BOOK REVIEW / Monks, minstrels, and a river runs through it

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The Independent Culture
A RIVER SUTRA, Gita Mehta's third book, completes a triad of utterly different approaches to India. Her first, Karma Cola, a mixture of polemic and travel literature, was an acerbic comment on the Westerners who fall over themselves to embrace Indian culture. In it, Mehta kowtows to neither kind of karma, the rigorous Buddhist doctrine or the reductive 'vibration' of the West. And though she produced a brilliantly witty work, Karma Cola lacks the conventional heart of such literature - the narrator is a conduit for much humour and much debunking, but she never reveals herself, or what she finds precious about Indian culture.

In her second book, Raj, Mehta went off at right-angles. Raj is a big, bourgeois novel, with an epic narrative line - the heroine, from one of India's royal families, lives through pride and prejudice, war and peace, heat and dust, at the end of the British Empire. But again, it is a book without a heart, and this time the lack hurts. The heroine, Jaya Singh, is just a cipher, a way of mixing a western-style bestseller with some local colour.

A River Sutra is new again. This is a book about India in which the west does not figure. There are no abject tourists muttering about karma here; there are no power-hungry imperialists. And now that Mehta has turned her back on the desires of her readership to find themselves reflected in her work, she has written a far more resonant book.

Again, there is an apparent gap at the heart of the novel. Its narrator, a bureaucrat who has retired to a low- ranking post by the sacred Narmada river, is not a fully formed character. In conventional terms, he hardly exists. But Mehta has turned this aporia into one of the novel's great strengths. He may never have loved, he may not know what he believes, he may have no direction; but he will listen to those that do. And out of his negative capability grow the voices of the novel, as he hears the tales of a monk, a teacher, a tea merchant, a courtesan, a musician, a minstrel, set out with Chaucerian formality.

On the simplest level, this structure is beautiful and satisfying. It enables exploration without decision, weaving a mesh of myths and realism. There is the harsh tale of a destitute music teacher, whose own voice broke before he could realise his potential. He takes on a blind pupil, trains him to sing the holiest songs, and pours all his love into the boy. But the boy is killed, in a scene of stunning violence, before he too can realise anything. Set against that bitter truth is the magical tale of the tea merchant who believes his soul was stolen by a seductive female worker, and who can only regain it by succumbing to the worship of the ancient love goddess on the banks of the river.

Mehta's style is exquisitely honed to carry this mixture of tones. The compressed irony of Karma Cola has gone, as has the upbeat narration of Raj. Instead, Mehta has chosen an apparently naive, conversational style that drifts into unobtrusive lyricism when she is describing music, religion or nature: 'I watched the water slowly redden, catching reflections from the rose colours of dawn and imagined the river as a woman painting her palms and the soles of her feet with vermilion as she prepared to meet her lover.'

These lyrical moments often seem to be coming from a different, more rigorous world, superior to ours in its understanding of pleasure and beauty. In the tale of an ugly woman who learns about beauty through music, she learns the notes of the Indian scale through her father's introduction to the natural world: ' 'Do you hear that peacock's cry? It is the first note of the scale. Sa.'. . . We waded into the paddy fields behind the herons. 'Ma, the cry of the heron.' At night, 'Pa, the song of the nightingale.' '

Clearly, Mehta has at last decided to convey in her writing what she has said in interviews, that Indian culture does not need the west, but has its own integrity. But her presentation of it is immensely complex - to see A River Sutra as simply a delightful thread of mystical tales is to do injustice to Mehta's powerful questioning of her traditions. At first she appears to laud the insights of the mystics, musicians and mythmakers that crowd the pages. Her narrator has, after all, given up the world. He introduces himself as a vanaprasthi, someone who has retired to the river to reflect. And he looks constantly to the sacred river and those that have experienced its power for new wisdom. But every story he hears has its tail in its mouth, as ordinary human desires are repressed but never conquered. The first story, the description by a monk of how he renounced society, goes on resonating in the narrator's mind because he fails to find out one thing: 'I was so fascinated by his lavish renunciation ceremonies that I never asked him to explain his first words, 'I have loved only one thing in my life.' Now he has gone without telling me what it was.'

The ugly female musician, who learns so perfectly how to sing the scale according to the natural world and Hindu doctrine, finally falls in love with her father's other music student, and when he rejects her, 'From that moment I have not touched my instrument . . . The very sound of music is hateful to my ears . . . It is an impossible penance to express desire in my music when I am dead inside.' She has come to the river to meditate on the waters, and cure herself of her attachment to human love. 'Do you think it can be done?' she ends by asking the narrator. 'Do you think the river has such power?'

This question weaves its way throughout the book, and the answer is no. In the end, everyone is thrown back on themselves alone for salvation. The last tale is of a prostitute saved by an ascetic to worship the river in song. At the end of her story, the ascetic, the Naga Baba, leaves the girl to continue his journey to 'a higher plane of enlightenment'. But that higher plane turns out to be secular. The Naga Baba re-enters the world, and begins to treat the river as a merely geological and anthropological phenomenon, as we discover when the prostitute and the ascetic re-encounter one another, in their new roles as a minstrel and a professor of archaeology, at the narrator's house.

The narrator is desperate to understand: 'Why you became an ascetic, why you stopped. What all this means.' And the ascetic replies, 'I have no great truths to share, my friend. I am only a man.' At the very end, the comfortless narrator begins to think of rejoining the world, as even the sacred river hides itself from him: 'Below the terrace the water flowed black under a moonless sky.' Similarly, Mehta's seemingly naive, colourful style, bright with charming myths and songs, reveals a great darkness and uncertainty. All that we can be sure of is the truth of her opening epigram, 'Man is the greatest truth. Nothing beyond.'

(Photograph omitted)