Gita Mehta’s A River Sutra is a study of the conundrum of life through expedition stories entwined with a worldly humanistic approach. It offers authentic interpretations of Indian cultural values, music, art forms, heritage and a liberal dose of Indian metaphysics. A River Sutra is a lyrical series of interlocking stories told with a higher level of conscious story telling. Each bewitching tale reflects the depth and complexity of India’s spirituality. A sutra literary means ‘thread’. As a literary form, it is aphoristic and often strings together parables that encapsulate concepts or experiences. The thread in the novel is a bureaucrat, nearing his retirement, who has opted to take a government post of a manager of a rest house at a small town on the banks of the holy river, Narmada, which is worshipped as the daughter of God Shiva. In the solitude of this quiet retreat, the nameless narrator befriends Mr Chagla, his secretary, Tariq Mia, a sufi mullah and Dr Mitra, a rational idealist.
The narrator of the story comes across different people and thereby different stories. If we look at the stories individually, they seem unconnected and the novel appears loosely knit. However, the stories are bounded by three elements- love, death and the Narmada River. The novel is an exposition of Indian metaphysics; and renunciation has always been an important element in Indian metaphysics, culture, life and literature. At the superficial level, it seems that renunciation means to physically depart from the society and live a life of a recluse, but in Indian metaphysics, renunciation can be explained as achieving inner calm and bliss. As the novel gains momentum and the stories progress one by one, it becomes the story of the Narmada- the symbol of our culture- of Shiva’s penance and birth of the Narmada; and of men running around in an attempt to grasp the meaning of life. Even the narrator at the end realizes that only involvement can lead to detachment. The author also endeavours to perceive the nature of human desires like nirvana, love, peace, luxury, devotion and immortality. Thus the novel becomes a study of life and life’s philosophy. It can be interpreted on a larger canvas- it can be read as a treatise on the Indian concepts of animism, materialism and spirituality.
The river becomes the object of his reflections and from his forest retreat the narrator is a witness to a large number of white-robed pilgrims, who, as vanaprasthis are out to seek personal enlightenment and renunciation from the binding world. Of the innumerable stories told to him by his guests, the narrator selects six stories- unconnected from each other, which form the beads on his string. The only common thread amongst the stories is the complex intra-personal relationship and a search for a higher experience- be it spiritual, sensual or moral. The river silently flows through the novel and becomes as much of a living entity, touching the lives of the narrator, the characters and the readers. The uniqueness of the stories lies in the unsettled nature of man, swinging between happiness and despair, attachment and detachment, obsession and renunciation, desire and death.
The novel begins with the words of a 14C Indian poet: “Listen, O brother. Man is the greatest truth. Nothing beyond” (14). The Monk’s Story begins with Ashok, the monk, who is probably only thirty years old and has already tired of a world that has offered him everything he has wanted: extreme wealth and a loving family. He keeps withdrawing from life, longing to be free. No one understands why he desires to renounce the world and the monk has no rationale to forward, for such lessons can be “learnt only by the heart, not the mind” (35). It is easy to know the world but the secrets of the human heart are still a mystery. The monk himself seems to be in a dilemma more than once whether he has chosen the right path or not. While the heart may want to tread strange paths and the realisation of God’s glory may be a coveted desire, yet somehow the transition from one world into the other is not an easy one; it is perhaps the most arduous journey of the self. It is strange to comprehend why human bonds at times seem to weigh heavy, burdensome and useless just like the ash on the fag end of a cigarette bud; and yet how one clings to human relationships at other times.
At one point, the monk entreats the narrator not to hold him too long for he fears his brother monks might leave from Mahadeo, where they are waiting for him. The conclusion surprises the readers, since the monk, even after renunciation, is awed at the prospect of being left alone! The need to align, cling, relate and bond being primordial, it is indeed hard to sever ties from this earthly network of relations. “I am too poor to renounce the world twice”, he says. (41). The ascetic has a new birth and birth itself has its pangs. The Monk’s Story leaves an unanswered question- “I have loved just one thing in my life” (14). The answer is found in the second story! Tariq Mia, the narrator of The Teacher’s Story, hence, tells the sutradhar that the human heart secretly longs for freedom. “Many men die before they learn the desire for freedom lies deep within them like a dammed river waiting to be released” (31). Master Mohan, the Music teacher, with an unfulfilled desire of being a famous singer, meets an orphan, Imrat, and gives him music lessons devotedly. Although his efforts to help and train the child are magnanimous, in his latent psyche, Imrat becomes a means to revive his lost self and to relive his own unfulfilled childhood. There is also a desire to show his critics and particularly his wife that after all his life is not an utter failure. He hopes that Imrat’s brilliance will illuminate his life again.Unfortunately, Imrat’s murder leads him towards a path of guiltridden madness and he comes on the banks of the river Narmada, seeking solace. Tariq Mia apparently cures him from his malady but while returning home, Master Mohan commits suicide. Tariq Mia tells the narrator, “Perhaps he could not exist without loving someone as he had loved the blind child” (91). Human heart has an immense capacity to love; but at the same time, it dies when the object of love ceases to be. Longing to be free from the burden of a loveless and failed life, the only recourse for him is to end his life.The young executive, Nitin Bose in The Executive’s Story is “suffocated by the sheer weight of Calcutta’s inescapable humanity” (114) and the solitude of the tea-estate appears an attractive prospect to his bored mind. It is a tale of physical consummation. It devours everything- love, poise, sentiments, peace and sanity. The self-disciplined young man is taken over by Rima, a married tribal woman. His tranquil mind is coiled by the voluptuous woman and he gets into a relationship with her. Even though he returns to the city on the command of the chairman’s telegram, he does not come out of Rima’s dreams. He buries his immoral act in his mind and the effect of his suppression results in his utter madness.
