The Culture of India and the Experiences of Love for the Uninitiated

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

The India of Gita Mehta's A River Sutra is foreign, exotic, and unexpected. She describes an India that is ethnically, geographically, and religiously diverse. What binds the people of this country together, Mehta suggests, is both the Narmada River and the importance of love. However, what the Narmada and love mean to the various characters of the book is as various as the characters themselves. Mehta's job is to translate their experiences, to reveal the "sutra," or thread, that runs through their stories. The translation helps to bind together a people whose differences, historically, have split them apart. But Mehta is also translating for a Western audience. If the banks of the Narmada River shelter 400 billion sacred places that span the centuries and millennia of an ever-changing India, the Western reader indeed needs a guide to begin to navigate the river and its meaning.

The characters of A River Sutra can literally not understand each other. Throughout the novel, characters must find translators to make sense of the world around them. Nitin Bose, the young tea executive, ends up living among Himalayan peasants whose features, culture, and language are all foreign to him. The songs the peasant women sing in the fields are sung in a language unknown to Nitin Bose. He must turn to the overseer Mr. Sen for a translation. Similarly, when the Muslim mullah, Tariq Mia, first meets the Hindu ascetic Naga Baba, he can listen to the river song Baba sings, but the words hold no meaning for Mia. The Naga Baba must translate the Sanskrit lyrics. Even words that are known need to be translated in A River Sutra. The narrator is shocked to learn that in Sanskrit the word "narmada" means "whore." He argues, "That's impossible. The Narmada is the holiest river in India." It is possible because in India, and on the Narmada River itself, as the cynical Dr. Mitra suggests, there are layers of meaning. One could as soon uncover the significance of the Narmada River to India's history and mythology as know the 400 billion stories the river has spawned. Within even simple words, like the religious incantation "Om," there are layers of meaning. The ugly musician teaches the narrator that the word "Om" is in fact multisyllabic, and that each syllable of the chant has meaning: "Om is the three worlds. / Om is the three fires. / Om is the three gods. / Vishnu, Brahma, Shiva." Reciting the word, she explains, takes one from the world of "waking consciousness" to "dreaming consciousness" to "dreamless sleep." To hear the subtle differences between the sounds of the chant, the narrator must be guided. The world (and the word) is too complex to understand alone.

If Indians speak more than fifteen languages, they also practice a variety of religions. In A River Sutra , the reader learns of Jains, Hindus, Muslims, and ancient tribal religions. Throughout the novel, the narrator seeks guides who can explain these diverse religions to him. However, he can never really get to the heart of religions he does not understand. He listens to his guides, but he continually judges their motivations and beliefs. His resistance suggests the extent to which another's experience can only be understood on a surface level. For instance, the narrator patiently listens to the Jain monk's story, but never comprehends his meaning. The monk describes in detail—a reader completely unfamiliar with the Jain religion can grasp the religion's principles—his decision to renounce the world. Particularly, the monk is eloquent on the principle of "ahimsa," or nonviolence. Forced to wear a mask...

(This entire section contains 1490 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

so as not to unknowingly hurt an insect that could fly into his mouth, laboriously brushing a rock with a soft brush before he sits down to, again, not unknowingly harm an insect, and fearing to pluck a banana because "who knows what small creatures live in the leaves or trunk of a banana tree," the monk seems obsessive. But once the principle of ahimsa is understood on a larger scale, his attention to minutiae makes sense. In desiring not to hurt a single living creature, the Jain monks try to open themselves up to the world through empathy. Empathizing with the pain an insect would feel upon being crushed, they also empathize, as this monk describes, with the emotional loss a father feels when his son renounces the world and turns ascetic. This ability to get inside the skin of all living things leads, the Jain monks believe, to perfect enlightenment. Yet even as he listens to the monk's story of religious love and renunciation, the narrator cannot get inside the monk's spiritual skin. Rather, he imagines the starvation the young man will undergo and his likely fate: "At this time I have sometimes seen the dull glow of something being swept downstream and known that it was the corpse of an ascetic thrown into the river with a live coal burning in its mouth. I cannot stop myself from wondering if some day while I am sitting here in the dark I will see the monk's body floating beneath the terrace." The narrator truly is in the dark. Focusing on the possibility of seeing the young monk's wasted and emaciated corpse floating down the Narmada River, he misses the larger meaning behind the monk's story. To understand that, he must seek out another guide, this time Tariq Mia. Listening to the story second hand, Tariq Mia figures out that the monk was explaining how he found "the capacity to love." For the narrator, who has never found this capacity for himself, no amount of guides will be able to unravel the secrets of the human heart.

