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interview    
 
an interview with gita mehta   gita mehta: making india accessible  

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Gita and Sonny Mehta's apartment is an oasis of tranquillity in midtown Manhattan. Outside on a chilly March day, Park Avenue traffic is at its mid-afternoon worst, and the chatter of kids exiting from a school next door nearly drowns out the honking horns and screeching brakes. Inside, all distracting sounds seem to be absorbed by the crammed floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, custom-built when the couple moved to New York from London in 1987 when Sonny replaced Robert Gottlieb as Knopf editor-in-chief.

In conversation, Gita Mehta is as voluble as her husband is (famously) taciturn. Formidably well-informed rather than ostentatiously intellectual, she'll jump in one breath from the right kind of water filter to get for a kitchen sink to the currently trendy field of microeconomics. She has the practiced partygoer's ability to focus intently on whomever she's talking to, but she also seems genuinely warm, interested in anyone who crosses her path. She halts her easy flow of discourse only to answer the occasional phone call dealing with various odds and ends that need to be straightened out before her departure in two days for Europe. She's remarkably calm for someone about to embark on a two-month tour of Germany, India and England to promote her new book, a collection of essays entitled Snakes and Ladders: Glimpses of Modern India, just out from Doubleday/Talese.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of India's independence from the British Empire, an event that indelibly marked Mehta's childhood. Her parents were active in the struggle for liberation; her father was arrested by the English two weeks after her birth in Delhi in 1943, "and I was sent off to boarding school at the age of three, because my mother was racing around trying to get my father out of jail." Even her name recalls those tumultuous times. Gita means song--"as in song of freedom," she explains in Snakes and Ladders. "It was the 1940s and it seemed freedom was finally at hand."

Although her husband's publishing career has required Mehta to live in the West for most of her adult life, as a writer she is drawn to India by the same powerful current that pulls her back there every winter for a long family visit. Her first book, Karma Cola: Marketing the Mystic East (1979), took a sardonic look at the Western belief that instant spiritual enlightenment could be acquired by hopping a jet to India and finding the nearest guru.

Raj (1989) covered the 50 years preceding Indian independence in the fictional story of Jaya Singh, daughter and wife of maharajahs who ruled two of India's nominally independent kingdoms. Her second novel, A River Sutra (1993), blended Indian mythology with piercing depictions of love in its many aspects to show a disenchanted bureaucrat learning about life from the stories of six pilgrims making their way to the banks of India's holiest river.

"You stand on geography as a writer," Mehta says. "Even if you're writing about Superman, you have to invent a planet for him to come from; you can't write in a void. In Snakes and Ladders, even though it's a series of essays, my hope was that they would have an accretive effect, so that by the time you finish the book and I'm telling you what it is that I love about India, it has become familiar to the reader."

Snapshots of a Nation

The content dictated the book's form, she explains. "India is a place where worlds and times are colliding with huge velocity: we're putting satellites into space, and we have bullock carts; there's that constant tension and contradiction of immense sophistication and an almost pre-medieval way of life. I thought the only way I could describe that collision was anecdotally, by taking snapshots, as it were."

Among the essays are a moving portrait of a cooperative bank that enables women to buy themselves out of bonded labor and start their own businesses; a tribute to the "faceless, nameless all-enduring Indian voter" who has continued to believe in democracy despite notorious government corruption and Indira Gandhi's 1975 State of Emergency declaration (under which Mehta's father was again imprisoned); and a delicious evocation of India's colorful pavement booksellers and the kind of reading "uninhibited by literary snobbisms" they promoted.

By saying, in effect, "I am a camera, and the reader can see through my eyes," Mehta felt she created an obligation to reveal something of her personal history as she surveyed her native land. "I thought that readers had to know where I was coming from, so that they could judge whether they felt my position was valid. Just because I'm an Indian doesn't mean I know India. I did not want this to be a book where I play the expert and the reader plays the student; in every book I've written I've been very much against that," she explains.

Karma Cola, in fact, was sparked by Mehta's annoyance at being seen as an automatic India expert. In the late 1970s, Sonny Mehta was at Picador in London and in that capacity visited New York each year to scout American writers for his list. Accompanying him to a Manhattan publishing party, Gita Mehta "was in a sari, as I usually am when it's not the height of winter," she says, alluding to the fact that today she's wearing gray leggings and a black sweater. "Somebody grabbed my arm and said, 'Here's the girl who's going to tell us what karma is all about.' I thought it was astonishing that just because I was dressed this way he thought I could explain this profound philosophical concept. Trying to rise to the occasion and be a wisecracking American, I said, 'Karma isn't what it's cracked up to be.' And Marc Jaffe, who then ran Bantam Books, said, 'Write it.' I thought he was barking mad!"

Nonetheless, she sat down and banged out Karma Cola in three weeks. This was 1979, the year of Jonestown, the mass suicide in Guyana by members of a bizarre religious sect. "The subject was, as they say, hot," Mehta recalls. "It was taking the mickey out of [cultish spirituality] at a time when people were really scared about it."