The story reflects the Indian psyche and tradition in which these kinds of acts are not permissible. When Nitin revisits the tea estate, he encounters Rima and is subjected to some kind of tribal magic. It is believed that he is possessed and worshipping the tribal goddess at any shrine that overlooks the Narmada River alone will cure him. There is a myth about the Narmada that it cures one of a snake’s venom. Here snake is not to be taken in the literal sense. Snake is a symbol of desire and its venom is the harm of desires on human existence. Nitin Bose takes refuge on the banks of the river to immerse the figure of the tribal goddess to weaken his possession. The river’s tranquility helps him divert his attention from sex to creativity. Thus he sublimates his lust and regains his lost balance and intelligence. The Courtesan’s Story is a raw tale of abduction, of crime, of coquettery and of love superceding lifetimes- the profound love of a man- a bandit, for a woman- a love he believes has survived innumerable births and deaths, and how his soul has always sought his beloved in every lifetime. Rahul Singh, the bandit finally wins over the heart of the young courtesan woman, who he believes has been his soul mate in all births. True love can find its way into the toughest heart, and the young woman finally starts believing him. However, after the police shoot Rahul Singh, the girl accompanies her mother to go back home and while the narrator looks out of the window watching them, he sees the girl embracing her mother and disappearing from the scene. The narrator’s assistant informs him later that the girl drowned in Narmada and her mother felt relieved that her sins would be forgiven as she had become one with the Holy River. The narrator is surrounded by his own thoughts at the stranger than fiction love bond between Rahul Singh and the young woman and he is left wondering how like other lifetimes, the two had not enjoyed each others’ companionship for long, thus sowing the seeds of another birth in another lifetime. By ending her life in the river, the young courtesan draws a parallel between her own immortal love and the immortality of the Narmada. The flowing waters of Narmada speak of the unending charm of men coming and going according to the dictates of destiny. The love tale in the backdrop of Oriental Hindu Philosophy bespeaks of a love of a higher order, a love which is stronger than death.
The Musician’s Story is yet another tale of love- rather an amalgamation of love in its various hues- the sensuous love of Lord Shiva for Parvati which made him immortalize the beauty of his wife by creating the first instrument of music- the Veena. It is also the love of a musician for his music. It is the story of desire and unrequited love of a young musician woman. Her training is nothing less than a penance. For one year her father does not allow her to touch the musical instruments. She is asked to notice and listen to various sounds. Thus her sharpness to perceive the notes clearly does increase. She learns various notes from natural sounds. The musician’s attachment with music is also appealing. For him art is something sublime as he says that when one chooses to be a musician, one enters into a pact with Lord Shiva. Thus the musician’s daughter learns to listen to the music of the rippling waters, the whispering tress, the rustling leaves, and the chirruping of the birds. But unfortunately she could not listen to the false notes of a human heart. Her father’s young disciple fails to return her love, leaving her broken hearted. Her father consoles her saying that she should consider herself married to music and not to a musician. But jilted in love, she does not have the capacity to accept such consolation. She rightly asserts, “… it is an impossible penance … to express desire in my music when I am dead inside” (226). The forlorn woman refuses to touch her musical instruments and so does her father bring her to the banks of Narmada- to pray, to meditate, to undergo penance until the time she has cured herself of her “attachment to what has passed and can become again the ragini to every raga” (225). As the Narmada is the daughter of Shiva, it will cure her of the attachment and resultant anguish. It is only the sublime quality of love of nature that has a redeeming and curing element. Thus the theme of love interconnects these elements in this story- the elemental nature, human nature and the forms of art.
