Historical Context

(Literature of Developing Nations for Students)

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.

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...

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Literary Style

(Literature of Developing Nations for Students)

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.

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.

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...

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Bibliography and Further Reading

(Literature of Developing Nations for Students)

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...

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Topics for Further Study

(Literature of Developing Nations for Students)

In A River Sutra, Mehta describes the many diverse ethnic and religious groups that inhabit modern-day India and suggests that a common heritage and geography link them together despite their differences. Research the various ethnic and religious groups that live in India today. What traditions do they share?

Investigate how modern culture has impacted traditional Indian beliefs. How does Mehta present this culture clash?

Explore the Indian folk and religious stories about the Narmada river. How do these ancient tales compare to Mehta's river stories?

A number of the women depicted in A River Sutra have very little power. What opportunities do women have in India today? How are these opportunities affected by traditions such as arranged marriages?

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What Do I Read Next?

(Literature of Developing Nations for Students)

In Mulk Raj Anand's 1935 novel Untouchable, the author explores the Hindu caste system through the eyes of a man deemed an "Untouchable" by Indian society.

Kim, Rudyard Kipling's 1901 novel about an Irish boy growing up in India, describes the diversity of India through a particularly English perspective.

Gita Mehta's 1997 collection of essays, Snakes and Ladders: Glimpses of Modern India, documents the clash of modernity and ancient traditions in present-day India.

Mahabharata, the ancient epic poem of the Hindus, has been attributed to the Hindu sage Vyasa. The form and themes of this poem are drawn upon in Mehta's A River Sutra.

Salman Rushdie's controversial novel The Satanic Verses (1988) imaginatively describes the Islamic tradition in India.

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