Manas Ranjan Mahapatra, Noida, 24 September 2023
After writing the last obituary, I thought I won’t have to write the next one. But, procession of deaths continued. In the last three years, many well wishers, friends, colleagues, relatives or ideals have died either of state sponsored medical terrorism or nature created havoc or natural illness. Now, it is Gita Mehta.
Gradually a generation is coming to its end where people were selflessly promoting their youngers. Unfortunately, I am witnessing that silent death of a generation. This is possibly the last generation of good people. Tomorrow we will find only hypocrites and selfish people claiming themselves as focused!
I met Gita Mehta, eminent author and daughter of late Biju Patnaik, for the first time during my visit to Delhi in 1985. If I correctly remember, my younger brother-like Late Dr Mangala Prasad Mohanty and I met her in a get-together at Qutab View Apartments near NCERT. By that time, I had gone through her book “Karma Cola”. Later, I liked her book, “A River Sutra”. Her death came as a shock to many of her fans like me.
As we know, Gita Mehta (née Patnaik; 1943 – 16 September 2023) was an Indian-American writer and documentary filmmaker. Born as Gita Pattnaik in 1943 at Delhi, she died on 16 September 2023 (aged 80) at Delhi. She was a noted author, documentary filmmaker, journalist, editor, and director. She was the first globally known author from Odisha. She is an Alma mater of University of Cambridge, United Kingdom her notable literary works include Karma Cola (1979), A River Sutra (1993) and Eternal Ganesha (2006). She was married to internationally renowned publisher Sonny (Ajai Singh) Mehta, proprietor of Alfred A Knopf Publishing House, USA. She grew up to make India accessible to westerners and a whole generation of Indians who had no idea what happened 25 years before they were born. In her first book, a satirical non fiction, “Karma Cola”, she portrayed the picture of a group of foreigners seeking mystical enlightenment from the east and getting bungled up in their pursuit. Her second work, “Raj”, was a fiction and told the story of a princess in pre-independent India, the daughter of a king who ruled over two provinces. Prior to it, she had a busy career as a journalist making documentaries for BBC and American National Broadcasting Corporation, major work being on the Bangladesh Liberation Movement.
About her role as a writer and journalist, she once said, “fact is finite and fiction is infinite.”
I had the honour of meeting Gita Mehta again in 1990 in a cocktail party at the French Embassy, Delhi in which designer Laila Tyabji was also present. Lailaji felt that the people consuming champagne in the party could also fund the entire family of female yarn spinners from rural Bihar bonded to a moneylender for astronomical interest rates.
“How much will it cost”, asked Gita. Tyabji immediately calculated the amount for 100 women yarn spinners. Months later, the book “A River Sutra” came out and Gita Mehta donated the entire royalty amount which was enough for relieving the poor women from debt and setting up a weaving project for them which earned lakhs of rupees for them.
Besides her parents Biju Patnaik and
Gyan Patnaik, she had two brothers –
Prem Patnaik and Naveen Patnaik. She had only one son, Aditya Singh Mehta. Her husband left for his heavenly abode four years ago. Her younger brother Naveen Pattnaik has been the Chief Minister, Odisha for the last almost 24 years.
Gita Mehta completed her education in India and at the University of Cambridge, United Kingdom. She was nominated for India’s fourth highest civilian award, Padma Shri, in 2019, which she declined for political reasons. She has produced and/or directed 14 television documentaries for UK, European and US networks. During the years 1970–1971, she was a television war correspondent for the US television network NBC. Her film compilation of the Bangladesh revolution, “Dateline Bangladesh”, was shown in cinemas. Her books have been translated into 21 languages and have been on the bestseller lists in Europe, the US, and India. Her fiction and non-fiction focuses exclusively on India – its culture and history – and on the Western perception of it. Her works reflect the insight gained through her journalistic and political background.
Since Gita Mehta was an author like me, I think it proper to write on authorship, especially on morality and books here. No bookshop has ever been looted anywhere in the world, as the thief does not read. Many libraries were, however, burnt by devils, as devils don’t read too ! Such a bad time has now come in India. Being an author, I am a reporter of my time and society. I write whatever I find around me. We pray to God as per our position.This happens in society too. If the person is holding a good position, we invite him/her or else we kick out the best so that s/he can’t get up easily. This is Bharat.
