Title – A River Sutra
Author – Gita Mehta
Genre – Fiction / Mystical
Rating – 3.5/5
A civil servant voluntarily takes up position at a guest house on the banks of the holy river Narmada. “A River Sutra” is a recollection of stories of the people he meets, or hears about, in and around the area.
He speaks of Naga ascetics- who meditate for long hours, chanting the name of Shiva, and roam about with ash smeared on their bodies. He talks about meeting a former courtesan searching for her abducted daughter; about a young man “possessed” by the spirit of a tribal woman he made love to, on the night of a lunar eclipse; and about an ugly woman learning from her father how the notes of music originate from the calls of birds and animals, thus understanding beauty.
One memorable meeting was with a Jain monk from a wealthy family, who had renounced all worldly pleasures. The monk described how, among the three principles of ahinsa, celibacy & poverty – non-violence(ahinsa) was most difficult to follow for he was always scared of hurting some tiny creature while talking, walking, or even sleeping.
The most moving account though, was of an old musician- Master Mohan, who takes up a young, blind, but exceptionally talented singer, Imrat, under his wing. The child’s father had trained him in the devotional songs of Kabir & Tulsidas, and he harbored a wish to sing at the tomb of poet Amir Rumi at Mahadeo, near the Narmada.
In the end though – I have mixed feelings about the novel. Infact, I wouldn’t call it a novel, but a collection of mystical stories around a common geography – the Narmada. I really liked the discussions following some of the interactions. But I disliked reading the translated poetry/songs, which often came up in the course of the narration. I liked the wisdom and playfulness of Tariq Mia, who is a mullah in the nearby town of Mahadeo, and discusses everything with the officer over games of chess.
In all – “A River Sutra”, as the name suggests, is like a thread, which ties together stories from different religions, cultures, economic & social standing, based around the Narmada, and leaves the reader pondering over some later on.