Gita Mehta’s  A River Sutra as a Primer on Hindu Belief and Practice

 

(London, Minerva: 1994)

 

This novel consists of a series of bio-sketches narrated by a retired civil servant who tries to escape the world by becoming manager of a Government Rest - House on the banks of the sacred river, Narmada but found that, instead, the world came to him.  Perhaps his ‘destiny had brought’ him there to ‘understand the world’ (p 255). The river is believed to have healing qualities.  Thus, ‘epileptics, depressives and other unfortunates rush to her banks’ (p 145).  ‘Bathing in the waters of the Jamuna’, we read, ‘purifies a man in seven days, in the waters of the Ganges in one, but the Narmada purifies with a single sight of her waters’ (p 155). With 'four hundred billion' sacred spots on her banks, the Narmada is 'too holy by half' (p 144). See pp 238 - 263 for extracts from Shankaras's poem to Narmada, 'you remove the stanins of evil ... Bards and ascetics sing your wonders. Gamblers, cheats and dancers praise you. We all find refuge in your embrace, O holy Narmada' (p 263). The narrator’s semi-retirement was his own, adapted version of the fourth ashrama (stage in life - a vanaprashthi), since he was ‘simply not equipped to wander into the jungle and become a forest hermit, surviving on fruit and roots’ (p 1).  However, one of the stories told is of a Shiva disciple, the Naga Baba, who did just that; ‘”You cannot become a Naga without overcoming human limitations”, his teacher had said’ (p 227).  Thus:

 

At the academy he had learned the arts of a protector sadhu … to wield his iron trident as a weapon.  He had perfomed yogic contortions to gain physical prowess far exceeding any wrestler’s, hardened his hands and his feet so they could kill a man with a single blow … (p 230).

 

The Naga knew that people thought he could ‘levitate and … place irrevocable curses on any who displeased him’ (p 227).  During the Indian Mutinity, children would be told, 'twenty thousand Naga ascetics, naked and ash-covered with matted locks, had come down from their caves in the Himalayas to do battle with the red-coated Englishmen ambitious for empire' (p 229). One scene, when on the Night of Death, the Naga Baba visits a cemetery and the homes of untouchables, describes what is usually identified as a Tantric practice (pp 228 – 234). In other words, to demonstrate total freedom from ‘attachment’, normative rules of cleanliness (and sometimes of morality) are deliberately broken. Thus the profane becomes sacred, the sacred profane. At the end of the novel, we learn that the Naga Baba later returned to the world as a professor of archaeology, having written an acclaimed book on the Narmada  (p 249).  The professor declares that mythology is ‘a waste of time’ and that ‘if anything is sacred about this river, it is the individual experience of human beings who have lived here’ (p 253).  Chapter two describes the renunciation ceremony of a Jain monk.  This duplicates ‘the procession with which Mahavira … renounced the world’ (p 18).

 

The river is believed to ‘link mankind to the energy of Shiva’ (p 7).  It was formed from his perspiration while meditating strenuously; ‘The stream took on the form of a woman’ who tried to seduce him.  Amused, Shiva blessed her ‘with the words, “You shall be forever holy, forever inexhaustible"’ (p 8).

 

See also pp 91 – 2 for the story of Shiva and Kama; Kama, the temptress, also tried to seduce Shiva away from his meditation and was ‘reduced to ashes’ by Shiva’s ‘third eye’ (p 92).  Brief mention is made of the KamaSutra, in which Vatsayana describes ‘Sixty-four arts’ of which the courtesan must be mistress (p 156).

 

Mehta associates Kama with the ancient goddess ‘worshipped by the tribal inhabitants’ of India’s forests before the Aryan settlement (p 92). The goddess has 'such fearful names as the Terrible One, the Implaccable Mother, the dark Lady ...' (p 92)   The conflict between Aryan and pre-Ayran was ‘a classic conflict between instinct and reason’.  The pre-Aryans had had a ‘profound respect for nature and the inter-dependence of life’ (p 147). The tribals worshipped the river as a manifestation of the Goddess, who is ‘greater than all the gods combined’, ‘the principle of life’ itself (p 136). Throughout the book, the reader is made aware of Hindu reverence for nature, which is an aspect of, not distinct from, the divine.

 

In one cameo essay, Mehta relates the divine origin of music and dance:

 

The six mighty ragas, the pillars of all music, were born from the expressions on Shivas’s face and through their vibrations the universe was brought into existence … but they are all male … so each of the six ragas was given six wives, six raginas.  Their children are the putras [sons] and in this way music lives and multiplies (pp 195 – 6).

