A sardonic and ceaselessly observant writer, Gita Mehta was the progeny of a post Independence liberal . In her 1997 collection of essays Snakes and Ladders, she recounts how it was three o’clock on a crisp morning in 1943 and her mother was "still dancing at the Roshanara Club in Delhi when her labour pains began." Biju Patnaik, her father, engaged in clandestine missions in support of the Indian National Congress. As a result, her childhood was marred by the sight of him behind bars, while her mother tirelessly traced his movements from one prison to another. After his release in 1946, her father embarked on a prosperous career, eventually to be elected as the Chief Minister of Odisha. Today, that role is occupied by Gita's younger brother, Naveen Patnaik.
Inimitable, bright eyed booksellers on the streets of Old Delhi Bazaar were the wily hucksters who whisked Gita away early in her life to the Elysian Fields of written words. She pursued her education in both India and overseas, earning a master's degree from Cambridge University, which is where Gita fell for Ajai Singh Mehta (affectionately known as Sonny).
Weaving through a circle of intellectuals like Salman Rushdie, Bruce Chatwin and Germaine Greer who congregated at their apartment in midtown Manhattan, Gita held her own with a feisty demeanour and mordant epigrams on how "Karma isn’t what it’s cracked up to be."
All the distracting sounds of traffic along Park Avenue were seemingly absorbed by their crammed floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, custom-built when the couple made the move from London to New York in 1987 because Sonny filled in the shoes of Robert Gottlieb as the role of editor-in-chief at Alfred A. Knopf publishing house. Gita herself had acquired a formidable reputation for her fearless coverage of the emergency period in India (1975-1977) when the press faced severe restrictions. Her work as a war correspondent for US TV network NBC during this tumultuous time was an achievement in evocative reporting, accessible today as a documentary titled Dateline Bangladesh. Working for publications like Time magazine and The New York Times, Gita Mehta's career in journalism was characterised by a commitment to not mincing words and her passion for exploring the complex socio-political landscape of India.
The two World Wars, the Korean crisis, the Vietnam catastrophe and the Cold War — all these disturbances appeared to have bewildered the Western youth. As the Beatles passionately performed their blues, the soul searching Americans redirected their attention eastward, with a particular focus on India. In 1979 Mrs. Mehta unveiled her debut publication, Karma Cola: Marketing the Mystic East, a blend of stories and analysis that humorously examined the trendy quest by hippies for enlightenment in India's ashrams as well as the gurus who capitalised on their aspirations.
Her subsequent work, Raj (1989), delved into the life of an Indian princess from the late 19th century to the concluding years of the colonial era, while A River Sutra (1993) intricately interwove tales of individuals who crossed paths with a retired civil servant on the banks of the revered Narmada river. These creations provided profound insights into the poetic essence of everyday life within her community.
Gita Mehta's legacy in Indian journalism lies in her unwavering dedication to the truth, her courage to report on sensitive issues, and her ability to bridge the gap between India and the rest of the world. Her work provided a nuanced understanding of India's multifaceted society, contributing to the global discourse on homegrown politics, culture, and spirituality. Nonetheless, Mehta experienced no compulsion to write solely for to be published, as she candidly conveyed to journalist Madhu Jain in 1993: "Our house has always been full of writers greater than I’ll ever be. It makes you think that the world doesn’t need another author."
Gita Mehta, a literary dynamo whose insightful novels and nonfiction publications questioned Western misconceptions departed this world on September 16, 2023, at her New Delhi home. She had lived all of 80 years and her magical facility with words was known for its exciting resurgence especially when it was needed the most. Within a Cuban writers' union, a moment of uncertainty arose about what the toast should be and it was Gita Mehta who gracefully resolved the dilemma saying, "I propose a toast to the health of the written words."
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