Interview: Karma chameleon: Gita Mehta

John Walsh meets Gita Mehta
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When Gita Mehta was five years old, she saw her first dead body. It was Gandhi's. She'd been playing with her brother on a cold January afternoon when the news came over that the Mahatma had been shot dead by one of his own Hindu guards. Even now she remembers the shock of seeing her mother and the family's servants weeping beside the wireless that brought the news. More significantly, she remembers sitting on someone's shoulders among the weirdly silent crowds standing four-deep alongside the funeral route, watching as a lorry, surmounted by garlands of marigolds, carried the symbol of Indian freedom to his funeral pyre. She remembered it particularly well when she went to see Gandhi, the Richard Attenborough film, in which the funeral had become a full military job, all slow-marching, uniformed troops and rumbling gun carriages. Later she found out that - wholly against the expressed desire of the master of non-violent protest - a state funeral had been mounted, by Nehru and Mountbatten "for the record".

It's this kind of double-vision that Mehta loves to deal with in her books: the India seen from the inside by a passionate returned emigree, and the India as sold to the West in images of mysticism, poverty and chaos. She made her name in 1980 with Karma Cola: The Marketing of the Mystic East, a blisteringly funny piss-take of consumerism trying to sell Nirvana, of the Beatles calling on the Maharishi, Ravi Shankar at Woodstock... Later she took to fiction, and published Raj (a bit of a commercial blockbuster about rich princeling families looking for love in the run-up to Partition) and A River Sutra, a poetic little rhapsody about a retired bureaucrat rediscovering his soul in retirement beside a sacred river. Now, half a century after her country's independence, she's back in Tom Wolfe mode with Snakes and Ladders, a 35-chapter guide to modern India, taking in politics, economics, autobiography, jokes, history, polemic, anecdote, interviews, race, the arts, literature, caste, and the sex industry, dished up with the airiest of manners. She uses words and phrases from the Raj lexicon - "the imperial jig was up"; Mrs Gandhi being "quite loopy"; something "sticking in the craw". Amid passionate denunciations of the poverty trap (that keeps, say, illiterate peasants paying off the interest on tiny loans for 20 years) she finds room for vast and swingeing pronouncements. "The most interesting evolution of independent India," she writes, "is the change from individual fearlessness in the face of social and political injustice, to the craven courting of those who possess social and political power."

Phew. But who is it for? Had she written it to raise the consciousness of the West, in their middle of their Jewel in the Crown sentimentalisings? "No, no, it's not propaganda," she said. "How could it be when it's written for Indian people themselves? I didn't write it for Westerners. I wanted to write a post-colonial book which was not an apology."

Meeting her in the flesh, encountering the flash of her eyes, the music of her glass bracelets and the astonishing flood of her conversation, you discover she's a reformer with old-fashioned instincts. She is nicely sardonic about new middle-class Indians, their passionate Western attitudes, their clothes and music. She herself invariably wears a sari, whether at home in New York, London or Delhi, "and I hope we never lose it, because we're one of the few peoples left in the world whose form of dress isn't defined by Calvin Klein". There's a distinct whiff of disapproval of the Westernised young who cannot escape the tendrils of tradition. "I look at all the Indian rock and the Banghra-pop stuff and all these Indian girls in their Doc Martens going to see pop stars, and they're all going to have arranged marriages," she said grimly. "I hope when young Indians read this book, they'll be scared into realising that if they become too imitative of mass culture, which by definition comes out of America, you're going to get homogeneity. And the moment India becomes homogeneous, it'll be all over for the whole world, because we're the last truly bio-diverse place on earth. We are not going to lose that to some... slick packaging."

Such passion. It's at moments like this that you realise that Gita Mehta isn't really a psephologist about India, or an economic commentator, not a satirist or a freelance exotic on Fifth Avenue, not a sentimentalist or a traitor, but the intelligent voice of India itself, its soul and classy embodiment, as it explains itself to the outside world that is clamorously beating its way to India's door. She is too cosmopolitan to want to live there full-time, too insouciant to make a politician, and she says "fuck" too often to qualify for a job at the Court of St James. So her role is to make fun of the place and rhapsodise about its marvels by turns.

It strikes her as hilarious that the World Wide Web should have come to India, only for it to be used as a matrimonial advertising slot. She bursts out laughing when describing the new urban sex industry - how the culture of the Kama Sutra has become the culture of contact magazines with titles like Broad-Minded and advertisements promising "Baby It's Your Lucky Day. Handsome Smart Guy. Terribly Exhausting", but woe betide anyone who doesn't know how much India gave to the world. Medicine? Philosophy? Fiction? We were there first, she says.

"You know, of course, that India is the culture that came up with the conceit of the zero? Without the Indian visualisation of nothingness, of zero, you would not have had mathematics. What is the point of zero? To make the void containable..." Okay, you discovered maths. Anything else? "In Indian mythology, when worlds get destroyed, there is an energy that sucks all light into itself. This is mythology but it's an exact parallel with modern physics, with black holes."

She wasn't saying, was she, that science was invented in India? She regarded me with pity. "But you must know the Indian and the Chinese are the two oldest medical systems in the world. The Arabs brought the Medica Indica, their herbal phrarmacology, to India and we became the herbalist for medieval Europe. The Medica Indica became the Ayurveda, which means "meaning of life" and is a whole medical system. They were doing brain surgery and eye surgery in India in 500 BC. When you practise acupuncture, you're pursuing a knowledge of the nervous system that goes back 2,500 years." In vain does one bring up the Enlightenment, or indeed the existence of Hippocrates. Mehta snorts derisively. "The assumption that these were primitive cultures is just a sideline of imperialism; you believe that everything that's available to you must be Western. Europe is simply ignorant of its own knowledge."

