Thursday, February 13, 2014

Sound-shadows and autobiographies - on The Essential Ved Mehta

[Did this review-profile for The Caravan, about a writer I have a lot of regard for (though I find it hard to read too much of his work at one go, for reasons mentioned in the piece). The magazine version is here]

Among the excerpts in the new anthology The Essential Ved Mehta is a passage from the 1982 memoir Vedi, where Mehta recalls his childhood in a school for the blind. The school principal, attempting to gather material on how the inner worlds of visually impaired people differed from those of the sighted, would call the children in by turn and ask them to relate their dreams. Central to the effect of the passage is the reader’s awareness that Ved, having lost his vision at age three, may have a dim memory of colours, and that his reference to a white-and-brown dog has slightly thrown off the principal. But equally vivid is the child’s incentive for “telling a dream” that might prove useful: the reward of a sweet from a jar in the office. He recalls praying that the candy that fell into his hand would be the long-lasting orange one (“if I kept the sweet in the inside of my cheek for some time, it would stamp its sugary impression there, and I could taste the orangy sweetness long after I’d finished”) rather than the lemonish one, which was nice enough but melted quickly.

This collection is a little like that jar, but with the distribution of sweets happily skewed in favour of the orange ones that have lasting value. The few pieces that make for pleasant reading without necessarily lingering in one’s mind afterward are the ones that would have been topical and urgent in their time: an account of Indira Gandhi’s Emergency, another piece about the Indian media’s posthumous deification of Sanjay Gandhi, both written for the New Yorker during Mehta’s three-decade-long stint there. But there is much in The Essential Ved Mehta to remind us of what an important writer Mehta has been. The 22 excerpts here, taken from most of his 26 published books, with his introductions putting each piece in context, add up to a fine primer—no mean achievement given the length and whimsicality of a career that has seen Mehta write about such subjects as theology, politics, history and, perhaps most notably and enduringly, about himself.

Mehta turns 80 this March. Exactly 60 years ago, as a student in California, he began writing his first book Face to Face, about his life up to that point: his time at a boarding school (which turned out to be more like an orphanage) in central Bombay’s Dadar, his return to Lahore, his admission—after dozens of unsuccessful applications elsewhere —into the Arkansas School for the Blind, and his moving to the US in 1949, gradually settling into a world where towns and roads were laid out in an orderly way, traffic rules followed, and an unsighted boy had a chance of becoming self-reliant and feeling useful.

Despite the apparent limitedness of its subject, Face to Face now has sufficient heft—both on its own terms and as a drum-roll for a long and honourable career—to have just been republished in a Penguin Modern Classics edition, along with three other Mehta books. It holds up remarkably well as a coming-of-age tale, a record of a family and community affected by Partition, and an account of constantly negotiating the unfamiliar (arriving in Bombay, the barely five-year-old Ved, already disoriented and sad, is addressed first in Marathi, then in English, neither of which he understands; he lands in America 10 years later having not eaten anything on the long flight because of his embarrassment about being unable to use a knife and fork). And there is a “news peg” too, if you insist on one: before he left for the US, 15-year-old Ved was invited to the residence of Prime Minister Nehru, an episode he describes with touching matter-of-factness. “I was the first blind boy, it seemed, who had ever left home to go to America. Panditji, therefore, wanted to see me.”

A memoir begun at age 20 can still seem self-indulgent, and Mehta is upfront about this in a note in the new anthology, recalling his insecurities about his poor English during his student years and confessing that Face to Face was “more than anything, a love letter to my amanuensis while we were both at college … What kept me dictating … was a feeling of urgency to overcome my inadequacies – to prove to her that I was a man worthy of her time and attention.” His confidence would grow over the years, but it might be said that his writing life has been an extended demonstration that he is worth a reader’s time and attention.

Having temporarily got autobiography out of his system with that first book (published in 1957), Mehta moved to new pastures: over the next two decades, with the encouragement of the New Yorker editor William Shawn—who became a mentor and father figure—he wrote a travelogue (Walking the Indian Streets; 1960), a collection of conversations with British philosophers and historians (Fly and the Fly-Bottle; 1963), a book on Christian theology (The New Theologian; 1966), profiles of such literary figures as Noam Chomsky and the Urdu critic Ram Babu Saxena (collected in John is Easy to Please; 1971), a large study of Indian history and society (Portrait of India; 1970) and a book about Mahatma Gandhi told largely through the accounts of living Gandhians around the world (Mahatma Gandhi and his Apostles; 1976). But he never left the terrain of memoir: his affectionate, searching books about his parents and the worlds they inhabited—Daddyji (1972) and Mamaji (1979)—heralded what would become known as the Continents of Exile series, which so far run into 12 volumes. Since 1982, these autobiographical writings—many of which were, again, first published in the New Yorker—have formed the bulk of his output.

