India Essay, Research Paper
Fulfillment of Desire through the Narmada
India is home to many distinct populations; however, the beliefs of these peoples have common origins. The lifestyles dictated by the beliefs of these different cultures often lead to journeys and pilgrimages to holy places such as the Narmada River: The Narmada River is considered the mother and giver of peace. Legend has it that the mere sight of this river is enough to cleanse one s soul (Walsh 1). People journey to the Narmada to attain a higher spiritual awareness. Gita Mehta s A River Sutra portrays the lives of diverse individuals seeking peace through the Narmada River. Each of the character’s stories is paralleled throughout the book for they all lose a cherished part of their lives. After the loss of their companions, whether human or spiritual, they are drawn to the Narmada to attempt the retrieval of their lives by coming to terms with the tragedies that have taken place. By losing the objects of their desire, the characters are able to transition to the next phase of their lives through the holy Narmada.
The narrator, or sahib, retires to a bungalow on the banks of the Narmada where he encounters a variety of people that have journeyed to the river for healing purposes. He is linked to each of the characters by their stories, enabling him to gain a greater understanding of the world through their experiences of desire. After listening to their discoveries, the narrator recognizes his appreciation for the world in which he has denounced and wishes to reenter society. As the narrator is exposed to the characters and their stories, he realizes that he has come to the Narmada River to discover his own inner longing for life. His true desire comes from hearing the stories that people bring to him. Instead of experiencing things for himself, he gains his knowledge and deeper understanding through the characters: The canon of Hinduism is basically defined with regard to what people do rather than what they think (Dickey 109). The sahib violates this principal, because he does not act, he only views experiences from the outside.
Not too deep into A River Sutra, the narrator meets a Jain ascetic who tells of his quest in becoming a monk and how he had to sacrifice the love of his father to pursue his beliefs. The monk had led a very superficial life in which his father had encouraged. The monk disappoints his father when he decides to pursue a more meaningful life: The inhuman nature of his philanthropy had frightened me. Part of me still wished to become like him (25). The monk, in losing his father, loses his father s superficial and hypocritical lifestyle. In losing these elements the monk is able to pursue his quest for knowledge and therefore grows because of his loss.
The sahib is told about another story of love involving a father-son relationship. Master Mohan, a music teacher, and his beloved student, Imrat, grow together through Imrat s singing success. Mohan s passion for music is reawakened by the talent of Imrat: He was convinced God was giving him a second voice, greater than he had ever heard, greater than his own could ever have been (72). Through Imrat s singing, Mohan believes that he can redeem his childhood and ardor for music. Mohan s life and family was prearranged and did not satisfy his desires. However, he did not understand his lack of satisfaction until he met the one who fulfilled his wishes, Imrat. His family recognizes their abandonment and withdraws their love. Through this absence of love, Mohan grows to understand that Imrat is his second chance at living a fulfilling life.
Nitin Bose, an executive, becomes detached from his friends and his old lifestyle when he enters an isolated tea estate in the Himalayas. This makes him feel abandoned and lonely and he begins to search for comfort in his grandfather s books. He becomes enticed by the philosophy of the stories until he comes across a passage illustrating his emotions: At first was Death. That which did mean an utter emptiness. And emptiness, mark thou, is Hunger s Self (123). Bose realizes that he has no desire, which makes him dead and the books no longer satisfy his need for companionship. His loneliness or emptiness intensifies his desire, Hunger s Self, for a companion. The books, which had previously been his source of tranquillity, were no longer able to satisfy him. Rima, a native of the land, replaces his need for books and becomes his desire. She possesses an air of mystery that he finds alluring. Rima becomes so attached to Bose that when he is asked to return to Calcutta she grows upset and lures him into the forest underneath the eclipse and casts a spell on him. It is Indian belief that when the moon is in eclipse, the two halves of a coconut can capture a man s soul. Bose s desire for Rima is so great that he ignores superstition to share his true feelings with her. Rima disappears, along with a part of his soul, causing a lack of desire in Boses s life. He is drawn to the Narmada because it is said to be able to cure and enable him to resume his life. In coming to the river, Bose understands that desire is a fundamental principal of life. Therefore, through losing part of his soul to Rima, Bose receives an understanding that life is powered by desire and that one cannot ignore it.
