureishi, as I will discuss a little later in this essay. What we find when we compare Raj with A Fine Balance are approaches to writing historical fiction in two strains: the first is to use the history as a driving force to develop a character over a span of time and draw out the character from the country of origin as in Raj; the other is to adhere to stricter use of history and make the events the dominate character, to merge function with form and content, to take to heart, as Mistry does, the confluence of “spirit and form” in his fiction.

Because the subject of this piece is the use of history as fiction, I focus on work concerned with the historical elements in both novels. As I describe the novelists' uses of history, then, I consider how reviewers reacted to the use of such material. From their comments, a sort of preference theory of taste emerges, especially concerning Raj, which drew more female than male reviewers, who clearly were disturbed at the intrusion of fact into what they wanted to read—a neat romance. Yasmin Alibhai says, for example, “Jaya's story is obviously meant to symbolize the history of India itself as it moved turbulently from the end of the 19th century to independence in 1949 and the liberation of Indian women as these historical convulsions rocked the social structures of society. It doesn't work well and the problem may well be … too much meaningless detail, fascination with the exotic” (34). In Alibhai's mind, history and fiction cannot rest peacefully together in a novel, and it seems she faults Mehta for researching the history of the period she creates in Raj.

In what follows, I will address such complaints, and in presenting summaries of the novels, I will concentrate on those characters whose lives create the main lines of the plots. Given the scope of the novels, covering decades of Indian life and history, it is necessary to limit summaries to only major characters, though minor characters and sub-plots are also well-developed and integrated into main storylines by Mehta and Mistry. I contend that both novelists have written novels which create the “visitable past” so admired by Henry James through which they created “fictional histories” which give to fiction the power of history's language to describe the past. As Hayden White notes, in historical metafiction, “[e]verything is presented as if it were of the same ontological order …” (68); the history is submerged into the fiction and the fiction determines the nature of the history the novelists present. We start with the Raj according to Jaya and Gita Mehta; move on to the new India of Mistry; compare their novels with two of their contemporaries and return to James, via J. Hillis Miller, for a concluding theoretical analysis of the use of history in recent South Asian fiction.

Raj is divided into four parts. “Book One: Balmer” is Jaya's early life; “Book Two: Sirpur” covers her marriage to Prince Pratap; “Book Three: Maharani” portrays her life as the leading woman in the royalty of her kingdom; and “Book Four: Regent” describes her widowhood and her role in leading Sirpur into India and away from its position as an independent kingdom. The last book is also the story of Jaya's activism and her realization that she can continue to serve her country as an elected member of the Indian National Congress. The novel begins in 1897 and ends in 1949. Princess Jaya finds herself in three interlocking situations in the novel: her parents' home, where she is steeped in Indian culture; in her own home, where she must carry out roles prescribed for her by the British and by the Indians; and in emerging India, the country which has always been her “Home” of homes, through which Jaya Devi experiences personal and cultural freedoms.

Mehta presents detailed descriptions of the cultural and personal transformations which her character experiences and witnesses. As she writes in the preface to the novel, she researched the periods she covers in “exhaustive archives” and a “wide and eccentric span of books” (ix). These are the details it appears that bothered Alibhai, but pleased Buruma, who is careful to praise Mehta for recreating the poshness of the Raj and its various extravagances, including the dog wedding organized by the Nawab of Jungadh. One need only compare Jaya's courtly life with the descriptions of the end of the Raj found in Lawrence James' Raj: The Making and Unmaking of British India (1997) to see just how well Mehta shows the wealthy Indians' desire to imitate the British, to play their games, to dress and talk like them, and to spend huge amounts of money keeping up the appearances associated with the “Jewel in the Crown” status India possessed as part of the Empire.

Jaya has been criticized as a flat character by reviewers Rachel Billington and Yasmin Alibhai. Billington, herself a novelist, writes Jaya “must, it seems, unlearn the lessons of thousands of years of Indian history and culture.” Further, she complains, “In general, Jaya is a kind of sleep-walker, making her way through remarkable events” (18). Billington and other reviewers miss the point about Jaya, though, and about Mehta's use of history in the novel. As a Maharani, Indian autonomy, even in a diminished state, is better than no native rule at all. Jaya is a presence in the world of colonial India. She is a transcultural woman like many Indian émigrés today, a part of India and a part of another culture, too. As a colonized subject, Jaya's flexibility and quick assumption of a new possibility point to the resilience and the strength of character which was latent in the Indian people. Certain things which happen to Jaya are obvious concessions to Western readers: the attempted suicide by Jaya's widowed mother and Jaya's lessons in how to be a Western woman at the hands of Mrs. Roy, who was hired by Prince Pratap to make Jaya less Indian. For Alibhai, it is Jaya's “mental lassitude” which makes her a poor person; she believes she should “seethe and plot, and joust, at least within the safe confines of her brain” (34). Yet, wanting Jaya to be Gandhi is inappropriate here. Her experiences are limited by history because of her class and her gender; her knowledge of the outside world is minimal and she is a prisoner of the patriarchy of the Raj. When she has the chance, though, she moves ahead and she learns that her real power is as a symbol for change in a free India. Jaya is not a modern woman or a revolutionary; she is a widow in her early fifties, who is not afraid to try something new for her country. Mehta has, in fact, created a character which is consistent throughout the novel. Jaya has always been in the service of India; the larger historical events simply require she shift her methods but not her focus.