Interestingly, when the narrator walks to Tariq Mia's mosque, he describes "the valley that separates us." This valley is physical, as well as metaphorical. Throughout the novel, the reader learns how the people of India are divided by geography. The tea executive who moves from Calcutta to the Himalayan foothills sees the difference as one between the "inescapable humanity" of the hot and crowded city and the unpopulated solitude of the cool mountain range. Pilgrims who walk the length of the Narmada River and back again traverse a varied landscape. The landscape, however, is only as varied as the beliefs of those who inhabit India. Time and again, the narrator is presented with different ways of looking at the world. He recoils from the "savagery" of Muslim spiritual lyrics as well as from the "artifice" and "the manipulations of the courtesan." The two courtesans he meet are skilled in the "art of love." Understanding love as an art, however, indicates that it is a skill to be learned, that these women can play men as musicians play sitars. The narrator's life may have been untouched by love, but he rejects this manifestation of it. In his search for meaning he cannot understand those who completely renounce the world to become "forest hermit[s], surviving on fruit and roots," but he also fights against the cynicism of Dr. Mitra who "shakes his head in disbelief at the extremes to which religious folly could take men." Dr. Mitra may "delight in unraveling the threads of mythology, archaeology, anthropology in which the river is entangled," but the narrator hopes to find enlightenment in the stories. He is not interested in simply deconstructing them. Despite the power of the river stories, the narrator is dismissive of the animist beliefs of the pre-Aryan people who populate the Narmada's shores. He hopes that his aide, Mr. Chagla, has not "been infected by this foolishness" of "illiterate villagers" who worship a snake as a goddess. Many valleys indeed separate the narrator from those around him.

Gita Mehta understands that the picture of India she paints will be unfamiliar to her readers. She provides a glossary of terms most likely unknown to the Western reader. The glossary, while extensive, is not comprehensive. Mehta does not attempt to serve as a guide to all of India in its diversity. The religious differences of Sikhs or Christians (some of whom are descendants of 16th Century Portuguese colonists) are not touched upon, nor is the impact of Great Britain's imperialism and how the English carved out a nation in a land where before there were separate kingdoms and tribes. The India she describes is too vast and diverse for a single guide. For ultimately, the India of A River Sutra, the India that can be experienced through the stories of the Narmada River, is a metaphor for the human heart. The heart, like the Narmada River, contains at least 400 billion stories. A native guide can help to tease out the meaning behind a few of the stories, but the secrets of the heart resist complete comprehension.

Source: Kimberly Lutz, in an essay for Literature of Developing Nations for Students, Gale, 2000.
Lutz is an instructor at New York University and has written for a wide variety of educational publishers.

Parables without Purpose

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

You can't miss the sense of event that hovers like joss-stick incense over the National Theatre Studio/ Indosa staging of Gita Mehta's A River Sutra. The venue is largely to blame. Finding this strange 18th-century warehouse on an island in the East End proves as much a pilgrimage as the Narmada River is to the characters of Mehta's novel.

Rosa Maggiora's 90ft set taps superbly into the atmospherics. A river of lights sparkles against the brickwork. A rocky bank, framed on either side by a guesthouse and a temple, dominates the space. The audience are scattered on cushions; a lucky few hog benches at the back; the unlucky many, out on wings, have terrible sightlines.

What unfolds is a series of stories that hinge around Sam Dastor' s retired civil servant who owns the guesthouse. Having renounced the city in search of peace he puzzles over the mystic grip of the river, a symbol of lust and absolution. Never has renunciation seemed such a middle-class sport. Dastor's benign Hindu makes chaste small-talk with Scott Ransome's unconvincing postman. One expects cucumber sandwiches to start appearing. Instead, a Jain monk (Andrew Mallett) happens by, and we see his life story enacted as a dreamy sketch.

The monk, it transpires, has abandoned his diamond fortune to ‘‘live in the world’’. Suitably horrified, Dastor's civil servant consults the local wise man (Talat Hussain), who tells him the story of an impoverished musician, his nagging wife, and the discovery of a blind beggar boy with the voice of an angel. So it goes: small parables sprouting organically from the compost of Tanika Gupta's wholesome adaptation.

The Roald Dahl twists, which inspire spiritual angst in the civil servant, did little for me. It's all very pastoral, slow-moving and unbelievable. The actors rarely succeed in inhabiting their parts and the mixed casting sometimes makes Indhu Rubasingham' s production look like the last days of the Raj rather than the intended celebration of religious diversity.

Source: James Christopher, "Parables without Purpose,’’ in The London Times, September 18, 1997, p. 38.

Gita Mehta's A River Sutra: Two Views

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

C. N. RamachandranIA 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 The 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 across 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, 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. Often there is a 'double or triple framing'. 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 term (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, 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") 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." 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.

