Book Review: “Karma Cola” by Gita Mehta

(Penguin – 193 pages)

Reviewer – Luke Brown

Sometimes a book is published that is virtually unreviewable. Not because it is a mess, but rather because one can not do it justice. Published in 1979 and still being reprinted, Karma Cola is one such work. Recommended to me by someone who had just left India, the subject of the book, I was handed a passage to read. It detailed the story of an English aristocrat who had heard about a guru in the mountains who was reported to be able to turn urine into scented rose water. And so this Englishman went out to find the guru and sampled his wares, which, it turned out, smelt and tasted remarkably like urine.

Although the book is widely known for its collection of stories of western disciples seeking out mystical gurus and their tailor-made truths, it is its study of how India discovered that they were quite hip after all (in the eyes of some westerners) while they were turning to western culture, makes it a must read. Although the times have changed since it first came out, its biting and well-observed satire mixed with Gita Mehta’s electric writing style (on occasions reminding me of Tom Wolfe) stand out. But I’ve said too much. Here is an early passage from this most funny and insightful work that will give a taste of where she is coming from and where her book is going:

“American mass-marketing had penetrated so fast to the Indian interior that its experts were invited by our government to popularize contraceptives with the same panache. While population control and pop culture raced hand in hand through the Indian countryside, we of the cities and the universities were getting restless, too. But just when the accelerator seemed within our reach, the unthinkable happened.
The kings of rock and roll abdicated.
To Ravi Shankar and the Maharishi.

As the sitar wiped out the split-reed sax, and mantras began fouling the crystal clarity of rock and roll lyrics, millions of wild-eyed Americans turned their backs on all that amazing equipment and pointed at us screaming,
“You guys! You’ve got it!”
Well, talk about shabby tricks. We had been such patient wallflowers and suddenly the dance was over. Nobody wanted to shimmy. They all wanted to do the rope trick.
The lines were kept open in spite of the political static.
“Excuse me, operator, what did they say? What have we got?”
“Hello, India, my party is saying you have the Big Zero.”
Mao had lost out to Maya. The revolution was dead.

So we tagged along with the Americans one more time. Not because of right thought, right speech, right action. But because of the rhythm section. Never before had the Void been pursued with such optimism and such razzle dazzle. Everyone suspected that whatever America wanted, America got.
Why not Nirvana?”

1 comment for “Book Review: “Karma Cola” by Gita Mehta

  1. August 2, 2012 at 10:33 am

    I used to live in Dharamsala between 1977 and 1983, having contact with the Tibetan settlement.
    My native contry is Sweden, one of those small Europeen contries not so often heard of in a more global context. My native tounge i Swedish,(small and exotic!) But my Tibetan friends in India had been living in Sweden for some time, helped by an organisation who took care of them after their exile from Tibet.
    From this time I remember the hippies – or, perhaps we could call them foreing paria. They seemed to bo roaming about all over Indien. They sold theis fancy western things and bought cheep Indian things instead. They playd rock n roll, took drugs and looked often pale an slickly. My tibetan friends thanked god for them, as they often took their meals in the tibetan cafés or slept in the cheep Tibetan hotels.
    I did not read Karma Cola, just a few pages here on internet. It might not be fair to judge a book you did not even read . . .. but I read about it. And I don´t really want to write about the book here, but the people discribed in it.
    It seemes to me as if the writer makes fun of a great tragedy – or two great tragedies – the western and the Indian. Or have I lost my sense of humor?
    I was myself a Buddhist that time, and used to stay in a Tibetan nunnery at Tilokpur. I was not a hippie, did not take drugs and helped my tibetan friends to some good business in Dharamsala- I studied buddhist filosofi and meditation very seriously, and not just the tibetan tradition. I also studied the theravada in India, on Sri Lanka and in Thailand.
    As I found in Dharamsala that the tibetans mostly live on gifts given by westerners, I lost my respect for them and their traditions.
    I think thar the relationship between this western Paria and Asian religion is yet to be understood. It is a great and complex subject.
    Annakarin Svedberg, Sweden

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