A deceptively simple second novel from author-filmmaker Mehta (Raj, 1989) that--with gentle good humor--addresses an age-old big subject: the workings of the human heart. The narrator here, a widower and former bureaucrat, has taken a position at the Government rest house, situated on the banks of the famed Narmada River, to become a vanaprasthi--``someone who has retired to the forest to reflect.'' Though he's always led a life undisturbed by passion, he now finds himself increasingly in contact with those whose lives have been dramatically affected by their emotions. The Narmada, a sacred river believed to have been created by the god Shiva, and rich in legends that celebrate pre- Aryan India--when the world was supposedly ruled by great serpents who lived in splendid underground kingdoms--attracts a variety of visitors. In self-contained chapters, the narrator recounts stories he's been told by the local mullah, or relates his own experiences as he walks through the forests, visits the local market, and takes care of the guests. He meets, for instance, a Jain priest who has renounced his great wealth, as well as his wife and children, because he realized ``that a man who cannot suffer is not alive''; the mullah tells him about a young Sufi singer whose throat was cut by a rich man who could not bear the beauty of the boy's voice; a troubled guest describes the profound consequences of his shameful treatment of a beloved peasant woman; and a woman musician, devastated by a failed love affair and feeling ``dead inside,'' hopes the river will give her back her music. Each story offers an insight, a process that culminates in the story of a local ascetic who left to seek enlightenment but returns years later as a famous professor because, he tells the narrator, only when a soul becomes a man ``can it reenter the world.'' Subtle profundity in a beautifully evoked setting--and powerfully understated.