Gita Mehta

A River Sutra

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A River Sutra Summary

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In 1993, the Indian author Gita Mehta published her third book, A River Sutra. In a departure from her other books, which deal with connections between India and the West, the collection of stories that makes up A River Sutra looks at the diverse experiences across India itself. Presenting disconnected narratives about a variety of people, the book plays on the Indian concept of a “sutra” – literally, a thread, and more figuratively, a morality-delivering fiction genre. In this case, the thread that links these six tales is the idea of love – and the holy site of the Narmada River, a place of worship and community.

The six tales are surrounded by a framing narrative. An unnamed man has retired from his senior official government job after his wife’s death. Childless, he decides to withdraw from the world by becoming the manager of a rest house on the bank of the Narmada River. In this position, he encounters various people who share their life stories with him, and sometimes offer him pieces of wisdom.

The first story the nameless man hears is “The Monk’s Story.” Ashok grows up the son of a rich diamond merchant. Living his luxurious life to the fullest, the young man travels the world to help with his father’s business. But the more he understands the inequalities that fill other people’s lives with hunger and poverty – especially when these are inflicted by his own father who mistreats the diamond miners working for him, the more dissatisfied Ashok becomes with his life. Going against his family’s wishes, Ashok becomes a strict follower of Jain principles, and tries to live his life according to the example of Mahavira, whose practice of extreme non-violence (to the point of walking slowly and dusting the path in front of you so as not to kill any small bugs that might be there) forms the core of this religion. Ashok ends his story by saying “I have loved just one thing in my life,” but he doesn’t say what this one thing is.

The theme of love is picked up by “The Teacher’s Story,” which the nameless man hears from Tariq Mia, an old Muslim mullah that he has befriended. Master Mohan is a music teacher whose dreams of becoming a professional singer did not work out. He finds Imrat, a blind, profoundly musically gifted orphan, whose promise reminds Mohan of his own. Mohan dedicates all his time to teaching the boy, and in return he feels the appreciation that his own family doesn’t give him. Tragically, Imrat is murdered in front of his devoted teacher, which drives Mohan to seek solace from Tariq Mia at the Narmada River. Although he seems comforted by Tariq, Mohan commits suicide when he returns home – he simply “could not exist without loving someone as he had loved the blind child.”

In “The Executive’s Story,” we stay with the idea of an all-consuming love – the kind created by Kama, the God of Love who shoots honeyed arrows at his victims. The unnamed man reads the diary of his colleague’s nephew, a wealthy tea estate manager named Nitin Bose. While visiting one of the tea plantations he runs, Nitin falls head over heels in love with Rima, a tribal peasant woman. Although he assumes their affair is just a short business trip fling, when he returns home he is haunted by his passion for her. Nitin dreams of Rima constantly, becoming sexually obsessed with her. Unfortunately, he is unable to confess either his feelings or his actions to anyone else, since the relationship is immoral – and this repression eventually almost drives Nitin insane. Finally, he hits on the solution: the only place where he can express his feelings is his diary. Having unburdened himself, Nitin regains his peace of mind.

Next, we hear “The Courtesan’s Story.” Viewed as a lower order of human beings, the aging Courtesan explains that she and other women like her tend to be dismissively objectified as paid entertainment. But for her, nothing mattered more than her search for her beautiful and accomplished daughter, who was kidnapped some time ago by the criminal Rahul Singh. When the Courtesan finally found her daughter, she learned what had happened after the kidnapping. The reason Rahul abducted the young woman is that he believed they had already been married many times before in their previous lives. After being forced to marry him, the Courtesan’s daughter lived with Rahul’s criminal gang, and slowly grew to like and even love her husband. Inspired by her, Rahul tried to leave his illicit activities behind and go straight – but his past eventually caught up with him, and he died in a shootout with the police. Realizing that her only option was to go back to the courtesan life since no one would marry the widow of this kind of violent criminal, the courtesan’s daughter killed herself.

This story of love that inspires positive change is followed by a story which instead deals with shallow attraction. This fifth narrative is “The Musician’s Story.” A musician’s unattractive daughter explains that her father was a famous raga player whose skills and talent were known throughout the province where they lived. A young man who wanted to learn the secrets of these ragas came to be the musician’s apprentice – and in order to secure the musician’s patronage, the young student promised to marry the musician’s daughter after his studies were complete. Of course, as soon as the young man learned everything that the musician could teach him, he rejected the homely daughter and married someone else.

Last comes “The Minstrel’s Story,” which is again told by Tariq Mia. A few years ago, Tariq met a Naga Baba, one of a group of celibate ascetic anchorite who cover their skin with ash and have matted dreadlocks to resemble Lord Shiva. These men live a purposefully isolated existence in order to experience spiritual solitude. Once, on the night of Shiva, a Hindu festival celebrated with all-night revelry, this Naga Baba rescues a little girl named Uma from being kidnapped and sold into prostitution. However, a few years later, it turns out that the man wasn’t actually part of the ascetic community. Rather, he is Professor V.V. Shankar, an archeologist whose studies focus on the Narmada River, and who works to dispel harmful superstitions and oppressive religious traditions. The reason he was playing the part of the Baba Naga that night was because he knew that men like Uma’s father would try to leave their young daughters in the brothel as some kind of superstitious offering to Shiva that night.