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?”

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