Elaine Markson sold the book to Alice Mayhew at Simon & Schuster, while British agent Deborah Rogers guided it to Jonathan Cape. "I couldn't have asked for a more perfect agent for Karma Cola than Elaine, and Alice understood completely what I was trying to say. But I don't have a primary editor--I show my books simultaneously to the British and American publishers--and I really don't go in much for the editorial process. I think it's uniquely American, this intense relationship between the editor and the writer. There's no question that at the level of copy-editing Americans are terrific; but there's an alarming passivity in America, where the writer is prepared to share the responsibility for his book. That I do not think is correct. You shouldn't take up public space unless you have something that is really worked out as well as you can do it."

Mehta's distrust of over-editing was reinforced by her experience with Raj, which took a painful nine years to produce after she signed a contract with S&S. "The problem with Raj was that I was being bent all the time to a kind of fictional American shopgirl reader. I think Simon & Schuster's idea was that I would write this blockbuster, which I'm not capable of doing--I'm not good enough to do it!"

She declines, however, to criticize Raj's editor, Michael Korda. "The fault was mine, not the publisher's. I hadn't written a novel before, I didn't know what it was like." On the whole, Mehta was satisfied with the final result, though she feels she rushed the ending and oversimplified complex material.

A Literary Marriage

It's hard to imagine this intelligent and self-assured woman being intimidated by any editor. Other writers will undoubtedly find it comforting to know that being married to one of the most powerful people in international publishing doesn't ease authorial insecurities. "It inflames those insecurities," Mehta reflects. "Imagine: you're working on a book, and Gabriel García Márquez comes for a drink--you think, 'Does the world really need me?' And these nightmare sales figures for other writers; I hear Sonny say, 'Well, we've sold 1.2 million copies' of something, and I think, 'Oh my God!' That's why, when I'm really into a book, I go to London [where the Mehta's son lives]; I can't be an appendage to Sonny's work when I'm writing."

Yet she takes enormous pride in her husband's work at Knopf. "I think his is the unique publishing span: he can do thrillers, he can do blockbusters. He used to publish Jackie Collins in England, and when he came here Jackie said, 'Oh, Sonny, you're going to publish somebody with an unpronounceable name, and he's always going to be one ahead of me [on the bestseller list] in America.' "

"When Sonny published Love in the Time of Cholera here, he said, 'I'm not going to mention that Márquez got a Nobel Prize so that people are frightened. I'm just going to sell it as a great, great love story.' Sure enough, in hardcover I think they sold nearly 400,000 copies of that book--and Jackie was always one behind Márquez on the bestseller list!"

Her own sales have been more modest, though Raj was a bestseller in Europe. Ironically, the book she thought would be the most obscure to Western readers prompted the warmest reaction. "I wrote A River Sutra privately; I didn't tell anyone I was doing it, and I genuinely didn't think it would get published outside of India. It astonishes me that that's the one people have responded to most." It just goes to show, she says, "that in the end you have to write for yourself."

Once A River Sutra was finished, it didn't seem appropriate for S&S. Lynn Nesbit, who had become Mehta's agent, suggested Nan Talese. "She publishes many writers I admire, so I went with her, and she did a did a wonderful job. Nan is actually the first editor I've had for two books."

Mehta intended Snakes and Ladders to be a break from a novel that wasn't going well but he switch back to nonfiction was difficult. "Balzac once said, when someone asked him why he wrote fiction, 'Because fact is finite; emotion is infinite.' Going from A River Sutra to Snakes and Ladders was going from the infinity of emotion to the finiteness of fact. The question is, can you make that finiteness work for the reader, and for yourself? I wrote many essays that I didn't put in the book in the end because they required too much pre-information. I wanted to make modern India accessible to Westerners and to a whole generation of Indians who have no idea what happened 25 years before they were born."

Dividing her time among New York, London and India, Mehta is perhaps uniquely qualified to interpret her homeland for the diverse audience she aspires to. "There's a tremendous richness to living on three continents. The magic of America is the can-doism; it gives me the belief that anything is possible. Each time I finish a book and think I'll never write another, America makes me think, 'Yeah, I'll have another shot.' London's great virtue is that, as the capital of an empire, its libraries have staggering material on India. And because of the British reticence, it's easy to be alone and write there. My heart is in India--it's home--so when I'm there I don't write, I just let it all seep in through my pores."

Her book tour means that Mehta won't be doing any writing for the next few months, though she hopes that A River Sutra will prove to be the first volume in a trilogy. She has said that she doesn't really consider herself a writer, quoting Chekhov to the effect that one must write at least seven books before deserving that title. Does she still feel that way? "I feel I'm still an apprentice," she replies. "I may have to write many more than seven books before I'm prepared to say, 'Okay, I think I've got a grip on the craft.'"


--Wendy Smith


Photo Credit: Sigrid Estrada.



This interview originally appeared in Publishers Weekly.
 
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