Gita Mehta, literary chronicler of modern India, dies at age 80
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. 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, 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.”
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 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.”
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.