Historical Context

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 606

When India is in the American news, it is often to document another conflict between the Hindu majority and the Muslim minority. As a reporter, Mehta covered the Bangladesh War of 1971, a war that highlighted the conflicts between the ethnic and religious groups of the Indian sub-continent. Her life was also shaped by the conflicts between Indian nationalists and British imperialists. Her father was arrested for treason to the British Empire shortly after her birth. The ability to grow up in a free India was not an option for her parents. India's cultural ties to Britain, however, remained strong, as evidenced by Mehta's decision to attend university in Britain. Today, she lives on three continents—Europe, North America, and Asia—as she divides her time among London, New York, and India. Mehta drew on the perspective of all three cultures in her earlier works, exploring the clashes and connections between these different worlds. In A River Sutra, however, Mehta turns her authorial gaze inward to examine not the diversity of the modern world, but the diversity of India.

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To understand the India Mehta describes in A River Sutra, one must understand the history of the country. Tracing the divisions of the Indian people back 4,000 years, Mehta describes how Aryan nomads invaded the Indian sub-continent, decimating the tribal people they found. The stories of these people survived, however. The tea executive Nitin Bose is reading the ancient legends of these pre-Aryan people as he peruses the volumes of the Puranas, the collection of folk tales that date as far back as the first century B.C. The Narmada River, sacred to the Hindus and worshipped as the daughter of their god, Shiva, was holy also to these tribal people. Worshipping their goddess under a Banyan tree by the banks of the river, "the tribals believe they once ruled a great snake kingdom until they were defeated by the gods of the Aryans." Believing that they were "Saved from annihilation only by a divine personification of the Narmada River," these remainders of an ancient people believe that the river can cure snakebite and madness. Despite that the Aryan invasion occurred thousands of years ago, the novel suggests that the divisions it created were never healed. The tribal people by the river's edge are described again and again by the narrator as "illiterate." The tribal people Nitin Bose encounters in the Himalayan foothills are described as racial others of low caste. In her novel, Mehta seeks to rectify these differences by showing the common culture that these diverse people share, how the legends of each have become interwoven as they have lived for centuries by the river's edge. Similarly, the novel highlights the similarities between the Muslim and Hindu faithful who worship by the river. The Hindu narrator seeks to learn from those of a different background, whether from the Muslim mullah or the Jain monk. The mullah, Tariq Mia, also refers to their shared heritage, asking the narrator to meditate on "Kabir, the man whose poems made a bridge between your people and mine." This religious reformer, as Mehta explains in her glossary to the book "was vastly popular with the masses and persecuted by the ruling classes," as well as by the leaders of the Hindu and Muslim faiths. Evoking his name, Tariq Mia suggests that the common ground between the religions—the search for love and enlightenment—can create a bridge. Writing at a time when India is still divided by religion and by a rigid caste structure that deems some people "untouchable," Mehta offers the interwoven stories of the Narmada River, as another possible bridge.

Literary Style

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1033

Point of View
A nameless narrator describes his life and experiences in the first person. However, unlike most first-person narrators, this man reveals very little about himself. Rather, the reader gets to know this character through what he does not say. He seems to have no life story, no main event that made him choose to live a retired life on the banks of the Narmada River. In contrast, the people the narrator meets and the stories he hears reveal the tumultuous nature of truly living. Without exception, the narrator meets or hears tales of extraordinary people, people who have made enormous sacrifices for love or who have been treated cruelly by life. The narrator's very lack of story, however, makes him an everyman. The readers eavesdropping in on the stories told by the exceptional relate more to the man who seems so ordinary. A narrator without a narrative, this man seems like most people—he is still searching for his own life story. Through him the stories of the courtesan, the tea executive, the musician, the monk, the Naga Baba, and Master Mohan are filtered. As the narrator retells these characters' stories, the readers, along with the narrator, struggle to understand these characters' choices. Questioning their motives and their sanity, the readers also wonder whether they are like the narrator, only observers afraid to embrace the love and disappointment that the world offers.

Sutra
The word "sutra," as Mehta explains in the glossary to her novel, means literally a "thread." But a "sutra" is also a type of story, one that contains a message or moral. The novel A River Sutra is arranged as a set of seven "sutras." The narrator and the reader hear seven separate stories that all contain a similar thread or theme. Each story contains another message about the secrets of the human heart and the capacity to love. This theme unites together the disparate stories. The river itself is another "sutra," and Mehta shows how the myths of the river connect together the diverse people who converge on its shores. The narrator's voice and the flow of the river he watches over tie up the stories into one continuous stream. Eventually, it seems that these new "sutras" will join the billions of stories connected to the Narmada River, becoming, like the legends of old, part of Indian culture.

