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Literary Bridge Between India and America: Tributes Pour in for Writer, Journalist, and Documentary Filmmaker Gita Mehta Who Died at 80

Literary Bridge Between India and America: Tributes Pour in for Writer, Journalist, and Documentary Filmmaker Gita Mehta Who Died at 80

  • The Indian American’s books examined the impact of Western culture on modern India and vice versa, bringing an Indian and a woman’s perspective to subject matter.

Indian American writer, journalist, and documentary filmmaker Gita Mehta died on Sept. 16  in New Delhi due to complications of a stroke. She was 80, and is survived by her son, Aditya Mehta; a granddaughter; and two brothers, Prem and Naveen Patnaik. She was married to  Ajai Singh Mehta, known as Sonny, the formidable publisher of Alfred A. Knopf, who died in December 2019 at age 77. The two met at Cambridge University and were married in 1965. The two were familiar faces in literary circles in New York, London and India, The New York Times wrote in her obituary. 

Mehta’s 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,” The Times noted. Her books include “Karma Cola,” Snakes and Ladders,” “A River Sutra,” “Raj” and “Eternal Ganesha.” She also produced and directed at least 14 television documentaries for UK, European and U.S. networks.

Born in Delhi, she is the daughter of Biju Patnaik, an Indian independence activist and a chief minister in post-independence Orissa. Her younger brother Naveen Patnaik is presently the chief minister of Orissa. “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 an interview on her publisher Simon & Schuster’s website, Mehta said her writings were “rooted in a love for the Indian street while brimming with an unsentimental air of critique.” She was “unafraid to criticize India and those looking down on India, as is apparent with her many stories unpeeling the unthinkable contradictions that make up India,” journalist Udbhav Seth wrote in The Indian Express. According to historian Ramachandra Guha, “she would’ve been very dismayed by today’s Hindutva and hate politics, as well as the Congress’s dynastic politics.”

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

She published her first book “Karma Cola: Marketing the Mystic East,” in 1979. The Times calls it “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.”

She 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. She told The Sunday Telegraph at the time that the book started out 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.” She “had to write it from the point of view of a woman,” she told the British paper, “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.” 

Her next book, “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. She 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 “quiet and thoughtful collection of essays,” offered “a deeper insight into Gita herself,” Uma Mahadevan Dasgupta, Principal Secretary, Panchayati Raj, Government of Karnataka, wrote in The Hindu. “

Mehta’s final book, “Eternal Ganesha” (2006), was about the cultural ubiquity of Ganesh as an Indian symbol, “on village walls, in cafés, on handbags, in ancient sculpture and neon lights.”

Writer and translator Kalyan Raman told The Indian Express that Mehta “didn’t publish much, avoiding the road to becoming a ‘cottage industry.’” He said she was “uncommonly perceptive, original and had a cosmopolitan imagination. But she published only [five] books. Had she written more, she might have been a source of inspiration for man.”

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She told The San Francisco Chronicle in 1993 that she was “lucky to be a writer coming out of a civilization like India. 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.”

Mehta’s directness “extended well beyond her prose,” Rahul Jacob, managing editor of Business Standard in New Delhi, wrote in The Mint. He was referring to the incident in 2019 when Mehta declined the Padma Shri awarded to her by the Indian government in 2019.  She said “it might be seen as payback for the support from the Biju Janata Dal headed by her brother, Naveen Patnaik, to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party,” he wrote. 

 In a statement, she said she was “deeply honored that the Government of India should think me worthy of a Padma Shri but with great regret I feel I must decline as there is a general election looming and the timing of the award might be misconstrued, causing embarrassment both to the government and myself, which I would much regret.” In a later interview to The Indian Express she said she made her decision “thinking of my brother, not wishing to cause him any embarrassment at a sensitive time – or even face accusations that nepotism might have been brought to bear to get me the award.”

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