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Ashok, a Jain monk, has renounced his billionaire lifestyle to become an ascetic. As Mehta explains in the glossary to The River Sutra, Jain is an "Indian religion of extreme antiquity." The Jains, who follow the teachings of Mahavira, a religious reformer who lived in 500 B.C, broke with the Hindus over the rigid caste system that divided people into distinct classes. The monks of the Jain religion seek to lose all sense of themselves by following strict ascetic principles. In self-mortification, which includes begging for food and cutting off all ties with friends and family, they seek enlightenment. Living by the doctrine of "ahimsa," or nonviolence, these monks vow not to hurt a single living creature. To this end, they wear muslin masks over their mouths, lest they accidentally kill an insect that would fly into their mouths.

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 experience cold. Hunger. Heat. Thirst. Sickness." Ashok believes these sacrifices are worthwhile because in his renunciation, as the same monks tell him, he "will be free from doubt...delusion...extremes." The monk takes the drastic step of becoming an ascetic because once his frozen heart is thawed by "compassion...for the human helplessness that linked us all," he feels connected to the world for the first time. His renunciation of the world, paradoxically, is his celebration of that connection.

Other Characters

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Naga Baba
The narrator is floored to learn that the learned expert on the Narmada River, Professor Shankar, is the same person as the ascetic hermit Naga Baba. As an ascetic, Naga Baba had renounced the world. He wandered the countryside, bathed in the ashes of the cremated, and begged for sustenance. Professor Shankar, a stylish expert on the Narmada River, seems thoroughly modern. His skepticism about the mythology surrounding the river contrasts to the Naga Baba's holy purpose. But as Professor Shankar explains, he has reentered the world, learning that the greatest enlightenment comes from being a man and part of the rush of life. His search for enlightenment that led him to become an ascetic has led him back to the world he once renounced. It seems that the girl Uma, whom the Naga Baba had rescued from a brothel, probably taught him this lesson. Tariq Mia muses that the ascetic could find no higher enlightenment than his relationship with the abused girl. In many ways, the mullah's assessment is correct. In loving and caring for her, the Naga Baba abandoned his solitary wanderings. Teaching her the songs and traditions of the river led him back to his old profession of archaeologist. Through love, the Naga Baba regained the world and became once again the famous Professor Shankar.

Nitin Bose
This tea merchant is sent by his uncle to recuperate at the narrator's Government rest house. Apparently insane, Nitin Bose first claims to authorities that he is a woman. Once a young executive in Calcutta, Nitin Bose has seemingly lost his mind while governing a tea plantation in the isolated Himalayan foothills. Having immersed himself in the folk tales of the region, Nitin Bose can no longer distinguish reality from the mythological stories. After years of celibacy he imagines that a serpent-like woman comes to his bed each night. He is not sure if she is real or a fantasy. After realizing...

(This entire section contains 2896 words.)

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that he has been sleeping with Rima, a peasant woman, Nitin is repulsed by the love affair. Disgusted by her low caste, Nitin declares that the spell she had cast over him is broken. Enough of the fantasy remains, however, for Nitin to believe that Rima has captured his soul. Clinging to this belief he has come to the rest house, hoping that the tribal people will use their ancient religion to free him. His sin was not that he rejected Rima, but that he rejected the power of desire. By sacrificing to the goddess of desire, Bose can become sane and whole once more.

Mr. Chagla
Mr. Chagla, the narrator's clerk, must ride 19 kilometers from his town of Rudra to the Government rest house each day. Mr. Chagla's bustling activity contrasts to the narrator's detached observation. Frequently Mr. Chagla enlightens the narrator about tribal customs and the villagers' way of life. Despite his inferior work and social position, Mr. Chagla seems much more aware of the meaning of life than his boss. As he explains to the narrator, "But, sir, without desire there is no life. Everything will stand still. Become emptiness. In fact sir, be dead." This a lesson the narrator has yet to learn.

The Courtesan
This elderly woman describes how she was traditionally trained in the art of love. Taught "to teach nobleman good manners," the courtesan's job differed from that of the common prostitute. As this woman explains, learning to be a courtesan enabled her to become "more accomplished than any woman in India." With a changing culture, however, the art of love lost value. Courtesans instead became prostitutes: "Trained as scholars, artists, musicians, dancers, we are only women to [vulgar men], our true function to heave on a mattress and be recompensed by some tawdry necklace flashing its vulgarity on a crushed pillow."

Still loving her art, this courtesan trained her daughter in the art of love but protected her from men. When her daughter is kidnapped, it is as though this woman has lost her art for the second time.

The Courtesan's Daughter
This beautiful young woman who was kidnapped by a criminal fell in love with her captor. Trained in the art of love like her mother, this girl's delicacy and refinement clash with the infamous bandit who has taken her. The bandit, Rahul Singh, however, believes that they were fated to be together and have spent many past lifetimes tragically in love with each other. She falls passionately in love with him, but shortly afterward he is killed by police and she loses the child she is carrying. The narrator is very attracted to this woman, but he is repelled by her courtesan nature. She seems manipulative, as though she can act out love without feeling it. The narrator's not sure whether or not he should feel sorry for her or believe her tale of love. But when he learns that she had plotted to kill her husband's killers, and when he sees that "all the artifice had dropped from her demeanor. Now her eyes had the desperation of a trapped animal," he believes her veracity. When she jumps into the Narmada River to end her own life, he can hope, with her mother, that "she would be purified of all her sins."

The Great Sahib
This unnamed rich music lover offers Master Mohan 5000 rupees to hear Imrat sing. Master Mohan does not trust the great sahib's servant who comes to solicit the boy's services, so he refuses. Master Mohan's wife, however, greedy for money, arranges for the boy to sing. Seemingly enraptured by the boy's voice, the great sahib asks, "Such a voice is not human. What will happen to music if this is the standard by which god judges us?" Then he, inexplicably, slits Imrat's throat. As a rich man, he faces no repercussions.

The blind boy sings devotional Muslim songs with the voice of an angel. While his life has been marred by tragedy—his father died in a flood and his sister has had to leave him behind—the boy seems to find ecstasy in singing. He dreams of singing a song his father taught him at the tomb of the Muslim Saint, Amir Rumi, and of making enough money to be reunited with his sister. Murdered by a rich maniac, who, as Tariq Mia surmises killed his "object of worship so no one but himself can enjoy it," Imrat seems a symbol of both innocence and love. His innocent desires collide with a corrupt world, and the most perfect voice his loving music master ever heard is snuffed out.

Imrat's Sister
Unable to take care of her blind brother, Imrat's sister leaves Calcutta to become a maid servant. She entreats Master Mohan to watch after Imrat and hopes to soon make enough money to retrieve her brother.

Master Mohan's Wife
The shrewish wife of Master Mohan blames her husband for their poverty. Born to wealth, she lets her husband know that she is ashamed of him. Her greed and spite lead her to send Imrat to the unnamed "great Sahib" who murders the boy. Rather than return home from Tariq Mia's mosque to his wife and the children who also hate him, Master Mohan commits suicide.

Tariq Mia
An old Muslim mullah, or teacher, who meets regularly with the narrator to play chess and philosophize. Tariq Mia lives in a Muslim village within walking distance of the narrator's Government rest house. He teaches his friend about the music of Amir Rumi, the Muslim Saint whose tomb adjoins Tariq Mia's mosque. In their long chess games, Tariq will frequently break into song and try to explain to the narrator the meaning of life. Time and again, he returns to the theme of love. In his stories, he shows how the "capacity to love" is the most important of life's gifts. At the end of the novel, the narrator shuns the friendship of Tariq Mia, believing the man and his village to be "frozen in time, untouched by the events of the larger world." However, Tariq Mia's own capacity to love, as evidenced in his teaching and his devotion to spiritual musical, suggests that he is more truly part of the world than the narrator. As he says to the narrator, "How can you say you have given up the world when you know so little of it?"

See Uma

Dr. Mitra
Dr. Mitra, the cynical local doctor, left a prestigious career to work in relative obscurity. He delights in the stories about the Narmada River. According to the narrator, Dr. Mitra "maintains that he encounters more interesting patients here than he could hope to find in Delhi or Bombay, and whenever he describes a pilgrim brought to him with only one-third of a body or some particularly horrifying form of elephantiasis, his eyes shine with excitement as if he is describing a work of art."

He accompanies Master Mohan to the music festival where he meets Imrat. He encourages Master Mohan to brave his wife's wrath and bring home the boy prodigy. The paanwallah cynically thinks little of Mohammed-sahib's advice: "It is easy for him to give advice when it costs him nothing." The paanwallah's cynicism seems apt when later Mohammed-sahib, fearing his own wife's temper, refuses to let Imrat stay at his house.

Master Mohan
A music teacher from Calcutta who sought out the tomb of the Muslim Saint Amir Rumi, which adjoins Tariq Mia's mosque. As he is obviously emotionally tormented, Tariq has him relate his problems. Years later, Tariq Mia tells Master Mohan's story, another tale of love, pain, and loss, to the narrator. This henpecked music teacher who had failed to reach fame in his own life, finds joy, love and fulfillment when he adopts a blind boy with a magnificent voice. Master Mohan feels connected to the world once more through the child's music. The boy's brutal murder leaves him in despair. He has come to the mosque to offer the boy's recorded voice to the Muslim Saint, since Imrat was not able to fulfill his dream of singing at Amir Rumi's tomb. Afterward, he throws himself in front of a train, killing himself. When the narrator wants to know why, Tariq Mia answers, "Perhaps he could not exist without loving someone as he had loved the blind child. I don't know the answer, little brother. It is only a story about the human heart."