Alibhai contends Mehta is writing an exploitation novel, and though the novel is based on factual events, which yield local color and give depth to the plot, the “nostaligie de l'Empire” remains too strong for the novel to be taken seriously and as a good work of fiction. In particular Alibhai writes: “But this is supposed to be a novel and not a boil-in-bag history/social anthropology lesson and the imaginative leap that is needed to transform historical realities into fictional realities is rarely made” (34). How the “leap” is to be made is left unstated, but one must assume that it involves something more in Alibhai's mind than a well-crafted, accurate portrayal of a character in a specific moment in recorded history. I suspect Alibhai would be equally willing to dismiss Ruth Prawer Jhabvla's 1975 Heat and Dust, which is set again the Sepoy Rebellion (1857-8), and gives a similar blend of history and romance. Alibhai seems to believe that history is itself a kind of fiction and one reality fits both nonfiction and fiction. The premise of her critique, which is central to my argument, concerns the kind of history fiction is thought to present. Buruma believes, as do I, that “[Mehta] is at her best when describing the twisted human relations in colonial society” (9).

Princess Jaya's version of India shares some of the same characteristics as Miss Quested's in A Passage to India (1924). At first, Jaya and Adele Quested find themselves trying to reconcile India's physical beauty and stunningly rich cultural heritage with its politics, but, in the end the two cannot be reconciled any more than a cross-cultural romance between Princess Jaya and Colonel Osborne or Miss Quested and Dr. Azziz would be possible, probable or desirable for either pair. Both women are looking outside for an India they possess within themselves. Forster, Rushdie, and Mehta blend “dream and reality, revelation and imagination, history and fiction, past and present … British culture and Indian culture … to [undermine] and continuously [question] the authority of the monologic voice in religion and culture” (Dönnerstag 458-59). Alibhai and Billington want a feminist political novel from Mehta. They are critical, disappointed, and dismissive (though not as dismissive as the Publisher's Weekly writer who could not let pass that Mehta, is the “wife of Knopf's Sonny Mehta” (217)). In fact, Mehta uses the popular formula of the romance to enliven, through the eyes of a thoughtful woman whose whole life has been a cautionary tale, the end of the Raj. We experience through Jaya's eyes what it is like to see the old world slip away and the curtain rise on the new.

Jaya is a woman who can assume new roles and transform herself without losing her identity because she is loyal to India and remains so her whole life. There is in Raj a female history and a feminist theme after all, as Maharani, then citizen Jaya, never loses her place despite large scale political upheaval and raw violence. Jaya Devi travels around India in the closing pages of the novel, spreading the nationalist message. She wants to insure a peaceful transition from kingdom to part of India for Sirpur. When she registers as an independent candidate for Congress from Sirpur, the election official, hearing her name smiles and says: “The name means victory, madam. May I wish you good luck in your endeavours?” (466). As Osborne and her activist friend, Arun Roy, argue over what the British Empire knew about democracy, Jaya Devi laughs out loud at the absurdity of worrying about the past when the future is so promising (467).

Jaya's optimism is lost on the four characters whose lives are the focus of Rohinton Mistry's A Fine Balance. In this novel, the widow, Dina Dalal, refuses her brother's efforts to arrange another marriage for her, and she ekes out a living as a piecemeal seamstress for a woman who operates an export clothing business. Once a woman with close friends and a husband, Dina is alone in Bombay. When her friends from school ask her to let their son rent a room from her while he is in college in Bombay, she is only too glad for the company, though their relationship gets off to an awkward start. She has not had an unrelated man in her home before and Manek Kohlah has never shared a home with anyone other than his parents. Manek is caught by having to live out his parents' dreams for him as a student of engineering, which he eventually abandons.3 He found the college dorm where he first stayed unnerving in its filth, and he was happy to move in with Dina Aunty.

In a parallel narrative, the reader is introduced to two struggling Hindu leather-workers turned tailors, uncle and nephew, Ishvar and Omprakash (Om) Darji. The two apply for jobs which Dinah has advertised when she finds the work is too much for her alone, and soon they are sewing for her in her apartment and living on an acquaintance's roof. Dina is uneasy about the men as she fears they will try to cut her out of the garment business, so she goes to great pains to see that they do not know where she takes the finished dresses, keeping them as virtual prisoners in her home when she is away delivering and picking up more material and patterns. A third story involves the Beggerman, who operates a large network of street beggars, and who eventually offers Dina and the tailors protection services when she has trouble with her landlord. All in all there are at least five levels or strands of Indian society brought together in A Fine Balance: the Himalayan family of Manek, whose father made his fortune in business; Dina and her brother, who are of the middle class; Om and Ishvar, representing the Hindu caste; Manek's school friend, Avinash, who becomes a campus activist and is killed by the police; and the underworld of Beggerman, the hair collector, Rajaram, and the displaced villagers who wander the streets of Bombay helplessly reduced to crime and begging.