After Nitin Bose leaves, the narrator encounters a woman that had once been a great courtesan but was kidnapped by the most feared bandit in the area. At first she is devastated by losing her mother and life of riches, however, she learns that this bandit had been her lover in previous lives. She accepts fate and loves this man back. The couple journeys to the Narmada to seek healing and for the bandit to slowly rebuild his reputation. The man is killed while searching for a gift for his wife. The woman is heartbroken by the loss of her newfound soul mate and drowns herself in the Narmada so that she may rejoin her lover in a future life. In losing her old ways of life, the woman discovers her fate and accepts it.
Next, the narrator meets an unattractive woman in the local bazaar. Her desire lies in the expression through music and the wish to be beautiful. She is greatly influenced by the music her father teaches her, and while she has true beauty on the inside, her hideous exterior prevents her from finding companionship with another person. Throughout the story, the bond with her father grows stronger because of their common interest for music, yet the relationship with her mother is weakened because of the fear that her daughter will never be married. When another male character, “the stranger,” enters the story, the woman becomes interested in him. Her desire is soon fulfilled as she realizes that he is an aspiring musician like herself. Their relationship strengthens as they learn to play music together, representing life: “And music can never be still, it can never be without desire. Life must create more life or become death” (206). Music is an expression of desire and desire is the equivalence of life that the woman experiences through her veena. In exchange for music lessons, the stranger is obligated to marry the woman, but the teacher releases his contract. When the woman discovers that the stranger has declined, she feels dejected and her father orders her to go to the Narmada in order to recover from the agony of her rejection: “He says I must understand that I am the bride of music, not of a musician” (225-6). Her true desire was not for the stranger, it was for music, and all the stranger did was help her to become a better musician. After losing the desire she carries for the stranger, she is able to move on and see things for what they really are, no matter their exterior appearance.
The Naga Baba sacrifices all the luxuries of humanity in exchange for a greater understanding of the spiritual world, taking on a student and companion to share his denouncement from society, and paralleling his life to the narrator’s. Unlike the Naga Baba, the narrator does not test his faith by undergoing the test of physical limitations, but has gone from one extreme as a bureaucrat to the extreme of detachment from the material world: In ancient times, when a man and his wife grew old, they were expected to give up the materialistic family life and settle in a forest, practicing a simple, spiritual way of life (Hew 56). The sahib reaches a point in his life where he can no longer find peace and fulfillment through a simplistic lifestyle. After the Naga Baba’s exhaustive training, he follows tradition and on the night of Shiva goes to beg for alms at the houses of the “unclean, untouchable, or profane,” a ritual to honor the suffering of ordinary people through his blessings, a revered ascetic (226). He receives an abused girl from the brothel and takes her on as a student of the Narmada, teaching her all the songs, poems, history, and meaning of the river. The Naga Baba retains much more fulfillment out of the sharing of his knowledge rather than a quest through solitary meditation, somewhat like the narrator’s longing to listen to the experiences and lessons of others than to pursue the expansion of his epistemological limits. Uma becomes a minstrel of the Narmada River and sings for the narrator about the river’s past, the Gods that created it, and the desire it creates. The sahib is surprised when he learns that Professor Shankar, an archaeologist staying at his house, is really the Naga Baba and Uma, his student. Shankar explains that he was once a man of the city and had denounced society only to reenter it in the end. The narrator realizes that he is actually lonely despite his close location to the center of life and desire, the holy Narmada. With the recent pleasure of the presence of a lively group of scientists, he considers returning to that world, the world that had once completed him. He is in conflict with Shankar’s reason to endure such pain to give up the world and then go back to it, believing that the Narmada’s holiness is just a myth.
Throughout A River Sutra, the Narmada River acts as a symbol of purification which cleanses the sins and heals the pain, caused by the losses of the characters. The Narmada, the holiest river in India, is thought to have many tributaries representing each of the character s stories and India s different cultures flowing into one path, one truth.
Religion plays an important role in the culture and society of India. Hinduism is the religion primarily practiced throughout the country, but all religions come together and worship along the sacred banks of the Narmada River. Shiva is the primary god is of the Hindu triad Vishnu, Brahma, and Shiva. He is both the God of Death and Creation. Shiva is the creator of the Narmada River, deeming her the most holy body of water in all of India.
Although the characters losses may not appear to be a positive augmentation in their lives, by coming to the Narmada River they are able to progress. Not only are the characters able to be cleansed of their sins, but they are also able to share their enlightenment with the narrator: In a culture where oral history is the main teaching tool, each story contains a lesson about society (Grolier 28). Each story teaches the sahib a new element of life that completes one truth, that through the loss of desire, one is able to attain a higher understanding of life. The sahib understands this truth and uses it to continue to the next stage in his life.