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Down the Stream of Stories : A RIVER SUTRA, By Gita Mehta (Doubleday/Nan A. Talese: $20; 282 pp.)

July 11, 1993|Rahul Jacob | Jacob covers India for Fortune and lived there until 1986

There are a great number of us who are not quite able to believe in religion, yet are unable to embrace atheism, which seems "too final, certain, closed. Itself a kind of belief," as Salman Rushdie observes in "The Satanic Verses." Caught in the middle, we have more doubts than certainties, more questions than answers. Neglectful of both Mass and mall, we seek a moral dimension to our lives by turning to books for counsel.

The notion of writers as a secular clergy is not a novel one, but Gita Mehta would seem an unlikely candidate for that literary pulpit. It was she, after all, who, in her sometimes excessive satire "Karma Cola," took--and gave--such delight in skewering the thousands of American and European flower children who traipsed across India in the 1970s in search of enlightenment. They usually met hucksters instead of holy men, and Mehta reveled in the confusion: "They thought we were profound. We knew we were provincial."

In "A River Sutra," Mehta returns to the same spiritual territory, examining afresh the tendency to disengage from the world rather too quickly. Hers is a humanist interpretation. The novel begins with the words of a 14th-Century Indian poet: "Listen, O brother. Man is the greatest truth. Nothing beyond."

The novel's narrator is a civil servant who gives up an important post to manage a government guest house on the banks of the holy River Narmada. In the Hindu tradition, he is now "a vanaprasthi , who has retired to the forest to reflect." He rises before dawn to meditate. At twilight, he watches the river "flickering with tiny flames as if catching fire from the hundreds of clay lamps being floated downstream for the evening devotion."

It turns out, though, that the narrator is at the intersection of a busy human thoroughfare. The power of the river draws all kinds of travelers, who have fantastic, often savage stories to tell. At a bazaar, he meets a gifted musician who is making a pilgrimage to the river Narmada because a broken engagement has left her unable to play a note. Her story also provides the stage for a melodic and accessible discourse on Indian classical music. In another tale, the narrator learns of a music teacher who adopted a blind beggar with a singing talent of which a jealous patron will say, "Such a voice is not human. What will happen to music if this is the standard by which God judges us?" Despite the story's tragic ending, it is apparent that the boy has filled a void in the teacher's life.

Steering cavalierly clear of emotional entanglement, on the other hand, can leave a hole in the heart. An executive at a tea company arrives at the rest house, seeking a riverside temple where he can rid himself of the curse of a tribal woman he has jilted. She has retaliated by capturing his soul between two halves of a coconut during a lunar eclipse. Now he believes he is possessed. The narrator is appalled, but his assistant is sanguine about the young man's predicament: "Without desire, there is no life. Everything will stand still. Become emptiness." These tales, more Grimm than fairy, are deeply unsettling for the narrator. "I suppose all this emotion alarms me," he confesses. "It strikes me as somehow undignified."

By the end, the narrator realizes that "destiny has brought me to the banks of the Narmada to understand the world." The reader feels similarly enlightened. Mehta uses parables, myths, even hymns to weave a book of unusual wisdom, one that gently questions our tendency to quarantine ourselves from the exhilaration and disappointment of attachment. Love and desire are shown to be both noble and barbaric, and not always--indeed, not often--in our control. She suggests that we are never more alive than when we go with the flow of our passions and ambitions; our lives will not be as tidy perhaps, but they will be more fulfilling. On occasion, though, Mehta seems to worry that her readers may not get her drift. She then hammers it home with jarring zealotry.

The structure of the novel is deliberately Indian. The use of a narrator or a sutradhar (someone who knits the story together) harks back to the oral tradition of Indian epics. And, instead of the taut, linear narrative of a Western novel, "A River Sutra" (literally a thread) moves like a spinning wheel. Every yarn begins the lazy circle again, another variation on the novel's central themes. Each story ends with a beguiling tug into the next one. The simplicity of Mehta's writing nicely complements the novel's profound concerns. Nor does the wheel stop when you finish the book. It keeps turning, turning, turning for days afterward, assuaging your doubts, questioning your certainties.

Richard Eder is on vacation.

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