Mistry presents the details of the intersecting lives with a microscopic precision that never seems boring or heavy handed. Like Mehta, he offers little personal touches which lend beauty to the narrative, especially in the quilt that Manek, Dina, Om and Ishvar collaborate on as a testimonial of their lives together. When Om and Ishvar find the government housing they were so pleased to have acquired is bulldozed during the State of Emergency, Dina takes them into her house as boarders; they live on her porch. Om and Manek have a predictable attraction to each other. They are both young men with a fire for life moving them; Dina and Ishvar are compelled by a class-consciousness particular to their ages and experiences to try to discourage the two young men from becoming too friendly. Other happy times in the apartment include Ishvar taking over the cooking and Manek's persuading Dina to take care of some stray kittens he found who live outside the kitchen window. In time, the four of them discover a common humanity. They are people who work hard, respect each other, and worry a great about their futures in uncertain times. Ishvar and Dina share the joy of Om's prospective marriage; Dina even feels she has a right to involve herself in the negotiations (540-7). They agree the trip home to the tailors' rural village will yield the promised results.

Chapter Fifteen “Family Planning” is the turning point in the novel. Om and Ishvar have returned home successfully and they are out shopping for Om's wedding and courting clothes when an old friend, Ashraf Chacha, tells them that a family planning clinic has just opened up in the village. Naturally, they all feel uncomfortable with the sterilizations they know go on there. The sinister background the clinic's tents provide is offset by the raucous welcome Om and Ivshar receive when they are recognized in the village (610), but the celebration is seemingly short-lived as the police move in wielding nightsticks and herd Om, Ishvar and others onto the waiting trucks. Ashraf is murdered on the street, Om and Ishvar are sterilized, against their will, and held in the camp for four months until they make their return to Bombay. Because Om spoke out against the family planning initiative and challenged the doctor performing the operations, the young mans testicles were removed, leaving him a eunuch (614-30). When they return, Dina nearly fails to recognize them. Reduced eventually to begging, Om supports the maimed Ishvar, who lost a leg due to blood poisoning. Dina's life also changes as the State-of-Emergency has ruined Mrs. Gupta's dress trade. She moves in with her brother and becomes a servant to her sister-in-law, Ruby. Manek, who encounters his old friends on the streets pretends not to recognize them when he returns to Bombay for a visit after his military tour has ended, but he does and they know he has, too. The pain is all too much for him: first he loses Avinash, and then his replacement in Om. Manek commits suicide on the train tracks (710). In the end, Om, Ishvar and Dina still find a way to be together: she surreptitiously feeds them from her brother's table and they do a little mending for her. Most of all they keep each others spirits up as their lives go on in a fine balance between life and death, sorrow and happiness, freedom and restraint. While there is pathos in Mistry's novel, the history wards off sentimentality.

A Fine Balance spans eleven years, from 1975 to 1984.4 The novel, which won four international prizes and was short-listed for four more, is described by reviewers as “ambitious in scope” (Rubin), as a “monumental new novel,” of “an heroic canvas” and as “a domestic novel that refuses to remain within its walls” (Mojtabai). None of Mistry's reviewers seem disturbed that he has chosen to write a contemporary historical novel, though A. G. Mojtabai finds herself “loosing touch with Ishvar and Dina” as the novel progress and “interior journies” are not presented (29). In the main, reviewers appear satisfied with Mistry's ability to capture “the real sorrow and inexplicable strength of India” (Iyer) as he treats “India both kindly and harshly” (Ross 239).

Robert L. Ross's essay, “Seeking and Maintaining Balance,” is the first U.S.-published critical essay on Mistry's fiction. Ross ponders how much interest Western audiences can be expected to have in Indian politics as he writes in World Literature Today:

Another question arises when considering these two novels (A Fine Balance and Such a Long Journey; Jowney [1991]): does the exposé of political corruption and tyrrany during Indira Gandhi's tenure still hold that much interest? She is long dead … The tempest that is Indian politics before, during, and since Mrs. Gandhi's years in power probably fails to intrigue most readers of Mistry's work. It is not the history of the actuality that attracts in Mistry's fiction, but the way he uses these elements … he transforms historical situations and the reality of Indian life into a metaphor that shows how the individual reacts to widespread corruption when tangled in its grasp … and how people respond to the endless forms of tyranny that government and society inflict.


While I agree that Mistry integrates the history of India in a way that is relevant to and enhances the theme of A Fine Balance, I disagree with Ross's assumption that the incorporation of accurate historical information fails to attract readers. Ross appears to suggest that in Mistry's latest novel, history can be separated from the fiction, which I contend it cannot. The use of history is not limited to images and metaphor as the State-of-Emergency is a violent character in the novel, and as such, needs to be explored.

