July 6, 1997After the Raj
In this collection of essays, Gita Mehta writes of politics and daily life in her native India
By BARBARA CROSSETTE
Indians may glorify anew their 1947 liberation from the imprisonment of British colonialism, she writes. ''But in the 50 years that India has been a free nation, the names of those who genuinely fought for freedom have been progressively excised from our history.''
Mehta, a writer whose rapier wit took aim at the lucrative guru business in ''Karma Cola'' before she ventured into sumptuous fiction, is back in original form in ''Snakes and Ladders.'' This collection of essays, some of which are drawn from earlier articles, is written with a frankness and incisiveness still in surprisingly short supply among many who write about India. Mehta's years in London and New York add interesting dimensions to her sense of what India has become in the past 50 years and what Indians have come to expect from the rest of the world.
Mehta's topics are diverse. She prods the decadent underbelly of politics. She notes the profitability a Rajasthani town has found in sati, the practice of widow-burning. She revels in the chaos of what passes for an Indian parlor, where no piece of bric-a-brac, memorabilia or even the family refrigerator is out of place. In a recurring theme, she observes the honesty and candor of ordinary Indians, including the disaffected tribals who once mooned Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru as he stepped off a plane on an official visit to the remote northeast.
Indira Gandhi comes in for the skewering she deserves, along with her son and successor, Rajiv, who sometimes confused modernization with a jogging suit and who may one day prove to be -- if and when all the documents become public under a new Government -- the most corrupt leader India ever had.
One hopes that Mehta, whose father, Biju Patnaik, was until his death this year a prominent politician who opposed both Mrs. Gandhi and her son, will someday write more that draws on her insider knowledge of those years. This was a period when Indian democracy was severely shaken, even temporarily suspended, by a Congress Party leadership unable to countenance the true sharing of power. It is a pity that Mehta's book was finished before one of her father's colleagues, Inder Kumar Gujral, became Prime Minister and gave the country some hope that politics can be different.
There are other tantalizing ideas introduced briefly, even haphazardly, in this book, which packs 35 chapters into fewer than 300 pages, including a political chronology and a word-gallery of disconnected images of India that teeter on the edge of being tourist cliches. Experts will be dismissive. But for a reader not familiar with India, ''Snakes and Ladders'' is a lively once-over, a quick course in Indian society and politics. And it is written with deep affection.
The title? Snakes and ladders is an ancient Indian board game also known to generations of British children. Mehta chose it as a metaphor for contemporary India because the unpredictability of whether a player rises quickly up a ladder or plunges into the jaws of a serpent seems like Indian life itself.
''Sometimes in our glacial progress toward liberation from the injustices that make a mockery of political freedoms,'' she writes, ''it seems we Indians have vaulted over the painful stages experienced by other countries, lifted by ladders we had no right to expect. At other times we have been swallowed by the snakes of past nightmares, finding ourselves after half a century of independence back at square one.''
Barbara Crossette was The New York Times's New Delhi bureau chief from 1988 to 1991. Her new book, on the great hill stations of Asia, will be published next year.
Selected by Barbara Crossette, author of the above review,
whose own books include "
India: Facing the Twenty-first Century."
Selected by Barbara Crossette, author of the above review, whose own books include " India: Facing the Twenty-first Century."
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Copyright 1997 The New York Times Company