When Gita Mehta goes into one of her spectacular transcontinental and transcultural riffs, no-one could stem the flow of her eloquence even if they had a mind to. She can hurl connective wires across 15 different disciplines in a single paragraph, pulling Plato, Machiavelli, Confucius, Gore Vidal, Louis IV ("or was it Napoleon?"), Borges and Milton, St Sebastian and St Augustine and, good heavens, Bruce Chatwin into broad but coherent circuits of argumentation.

The magisterial strain in her make-up is, thankfully, tempered by a more playful impulse, a slightly disdainful charm. "Would you mind awfully if I... chain-smoked throughout?" were her first words in the Halkin Hotel restaurant, where Armani-suited young waiters flickered to and fro at her bidding. At 53, she is handsome, slightly husky, louche, risque and yet rather maternal. She talks about her family with reluctance and pride. Her father was a businessman ("Heavy industry, that sort of thing") but also a rebel and gun-runner, endlessly in trouble with the British authorities. Gita remembers "being sent to a convent when I was barely three, because my parents were in jail - my father actually inside, my mother trying to get him released. I remember the nuns saying, when I cried, "We don't allow crying here". They were Irish nuns - I have a little passport still, saying I'm an `Enfant du Sacre Coeur'. My brother and I spent the entire time trying to escape. We once collected biscuit tins, waited until 9pm and tried to stack them up by a wall and climb over it, but..."

Her enormous family ("There's no such thing as an Indian nuclear family") was full of contradictions. At one extreme were the Anglophile adventurers ("There was a time when my mother had seven male cousins up at Cambridge simultaneously. Others were in the RAF") while at the other were gun-toting insurrectionists like her dad. One uncle was sent to prison for 17 years for attacking a British armoury. He was 14 at the time. Through him, Gita made some interesting acquaintances. "When I was filming in Bangladesh I met a lady who knew my uncle. She had tried, at 15, to shoot the British governor of Bengal at the Lapong racecourse in Darjeeling. It was generally opined to be quite a good shot, because, although she'd never held a gun in her life, she winged him..."

At school she was good at "breaking bounds". Had she had boyfriends? "No, I had friends. Did I sleep with people? No, although I'm told the situation is changed dramatically now." Was a marriage arranged for her? "Oh, when I was hardly 10, my mother was saying, `That boy, perhaps he'd be a nice husband for you'. It's a very Jane Austen business - the only difference being that, unlike Jane's characters, if you refuse to play the marriage game, you're forced to leave the house."

The works of Ms Austen were an early passion, along with Dickens and "the Russians" but, as she points out, there's no more eclectic reading public than the Anglophone Indian bourgeoisie. "The copy of The Catcher in the Rye that I read belonged to my father. What was he doing reading that? And the first copy of Plato I read was my mother's. I once met the Attorney General or the Legal Minister of Bengal, a man with about 93 degrees, who told me his favourite writer was Georgette Heyer. Imagine a man like him reading Regency Buck..."

At Cambridge, the impossibly stylish Mehta was friendly with Germaine Greer and Clive James ("We used to play bridge together"), Eric Idle of Monty Python, Jonathan Lynn the co-writer of Yes, Minister and Richard Eyre, later of the National Theatre. Then she met Sonny Mehta in very Woody Allen circumstances ("I think he was standing in a cinema queue waiting to see The Seventh Seal") and that was that. "Mine was an arranged marriage," she says, "because it was all arranged by the Girton girls. They insisted I had to meet him." Sonny became one of the top names in trans- atlantic publishing, the brains behind Picador (which invented the concept of the "serious bestseller") and currently head of Knopf, the most "literary" imprint of Random House US.

Was she inspired to write by having writers in the house all the time? "No no, quite the opposite. When you meet writers you respect, you really don't think you should be putting pen to paper at all. But fortunately I've never considered writing a competitive business. So I've never been intimidated by the thought that my work might be of a lower level." Indeed not. The entirely unintimidated Mehta is close friends with the Premier League of writers. She calls Norman Mailer "Normie". Amis and Rushdie and McEwan are all friends, as was the late Angela Carter. There's something very sweet about the innocence with which she chucks names about. Hearing that I was recently back from Havana, she cried, "Oh, I wish I'd known. I could have given you Gabby's number. You could have looked him up." Gabby? "You know. Gabriel Garcia ...". Yeah right. I'm sure Mr Marquez would have loved that.

One thing on which she will not be drawn is caste, though it's an incendiary subject in modern Indian politics. "I don't believe in caste so I'm not going to discuss which caste I am." It's nothing new in the family. Both her grandmothers used to campaign for the abolition of caste. But surely she is a Brahmin to the tips of her Hindu sandals? "No, no, the warrior caste is the one to be. They're the ruling caste because they're the ones who go into battle." What a puzzling woman. She wants India to emerge from the murk of debt, illiteracy and sectarian strife, but not to get too excited about Westernisation. She hates caste but accepts the perceived value of it. She hovers between pleasure and satire when India links up with global technology. She moves between the historical-mythological India of gods and miracles and the palpable, real, true India of penniless rag-pickers on the outskirts of Delhi...

Tell me Gita, I said. Despite all your sophistication, is there a sacred river running through the back of your head all the time? She gave a smile as lazy as the Ganges. "Isn't that just the luck of being Indian?"

`Snakes and Ladders' is published next month by Secker and Warburg, pounds 14.99

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