Gita Mehta’s 1994 novel, A River Sutra is in many ways a less political, more religion-focused cousin to Salman Rushdie’s Modern Classic Midnight’s Children. Both explore the mind-blowing diversity that exists in present-day India through a magical realist lens, but while Rushdie’s landmark novel is anti-imperialist and politically-charged, Mehta’s unassuming novel describes India’s religious diversity in a collection of short stories that are all connected with a common thread of quietly intense spiritual yearning.
A River Sutra follows a government clerk’s retirement on the Narmada river and his numerous chance encounters with Indians of all walks of life on one of the country’s holiest rivers. Though the people he meets are all very different from each other, they are each in turn drawn by the river’s spiritual power and every one has a unique tale to tell.
Throughout a series of connected short stories, we get to see examples from India’s strikingly mottled religious tapestry—from a Muslim singing teacher to an intinerant Sadhu (a type of Hindu ascetic), a courtesan who could be straight from the pages of the Kama Sutra, a wealthy heir who has forsaken it all to live the extreme life of a Jain monk, a sitar raga master and an unbelieving businessman whose skepticism is put to the test by his encounters with Nagas—serpentine female supernatural beings. All of the stories resonate through their deeply spiritual subject matter but also through their often melancholy humanity—Mehta seems to understand that one of the largest driving forces behind religious urges are the tragedies and questions brought on by life’s uncertainty, and though a place like India offers a panoply of different religious options, many of the characters are seeking the same type of resolution.
Although the story deals with some fairly technical forms of Indian religion with which many Westerners may be unfamiliar, Mehta deftly supplies only the details necessary for each miniature plot, at the same time demonstrating her clear and comprehensive wider knowledge of the subject matter she’s covering. This type of authenticity is what elevates a book of this nature from the realm of cheap cross-cultural exoticism to a real literary statement as well as a true learning opportunity.
In the end, Mehta’s collection of tales answers few of the questions it poses, raising much mystery and many further questions along the way. As the businessman ponders his late-life turn toward religion and sees the spiritual lives of others—many of whom have lived much more intensely religious lives—we get the idea that it’s perhaps a bit more about the process and the action of asking and thinking about the question than it really is about definitively answering it. A healthy dose of “is it true or not?” magical realist literary devices only serve to muddy the waters further, indicating that reality is what we make it and that a surprise could be lurking around any corner.
For more Gita Mehta, check out her considerably more epic Raj, which is much more politically-focused, dealing with the ultimate division of India and Pakistan.