Gita Mehta’s works were always wonderfully scathing critiques of the world and its cuckoo ways

The writer-filmmaker who passed away on September 16 was the sister of Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik  

September 20, 2023 06:54 pm | Updated 07:14 pm IST

Gita Mehta in March 1990.

Gita Mehta in March 1990. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

“Do you know that when 70 million people determine to achieve something, nobody can suppress it?” Bangladesh President Sheikh Mujibur Rehman’s words are like verbal gunshots at the opening of Gita Mehta’s NBC documentary Dateline Bangladesh (1971).

Over the next two decades, Gita would move from film to writing, producing five insightful books of fiction and non-fiction. Married to the late Sonny Mehta, head of American publishing house Knopf, Gita lived in London, New York, and New Delhi. She was the daughter of late freedom fighter and politician Biju Patnaik and Gyan Patnaik, and sister of Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik. She passed away in New Delhi on September 16, at the age of 80.

The first edition of Gita Mehta’s ‘Karma Cola’ (1979).

The first edition of Gita Mehta’s ‘Karma Cola’ (1979).

Gita’s first book Karma Cola (1979) was a sharply witty commentary on foreign tourists in search of spiritual kool-aid — and native gurus only too eager to oblige with every variety of cloud-cuckoo discourse. “Fifteen years have gone by since the first freaks hit our shores,” she wrote. “I hope that the Oriental is to be released from the burden of being either obscure or oracular.”

But no, it was time for the “World Conference on the Future of Mankind”. Asked by an earnest American student about the dangers of technological warfare, a conference speaker replied: “‘Don’t live in the shadow of death, young man. Let us say there is a nuclear holocaust. What will it do? I shall tell you what it will do. It will cleanse the world! Don’t you understand? We are going toward a post-nuclear, post-Armageddon Golden Age!’ The American student nodded sagely and sat down, grasping the moral significance of nuclear war for the first time. And India acquired another willing convert to the philosophy of the meaningfully meaningless.”

A close look at Empire

Queen Camilla (left), then Duchess of Cornwall, talks to writer Gita Mehta at a party in London, February 2006.

Queen Camilla (left), then Duchess of Cornwall, talks to writer Gita Mehta at a party in London, February 2006. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

Raj (1989), Gita’s second book, was a historical novel with a difference. Instead of gauzy exoticisms, it took a close look at life in princely India before Independence. An Indian king went to London to explain to British rulers the suffering of his people: “There is famine in British India. Our trade routes pass through British India. We are landlocked kingdoms. Everything that enters or leaves our borders is taxed twice over by British India. Now the famine of British India is crippling us.” But as the lawyers translated his words, he saw only indifference on the faces of the Englishmen in the India office. “Britain was drunk on its own glory and wanted to hear no tales of death.”

In A River Sutra (1993), a reclusive civil servant living in a government guest house on the Narmada encountered people on different quests, including a Jain man who had just then renounced the world in search of something greater. “The monk tried to warn me against such ambition. I would not listen. I had become like my ancestor, determined to pass through each door the monk opened, as my ancestor had walked each alley of the bazaar until he learned its secrets.”

Snakes and Ladders (1997), my personal favourite among her books, contained Gita’s clear-sighted commentary on challenges before the nation. “At its best, the culture of India is like a massive sponge, absorbing everything while purists shake their heads in despair.”

Here, in this quiet and thoughtful collection of essays, we get a deeper insight into Gita herself. She was born before Independence, in 1943. Her mother was dancing at the Roshanara Club when the labour pains started; her godmother had wanted her to be named after Joan of Arc; and her father, just weeks later, would be taken away to prison under British rule. They were a generation of revolutionaries.

Daughter of the soil

Gita Mehta (right) with her husband, publisher Sonny Mehta, in New York, May 2010.

Gita Mehta (right) with her husband, publisher Sonny Mehta, in New York, May 2010. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

Asked about her worst memory of British India, Gita’s mother said it was when she saw an Englishwoman pulling off an old man’s turban. Her parents’ generation didn’t speak of their own difficulties, observed Gita, but only about the suffering of others: “The injustices they themselves endured are simply brushed aside as part of the necessary price of becoming citizens of a free India rather than remaining subjects of a foreign Empire.”

She spoke to her uncle who had been imprisoned at 14. Hadn’t he been afraid? Naturally he had; and yet, he added, “In any case, British rule was also a form of imprisonment. There was no freedom of speech, or of the press, or of congregation. At least now we are citizens of a free nation.”

Writing about the nation’s journey from the hopeful dawn of Independence to face new challenges, Gita’s gaze was as unrelenting as her attachment to India was profound. Beneath the unsentimental surface lay deep reserves of emotion. She recalled an immigration officer in Delhi who once asked her why, after all these years, she still carried an Indian passport.

“It was an occasion to be blunt. 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!’”

The writer is in the IAS.

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