The Monk
See Ashok

The Monk's Father
The unnamed wealthy diamond merchant tries to persuade his son to stay in his world and not become a Jain monk. His son, though, is partly drawn to Jain's asceticism because of what he views as his father's hypocrisy. His father says that he follows the doctrine of ahimsa, and has become a merchant so as not to harm, like a farmer must, any living thing. However, the monk sees the squalor in which the diamond workers live and holds his father responsible. Even as he rejects his father, though, the monk comes to fully understand the meaning of ahimsa. His father's anguish over the loss of his son is what he says "melted the numbness that froze my heart." That his father does not understand Ashok's decision is evident in the lavish celebrations he throws to mark his son's renunciation of the world. Throwing diamond chips and pearls into the crowd who has come to witness his son's initiation into the Jain sect, the monk's father feels that he is doing good. He fails to foresee the result of his action: riots as the peasant clamor to get more.

See Uma

The Musician
This female musician has a beautiful figure but an abnormally ugly face. Attracted by the music her father makes, this woman is delighted to become his pupil at the age of six. She describes how she learned to view the world through music, understanding the Hindu gods and nature as makers of music. Years later she understands that "Through music, [my father] tried to free me from my own image so I could love music wherever it was to be found, even if it was not present in my own mirror." When it seems apparent that no one will want to marry the ugly girl, her father explains that he "will be giving [her] as wife to...the gods of music." But the musician does fall in love with her father's pupil as the music they make together transcends the physical and unites them in a spiritual world of sound. Her music complements the male pupil's. The two become engaged—it is her father's condition for taking the man as a student—and they seem on the verge of true happiness. The pupil abandons the musician, however. Distraught, the musician turns away from her music. She feels betrayed by the harmony that failed to sustain her love.

The Musician's Father
A hard task-master, the musician's father will not let his daughter begin to make music until she can see and hear the music of the natural and spiritual world. A patient teacher, he instills in his daughter his own passion for music. When his daughter's heart is broken by her fiance, the father tries to make her fall in love with music once more. He takes her to the Narmada River to heal her soul, but his loving efforts seem futile. His daughter was betrayed by more than just love, but by the music her father had taught her to trust and worship.

The Musician's Fiance
This music student becomes betrothed to the musician so that he can study with her father. He seemingly falls in love with the musician, despite her homeliness, because her music so perfectly compliments his own. He betrays the power of their music and love by abandoning the musician for another bride.

The Musician's Mother
This traditional mother is distressed by her daughter's ugliness. She fears she will not be able to find a husband for her daughter.

The Narrator
The nameless narrator had been a high-ranking bureaucrat before the death of his wife. Adrift without a wife or family, he decides to exit the world. Not believing that he has the strength to become a true Hindu hermit and renounce the world and all comforts, he instead takes over the management of a Government rest house on the banks of the Narmada River. In his relative isolation, the narrator becomes an observer, collecting stories of human love and suffering, but not really feeling these emotions for himself. With every story he hears, of religious love, familial love, sexual love, and eternal love, he realizes his own incapacity to connect with the world through love. Watching the Narmada River, the holiest River in India said to be the daughter of the Hindu god Shiva, the narrator watches life go by but seems powerless to become part of it.

The Paanwallah
This street vendor (he sells the Indian digestive paan) encourages Master Mohan to find a little happiness, suggesting that the music teacher attend a music festival. Later he takes credit for Master Mohan's patronage of the blind singer Imrat. He keeps the money Imrat makes so that Master Mohan's wife cannot take it.

Rima is the serpent-like woman who comes to Nitin Bose's bed at night. Well-versed in the legends of the Himalayan foothills, this peasant woman, the wife of a coolie, enchants Nitin with her stories as well as her lovemaking skills. After he rejects her, Rima lures Nitin into the moonlight and tells him that she has captured his soul in a coconut shell. Her lower caste and tribal heritage make her both attractive and repulsive to Nitin.

Mr. Sen
An overseer on the tea plantation, Mr. Sen translates the peasants' songs for Nitin Bose.

Dr. V. V. Shankar
See Naga Baba

A member of the board for a tea company, Ashok tries to persuade Nitin Bose to leave his tea plantation and return to Calcutta. When Nitin refuses, Ashok tells him, "You are definitely going mad." Though Ashok comes across as a boor, his words are prophetic.

Shashi, an old school friend of Mr. Chagla's, is a police officer from the town of Rudra.

One of Professor Shankar's young female assistants.

Rahul Singh
An infamous bandit, Rahul Singh hides out with his band in an uninhabited forest on the banks of the Narmada River. He kidnaps the Courtesan's daughter because he believes she was his wife in a previous lifetime. The power of his love seduces her. He is killed by the police.

Uma is sold by her father, who calls her "Misfortune," to a brothel when she is just a child. Repeatedly raped by male customers, Uma is frightened of men and dreads the world. Instantly sensing her pain, the Naga Baba makes the brothel's owner give him the girl by threatening to curse the establishment if the woman does not comply. Taking Uma to the Narmada River, the Naga Baba declares that the river is now her mother. As a handmaiden to the river, Uma will learn its legends and songs. Through the Naga Baba's care and love, Uma is healed, and free of the hideous fate that awaited her as a child prostitute. She becomes a river minstrel, keeping the stories of the river that saved her alive.




Critical Essays