 

The very shape of the veena (musical instrument) immortalises the ‘immortal beauty’ of Shiva’s consort, Parvati:

 

The globes  … are the breast of Parvati.  The neck of the veena is her slender arm, the frets … her glass bangles … [its] music the expression of Shiva’s love (p 187).

 

A goddess presides over each of the ragas.  If you truly meditate on a raga’s sacred teaching its goddess will give you mastery over its melodies (p 200).

 

The arts are ‘Shiva’s gift to mankind’ (p 196). Each raga is ‘related to a particular season, a time of day, an emotion’.   The ‘first sound of creation was Om.  Each vibration of Om created new sounds which led to the primary scale’ (p 199). 'Om', we read, 'is the three worlds ... the three fires, and the three gods, Vishnu, Brahma, Shiva' (these three are often called the Hindu trinity) (p 188).

 

A significant character in the novel is Tariq Mia, Imam at the local mosque (which is a Sufi shrine) and a friend of the narrator.  It is Mia who tells the narrator that he is really meeting, not retreating from, the world.  From Mia, we hear about the Sufi Kabir, ‘whose poems made a bridge between your faith and mine [Hindu and Muslim]’ (p 44; see also pp 68 – 69 for Kabir). Mia tells the narrator that the human heart has only one secret – the ‘capacity to love’ (p 45). The 'old Mullah' would often break into Sufi songs and seemed 'able to read' the narrator's mind (p 43). In chapter ten, we read of a Nawab (Prince) who, though Muslim, respected the Narmada's holiness (p 155). This story depicts something of what life was like in a Princely state before India's independence from Britain and of life in a traditional Haveli , a house of courtesans (who were 'wealthier than the wives of the Nawab'). The women's job was to 'educate the heir's to India's mightiest kingdoms' (p 156), to 'teach ... the subtle grading of colour or the micro-tones of melody ...' (p 157).

 

New and Old India meet in the story of Nitin Bose, as it does in that of the Naga Baba.  Bose is a ‘young executive in Calcutta’s oldest tea company’ who enjoys the high life of ‘meaningless adulteries’, ‘golf at the Tolleygunge Club’, drinks at the ‘Saturday Club …’ (p 105).  He had no interest in ‘all those Puranas and Vedas and Upanishads and god knows what’ (p 111). Then he opts to become manager of a tea estate.  In his long and solitary evenings, to his ‘surprise’, he found himself enjoying his grandfather’s old texts, the ‘endless legends contained in the Puranas’ (p 113) though a passage in the Rig Veda described his loneliness; ‘At first was Death.  That which did mean an utter emptiness.  And emptiness, mark thou, is Hunger’s Self’ (p 117).

 

After entering into a rather mysterious liaison with a tribal woman, who utters a magic spell over him after he tells her that he has been recalled to Calcutta, he becomes convinced that only a visit to a shrine of the Goddess at Narmada will cure him. This chapter also gives us a glimpse of what life had been like for the colonial estate managers, who ‘only came to Calcutta to bid for wives when the ships from England discharged their cargoes of desperate English women trying to escape lives of penury back home’ (p 106). Bose was himself aware of the 'Englishness' of his tea-estate experience, 'I could not stop laughing at the thought that I had entered a british fantasy of India, untouched by the chaos of the last forty years' (p 110). In anotherv echo of colonial times, Bose writes an article on the customs of the tribals which his uncle asks him 'to submit to the Asia Review for publication' (p 140).

 

‘Indians’, we read, ‘ have never been prepared to settle for a single mythology if they could squeeze another hundred in’ (p 145).  Mia grumbles that Hindus disguise their ‘greed with … many – headed gods and … many – headed arguments’ (p 12).  Thus, the novel reflects Hinduisms diversity and plurality.   India’s religious pluralism is also included, represented by Tariq Miah, the Jain monk as well as Sufi songs and singers (chapter four).  All the characters are endearing. The stories are tinged with sadness. One character, a gifted child singer, gets murdered (p 84), another gets jilted (p 214). 'People are always alarmed the first time they see me', she says (p 185 - 6) and 'Perhaps only genius can see beauty in what appears ugly' (p 187). The reference to Shiva as a 'golden peacock' (p 262) enabled me to answer a question I have often been asked by students when visiting a temple with peacocks in the grounds, 'why are there peackocks here?' The Glossary of terms (pp269 – 277) adds to this enchanting novel’s usefulness as a primer for study of Hindu belief and practice.

 

© Clinton Bennett 2001

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