Indira Gandhi (1917-1984), who was active in the independence movement in the 1930s and 1940s, became a member of the Indian Congress in 1950; party President 1959; Minister of Information in 1964; and Prime Minister in 1964. The State-of-Emergency was declared in June 1975 after she was found guilty of electoral corruption. She enforced censorship, limited civil liberties, and carried out social engineering among the poor. Removed in 1977 when the Congress Party lost the elections, she returned to politics as head of the Indian National Congress in 1978 and as Prime Minister in 1980. In 1984, she was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards, which led to the retaliatory deaths of 3,000 Sikhs. This assassination is the subject of recent Indian literature, and A Fine Balance spans the whole of Gandhi's first term as Prime Minister. Om, Ishvar and the community in which they live mirrors reality and historical situations. Mistry relies on the reader to recognize the validity of his portrayal of the effects of the State-of-Emergency on the Indian poor. As Naomi Jacobs says, when writers use historical or pop-culture figures there is “a concentrated code reference to an elaborate set of associations in the reader's and/or writer's mind” (110). These associations are revealed now.

For Om, Ishvar and the other lower caste characters, the State-of-Emergency leads to arrests, beatings and the destruction of shanty homes in an atmosphere of widespread confusion. The declaration served as a means for Mrs. Gandhi to lash out at her whole country and to punish the easily abused poor. One must read the State-of-Emergency as a Hyrdralike occurrence, in which the tentacles of government reached across the entire subcontinent, destroying lives in its wake. Dina's apartment serves as a safe-haven for Om and Ishvar, who are otherwise homeless at the wrong time. Their caste prohibits them from climbing out of poverty, though they are incredibly diligent and talented tailors. They are judged by their appearances and the outward signs of their caste's poverty, even though they are literate, are saving money from their wages for Om's wedding, paying their bills on time, and generally minding their own business. They are criminalized for being who they are, which is ironic when one recalls that Dina is actually breaking the law by having them work and live in her apartment and the sinister, but oddly likeable hair collector, Rajaram, is a murderer.

Reading the 1999 Human Rights Watch report, Broken People: Caste Violence against India's ‘Untouchables’, underscores the extent of the hardship and the violence the poor of India face and with which Mistry seems well-acquainted. The report's major finding, in the context of its relevance to A Fine Balance, is how through “a series of inefficient and corrupt state governments since the early 1970s … government officials … have acted as agents and turned a blind eye to the killings,” displacements, and police-led attacks on rural villagers, called Dalits (Untouchables) (43). Women and those who would dare engage in social activism are routinely singled-out for beatings and other acts of violence, which are termed attacks on modesty. The report describes “the criminalization of social activism” (153-165) and details cases similar to Om's one-man resistance to the vasectomy. Mistry's ability to grasp and portray the lives of the poor, especially how they “languish in makeshift homes on government property” (99) is particularly realistic as Om and Ishvar find themselves mingling with displaced members of Indian society during the State-of-Emergency. Broken People elucidates and A Fine Balance enlivens the patterns and types of violence and state-sponsored oppression. Started in the 1970s they are still much in evidence, lending credibility to “the fine balance,” the thin, delicate balance which is daily life in India.

The State-of-Emergency is Manek Kohlah's nemesis. As a young man who descends into the underworld of Bombay, he fails to survive. A victim of repression in a way that differs from the experience of Om and Ishvar, Manek will not be a hypocrite. His wealth and education would enable him to rise or, to at least do well, but this is irreconcilable with the mass suffering of the Indian people as experienced by his extended family in Bombay. Out of loyalty and in response to their dignity, Manek jumps to his death; his last memory is that of his murdered friend from college, whose parents he had lately met. From the start, Manek is ill-suited to urban Bombay; he is always uncomfortable with what seemed normal to those who had become acculturated to certain levels of squalor and poverty in order to survive. Lacking survival skills, with his head literally in the clouds, Manek is lost in a world without beauty.5

Mistry's decision to tell a story of personal courage, resilience, hope and dignity in a destructive world redefines the family by crossing classes and economic barriers. Pamela Dunbar addresses the importance of family in the postcolonial novel when she writes; “The use of [the family] implies a skepticism about the healthy survival of the wider community during a period of historical uncertainty” (103). Readers who know Indian history realize that what Dina, Om and Ishvar have will once again be tested in 1984, the year of the novel's Epilogue, and Mrs. Gandhi's assassination. The balance is once more upset. Gandhi's period as Prime Minister repeatedly tested the character of India and Indians' ability to balance hope and despair.

