Gita Mehta, writer on India who made her name with Karma Cola, a hilarious account of spiritual questers – obituary

Gita Mehta had a dry wit and was very good company. Asked to discuss her sexual fantasies on television, she recalled: ‘I nearly fainted… In the West you talk about love and sex lives; in India we are more likely to talk about bowel movements’
Gita Mehta had a dry wit and was very good company. Asked to discuss her sexual fantasies on television, she recalled: ‘I nearly fainted… In the West you talk about love and sex lives; in India we are more likely to talk about bowel movements’ - Sophie Bassouls/Sygma via Getty

Gita Mehta, who has died aged 80, was admired as a novelist and as the author of books about her native India – the India seen from the inside by a returned emigrée, and the India as sold to the West in images of mysticism, poverty and chaos.

She made her name in 1980 with her first book Karma Cola: The Marketing of the Mystic East, a hilarious essay on “spiritual travellers” from the West – The Beatles, Hollywood rich kids in detox, intense Scandinavians, British colonial guilt-trippers – who go in search of the mystic soul of India, but only succeed in keeping everyone awake playing the bongos on 24-hour train journeys while filling the pockets of self-appointed “swamis” in a flourishing guru industry.

“They thought we were profound. We knew we were provincial,” Gita Mehta wrote. “Everybody thought everybody else was ridiculously exotic and everybody got it wrong.”

Writing in The Daily Telegraph James Cameron observed that of the many books he had read about India, Karma Cola was “the only one that has intentionally made me laugh”, while Ann Morrow commended it as “ideal for parents to give their children before they set off to India in the youthful hope of finding themselves and a guru”. The book’s cynical tone and colourful reportage earned it comparisons to the “New Journalism” of such American writers as Tom Wolfe.

Later Gita Mehta took to fiction, and published Raj (1989), a commercial blockbuster about rich princeling families looking for love in the run-up to Partition, which was hailed in the New York Review of Books as a powerful reinterpretation of history, though less kindly received by British critics.

Her A River Sutra (1993), a collection of tales told in poetic prose, centred around a civil servant who retires to rediscover his soul and run a guest-house by the sacred river Narmada where pilgrims come and tell him their stories.

She returned to opinionated reportage in Snakes and Ladders (1997), a 35-chapter guide to modern India, taking in politics, economics, autobiography, jokes, history, polemic, anecdote, interviews, race, the arts, literature, caste, and the sex industry.

Karma Cola: ‘ideal for parents to give their children before they set off to India in the youthful hope of finding themselves and a guru’
Karma Cola: ‘ideal for parents to give their children before they set off to India in the youthful hope of finding themselves and a guru’

Gita Mehta was married to Sonny Mehta, known as one of the top names in transatlantic publishing, the brains behind the Picador imprint at Pan Books in London and subsequently head of Knopf, the most “literary” imprint of Random House US.

A glamorous literary couple, the Mehtas divided their time between London, New Delhi and New York, where Gita, elegant in floaty saris whatever the weather (“because we’re one of the few peoples left in the world whose form of dress isn’t defined by Calvin Klein”), was known for her vivid, all-embracing personality, her delight in meeting new people and in new ideas, and for a beady-eyed scrutiny and dry wit that made her very good company.

In an article in The Daily Telegraph she recalled being rung up in New York and asked to appear on television to discuss her sexual fantasies: “I nearly fainted… In the West you talk about love and sex lives; in India we are more likely to talk about bowel movements… I recommend a return to the bowel movement – you don’t have to worry about being too old for it.”

A journalist who requested an interview recalled that “Would you mind awfully if I… chain-smoked throughout?” were her first words.

But Gita Mehta’s “insider-outsider” take on modern India was derived as much from family background as her own cosmopolitanism. The second of three children, she was born Gita Patnaik in New Delhi on December 12 1942 to Bijayananda (“Biju”) Patnaik, the scion of a princely family from Orissa (now Odisha), and his wife Gyanwati, née Sethi.

Her enormous extended family covered all parts of the Indian political spectrum, from intense Anglophilia – “There was a time when my mother had seven male cousins up at Cambridge simultaneously. Others were in the RAF” – to revolutionary activism. A cousin of her father’s, a 19-year-old poet, was shot dead while leading a raid on the British armoury at Chittagong, while another was taken in chains to the Andaman Islands aged 14 and imprisoned for 17 years.