Gita Mehta was never in favour of civil servants occupying cultural chairs. Her father offered her a Rajya Sabha ticket once when she was not an American Citizen and she politely refused it. During her visit to Odisha when Biju babu was CM, she declined to be a State Guest nor used the state car and travelled in their family car. She maintained her individuality even when her brother Naveen Pattnaik became CM.
“You stand on geography as a writer. Even if you are writing about Superman, you have to invent a planet for him to come from; you can’t write in a void.” Gita Mehta’s writings, as she testified in the aforementioned 2002 interview to her publishers on the occasion of release of her book, “Snakes and Ladders”, a collection of essays about India after 50 years of independence, were rooted in a love for the Indian street while brimming with an unsentimental air of critique. She was unafraid to criticise India and those looking down on India, as it is apparent with her many stories that assumed the role of pilgrims, bureaucrats and orientalist foreigners. “She would have been very dismayed by today’s Hindutva and hate politics“, says Ramachandra Guha.
The last book of Gita Mehta that I have come across was “The Eternal Ganesha: From birth to rebirth”. It spoke about the cultural uniqueness of Ganesha as a symbol of Indianness. She was India’s cultural ambassador across the world in the true sense.
As felt by Laila Tyabji, Gita Mehta was unforgettable and a true ambassador of Indian Culture:
‘So very sad to hear of Gita Mehta’s death. Brilliant, beautiful, wacky, witty, always in stunning iridescent sarees, a wonderful writer and conversationalist; but also, that rare commodity, a wonderful, perceptive listener.
Gita was at Cambridge when my eldest brother was up at Oxford, and they used to meet then. I knew her later on her visits to India – with her brother Naveen, and at Mani Mann’s.
Once, in the early 1990s, together at a very glittering dinner party at the French Embassy, she asked how I was, and I replied that I was a little discombobulated having just come back from rural Bihar that morning. The contrasts between my two worlds were almost too much. The champagne we were drinking would support the entire family of the women I’d been working with for a month.
In answer to her questions, I told her more of the tribal tussar spinners who lived in a state of perpetual bondage. Having taken on a loan of 500 rupees for a family funeral or wedding from the local moneylender with interest rates of 40 to 50%, they then struggled to pay off the interest by working at spinning yarn for him 7 days a week, with no hope of ever getting paid. The phrase “Bonded Labour” had suddenly acquired meaning. And it was a life sentence.
It was my second visit to the area; brought there by a young local activist, a follower of Gandhi and Vinoba Bhave. Our dream was to teach the women to weave the yarn they spun, so they could earn as well as survive.
“How much money would it cost to pay off their debts?” Gita asked. I did the math; 100 women x approximately Rs 500 each.
“I’m writing another book at the moment. I’ll give you the royalties when it’s published, then you can pay off that horrible man,” said Gita. We resumed our meal and chat and I thought no more of that moment of impulsive warmth.
Months later I got a letter from her American publisher, “I am instructed by Mrs Gita Mehta to pay you the sum of…..” We were flabbergasted at her generosity and her remembering that fleeting conversation so long ago.
With the money from “River Sutra”, Dastkar was able to not only pay the women’s debts and secure their freedom, but set up a weaving and natural dyes project, getting a young intern from NIFT to work with the women, teaching them how to weave lovely sarees in subtle earthy tones. These became the rage in Delhi, seen and sought after everywhere, selling in lakhs at our bazaars. “A sari that works equally well at a cremation or a cocktail party”, was one Delhi socialite’s sincere but rather macabre compliment!
How Gita laughed when I told her this! Characteristically, even 30 years later, she would always ask about the women and how they were faring. And about Dastkar’s current work.
Gita is unforgettable anyway, but every time I see “River Sutra” on my book shelf, it reminds me all over again of that generous gesture made without fanfare, and the love and thanks those women in Bhagalpur owe her.’
Chair is more respected than talent in India….here comedians are more popular than the real heroes! Gita Mehta took India to the world with love and satire and the country didn’t honour her even with a Sahitya Akademi award. Better late than never, let her be honoured with a posthumous Sahitya Akademi Fellowship.
By writing about this illustrious daughter of Odisha, I don’t claim or demand any recognition or award for what I have done. I am sure, some people from some part of the globe will acknowledge/reward it one day in the future after my death!