Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1916
The Narrator's Story
The loose collection of stories that comprises Gita Mehta's A River Sutra are connected by three things: the Narmada River, the theme of love, and the narrator's inability to understand the various tales of the human heart he hears. Mehta gives very little information about this narrator. The reader never knows his name, much less the secrets of his heart. It is through this nameless man that the reader learns the stories of uncommon pain and joy that the narrator has collected during his tenure as the manager of a government rest house on the banks of the Narmada River.
The Monk's Story
Ashok is the first of many people to tell the narrator his story of love. The monk is probably only thirty years old, and yet he has already tired of a world that offered him anything he wanted: extreme wealth, a loving family, and the opportunity to better other people's lives through charity. The monk has willingly decided to become a monk in a religion where, as other monks tell him, he will suffer almost constant pain. Ashok believes these sacrifices are worthwhile because in his renunciation, as the same monks tell him, he "will be free from doubt."
The narrator cannot understand Ashok's adherence to a religious order where the highest level of enlightenment will probably come, as Ashok's father says, from "starving himself to death." The narrator shudders to think that one day he will see Ashok's body, just as he has seen so many other priests' bodies, as a corpse floating down the Narmada River. After listening to the monk's story, the story's meaning is still a mystery to the narrator. The old Muslim mullah Tariq Mia must finally explain that the Jain monk's story was about "The human heart...Its secrets." His frozen heart thawed by "compassion...for the human helplessness that linked us all," the monk finally feels connected to the world. His renunciation of the world, paradoxically, is his celebration of that connection.
The Teacher's Story
As Tariq Mia seeks to enlighten the narrator about the true meaning of the monk's story, he offers him another story, one of a teacher's love for his student. This story, like the monk's, is meant to show the secrets of the human heart. A music teacher, Master Mohan fell in love with the sound of a blind pupil's perfect voice. Imrat's music represented a haven to Master Mohan whose own life had been filled with disappointment. Braving the wrath of his family, who despise him, he adopts the boy and nurtures his gift. He selflessly helps to further the boy's singing career, seeking no financial gain for himself. Master Mohan's greedy wife is outraged by her husband's actions. Out of revenge and greed she arranges for the boy to sing for a wealthy patron. Wary of the man's motives and seeking to protect the boy, Master Mohan had refused the rich man's request for a private concert. Tragically, Master Mohan's instincts were correct. As Imrat sings his devotional Muslim songs in front of the wealthy man, the man slits the boy's throat. Hearing Master Mohan's tale, Tariq Mia can only assume that the "great sahib" killed the boy so that Imrat could share his voice with no one else. Devastated, Master Mohan makes his pilgrimage to the Muslim saint Amir Rumi's tomb, where Imrat had dreamed of singing. Instead of going back to his wife and children, Master Mohan throws himself in front of a train. If the rich man killed the boy so that no one would hear his voice again, Master Mohan kills himself because he cannot imagine life without the boy. A world without the boy's purity of soul and voice is not worth living in.
The Executive's Story
Soon after hearing this story, the narrator meets Nitin Bose, a young tea executive. Apparently insane, Nitin hands the narrator his diary and implores him to read it. Once a careless executive living the high life in Calcutta, Nitin had accepted the stewardship of a tea plantation nestled in the Himalayan foothills. Isolated, he began reading and rereading the legends of the Puranas, collections of legends dating from between the first century B.C. to the sixth century A.D. He was delighted to learn of the "mythological tales dealing with the very area in which my tea estate was situated, legends of a vast underground civilization stretching from these hills all the way to the Arabian Sea, peopled by a mysterious race half human, half serpent." As he confided to his diary, however, he didn't for a moment believe the legends.
After two years, however, the legends Nitin had read began to merge with his real experience. Night after night he imagined that one of the half-serpent women seduced him. For a long time, Nitin was unable to make sense of the mysterious Rima who visited his bed each night: "I did not know whether I had fashioned her from the night and my own hunger." When he finally learned that she was not mythical, but merely a coolie's wife, Nitin explains how "Waves of disgust engulfed me and I wanted to vomit with shame." Rejecting Rima, Nitin determined to go back to Calcutta. But playing on his beliefs in the legends, Rima plotted a just revenge. Luring Nitin into the moonlight, Rima followed the folk beliefs and caught Nitin's soul between two halves of a coconut shell. Believing in the magic, Nitin lost his mind. According to a tribal priest, "If your sahib wants to recover his mind he must worship the goddess at any shrine that overlooks the Narmada River."