And this has sometimes invited criticism. A well-known artist I recently met—someone who has a distant association with Mehta, and must remain unnamed—recalled joking with relatives who, whenever they heard about his excursions into the lives of “Daddyji” or “Mamaji” or “Chachaji”, would throw up their hands and say, with good-natured Punjabi rambunctiousness, “Bas ji!” (“Enough ji!”) Other readers have probably felt the same way; charges of navel-gazing are easily directed at someone who writes extensively about his personal history and the histories of his parents and ancestors. But closer attention to the books reveals how Mehta uses the particular to illuminate the universal. His books about his parents, for instance, are also a social history of the north India of the early 20th century, chronicling a traditional Indian family’s shift from village to city—into a modern world—at a time when the country was reaching for autonomy. 

This straining for national identity is, at a micro-level, paralleled by the young Ved being encouraged to be his own man despite his disability. (His parents might easily have discouraged him from doing more than sitting about the house, with no professional prospects—which was the fate of so many unsighted people in Indian families of the time, and would almost certainly have been the case a generation or two earlier.) In this context, it is worth considering how rare it was back in 1949 for any 15-year-old Indian, not just a blind boy, to travel alone to America, a place more culturally distant than Britain.


All the same, it is true that Mehta’s oeuvre has a circumscribed feel to it. Even if you’re a fan—as I am—of his elegant prose and his ear for conversation, it can be stifling to read many of his books over a short period of time, because they all centre around a single life. It is better to approach them at intervals. And Mehta himself seems to have been aware of this: for all the talk about Continents of Exile being a continuous autobiography, he wrote each book as a stand-alone.

Perhaps the need to explain himself and his background is why a clear, precise writing style has been a Mehta hallmark through his career. His books also bear the stamp of someone who has reached for self-sufficiency from an early age. He was not yet five when his father lifted him through the compartment window of the train that would take him to Bombay and announced “Now you are a man”. In a Dickensian setting in Dadar (“I was thrown together with adolescent boys and girls picked up by the police from the street … Abdul pulled both my hands into his, and feeling their texture, remarked they were smooth and asked if I had ever worked”), little Ved learnt his first lessons in independence, discipline and the possibility of doing “regular” things with other visually impaired boys: fighting, throwing tantrums, being petty and selfish.

The pride generated by these experiences was not undiluted—mixed with it were phases of insecurity, even despair. (“We all probably felt unwanted and inadequate,” he admits in an introduction to an excerpt in The Essential Ved Mehta, “I certainly imagined that I and the world would be better off if I disappeared into the night.”) The fierce desire to be normal ran hand in hand with the knowledge that there were certain things he couldn’t do unassisted. In Face to Face he describes furtively cycling at a distance behind his sisters—guided by their voices—as they rode to their school, but then having to wait outside until their classes were over because he knew he couldn’t find his way back alone. The incident could be a metaphor for his writing and reading life—being energetic and keen to work nonstop, but having to rely on readers, on books being available in Braille, on assistants to take notes and transcribe.

At any rate, unwillingness to be an object of sympathy or curiosity—or to telegraph his blindness to the world—led to an authorial decision that would repeatedly cause controversy: Mehta wrote as if he could see, providing detailed visual descriptions. “Any and all visual details I always set down in passive voice,” he explains in his introduction to the excerpt from Walking the Indian Streets, “so as to tacitly acknowledge that they were experienced firsthand by someone else and I was only reporting on them.” Thus, the Taj Mahal is “seen through haze from two thousand feet” when he and his friend, the poet Dom Moraes, are about to land in Agra; “there are no visible concubines” in a droll account of their stay in a palace apartment in Kathmandu. The passive voice often makes way for a more direct mode of expression in his later writing though, which can flummox the uninitiated reader. What to make of descriptions such as this one from a meeting with R K Narayan: “A neither too stout nor too lean figure, he strolled in rather boyishly. One shoulder appeared to be lower than the other, and his lilting walk recalled the end of the Bharat Natyam … a smile revealing a great many polished teeth…

