Tales From the Narmada Woods

A River Sutra

by Gita Mehta
Doubleday/Nan A. Talese, 291 pp., $20.00

A River Sutra consists of six tales that make up a fictionalized primer on Indian attitudes to religion, love, music, and poetry. An entry in the glossary explains the word sutra:

Literally, a thread or string. Also, a term for literary forms, usually aphoristic in nature.

What this particular sutra strings together, though, are not so much aphorisms as parables. They are as easy-to-read, unanalytical, and, in some cases, as violent as the ones in the New Testament—or the tales of Scheherazade, for that matter. This gives them an antique patina in piquant contrast to the jeeps, sound recorders, air conditioning, and relics from a later period of antiquity—like a copy of Goren’s Contract Bridge moldering in a tea plantation bungalow or the clerk in the guest house who sounds just like the babu in Kipling’s Kim.

The string part of the narrative is provided by a senior bureaucrat who has chosen to become “a vanaprasthi, someone who has retired to the forest to reflect”—though not to the point of radical asceticism. “I knew I was simply not equipped to wander into the jungle and become a forest hermit,” he says. His compromise is to apply for the humble post of managing a government rest house deep in the jungle on the banks of the sacred Narmada River. The parables are brought to him by guests, pilgrims, and fugitives of one kind or another who wash up there, and by his friend Tariq Mia. Tariq Mia is the octogenarian mullah of a Sufi shrine near the rest house. The bureaucrat is a Hindu. Their values don’t differ too much, because “Indo-Sufism is based on the concept of mystical love.” But the bureaucrat has no gift at all for spiritual insight, so the mullah gets plenty of opportunity to instruct him and the reader at the same time. An idealistic rationalist doctor who runs a six-bed hospital in the nearest little town makes up the trio of ideological positions from which they comment on the six stories that emerge, one by one, from the holy river.

In the first a millionaire playboy leaves the world to become a Jain monk. The second is about a poor Sufi musician who adopts a blind boy with a beautiful voice and trains him as a religious singer. He sings so divinely that he is offered a recording contract, and a rich patron tries to buy him. When his offer is refused, he cuts the boy’s throat. In the third story, a sophisticated young tea broker from Calcutta is sexually bewitched by a tribal woman on a tea plantation. He has a breakdown, and is cured only when he submits to a tribal cleansing ritual in the Narmada. The fourth story is the most dramatic: a distinguished courtesan teaches her daughter the high arts of her profession—music, dancing, manners, and grace—while strenuously guarding her virginity. A bandit falls in love with the girl and abducts her …

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