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?" 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."

More importantly, what is to be stressed in the structuring of the novel is its multiple focalisation. 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."

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. 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." 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."

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, The 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 Rass 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 occean 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." 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."

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, The 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." 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). Another Conference on Indian Writing in English held at Indore (Dec. 93) also evoked interest in the book.

While campaigns 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.

A. G. KhanI
Shankaracharya's poem on the river is a sublime hymn to Siva's daughter. She is Siva's kripa [(Grace)]. Surasa [(cleanser)], Rewa [(dancing deer)]. She is Delight and at the same is also the evoker of Narma (lust). She is twice-born, first of penance and then of love. If she evokes desire she also soothes. The serpent of desire is tamed on her banks. Though suicide is a sin it is a release from the cycle of rebirth if it is on the banks of Narmada. 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."

"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."

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

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

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 folk-lore 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" 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 fulness of character lending them the much desired symmetry....

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." 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?"...

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

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.

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''.

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

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 f----" 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." 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 an 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."

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.

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 the 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" but this is the stage that Yogis aspire to. He has "games for older men" because the ignorant is the most certain of his wisdom, "the young believe they understand the world."

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 pedastal was a necessity long felt. She has done her penance in a dignified manner.

Source: C. N. Ramachandran and A. G. Khan, "Gita Mehta's A River Sutra: Two Views," in The Literary Criterion, Vol. XXIX, No. 3, 1994, pp. 1-15.

The Art and Craft of Indian Storytelling

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

This novel of India beautifully embodies the art and craft of storytelling as Mehta (Karma Cola; Raj) portrays diverse lives touched by the river Narmada, a holy pilgrimage site "worshipped as the daughter of the god Shiva." At the heart of the work is an unnamed retired civil servant, the narrator, who desires only the peace and quiet of a contemplative life on the river. His neighbor, a religious teacher, comments: "Don't you realize you were brought here to gain the world, not forsake it?" That world shows up in the form of various seekers—among them, a monk, an executive, a courtesan—whose stories occupy separate chapters but are seamlessly woven into the main narrative for our delight and edification (as the "sutra" of the title implies). Perhaps the most beautiful vignette is "The Musician's Story," in which an 18-year-old sitar player, daughter of a famous musician and teacher, comes to the river seeking relief from the ache of unrequited love. The music of India, the raga, figures prominently in other chapters too. As characters reveal the pleasure and pain that have shaped their lives, Mehta discloses the wonders of this country—the Jain religion; savory samosas and pickled mangoes; bazaars where one can choose from "glass bangles," "clouds of spun sugar" or "a bar of soap with a film star's face on the wrapping." Mehta does not avoid the controversies of life in her homeland, including the caste system and political/ religious rivalries; rather, she willingly exposes its complexities. A charming and useful glossary of foreign terms makes a second journey through the fascinating text irresistible.

Source: ‘‘A River Sutra,’’ (book review) in Publisher's Weekly, Vol. 240, No. 13, March 29, 1993, p. 33.

Review of A River Sutra

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

The stumbling nonentities who pass these days for cabinet ministers love to invoke the glories of our language. As if, with their ghastly off-the-peg cliches about village greens and warm beer, they had any right to act as its custodians. In fact, English as a literary medium has been rescued by regular shots of alien talent: Irish, American, Carribean and Asian. Most of its present glory comes from authors who would fail the Tebbit "cricket test" with flying colours.

Among them, the tribe of Indo-British writers conspicuously thrives. Two new works—both second novels—confirm that the cultural passage between south Asia and the west can still yield fresh perspectives. A River Sutra by Gita Mehta unfolds within a wholly Indian world of fable and folklore; but its implied reader is western and it reflects a cosmopolitan intellectual's rediscovery of roots. Mehta made her name with "Karma Cola," a caustic reportage on the charlatans who milked the hippie-era fascination with Indian mysticism. Here, she unearths the wisdom buried by such folly.

A civil servant retires to what he imagines will be a time of contemplation, as warden of a guest house beside a holy river. Soon, unbidden visitors arrive with stories that disclose the deep structure of Indian art and myth. A music teacher's tale explores the Sufi spirituality that softened Islam in India; a sexually obsessed executive pays unwilling tribute to Kama, god of love; and so on. "Adrift in the strangeness of other people's lives," the bureaucraft undergoes a refresher course in subcontinental civilisation. Mildly didactic it may be, but the compelling prose of A River Sutra flows as swiftly as the sacred stream....

Source: Boyd Tonkin ‘‘A River Sutra,’’ (book review) in New Stateman & Society, Vol. 6, No. 257, June 18,1993, p. 41.


Critical Overview