Both Gita Mehta and Rohinton Mistry illustrate Henry James' concept that a novelist “should regard himself as an historian and his narrative as history” (qtd. in Miller, “History, Narrative” 193). James maintained “fictional histories” bear the same weight of truth as history itself, writing in the Preface to the Aspern Papers: “I delight in a palpable imaginable visitable past … We are divided of course between liking to feel the past strange and liking to feel it familiar; the difficulty is, for intensity, to catch it at the moment when the scales of the balance hang with the right evenness” (197-8).6 That is, when the fine balance between history and literature is achieved, a lively, realistic history in and as fiction emerges from the story. In the post-modern, and post-colonial novels of Mehta and Mistry, history gives power to the language of fiction. It relies on literary narrative to mix the real with the imaginary. Writers of “fictional histories” bear the “responsibility” of telling the “truth” about the past. It is upon this responsibility that their ethos as novelists and those of their characters rest.

Thus, Mehta and Mistry are in the middle of the debate about historical “truth.” In 1946, R. G. Collingwood stated the inevitable dilemma of the historian who was writing about events which he/she did not witness first hand, when he said that if the historian is not present for the event, then “[he] must re-enact the past in his own mind.” To write the historical account, he must employ “certain documents or relics of the past” to achieve appropriate levels of “historical thinking,” i.e., the mindset which allows “[him] to re-enact in his own mind the experiences about which he wishes to write” (282-3). It seems the same could be said of the historical novelist.

Hayden White, as recently as 1999 in Figural Realism: Studies in the Mimesis Effect, claims “historical discourse” is an “interpretation of the past” which literary critics are as capable of assessing as historians (3). Because history writing relies on the same type of narrative linear storytelling, the perceived “opposition between fact and fiction is abolished;” or “the contract” between the real and the imaginary is “dissolved” (66-68). Again, the lines between historical and fictional narrative appear blurry. For literary critics including Cowart in History and the Contemporary Novel (1989), historical writing “… like imaginative writing, involves the selection of detail, the determination of emphasis, [and] a narrational shaping” (17). These are all properties of fiction writing which in the end affect the validity of the “truth” the reader finds in history. Cowart also maintains that “… history makes its greatest contribution when it supplies the creative artist with raw material” (25).

Following from Collingwood to White to Cowart, the reader is left to consider whether the form of the historical novel in any way invalidates the history which one finds in the fiction. As I have already shown, Mehta, through primary research creates her own interpretation of the Raj from the perspective of her female central character. Mistry's use of history is focused more on the situations of the characters he creates which are emblematic of the Indian people. In his work, I find parallels with memoirs and other primary accounts, though unlike Mehta, he does not indicate if he conducted research to develop his story. What the postmodernist view of history as a sibling of fiction suggests is that Mehta's and Mistry's histories of India are as valid as Lawrence James', Siddhartha Dube's or the Human Rights Watch report's authors.

To see more of these “fictional histories” and to highlight how Mistry's and Mehta's use of history differs from their contemporaries, it is helpful to consider, if briefly, two novels by Bapsi Sidwha and one by Hanif Kureishi. Sidwha's The Crow Eaters (1981) and Cracking India (1988) predate Mistry and Mehta while Kureishi's The Buddha of Suburbia was published in 1990 between Raj and A Fine Balance. Anglo-Indian relations are a common theme in both The Crow Eaters and Raj; while Cracking India has more in common with the brutal realism of A Fine Balance.

In The Crow Eaters and The Buddha of Suburbia, political history is a part of the furniture of setting. Racism is given a slightly larger role by Kureishi; though in the Sidwah novel, the marriage of the youngest son is an allegory for Anglo-Indian relations. When Billy Junglewalla marries Tanya Easymoney, he allows himself to be as westernized as she already is. Tanya, a beautiful spend thrift, with her “swing of black, bobbed-hair” (201) prefers to dress in British style. Billy is more traditionally raised, and has grown up in the shadow of his handsome, loved brothers. He is eager to gain his father's approval, and after his older brother dies and another becomes a mendicant, Billy assumes his father's store and becomes rich. The tension between Tanya and Billy symbolizes her greedy colonialist mindset; while he represents the wealth of India to her as ready to be plundered.7

Another subplot involves Yazdi, the family's second son, and Rosy Watson, an unfortunate Anglo-Indian. Yazdi falls in love with her, and promises to marry her though they are both still school children. He is moved by her accounts of domestic violence perpetrated by her father and stepmother. To get her out of the way in the house, her stepmother arranges for Rosy to be raped in her own home: “They tied her to the bed and brought men into the room …” (127), Yazdi tells his father, Freddy. Yazdi, Freddy realizes, does not grasp what Rosy's stepmother has done to her, but as Sidwha knows in creating this situation “Once a girl is raped, she becomes unmarriageable” (Human Rights Watch 31). For this reason, Freddy sends Yazdi away from Lahore for schooling, and succeeds in keeping Rosy out of the family.

In breaking up his own Romeo and Juliet, Freddy loses Yazdi anyway. By accident, Freddy finds Rosy working in a brothel he and some friends have gone to visit, and to make his point clear and the solidify in his rightness mind of his actions, he has sex with Rosy himself. Perhaps in this way he can make his decision more clear to Yazdi, but it is nevertheless cruel.

