Gita Mehta was last in the news when she declined the Padma Shri in 2019 because of political reasons, but that was just one of the reasons why she was famous much before her younger brother, Naveen Patnaik, became the Chief Minister of Odisha.
With her passing on Saturday, September 16, in New Delhi at the age of 80, India has lost a vanguard of its first generation of post-Independence Indo-Anglian writers who spoke for a new nation brimming over with the confidence of the young.
Daughter of Biju Patnaik, the distinguished aviator and one of the most loved Odia leaders, Cambridge-educated Gita Mehta served as war correspondent in the then East Pakistan for the American television network NBC in 1970-71, an experience she chronicled in her much acclaimed documentary, ‘Dateline Bangladesh’.
Although she made 14 television documentaries for international networks, Mehta, who divided her time across three continents — in New York, London and New Delhi — was a close observer of India and the engagement of a nation emerging out of colonialism with the rest of the world.
Mehta became better known for her debut novel, ‘Karma Cola’ (1979), which narrated the story of Western ‘pilgrims’ who swarmed India in search of salvation, which was followed by the less-celebrated ‘Raj’ (1989), the anthology of short stories, ‘River Sutra’ (1993), and a collection of incisive essays on the occasion of the country’s golden jubilee, ‘Snakes and Ladder: Glimpses of Modern India’ (1997).
It was in the last that Mehta’s sharp eye for detail was most obvious. She describes a country, in the words of ‘Publishers Weekly’, “that is not one but several civilisations in different states of development, a subcontinent rather than a single state, with a multitude of cultures, religions, languages, races and customs, where ‘most Indians view other Indians as foreigners’.”
India’s lack of a cohesive identity, Mehtra emphasised, had frustrated rulers, past and present, in their efforts to “centralise a land that has no centre but is only a field of experience”. Words that politicians today would do well to remember.
The democratic urge, according to Mehta, as summarised by the Publishers Weekly, brings disparate elements out to vote in numbers that might shame more cohesive states: “half a billion ballot[s] … in 17 different languages, each with individual scripts”.
As Publishers Weekly put it then: “Mehta’s reports … suffused with outrage, pride, love and humour, have the immediacy of sharp personal reactions and the distance of a critical eye.” Her ability to traverse two diverse universes gave Mehta’s prose the necessary suppleness and depth to interpret India for the world. And yes, the world listened when she wrote.
Gita Mehta was married to the New York-based publishing guru, Ajai Singh ‘Sonny’ Mehta, who was the influential editor-in-chief of Alfred Knoft and chairman of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.
He passed away in 2019, after being married to Gita Mehta for more than five decades since 1965. They are survived by their son, Aditya Singh Mehta, and his family.