Snakes and Ladders: Glimpses of Modern India by Gita Mehta
By Melanie P. Kumar | On November 13, 2023 | Updated November 15, 2023 | Comments (0)
Gita Mehta (1943 – 2023) started her career in journalism, writing articles for Indian, European and American publications. She also filmed documentaries for British and American television before publishing her work in book form. This review presents Snakes and Ladders, a compilation of essays released to celebrate fifty years of Indian Independence.
Reading Snakes and Ladders: Glimpses of Modern India (1997) with the country having recently completed seventy-five years of Independence offers great insights.
It could almost be termed a “Ready Reckoner” for what India was twenty-five years ago and quite often, while reading it, I found myself wondering about what has changed.
Every page in the book carries something of import and a serious reader will find herself marking lines that she will want to go back to. I intend to use the reviewer’s privilege to opt out of a chronological interpretation of the chapters and focus on what held me in thrall.
The land of experience
In the chapter “Getting There,” the author devotes a lot of space to quoting from my favorite satirist, Mark Twain, on his visit to India. Some of his observations seem almost eternal:
“The country of a hundred nations and a hundred tongues, of a thousand religions and two million gods, cradle of the human race, birthplace of human speech, mother of history, grandmother of legend, great-grandmother of tradition, whose yesterdays bear date with smoldering antiquities of the rest of the nations … the one land all men desire to see, and having seen once, by even a glimpse, would not give that glimpse for the shows of all the rest of the globe combined.”
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More about Gita Mehta
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Mehta goes on to explain that India is known as the Karma Bhoomi, or the land of experience. What comes through is that the country defies any definition and, “in a world of perpetual motion, India remains a perpetual becoming, a vast and protean sea of human improvisations on the great dance of time.”
Though Mehta has quoted Mark Twain’s impressions about India, she does not mince words about the limitations of writers like E.M. Forster and Rudyard Kipling who wrote through the “British prism” with a male bias that in her mind provided “an inaccurate picture.”
Early in the chapter titled “Reading,” Mehta writes, “Learning to read in India meant hearing its pleasures shouted at you by pavement booksellers before you even know how to read.”
The chapter delves into detail about how the world of imagination opens up to a child as much from the books that are read to her, before she learns to read, as also from the tales of valor narrated in the epic oral tradition of India, by elders at home and even domestic help.
Sometimes, these stories are improvised upon, to coax food into the mouths of toddlers. Ironically, when the act of reading becomes a pleasure, it begins to be frowned upon by adults who look upon it as a misdemeanor, when you can’t hear them calling out to you.
This I found so familiar with my mother’s words ringing in my ears: “I called you thrice for dinner. What happens to your hearing, when your nose is buried in a book?!”
The chapter goes on to speak of mobile libraries, which are nothing but “garishly painted tin trunks small enough to be strapped onto the backs of bicycles ridden by librarians, who were usually clerks moonlighting from government offices.”
Needless to say, their locations were only learned through word of mouth, as was the author’s favorite spot, which consisted of three rungs of a wrought-iron fire escape behind an Emporium in Calcutta. The eclectic books on offer had much to do with the librarian’s ability to procure them, which, in the words of the author:
“… meant that we were uninhibited by literary snobbisms, holding an unshakeable belief that any book we borrowed was a potential source of delight and — more important — that there did not exist the book too difficult to read.”
A ringside view of history
Born before Independence, Mehta had a ringside view of history, as her father, Biju Patnaik, was involved in the freedom movement and later went on to become Chief Minister of the state of Orissa, in free India. Interestingly, her brother Naveen Patnaik is presently holding the same position in this state located in Eastern India.
In the chapter “Freedom’s Song,” the author describes how, after her revolutionary grandmother insisted that she be named Joan of Arc, the name Gita (which means “song” in many Indian languages) was chosen, in hopes that India would soon have a Song of Freedom.
That was optimistic, because it would be several more years before the Indian flag would be unfurled, replacing the Union Jack.
Within a few months of her birth, Mehta’s father was arrested for possession of weapons. Her father whispers to her mother about getting rid of some pistols that he is helping to hide.
Mehta’s mother wisely does so by wrapping them and the rounds of ammunition in pillowcases and throwing them in a ditch some distance away from their home. Accomplished under cover of darkness, she realizes only the next day that she has decanted the pistols outside the walled compound of the Chief Inspector of the Police.
Mehta comments drily, “Even in that moment of high melodrama, my mother, with the miserliness of the good housewife had been careful not to use her monogrammed linen,” thereby saving her husband from a terrible imprisonment in the dreaded penal colony of Kala Pani, or Black Water, in the distant islands of the Andamans.
Personal, political, and cultural glimpses
Mehta’s personal glimpses of her father “modernizing” her mother make for delightful reading. He taught her ballroom dancing, then how to play bridge, and finally “put her on a bicycle, pushed it until she pedaled well enough to retain her balance, and deserted her.”
It resulted in the poor lady having to cycle halfway around the city of Delhi before she had the courage to brake and dismount.
The chapters of Snakes and Ladders are filled with the personal interspersed with political, cultural, and sociological observations about a country of contradictions. The author is unsparing in her assessment of many of the leaders of the country, and what she writes about some of them makes one wonder whether she was prescient.
It would be most suitable to conclude this piece with a reference to the last chapter, “Leisure Activity.” Mehta refers to the word firdauz, which in Urdu means “divine leisure.” The word indicates the creation of something so unique that God could only craft when he had nothing else on his mind.
In conclusion, Gita Mehta embarks on a long, captivating, and almost lyrical description of India starting with, “The smell of the Indian evening …” and ending with “the assault on the senses /the caress on the senses. Surely God made India at his leisure. “
Contributed by Melanie P. Kumar: Melanie is a Bangalore, India-based independent writer who has always been fascinated with the magic of words. Links to some of her pieces can be found at gonewiththewindwithmelanie.wordpress.com.