The aspects of The Crow Eaters that are clearly verisimilar include a rural family moving to the city to prosper; generational conflict; the steadying influence of women in the family; and class-based decision making. Indian history/Pakistani history does not play an essential role in this novel. The characters are affected by internal domestic politics, more so than by the separation of Pakistan from India or by Indian independence. Similarly, the racism of The Buddha of Suburbia and the experiences of this novel's main character are part of a fictional situation more than a fictional history.

Karim Amir introduces himself as “an Englishman born and bred” (3) in the first sentence of Kureishi's novel. Karim is the son of an Indian father, Haroon Amir, and an English mother, Margaret. The family lives in South London and tensions between the native British population and the Indian and Pakistani immigrants are always in evidence. Karim's foil is his cousin, Jamilla, a feminist, who sees Karim as selfish and a racetraitor. Although the novel, like The Crow Eaters is comic, Karim's inability to see himself as exploited because he is Anglo-Indian and The National Front's attack on people in his circle as well as Jamilla's arranged marriage, adds seriousness and depth to the text.

Karim experiences personal discomfort with his race when he is cast as Mogwli in The Jungle Bunny Book, not the dramatic adaptation Kipling wrote, but a play written and directed by a friend of his father's lover. Karim is enjoying the part until he is asked in rehearsal to use a stage-Indian accent, something which his father, who came to England for college in the 1950's, worked hard to eliminate, but Karim does it anyway.

Later in this acting career, Karim is included in a select company in a send up of method acting. He is asked to prepare a real-self sort of part, so the playwright, after seeing what the ensemble creates as characters, can write a play to accommodate them. First, Karim imitates what he sees as hysterical in his uncle, Anwar, whose fasting nearly kills him until Jamilla relents and accepts his choice of husband for her, Changez, a crippled man who loves reading and has no apparent business sense. When challenged by another member of the company, Tracey, with “Why do you hate yourself, and all black people so much Karim?” (180), Karim is at first confused, then sets out to create Changez for the stage. Like the National Front thugs who cannot tell the difference between Pakistanis and Indians, Karim cannot see the difference between himself as Anglo-Indian and as British; after all, he defined himself as an “Englishman” at the start. As he says, “… if I wanted the additional personality bonus of an Indian past, I would have to create it” (213) which he does by siphoning Indian-ness off of Changez.

Karim's closeness to Jamilla is damaged when he fails to appear at a protest march against the National Front which was organized after Changez was mistaken for a Pakistani and beaten up. Jamilla tells Karim the National Front is planning other acts of violence and the protest march will at least let them know they are not welcome. Karim decides “We could not stop it; we could only make our voices heard” (225); but he does not believe in “we” and “our.” He is, in fact, so successful in acting the part of Changez as a bumbling woman chaser that he becomes the star of the play, goes on tour to New York and gains a future as an actor on a TV soap opera. For Karim, activism is futile and the road to nowhere. In giving the audience a racist stereotype of an Indian man, he has achieved success. As a man in his twenties, Karim is selfish and more interested in sex than politics. At no point does Kureish break Karim's character with false political sentiments. Karim is shallow and selfish and suffers from the intellectual lassitude Alibhai claimed Jaya Devi possessed. Literary critics, however, have found much to politicize in The Buddha of Suburbia, though it makes no effort to be a political novel per se.8

Cracking India, Sidwha's 1988 novel, compares more favorably to A Fine Balance. The narrator is an eight year-old girl, Lenny, who is crippled with polio (like Billy, Changez, Bunny and Om, who are other maimed characters.).9 She acts as an observer-narrator in keeping with her role as a child. Through her ayah, Lenny crosses paths with a variety of men who wish to be the ayah's suitors, including the “Ice-Candy Man,” a vendor of ice treats. In a period of partisan violence, surrounding the Independence movement, the ice-candy man persuades Lenny to betray the hiding place of her Hindu ayah. The ayah is then raped and abducted, appearing in public as the much decorated, rechristened Mumtaz, “wife” of the Ice-Candy Man. Fortunately for the ayah, Lenny's grandmother is a sort of force of nature who arranges for the girl, though damaged, to return to her family.

Lenny's encounters with politics and sectarian violence are suited to her childhood. She listens to dinner conversations about politics, heated debates in the park, and picks up news she does not really understand in the park with her ayah. Sidwha incorporates the independence movement into the setting, first, then connects it to the most vulnerable member of Lenny's household to give it meaning. The chapters on politics, 15 and 16, in which the ayah is abducted, have the characters saying enough of their views to carry the main ideas of the plot through. How they live their political lives is kept remote from Lenny, who, like Yazdi is witness to something she does not really understand.