The last story in the ‘Sutra’, The Minstrel’s Story, is of a naga mendicant, who renounces the world and treks the length and breadth of the country seeking enlightenment of a different order. “You cannot be a naga without overcoming human limitations”, his teacher had said (239). And hence, he had become fearless- overcoming the fear of death, danger, starvation and vagaries of the weather. He had overcome weaknesses not only of the body but of the spirit as well. The little girl ‘Chanda’ whom he rescued from a brothel was re-christened ‘Umapeace in the night’ by the naga, which is the authors’ way of suggesting that the sadhu had overcome his passion and lust as well. “She was the fruit of his austerity … Uma was born of the Naga Baba’s penance” (258). They live in caves where he nurtures her and teaches her to sing the songs of the Narmada. They live on the river bank for nearly three years. Uma thus becomes the river minstrel. She is set on the path of devotion and spirituality but this path is not an easy one. Naga Baba knows the importance of austerity and penance in the process of learning and therefore he makes it sure that Uma also learns it that hard way. He knows that when she is initiated on the path of self-realization and spirituality, her previous life should be totally annihilated in all respect. Baba’s treatment to her is as stiff as his guru’s:
The Naga Baba grabbed her, his breathing harsh above the stems breaking under his feet as he carried her through the darkness toward the river. …suddenly he gripped her arm and lowered her into the water. The paralyzed child stared into the ascetic’s eyes. Then the water closed over the child’s head and she heard only the sound of her own blood pounding in her ears. She no longer even had the will to scream, knowing she could do nothing to prevent herself from being drowned… (253). This treatment hints at a suggestion that the enlightenment has all the pain of death and rebirth. By describing minutely the Naga Baba’s training imparted by his guru, his penance, austerity and humility, Gita Mehta also seems to refer to an important element of Hindu religious matrix. The author seems to be making a deliberate attempt to erase misconceptions regarding this community and raise it to its due level. The community of Naga Baba is not a cult of naked ascetics but they carry with them a lot of energy derived through penance.
The Naga Baba encourages Uma to sing at temple festivals, travelling from temple to temple and finally leaves the singer-saint to disappear into the wilderness, to follow the next stage of his enlightenment. Aroused by such a description and learning that the naga finally left Uma, to seek higher enlightenment, the narrator desires to find him out, only to be reminded by the Mullah that such people are like the flowing waters, whom we encounter only once in a lifetime.
The strange turn of events next reveal that the new occupant of the Guest House, Professor Shankar, the archaeologist and author of ‘The Narmada Survey’, is in fact the Naga Baba himself! The narrator’s befuddled questions are just the queries every reader is struck with- “Is this your enlightenment? Is this why you endured all those penances? Why you became an ascetic, why you stopped?” (281) The professor’s calm and resilient response to such queries is simple and yet teasing- “I have no great truths to share, my friend. I told you, I am only a man” (281).
In fact, this intriguing concluding sutra in the novel brings full circle the epigraph- “Man is the greatest truth. Nothing beyond” (281). It is indeed difficult to give up a world one has attained after a penance of centuries of births and deaths. No philosophy, however absorbing and binding it may be, is complete enough to comprehend the enigma called man. It is a futile exercise to define man in limited terms! The decision of the naga mendicant to renounce the ascetic’s life is almost a regression on the path of spirituality. It epitomizes the ambiguity in the contemporary Indian thought system. We find ourselves on a threshold. On the one side we have traditional thinking highly influenced by religion. On the other side there is a rational approach which completely denies the traditional outlook.
All the sutras in the novel are deeply thoughtful, reflective and somewhat harrowing at the literal level and any explication or analysis would only dilute and dissipate the experience of reading them. In essence, though one can renounce the world for the greater glory of God, yet it is not a coveted dream in totality. The mortal man still clings too much to the world. The writer has intensely concerned herself with the enlightening of a different order, an awakening of the inner psyche. She has explored the inner pull of freedom, liberation and identity. River Narmada is the final refuge if everything fails in the world. It is among the holiest pilgrimage sites where people from diverse walks of life converge to get salvation.
The stories give moral lessons to the people. The river with its mythology, superstitions, religion, spirituality and archaeology represents the traditional, primitive and modern Indian. In fact the depiction of the river and the inter-related stories repeatedly draw attention toward the theme of love, desire and renunciation and the impact of Indian ethos is so powerful that it dominates the narrative. Gita Mehta makes an excellent use of Indian myths, folk lore, rituals and superstitious beliefs in this novel. She expresses the psychology of the human mind which cannot deny the influence of culture, religion, faiths and desires on it. Man at last surrenders before such complex confluence of dichotomiesattachment and detachment, desire and renunciation, bonding and nirvana. Each man, therefore, is on his own individual journey and seeks to tread his own path and responds to his own calling.
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