Gita Mehta, literary chronicler of modern India, dies at 80

Gita Mehta. PHOTO: Twitter X @gopabandhu24, via ANI

Gita Mehta, whose incisive novels and nonfiction books subverted Western stereotypes while exploring the history, culture and contradictions of modern India, died Sept. 16 at her home in New Delhi. She was 80.

The cause was complications of a stroke, according to her son, Aditya Mehta, who confirmed the death through Nicholas Latimer, the head of publicity at Alfred A. Knopf. Ms. Mehta’s husband, Sonny Mehta, was the publishing house’s longtime editor in chief before his death in 2019.

The daughter of an Indian aviator and daredevil freedom fighter, Ms. Mehta spent years moving between three continents, living in New Delhi, London and New York with her husband, one of the most renowned editors in English-language literature. Warm and irreverent, with a cutting wit and a vast range of literary touchstones (Jane Austen, R.K. Narayan), she was a leading interpreter of modern Indian life, charting the complexities of a country that, as she once noted, was putting satellites into space even as its streets were clogged with ox carts.

“India is a place where worlds and times are colliding with huge velocity,” she told Publishers Weekly in 1997, adding that she “wanted to make modern India accessible to Westerners and to a whole generation of Indians who have no idea what happened 25 years before they were born.”

Ms. Mehta made her literary debut with the 1979 nonfiction book “Karma Cola: Marketing the Mystic East,” a scathing takedown of the thousands of Westerners descending upon India in search of spiritual enlightenment. “They thought we were profound. We knew we were provincial,” she wrote. “Everybody thought everybody else was ridiculously exotic and everybody got it wrong.”

The book’s acid tone and colorful reporting, targeting Western libertines as well as the gurus and spiritual leaders who welcomed them with open arms (for a price), earned it comparisons to the “New Journalism” of American writers like Tom Wolfe.

But Ms. Mehta promptly moved from nonfiction to the novel, seeking to broaden her canvas with the book “Raj” (1989), which followed the life of an Indian princess from the late 19th century to the last years of the colonial era. Her follow-up, “A River Sutra” (1993), wove together the stories of a monk, musician, teacher and other pilgrims who encounter a retired civil servant on the banks of the sacred Narmada River.

“At its weakest,” novelist Francine Prose wrote in a review for The Washington Post, “the book descends to a sort of portentous philosophizing, and the language stiffens. At its best, it both evokes the Indian landscape so sharply that we can practically smell the night-blooming jasmine and provides some of the rewards that we are more accustomed to finding in poetry: the sense that things are richer and more meaningful than they seem, that life is both clear and mysterious, that the beauty and horror of the world is irreducible and inexplicable, that everything is interconnected, imminent – and just beyond our grasp.”

Ms. Mehta traced her love of literature to her childhood in the streets of Delhi, surrounded by booksellers hawking Mad magazine alongside books by Plato and Dickens: “‘Anna Karenina,’ sahib. ‘Madame Bovary.’ Hot books, sahib, only this minute arrived.” Looking back, she wrote in her essay collection “Snakes and Ladders” (1997), she realized she had become “addicted to reading by those pavement magicians shouting at us like circus barkers: those booksellers endlessly rearranging their displays and corrupting us with their seductive litany of titles – as they lured us away from the little world of the self into whole galaxies of the imagination.”

The second of three children, Gita Patnaik was born in New Delhi on Dec. 12, 1942, five years before India gained independence from Britain. Her father, Biju Patnaik, flew clandestine missions on behalf of the Indian National Congress and later served as chief minister of the East Indian state of Odisha, a position now held by Ms. Mehta’s younger brother, Naveen Patnaik.

Her father’s work as a gunrunner and pilot led the British authorities to throw him in jail, weeks after Ms. Mehta was born. For the next few years, her mother, the former Gyan Sethi, sought his release, sending Ms. Mehta and her older brother, Prem, to a convent so that she could focus on liberating her husband.

Ms. Mehta received a degree from the University of Cambridge, where she was part of a literary circle that included Germaine Greer, Clive James and Ajai Singh Mehta, known as Sonny, whom she married in 1965. His work as an editor, at British paperback houses and later at Knopf, initially generated resentment, as Ms. Mehta said she felt like “an exile,” far from India and at times far from her husband. Her proximity to prizewinning writers was a mixed blessing, she told Publishers Weekly.

“Imagine: You’re working on a book and Gabriel García Márquez comes for a drink. You think, ‘Does the world really need me?’ And these nightmare sales figures for other writers; I hear Sonny say, ‘Well, we’ve sold 1.2 million copies’ of something, and I think, ‘Oh my God!’ That’s why, when I’m really into a book, I go to London,” where her son lived. She added, “I can’t be an appendage to Sonny’s work when I’m writing.”

Ms. Mehta was first known as a documentary filmmaker and television journalist, covering events including Bangladesh’s 1971 liberation war. She said she began working on her first book later that decade, after accompanying her husband to a party in New York where one guest – seeing her dressed in a sari – pulled her over to a group of friends and said, “Here’s the girl who’s going to tell us what karma is all about.”

“I thought it was astonishing that just because I was dressed this way he thought I could explain this profound philosophical concept,” she recalled. “Trying to rise to the occasion and be a wisecracking American, I said, ‘Karma isn’t what it’s cracked up to be.’ And Marc Jaffe, who then ran Bantam Books, said, ‘Write it.’ I thought he was barking mad!”

But the suggestion lingered in her mind. When she finally sat down to write “Karma Cola,” it took her only three weeks to finish.

Ms. Mehta returned to some of that book’s themes in “Snakes and Ladders,” which was published to coincide with the 50th anniversary of India’s independence. Instead of identifying the country with spiritual matters, she found that Westerners increasingly thought of India as a home of cheap labor and a dynamic computer industry. As she put it in a Forbes magazine interview, “The new enlightenment is money” – and in India, she concluded, money was now being flaunted instead of hidden away.

“The most interesting evolution of independent India is the change from individual fearlessness in the face of social and political injustice to craven courting of those who possess social and political power,” she wrote.

Ms. Mehta published just one more book, “Eternal Ganesha” (2006), a cultural study of the Hindu deity Ganesha, a ubiquitous, elephant-headed fixture of artwork, graffiti, advertisements and souvenir shops. She was awarded one of India’s highest civilian honors, the Padma Shri, in 2019 but declined the prize, saying that “the timing of the award might be misconstrued” because of an upcoming general election.

In addition to her son and two brothers, survivors include a granddaughter.

In a tribute for the Hindu, an Indian newspaper, Uma Mahadevan-Dasgupta wrote that Ms. Mehta’s “gaze was as unrelenting as her attachment to India was profound.” She went on to quote a passage from “Snakes and Ladders,” in which Ms. Mehta recalled being accosted by an immigration officer at the New Delhi airport. He asked why she still carried an Indian passport despite having lived outside the country for so many years.

“It was an occasion to be blunt,” Ms. Mehta wrote. “But I was in a land where ladies don’t swear. So I couldn’t bring myself to snarl, ‘Because this is my damned soil. And don’t you ever forget it!'”



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