Lenny is unaware of the causes of the sectarian violence, the fate of her ayah, or of the cruelty surrounding the marriage of her sometime playmate, a household servant's daughter. The girl's mother really hates the child, and heaps verbal insults and beatings on her. The daughter is unable to physically fight back, but she is willing to provoke her mother and to insult her. At ten years old, she is married to a middle-aged man. For the ceremony, the girl is drugged (Lenny notices she does not seem her usual lively self) presumably by her mother, so she will offer no resistance. Thus, amid all the beauty of the traditional ceremony, a socially sanctioned act of inhumanity occurs. Sidhwa, again, shows her cultural awareness of Indian's women's complicity in acts that are against other women's freedom. While it is true child marriage is a way for parents to protect their daughters from rape by upper class men, the act of the mother in this novel is just vengeful.

Sidwha and Kureishi use historical circumstance as lesser vehicles in creating the settings of their novels. For Sidwha, Cracking India moves towards a greater, more direct use of history and contemporary politics, and both Sidwha and Kureishi present an unvarnished view of South Asian culture.

Henry James, R. G. Collingwood, and Hayden White are not far apart on the issue of history and fiction and history as fiction. For James, to be a novelist was to be cultural historian whose duty was to capture the details of the past. For Collingwood and White, the historian is in the same situation, needing to write about the past, which as a human, one is bound to interpret and shape in ways that do or do not conform with taste and cultural preoccupations. Both Mehta and Mistry transform key moments in Indian history into readable fiction and popular history. They are not “Indian historians” but they are invoking the “historical thinking” which Collingwood held was necessary for historical writing. Because history is the operating principle behind both novels, changing the settings of Raj and A Fine Balance to another time and place, would simply not work. Far from causing readers to move away from the fictions because of the historical thinking, as Ross suggests, the deliberate and deliberative uses of history employed by Mistry and Mehta reveal these works as unique, problematic, and complex. Raj and A Fine Balance make history visitable and visible and as historical novels they are worthy of appreciation having earned a place in the ongoing postmodern debates about truth, meaning and interpretation of the past.


  1. See also Annalisa Oboe, “South African Historical Fiction and Nationalism,” and Kavita Mathai, “National Identity in Recent Indian Novels in English.”

  2. Yoko Fujimoto labels Mistry and other immigrant novelists as “postcolonial transcultural writers” (33).

  3. Ragini Ramachandra's essay, “Rohinton Mistry's Such a Long Journey: Some First Impressions” enables the reader to quickly compare the plots of his first and second novels. Both share the themes of a younger man disappointing his male elders and of personal loss. Ramachandra glosses over Mistry's use of history in Such a Long Journey as “lending a political coloring to the novel apart from investing it with topical interest” (29). Topical interest is not the point in Mistry's treatment of historical events.

  4. These years are also addressed in Siddharth Dube's family memoir, In Land of Poverty: Memoirs of an Indian Family, especially chapter 7: “The Messiah of the Poor: Indira Gandhi,” pp. 99-112. He writes “The campaign of forced sterilization and slum clearance begun by Sanjay Gandhi … left her reputation tarnished almost beyond repair, it was inconceivable they were pursued without her concurrence. The campaigns … also betrayed Mrs. Gandhi's retrograde attitude to the poor: they were a valuable vote block, they were also the root cause of India's troubles” (106). One and a half million people, mostly in northern Hindu states, were victims of sterilization (107). By the end of the 1970s, the poor felt they would never be able to rise above “the deprivation that [they] had long suffered” (112).

  5. Here it is interesting to compare Upamanyu Chatterjee's short story, “The Assassination of Indira Gandhi” with its main character, Bunny Karion, to Mistry's Manek Kohlah. Bunny is a Sikh college student, who against his parents wishes does not follow his religion or wear the beard and turban of his people. He has a drinking problem, and is leading a dissipated life at school in Bombay, when he decides, mostly out of boredom, to just go home. In fact, Bunny is ill with rheumatoid arthritis. As he is recovering from jaundice, Bunny and his family hear of the assassination of Mrs. Gandhi. Bunny feels “in a delirious state, … that the world's chaos merely mirrored his own” (207). Less subtle than Mistry or Mehta, Chatterjee drives home the parallels between history and literature. Both Bunny and Manek believe “nothing could claim him” (209), because “(a)mbition was an absurdity, so-much-to-do-and-so-little-time-to-do-it, how pointless an outlook” (210) in a world full of “mad events” (210). Bunny and Manek give into the State-of-Emergency which is at once a part of their private and public lives.

  6. Here, as I will explain later, I draw on J. Hillis Miller's interpretation of Henry James on the relationship of history and fiction.

  7. Mrinalini Sinha explains in Colonial Masculinity in a succinct way the importance of India to the English economy which makes Tanya's and Billy's marriage a symbolic parallel, see pp. 1-10.

  8. See for example, the essays on The Buddha of Suburbia in the special section of Commonwealth Essays and Studies, ed. with an introduction by James Oubechou. Topics including colonialism, otherness and cultural criticism are addressed by the several authors. Though Kureishi is only 44, he is the subject of a biography by Kenneth C. Kaleta, Hanif Kureishi: Postcolonial Storyteller.