Raj: a commercial blockbuster about princeling families looking for love in the run-up to Partition
Raj: her blockbuster novel about princeling families looking for love in the run-up to Partition

Gita’s father Biju would become celebrated postwar as one of the most colourful and maverick personalities of Indian politics. At the time of his daughter’s birth he had come under the spell of Mahatma Gandhi, and the family home in New Delhi, which sheltered nationalists escaping the law, was known throughout the country as Absconders’ Paradise. Yet he did not follow the example of other Indian “freedom fighters” in seeking an end to British rule through collaboration with the Japanese.

Instead, on the outbreak of the Second World War he joined the RAF and, according to his daughter,  was “complimented, even decorated, by the Vicereine of India” for the large number of British civilians he had evacuated from Burma in the teeth of the Japanese advance. At the same time, however, from his RAF aircraft, he dropped bags of Gandhi’s “Quit India” leaflets on to Indian troops under British command and made clandestine flights to carry Congress Party leaders to secret meetings.

In early January 1943 he was arrested and jailed for his exploits and Gita recounted the tale of how, as he was being led away, he whispered to his wife to get rid of their weapons. This she did, using the family two-seater Sunbeam-Talbot convertible which she only knew how to drive in reverse. Unwittingly, in the dark, she dumped the cache outside the local police station. Fortunately, no connection was ever made.

As her mother campaigned to get her father released (she was finally successful in 1946, a year before independence), Gita, barely three years old, was sent with her older brother to a boarding school in Kashmir run by Irish nuns who told her: “We don’t allow crying here”.

Gita and her husband Sonny Mehta in 2011: they met at Cambridge
Gita Mehta and her husband, the leading publisher Sonny Mehta, in 2011: they met at Cambridge - Bruce Glikas/FilmMagic

“My brother and I spent the entire time trying to escape,” Gita said. “We once collected biscuit tins, waited until 9pm and tried to stack them up by a wall and climb over it, but…”

Back home in Delhi, she acquired a lifelong love of literature from visits to street booksellers hawking Mad magazine alongside works by Plato and Dickens: “Anna Karenina, sahib? Madame Bovary? Hot books, sahib, only this minute arrived.”

Having read her way through much of the literary canon, from Bombay University she read English at Girton College, Cambridge, where, by mistake, she sat her finals at the end of her first year: “Afterwards they hauled me up. I said, ‘But did I pass?’ and they said Yes.” With uncharacteristic meekness she sat her finals again when she was expected to.

At Cambridge she played bridge with Germaine Greer and Clive James and became friends with Eric Idle of Monty Python, Jonathan Lynn the co-writer of Yes Minister, and Richard Eyre, later of the National Theatre, who recalled her as “extraordinarily beautiful” and of having “the air of someone who had lived several lives… I don’t think I’d met anyone that cosmopolitan.”

It was at Cambridge, too, that she met fellow student Sonny Mehta while they were standing in a queue to see Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal; they married in 1965.

The Duchess of Cornwall, as she was at the time, chats to Gita Mehta at a reception to celebrate the Everyman's Library Centenary in London, 2006
The Duchess of Cornwall, as she was at the time, chats to Gita Mehta at a reception to celebrate the Everyman's Library Centenary in London, 2006 - Tim Graham Photo Library via Getty Images

After graduation she studied at film school in London and embarked on a career as a documentary filmmaker for British, European and American networks, including reporting the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971 for NBC and making Dateline Bangladesh, a film compilation of the war which was shown in cinemas in India.

Her development as an author was slow in gestation, partly due to her proximity, through her husband, to prize-winning writers. “Imagine: You’re working on a book and Gabriel García Márquez comes for a drink,” she told Publishers Weekly: “You think, ‘Does the world really need me?’ ”

The idea for her first book was sparked by a cocktail-party conversation in New York: “There had been the usual talk about karma. I wafted past in a sari and somebody said, ‘She can tell you what karma’s all about.’ I said, ‘It’s not what it’s cracked up to be.’ The guy said, ‘Yeah, that’s a great answer, so write it.’ It was the chairman of Bantam Books so I wrote it.” It took her just three weeks. Her last book, Eternal Ganesha (2006), was a coffee-table book about the ubiquitous, elephant-headed Hindu deity.

Gita Mehta was offered one of India’s highest civilian honours, the Padma Shri, in 2019, but declined on the grounds that “the timing might be misconstrued” because of an imminent general election.

Gita Mehta’s husband Sonny died in 2019. She is survived by their son.

Gita Mehta, born December 12 1942, died September 16 2023

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