Time is a river that flows through our lives. A river is a story that flows through space. Religion is one of the stories that we tell ourselves in order to comprehend time, space, our lives.
We can draw such observations from countless works of the imagination, where time and rivers and faith form central themes—The Canterbury Tales, say, where travelers pass their time in pilgrimage along the Thames telling each other wondrous, sometimes goofy, sometimes quietly earnest stories of their lives. Or we can look to a modern rejoinder, Gita Mehta’s A River Sutra, a novel that first appeared 25 years ago and that quickly earned a place in the canon of modern Indian literature in English.
The word sutra derives from a Sanskrit term meaning “thread”—something that holds things together, that is, just as a river connects places and peoples. In Indian tradition, a sutra is a story, often aphoristic, meant to instruct, often on some point of doctrine. With her book, Mehta extends the meaning to cover a loose, sometimes decidedly secular form of storytelling that begins and ends in the kind of holiness that, said Leonard Cohen, alternates with the realization that one has sinned.
Set alongside the holy flow of the Narmada, another Sanskrit term meaning “giver of pleasure,” A River Sutra centers on a bureaucrat who has left his government post to become a vanaprasthi, “someone who has retired to the forest to reflect.” He doesn’t quite succeed; instead, he winds up running an inn alongside the river, a place where pilgrims making the 1,600-mile foot journey up and down the sacred river can stop and rest.
There he is perfectly placed to hear tales, sutras, from those travelers and others who live near the river. One Jain monk at the beginning of the story tells him a Buddha-like tale of wealth and renunciation, assuring our narrator, “Giving up the world was no sacrifice for me.” Our narrator asks to know more, gently admonishing that, after all, that’s central to the enterprise: “Do you know what the word upanishad means? It means to sit beside and listen.”
Listening to the stories that Mehta plants in the minds and mouths of her characters is a constant pleasure, one that has some surprising elements. The story of a kidnapping victim who forms an attachment to her captor is not the stuff of Stockholm syndrome but instead speaks to incarnation and the cosmic force of love; in another, Shiva and Parvati meet Cinderella. Everywhere the talk is of—well, love, and faith, and whether it’s possible not to do violence in a world too much beset by it. As the father of that Jain monk argues, farming and mining and every other human enterprise pack suffering into the equation. “Can you imagine how much life is extinguished by those machines?” he asks, meaningfully.
In the end, having heard story after story, our narrator understands that try as he might to withdraw, the world is ever with him. Says a confidant, “You have chosen the wrong place to flee the world….Too many lives converge on these banks.” The story continues, and the river flows.
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor.