"Culture is the widening of the mind and of the spirit. "
~ Jawaharlal Nehru

Snakes & Ladders ~ Gita Mehta

John Maria's review of the book certainly does not encourage one to buy it. In all fairness to Mehta, some of her earlier books were good reads.
Publisher: Doubleday, $22.95, ISBN 0385474954. pp:256 pages
Courtesy: Gentleman

Gita Mehta's Snakes and Ladders begins with a memorable image. Mehta's father decides to teach his wife some of the accomplishments of the New Woman (circa 1930) and starts off with bridge and ballroom dancing. With a fine sense of alliteration, the next course is bicycling. Mehta writes: "Then he put her on a bicycle, pushed it until she pedalled well enough to retain her balance, and deserted her. She cycled halfway around Delhi before she had the courage to dismount..." I wonder whether Gita Mehta felt that way when she was writing this book, hailed on the jacket as `a key to modern India'. Was she pedalling frantically around India, wondering whether she would ever get off, whether she would ever have the courage to send the manuscript off to the publishers in time for that milestone, the 50 years of the nation state of India? Both stories have happy endings. Mehta's mother got off the bicycle and became a cyclist in that first lesson and Mehta herself did finish the book, did send it to the publishers and has just finished what might be called a triumphant launch tour of India.

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Perhaps she managed it because of a quality that has been fetishised in recent years: the objectivity that distance brings. The formula is simple. You go away. You write a book. The book is about India, the specific India of your childhood filled with details about the rektakarobi that bloomed outside the window and the still-cherished taste of raw amla. Or an imaginatively recreated India. Any kind of India. You become a minor celebrity. You give an interview in which you claim that distance has lent you objectivity, and you would never have been able to write about India inside the all-engulfing maw of the experience. This gives the interviewer a warm feeling because they were right to allow you to live there, and not to slam the door on you and Einstein. Maybe it works. Maybe it works too well. In Mehta's case it gave her the courage - some might say the overweening arrogance - to think that she could pack it all into 225 pages. But it certainly hasn't given her what it takes to sum up India for Indians.

So is it for the West then? I don't know who in the West would want to read this glib slipshod patchwork of a book with its quickie chapters on Dr Ambedkar, Congress Culture, the ragpickers who have been dispossessed from the land and detached from the social structures of traditional India, the computer classes. Some grad student who wants to cog a few lines for an end-of-the-year theme paper for India 301?

Okay, there are some splendid moments which remind you of the surgical skills which Mehta brought to Karma Cola. Invited to address The Young Presidents Organisation, for instance, Mehta is brought into close contact with all the "Eds, Bobs, Als and Chucks married to the Babses, Frans, Connies, Sues" that a satirist could desire. But such chapters are few and far between. I lie. That's the only chapter that made all the cycling worthwhile. The rest is strictly avoidable.

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Editor: Romola Butalia       (c) India Travelogue. All rights reserved.