At the government rest house, Nitin finds villagers who worship the same ancient goddess as the people of the Himalayan foothills. Following their rituals, Nitin is finally cured. After he has left the rest house, the narrator learns that the village children are singing his story. Nitin has become another of the many tales about the Narmada River.
The Courtesan's Story
Next, the narrator meets an old courtesan, trained in the arts of love, who has had to survive by turning into a common prostitute. She describes the height of her skills and art in great detail, and longs for the days when such delicacy was appreciated. This woman taught her daughter the art of the courtesans and tried to protect her from the sexual advances of men. Despite her care, the daughter is kidnapped by a notorious criminal, Rahul Singh. Searching for her daughter, the courtesan has come to the Narmada River. When she finally finds her daughter, however, it is too late. The daughter fell in love with her captor, believing in his belief that the two had spent all their past lifetimes together. When Rahul Singh is killed by the police, the courtesan's daughter despairs and loses the baby she is carrying. Her plots to avenge her husband's death are thwarted. Convinced that Rahul Singh did not want his bride to adopt his life of crime, the courtesan's daughter does not know how she will live. After comforting her mother one last time, the girl jumps off a cliff into the waiting Narmada River below. Believing her child to be cleansed of her sins, the old courtesan begins the long walk home.
The Musician's Story
When the narrator first sees the musician, he believes she must be a beautiful woman. Her sari reveals a graceful form. However, when she turns to face the narrator, he is struck by the ugliness of her features. Her ugliness had played a large role in her life. Her father, a famous musician, took her under his wing, in part to protect her from her mother's sighs at the girl's homeliness. Under her father's tutelage, the daughter learned how to become a great musician in her own right. But she followed the traditional beliefs that her music, and all women's music, should complement a man's stronger notes. After it becomes apparent that no one will want to marry this girl, her father strikes a deal with an aspiring musician. He will teach the young man all he knows if the young man will agree to marry his daughter. The two pupils begin to play music together. The harmonies they create are so beautiful that the girl is convinced in the power of their love. She perfectly complements this man's music. As her mother begins the wedding preparations, however, the family learns that the young man has abandoned his teacher and his bride. He intends to marry another. Heartbroken, the musician vows to never play music again. Her father has taken her to the Narmada River so that she can "understand that I am the bride of music, not a musician." But she thinks there is no hope: "it is an impossible penance that he demands of me, to express desire in my music when I am dead inside."
The Minstrel's Story
Tariq Mia tells the narrator of a Hindu ascetic, Naga Baba, who taught him the song of the river. This man, who Mia guesses was highly educated before he renounced the world, wandered along the banks of the Narmada with a small girl, Uma, in tow. Mia has not seen the Naga Baba in years, but his story had touched him.
In his travels, the Naga Baba, who dressed in rags, washed in the ashes of the cremated, and begged for food, had found a little girl in a brothel. Threatening to curse the house of ill repute, the Naga Baba had convinced its owner to relinquish the girl. Uma, as he renamed her, had been sold to the brothel by her father. Repeatedly raped by customers, Uma was frightened of all men. To nourish her spirit, the Naga Baba dedicated her to the Narmada River, in a sense baptizing her in its waters. Saying that the river was her new mother, the Naga Baba began to teach Uma the songs of the river. For years they traveled together, but one day the ascetic abandoned his charge in search of further "enlightenment." Alone, Uma became a river minstrel who traveled between religious festivals, keeping the legend of the river alive in song.
The Song of the Narmada
In the novel's last chapter, Uma comes to the narrator's rest house. She says she has been sent to sing to him the song of the river. The narrator is shocked to learn that the respected professor, Dr. Shankar, who has been staying with him, was the one who summoned Uma. He is even more shocked to learn that the well-dressed and thoroughly modern Dr. Shankar is none other than the Naga Baba himself. The road to enlightenment, as Dr. Shankar explains, led him back to the world of men. As he tells the narrator, "I have no great truths to share...I told you, I am only a man." Unsatisfied with this revelation, the narrator demands a further explanation. But Dr. Shankar persists, "Don't you know the soul must travel through eighty-four thousand births in order to become a man?. . .Only then can it reenter the world." As the novel closes, the narrator wonders what he would do if he ever left the rest house. The reader is left to wonder if the narrator will follow the Naga Baba's path and reenter the world, or, like so many of the people whose stories he heard, jump into the river that he has begun to worship.