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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. She defies him at first, but eventually his passion wins her over. When he is killed in a police raid she drowns herself in the sacred river.

The fifth story describes another musical education, this time with much technical detail. A great musician has an exceptionally ugly daughter. He trains the little girl to play the veena, a stringed instrument, and when she is adolescent he accepts a young man as a pupil on condition that he marry her. The two young people are drawn together by music, and become engaged. But the man breaks his promise and the unhappy girl loses the gift of playing. The last story is about a Naga Baba, a naked ascetic follower of the god Shiva who travels the land with a skull for a begging bowl. He rescues a little girl from a brothel, brings her up, and teaches her to sing, so that she can earn her living as a river minstrel.

This story has a surprising ending which skillfully and disconcertingly jolts one’s perspective on the other five: an archaeological expedition complete with crates of scientific equipment and female students in jeans arrives at the rest house. Its leader is Professor V. V. Shankar, “the foremost archaeological authority on the Narmada,” and a brisk rationalist. While he is out on an expedition, a river minstrel appears and sings for the bureaucrat. (The lyric of her song fills nearly eight pages, and there are a great many more pages of verse throughout the book.) The professor returns, and the girl bows to touch his feet: he is the Naga Baba, and she the former child prostitute. The bureaucrat is outraged: “Is this your enlightenment?” he says. “Is this why you endured all those penances?” The professor

gave me an ironic smile. “Don’t you know the soul must travel through eighty-four thousand births to become a man?”

He turned and I almost didn’t hear him add, “Only then can it reenter the world.”

The professor jumps into his jeep and offers the minstrel a lift into town. The bureaucrat is left gazing at the river on which the votive lamps flicker in the moonless night “as the current carried them toward the ocean.”

Mehta is telling the West something about Indian spirituality, but I’m not quite sure what it is. Perhaps she is saying that it is to be taken seriously, but not solemnly; that it is what people make it, and possibly not as transcendental as they would like to think. Anyway, she takes for her epigraph a humanistic-sounding invocation from a fourteenth-century Bengali poet:

Listen, O brother.
Man is the greatest truth.
Nothing beyond.

If she doesn’t reveal one big truth, she makes up for it with lots of intriguing and enlightening smaller facts: about archaeology, anthropology, mythology, cosmology; about tribal women, and criminals, and adultery among the sophisticated rich in the big cities; about the Indian musical scale and about which is the hardest vow of abstinence to keep: “This may surprise you,” says the Jain monk. “Nonviolence. It is very tiring to be worrying all the time that you may be harming some living thing.”

In her first book, Karma Cola, Mehta mocked Western infatuation with Oriental religion. She is more tolerant and explanatory here, but an undercurrent of impatience surfaces now and then as irony, and relieves the intensity with which she writes about music, poetry, and love. Critics of her previous novel Raj complained that it had no heart. At least three of the River Sutra stories—“The Teacher’s,” “The Courtesan’s,” and “The Musician’s”—have enough heart to be quite harrowing; though perhaps in the first two the effect is partly due to the violence of their endings.

Still, it is an achievement to have got so much feeling into a book so post-modern and contrived in construction, and so didactic in purpose. The most striking lesson is the importance of learning itself: every relationship in these stories is a pupil-teacher relationship. Even the tribal coolie woman has something to teach the Westernized young executive about the power of sex.

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