It is hard to imagine a time when the Indian diaspora in the US was not widely celebrated for producing doctors, tech CEOs and winners of spelling bee contests. But in the 1980s, it was not uncommon for Americans to assume “Indian” referred to Native American. Gita Mehta cleared up the confusion with a brisk reference to the bindi to delineate our Indians from their Indians: “Dot, not feather.” Introduced in the 1970s at a New York party as someone who could explain the concept of karma, she replied: “It’s not everything it’s cracked up to be.”
That gentle skewering was both a critique of the notion that everything that happens to us is related to an action in this or a past life as well as the prevalent view, widespread among hippies of the developed world in the 1970s, that Indian mysticism had all the answers, that the country really was a vishwaguru.
For those of us who knew her and reread her, her death at the age of 80 last week has taken some of the laughter out of our lives.
Gita Mehta’s best-seller Karma Cola: Marketing The Mystic East, was commissioned virtually on the strength of that one-liner at the party. Written in months, it was published in 1979. Karma Cola is a delightful circus of the absurd, jammed full of zany one-liners, which begins with her accepting the invitation of a Brazilian hippie to interview him about mysticism. Instead, she found him in a grotty hotel in a rooftop room in Old Delhi having sex with a Frenchman and had to hastily retreat.
But the book is also the subject of academic papers as a work of social criticism. As in conversation with Mehta, it is the elevation of the wisecrack to something genuinely wise that set the book apart: “Never before had the Void been pursued with such optimism and such razzle dazzle. Everyone suspected that whatever America wanted, America got. Why not Nirvana?”
In an introduction to a later edition of Karma Cola, Mehta reports having received a letter from a woman who came to India during that period and followed a self-professed guru to a mountain cave, only to be drugged and repeatedly raped. Having returned to the US, the victim had written from a hospital where she was undergoing psychiatric treatment that she should not have trusted a guru “who wore Adidas running shoes”.
There was a directness about Gita Mehta that extended well beyond her prose. Awarded the Padma Shri in 2019, she declined, saying that it might be seen as payback for the (loyal if paradoxical) support from the Biju Janata Dal headed by her brother, Naveen Patnaik, to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. She may have had another reason.
The always self-aware Gita was the wife of Sonny Mehta, who had headed the leading global publisher, Alfred A Knopf, for decades. The couple counted among their friends countless writers. Gita Mehta perhaps felt her less than half-a-dozen books did not merit such an award; one, a collection of essays, received poor reviews. This week, Laila Tyabji, founder of the crafts organisation Dastkar, recounted meeting Mehta when Tyabji was in the midst of trying to free women weavers of tussar saris in rural Bihar from the grip of a moneylender who treated them as indentured labour. Mehta matter-of-factly pledged the royalties from her forthcoming book, A River Sutra, to these women.
That altruism belongs in A River Sutra, a series of stories encountered by a retired civil servant who comes to the banks of the Narmada “to understand the world”. It returned to the same spiritual territory as Karma Cola, examining the tendency to turn one’s back on the world too quickly. The book has a humanist view, however, free of talk of godmen. The novel begins with the words of a 14th century Indian poet: “Man is the greatest truth. Nothing beyond.”
Mehta also made a name for herself in London and New York as a supremely witty conversationalist and a host of glittering parties that sometimes threw together personalities as diverse as then Pakistan cricket captain Imran Khan and Jaipur’s erstwhile maharani, Gayatri Devi, with authors Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan and Kazuo Ishiguro. Perceptive profiles of Sonny Mehta always mentioned her bonhomie in an era when publishing and journalism were still glamorous professions. The late Ian Jack summed up this aspect of their marriage in an essay on Sonny taking over at Knopf in the late 1980s, arguing that it was a social dynamic that had made the couple extremely popular since they met as students at Cambridge: “Sonny listens to guests, Gita talks to them.”
Their home in New York was an open house, as speaker after speaker observed in tributes to Sonny at memorials in New York and London in March 2020, a generosity harder to pull off without much domestic help. As gracious as Sonny was, he was also prone to long silences, as Jack reports after one evening when the subject of his brilliant profile simply refused to talk. Gita Mehta, down with the flu and resting, sought to help Jack by teasing Sonny out of his shell.
My first meeting with Mehta was 30 years ago, when she swept in on a bitterly cold, windy New York evening in a black and cream ikat sari, wearing Kolhapuri slippers, to an Asia Society event. To say she sparkled is to observe that a chandelier lights up rooms, at once both an understatement and banal. Mehta’s directness and intelligence were one of a kind.
I was writing a feature on the Indian diaspora for Fortune magazine in New York that would include interviews with the Hindujas and Swraj Paul in London and Vinod Khosla, the co-founder of Sun Microsystems, but it is Mehta I remember most vividly. That evening, I tried to convince her that she should pose for photographs for the article with Sonny.
She saw through my attempt to glamourise the pages of Fortune: “It’s a business magazine. You need Sonny, not me.” Like a schoolboy with a crush, I wrote glowing accounts of her style and charm to my parents.
Years later, we met at small dinners in Delhi, where she could be counted on to say the most comical, unpredictable things. We corresponded occasionally after I wrote a column about Sonny two years ago.
I once grumbled about being marooned in the world’s largest car park, Bengaluru. Mehta quixotically suggested I read Robert Caro’s biography of Lyndon Johnson on my Uber rides. Caro published the first volume in 1982 and the four volumes thus far are more than 3,000 pages, which she aptly described as “the greatest study of the pursuit and wielding of power in the US ever written”. I started with volume four, Caro’s account of Johnson as vice-president and his assumption of the presidency after John F. Kennedy’s assassination. It is a masterpiece, an almost 3D docudrama. In retrospect, this was a vintage Mehta wisecrack, both witty and wise.
Rahul Jacob is the author of Right Of Passage, a collection of travel essays.