Excursions Of A Bibliophile

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A River Sutra – Gita Mehta – A Book Review

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on January 5, 2009

You don’t have a soul. You are a Soul. You have a body —- C.S.Lewis

The concept of “Unity of Life” appears to be a predominant thought both in Hinduism and Buddhism. While that has been the main theme in Herman Hesse‘s “Sidhartha“, I surprisingly found very similar, albeit fleeting thoughts, in John Steinbeck‘s “Grapes of Wrath” and  Boris Pasternak‘s “Dr.Zhivago” too. Needless to say that there is a huge difference between understanding this concept and actually experiencing it. Experiencing this unity of life is believed to be the central purpose of human existence in both these religions and is expected to lead to emancipation from the wheel of life and rebirth. Hinduism suggests multiple ways to experience this unity of life – ranging from extreme forms of denial of worldly interaction and control of senses to being an absolutely integral part of the world through a normal life (samsara) that most of us experience. Given the inherently difficult nature of this topic, I have known very few books in fiction that have attempted to elaborate it keeping a lay reader in mind. Gita Mehta‘s “A River Sutra” has been one such book I have read in the recent past which deals with this theme and does it quite well too

The narrator – a retired senior bureaucrat retires to a guest house on the banks of river Narmada with the intention of withdrawing from world for a life of contemplation. Much against his wishes the world keeps thrusting itself on him in the form of various people passing through his guest house needing his help briefly or chancing upon him on his daily walks. These people include a jain monk who renounces his position as a wealthy scion to the richest diamond merchant of India, a bewitched company executive who wants to get rid of his enchantment of love and lust, a courtesan who becomes the wife of a bandit to eventually accept her position as his wife with an insight into the true meaning of love, a minstrel who sings the glory of the sacred power of Narmada and her mentor – an eminent archealogist who was a former Naga sadhu –  who renounces renunciation itself for a life in the world, an ugly looking but accomplished singer who calmly accepts her fate of unrequited love. The stories of these people keep reminding narrator of the power of human passions and their relevance in the real scheme of things. The narrator is completely confused and is not able to make sense of the happenings around him. Luckily, he has a good friend in Tariq Mia – a pious Islamic scholar and Imam in a mosque who is a strong believer in Sufism.  It is Tariq Mia who makes an attempt to explain the role of passions and their place in lives of human beings and makes the narrator aware of the need for the relevance of being  this- worldly to reach his goal of realisation. Each of the interactions of the narrator with the characters in the book are presented in the form of a story. Gita Mehta does not make an attempt to bring a happy ending to the travails of the narrator. Like his characters, he too continues to struggle with his journey but with a growing sense of awareness of what emancipation and the unity of life means and involves.

The book has been a refreshing read. Mehta has a very effortless and engaging narrative style and never gets didactic when it comes to explaining the intricate concepts of the thoughts in Indian philosophy. Mehta manages a very interesting portrait of India and its uniqueness in being home to such philosophical concepts and the quest of its people seeking the truth underlying these concepts. In literature, very often, I have noticed that a river is used as a symbol to represent the flow of life and its unity and Mehta brings the mythological context of the river Narmada quite well in the book. As I read through the book, I could not help compare “A River Sutra”  with Hesse‘s “Siddartha” and found a few strong parallels. The first is that of the “seeker – teacher” pair which is almost a prerequisite in Hindu approach to enlightenment/realisation. A teacher guides the seeker towards the necessary knowledge and possibilities of experience of unity of life but in the actual act of experience the seeker is all alone. In “Sidhartha” we have “Govinda – Sidhartha” combine and in “A River Sutra” we have “Tariq Mia – Narrator” combination. In both the books a river plays a central role in mooring the seekers to a place of quite contemplation. Probably the most important commonality is that of the emphasis on “Samsara” being central to achieving the end goal of realisation of unity of life – a concept which is complex, grand and goes beyond the scope of the book. 

I remember reading Mehta‘s “Raj” long ago and it is those memories of her being an interesting writer that prompted me to pick up “A River Sutra” for reading and Mehta has not disappointed me at all

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One Response to “A River Sutra – Gita Mehta – A Book Review”

  1. aditya said

    i really liked the book river sutra. it is more that a treat.

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