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Gita Mehta, Whose Writing Shaped Perspectives of India, Dies at 80

Gita Mehta, Whose Writing Shaped Perspectives of India, Dies at 80
  • PublishedSeptember 21, 2023

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Gita Mehta, whose books examined the impact of Western culture on modern India and vice versa, bringing an Indian and a woman’s perspective to subject matter that was long the province of white men, died on Saturday at her home in New Delhi. She was 80.

Nicholas Latimer, a vice president and director of publicity at Knopf, where Ms. Mehta’s husband, Sonny Mehta, was president and editor in chief for many years, said the cause was complications of a stroke.

Ms. Mehta and her husband, one of the most influential editors of his time, were familiar faces in literary circles in New York, London and India, each of which they called home at various times. In 1979 Ms. Mehta published her first book, “Karma Cola: Marketing the Mystic East,” a mix of anecdotes and commentary that took a satirical look at the faddish pursuit by hippies and other Westerners of enlightenment in India’s ashrams, and at the gurus who took advantage of them.

“Gita Mehta sees a West eager to invest its excess narcissism in Eastern religion, and an East hoping to invest its future — soul be damned — in Western technology,” Polly Morrice wrote in a review in Newsday. “Her view, basically moral and conservative, is of cultures in decline.”

Ms. Mehta followed that in 1989 with “Raj,” a historical novel about a princess brought up in an Indian royal house in Rajasthan, in northern India, in the early decades of the last century, when Britain ruled the country. The book, which covered the half-century leading to independence in 1947, started out, she told The Sunday Telegraph of Britain, as a satire about the excessive lifestyle of Indian princesses in the 1920s. But as she researched the topic, she said, the novel became more about “the extent to which an imperial power can convince the colonized people that they are progressive insofar as they imitate their imperial masters, backward insofar as they remain native.”

“Raj” set itself apart by being centered on a female character.

“I had to write it from the point of view of a woman,” Ms. Mehta said of “Raj,” her 1989 novel about a princess brought up in an Indian royal house.

“I had to write it from the point of view of a woman,” Ms. Mehta told The Telegraph, “because the British Empire had so successfully emasculated Indian rulers — the only people they hadn’t been able to touch were the women. It was in the women’s quarters of the kingdoms that the sense of injustice, of the corrosion of dignity and of tradition, was kept very sharply alive.”

“A River Sutra,” published in 1993, was a collection of interlocking stories tied together by a narrator, a retired civil servant seeking peace on a riverbank.

“The results,” the novelist Edward Hower wrote in a review in The New York Times, “are sometimes comic, sometimes tragic and always — as befitting a sutra, a collection of wise sayings — filled with insights into the nature of spirituality and worldly love.”

Ms. Mehta returned to nonfiction in 1997 with “Snakes and Ladders: Glimpses of India,” an essay collection published to coincide with the 50th anniversary of India’s independence. The pieces, Barbara Crossette wrote in The Times, showed “a frankness and incisiveness still in surprisingly short supply among many who write about India.”

“Mehta’s years in London and New York,” Ms. Crossette continued, “add interesting dimensions to her sense of what India has become in the past 50 years and what Indians have come to expect from the rest of the world.”

Ms. Mehta was always eager to shoot down the notion that India and other parts of the Eastern world were somehow backward; in interviews, she would cite the mathematical, medical and other advances taking place there long before the Western Enlightenment.

“The assumption that these were primitive cultures,” she told The Independent of Britain in 1997, “is just a sideline of imperialism; you believe that everything that’s available to you must be Western.”

As for literature about India and the rest of the East, she knew the limits of writers like E.M. Forster and Rudyard Kipling.

“These people were all writing about India through the British prism, through the lens of the British seeing a colonized people,” she told the public radio show “Fresh Air” in 1991. “And to that extent it was an inaccurate picture, in my view. And certainly they wrote largely about men.”

Gita Patnaik was born on Dec. 12, 1942, in New Delhi to Biju and Gyan Patnaik. In the 1940s her father was a daring pilot, flying missions for the British in Burma but also doing clandestine work for the pro-independence movement.

“Two weeks after I was born,” Ms. Mehta told “Fresh Air,” “my father was taken off in handcuffs to British jails, where he was kept for the next three and a half years.”

In 1997 Ms. Mehta published “Snakes and Ladders: Glimpses of India,” an essay collection that coincided with the 50th anniversary of India’s independence.Credit…Penguin

In “Snakes and Ladders,” she wrote that as he was being led away, her father whispered to her mother that she should dispose of pistols he was keeping for some young nationalists. Her mother stuffed them into pillowcases, drove to what seemed a secluded spot and threw them in a ditch.

“The next day Mother discovered she had decanted the pistols outside the walled compound of the Chief Inspector of Police,” Ms. Mehta wrote. “Fortunately, even in that moment of high melodrama, my mother, with the miserliness of the good housewife, had been careful not to use her monogrammed linen.”

Her father was released from prison in 1946 and went on to a successful career as a businessman and politician.

Ms. Mehta earned a degree at Cambridge University, which is also where she met Ajai Singh Mehta, known as Sonny. They married in 1965.

In her 20s Ms. Mehta taught briefly at Bombay University and worked on documentaries for British television, but she soon abandoned that career. “I fell back into my natural indolence,” she joked in the Sunday Telegram interview.

Mr. Mehta died in 2019. Ms. Mehta is survived by their son, Aditya Mehta; a granddaughter; and two brothers, Prem and Naveen Patnaik.

“I’m lucky to be a writer coming out of a civilization like India,” Ms. Mehta told The San Francisco Chronicle in 1993. “After all, ours is the civilization that based everything on relativity long before Albert Einstein came up with the physics of it. The notion of relativity, of time, of experience and of cognition is something we as writers can always tap into.”

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