  9. The defective body of the most native or natural of Indians is overtly suggestive of diseases and injustice in the larger polis; of colonialism and the State-of-Emergency. Rushdie's Salem Sinai is also disfigured with his huge nose and face in the shape of India. The injured bodies here are not open to such parody.

Works Cited

Alibhai, Yasmin. “A False Orient.” Rev. of Raj, by G. Mehta. New Statesman and Society 16 June 1989: 34.

Bayer, Jogamaya. “The Presentation of History in Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's Novel Heat and Dust.” Zach and Goodwin 443-447.

Billington, Rachel. “Out of the Purdan into Politics.” Rev. of Raj, by G. Mehta. New York Times Book Review 9 April 1989: 18.

“Briefly Noted—A Fine Balance.The New Yorker 3 June 1998: 93.

Buruma, Ian. “Good Night Sweet Princes.” Rev. of Raj, by G. Mehta. New York Review of Books 18 May 1989: 9-12.

Chaterjee, Upumany. “The Assassination of Indira Gandhi.” Mirrorwork. Ed. Salman Rushdie and Elizabeth West. New York: Owl Books, 1997: 198-210.

Collingwood, R. G. The Idea of History. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1946.

Cowart, David. History and the Contemporary Novel. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1989.

Dönnerstag, Jurgen. “Hybrid Forms of Multiculturalism in the Fiction of Salman Rushdie.” Zach and Goodwin 455-460.

Dube, Siddharth. In the Land of Poverty: Memoirs of an Indian Family. New York: Zed Books, 1998.

Dunbar, Pamel. “Conflict and Continuity: The Family as Emblem of the Postcolonial Society.” Zach and Goodwin 103-104.

“Fiction Reprints—A Fine Balance.Publisher's Weekly, 22 February 1991: 217.

Fujimoto, Yoko. “Multi-Culturalism and Ethnic Writing in English Canada: A New Development in the National Literary Discourse.” Zach and Goodwin 325-330.

Human Rights Watch. Broken People. Cast Violence against India's ‘Untouchables’. New York: Human Rights Watch, 1999.

“Indira Gandhi.” Cambridge Biographical Dictionary, 1991.

Ingraham, Janet. “Book Reviews: Fiction.” Rev. of A Fine Balance, by R. Mistry. Library Journal 1 April 1996: 18.

Iyer, Pico. “Down and Really Out.” Rev. of A Fine Balance, by R. Mistry. Time 22 April 1996: 84-5.

Jacobs, Naomi. The Character of Truth: Historical Figures in Contemporary Fiction. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1990.

James, Lawrence. Raj: The Making and Unmaking of British India. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997.

Kaleta, Kenneth C. Hanif Kureishi: Postcolonial Storyteller Austin: U of Texas P, 1998.

Kureishi, Hanif. The Buddha of Suburbia. New York: Viking, 1990.

Mathai, Kavita. “National Identity in Recent Indian Novels in English.” Zach and Goodwin 435-441.

Mehta, Gita. Raj: A Novel. 1989. New York: Ballantine Books, 1991.

Miller, J. Hillis. “History, Narrative, and Responsibility: Speech Acts in The Aspern Papers.Enacting History in Henry James: Narrative, Power, and Ethics. Ed. Gert Buelens. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1997), 193-210.

———. “Narrative and History.” ELH 41 (1974): 455-473.

Mistry, Rohinton. A Fine Balance. 1995. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1997.

Mojtabai, A. G. “An Accidental Family.” Rev. of A Fine Balance by R. Mistry. New York Times Book Review, 23 June 1996: 29.

Oboe, Annalisa. “South African Historical Fiction and Nationalism.” Zach and Goodwin 229-237.

Oubechou, James, ed. “The Buddha of Suburbia.” Spec. section of Commonwealth Essays and Studies 4 (1997): 87-125.

Ramachandra, Ragini. “Rohinton Mistry's Such a Long Journey: Some First Impressions.” Literary Criterion (Bombay) 29.4 (1991): 25-34.

Ross, Robert L. “Seeking and Maintaining Balance: Rohinton Mistry's Fiction.” World Literature Today 73 (Spring 1999): 239-245.

Rubin, Merle. “Novels of Love and Adversity for Summertime Reading.” Rev. of A Fine Balance, by R. Mistry. Christian Science Monitor 27 June 1996: B1.

Sidwha, Bapsi. Cracking India. Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed Editions, 1991. Rpt. of The Ice-Candy Man. 1988.

———. The Crow Eaters. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1981.

Sinha, Mrinalini. Colonial Masculinity: The “Manly Englishman” and the “Effeminate Bengali” in the Late Nineteenth Century. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1995.

White, Hayden. Figural Realism: Studies in the Mimesis Effect. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1999.

Zach Wolfgang, and Ken L. Goodwin, eds. Nationalism vs. Internationalism: (Inter)national Dimensions of Literature in English. Tubingen: Stauffenberg, 1996.


Principal Works


Further Reading