Symbolism
Despite the deceptively simple language that Mehta uses and the folktale-like way she tells the stories, Mehta employs a sophisticated symbolism throughout A River Sutra. Like the Narmada River with which she begins the novel, most things stand for something else. Thus the holiest river in India is named with the Sanskrit word for "whore." Similarly, the river represents the cure for madness to the tribals who live beside it, and is the dancing daughter of Shiva, the God of Destruction, to the Hindus who worship at the river's side. But less consequential things in the novel also have a double meaning. The valley that separates the narrator from the Muslim mullah, Tariq Mia, is metaphorical as well as physical. A gulf exists between them, separated as they are by religious difference and variant world views. In an almost funny twist at the end of the novel, the narrator who has sought aimlessly for enlightenment begins to find it. As the ex-ascetic wanderer Professor Shankar drives away, the narrator describes how "The jeep doors slammed shut and headlights pierced the jungle, throwing strange shadows across the bamboo groves. Sudden arcs of light raked the darkness as the jeep roared down the twisting path that led to Rudra. I stared at the flashes of illumination." It is only at this moment that the narrator looks inward, trying to find the secrets in his own heart, as he's left "wondering for the first time what I would do if I ever left the bungalow." Instead of finding illumination in the teachings of a religious man, the narrator finds it in the headlights of a jeep. The light that pierces the jungle finally pierces his own heart.

Literary Heritage
A River Sutra is a very textual novel. In almost every section, traditional Indian literary texts and art forms are referred to. This is important because in many ways A River Sutra is modeled on these other works. The very word "sutra" in the novel's title refers to an Indian literary form, that Mehta describes as "usually aphoristic in nature." An aphorism is a short statement that contains a general truth. In other words, "sutras" usually contain a moral or a message intended to enlighten the reader.

Many Western readers of A River Sutra may recognize the term "sutra'' from the famous Indian book of exotic love, Kama Sutra. This encyclopedic work, written in the fifth century A.D. by the Indian Vatsayana, is referred to in Mehta's novel. The theme of Kama Sutra as well as its form are significant to A River Sutra. Mehta's novel explores many different types of love, including sexual love. The theme of love is common in many Indian works. Mehta also mentions the Bengali poet Chandidas (c. 1350-1430), whose songs, as Mehta explains, "dealt with every form of human love." Similarly, one part of the Mahabharata, an ancient Hindu epic poem central to the Hindu religion, describes how, as Milton J. Foley explains, "there is the bliss of seeing God and loving God in all things." This work, as well as the poems of Mirabi (c. 1450-1520), a female Hindu poet who wrote worshipful songs to the god Krishna, are referred to in A River Sutra and help to suggest the timelessness of Mehta's theme.

Another Indian text central to A River Sutra is the Purana. This collection of folktales tells the story of India's mythological past. One character in A River Sutra becomes so entranced by these legends that he has a hard time distinguishing fact from fiction. But in many ways A River Sutra shows how such stories are collected. This novel, after all, is a collection of stories that add to the mythology of the Narmada River. The "sutras" of the river all contain a similar moral: nothing is more powerful than love.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 225

Sources
Foley, Milton J., "The Hero's Quest: Heroic Visions in The Bhagavad Gita and the Western Epic," in English, 1993, pp. 89-100.

Review in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 240, No. 13, March 29, 1993, p. 33.

Smith, Wendy, "Gita Mehta: Making India Accessible," Publishers Weekly, Vol. 244, No. 19, May 12, 1997, p. 53.

Worthington, Christa, Harper's Bazaar, 1989, p. 73.

Further Reading
Beck, Brenda, The Three Twins: The Telling of a South Indian Folk Epic, Indiana University Press, 1982.
This book gives insight into the oral epic tradition in Indian culture and allows the reader to see how Mehta borrowed from such traditions in A River Sutra.

Mehta, Gita, Karma Cola, Simon & Schuster, 1979.
In her first book, Mehta explores the humorous ways in which Americans try to understand India and Indians try to understand America.

----, Raj, Simon & Schuster, 1989.
In this historical novel, Mehta presents a poignant picture of India under British imperialism and the struggle for freedom.

----, Snakes and Ladders: Glimpses of Modern India, Doubleday, 1997.
This collection of essays documents the hardships and successes of Indians adapting to the technological advances of the modern world.

Smith, Wendy, "Gita Mehta: Making India Accessible," in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 244, No. 19, May 12, 1997, p. 53.
In this article, Smith explores Mehta's development as a writer.

Vatuck, Ved Prakash, Studies in Indian Folk Traditions, Manohar, 1979.
In this book, Vatuck provides background on the Indian folklore that Mehta describes in A River Sutra.

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