But this is another reason why The Essential Ved Mehta is such a useful anthology: it lets us see how Mehta’s writing illuminates itself, or folds back on itself, over time; how a personal story can cast fresh light on the circumstances around the writing of an earlier book. This means a degree of overlapping, but more often the effect is kaleidoscopic. In All for Love (2001), about his relationships with four women over the years, he recalls his time with another amanuensis, Lola, “the first woman – indeed, the only woman – who became an integral part of my writing life … It was only long afterward that I realised I was so connected with her that she was almost like my second self, but with an extraordinary eye and an ever-ready shorthand book”. This is an engaging relationship story on its own terms, but there is another dimension to it: since Lola was of invaluable aid to him during the writing of Portrait of India , this account of their professional and personal association, and their travels together, provides a fresh perspective on the earlier book.

So a passage in Portrait of India (where Mehta only uses “I” as if he were conducting an interview alone) begins “Mother Teresa comes in. She is tiny and slim, but imposing….”, while All for Love gives us this:

I asked Lola if she had transcribed Mother Teresa’s exact words.
“Yes, of course.” She read some of her notes to me in a whisper.
“Were you able to get down all the details of her clothes?”
“Yes. A plain white sari with the order’s blue edging […] she had a crucifix hanging where she pins the sari’s hem to her shoulder.”
“Also jot down that she is tiny but imposing, and very no-nonsense,” I said.
Now that I have her at my side, I don’t have to tax my memory to try to remember every detail, I thought. Instead, I can concentrate on general impressions.
The emphasis on visual detail is linked to a notable feature of Mehta’s work: his best writing, even when he is drawing on documentation and chronicling things that really happened, reads like good fiction (and no one would say that a blind novelist should avoid descriptions). “His imagination always tried to make everything more interesting than it actually was,” he once said of Moraes, “It was as if the worlds inside his head were more exciting than the world outside”. A similar point could be made about his own work. Between Face to Face and the later memoirs, he became a more confident writer and began experimenting with narrative technique, even while retaining his unshowy prose style—hence the use in the Continents books of devices such as flash-forwards, shifting perspectives, even stream of consciousness as in this passage in The Stolen Light (1989), about a sexual encounter on a rainy night during his college days.
I felt the same charge of electricity as when she had stroked my hand in the library. Our mouths clamped together.  I didn’t turn off the light – a real blindism. Maybe the light was never on. But what if it was? Stop worrying. I should put on my undershirt. Why? I read somewhere women like it.
Or take two accounts – first in Face to Face and then, 30 years later in Sound-Shadows of the New World (1986) – of the same event: in Little Rock, Arkansas, young Ved is allowed to travel downtown by himself for the very first time, his guide having given him detailed instructions about how to take the trolley, gauge turns and crossings, and get off at the correct stop. The adventure, a key one in Ved’s life (“this is the first real day of my independence, I thought”), is described at length in both books, but in Face to Face the emphasis is on relating things faithfully and linearly, whereas by the time he wrote Sound-Shadows Mehta had developed a flair for the dramatic moment, for expanding and compressing time in turn, so that his account reads almost like a passage from a suspense thriller. In the earlier book he says “I found that the noise of the cane made me very self-conscious and was quite distracting, so I flung it into the gutter”. In the later book this becomes “Tap-tap, here comes a blind boy from the blind school – look out! the cane seemed to shout” and this is followed by a description of his attempt to break it before discarding it. Soon afterwards, he regrets his foolhardy act and the first book says “When I unexpectedly stepped off a curb, that fraction of a second between the curb and the street was so frightening I almost wished I had my cane back” but the later account of the same fraught moment goes “The sidewalk suddenly ended in an abrupt drop. It’s a manhole, I thought. My cane, my cane!

The flair for storytelling, for sharply observed character portraits and for setting an individual tale against a larger background, gives even the most personal books—like The Red Letters, Sound-Shadows and Up at Oxford—a novelistic timbre. The Red Letters, about Mehta’s gradual discovery of his father’s extra-marital affair, can be read as a well-observed fiction about guilt, regret and the workings of the parent-child relationship in a conservative society. Remembering Mr Shawn’s New Yorker (1998) is a record of a vital period in the real-life history of an important magazine, but as a story with broader themes—the importance of mentorship, the growth of confidence, seeking narrative patterns amidst the messiness of the real world—it should appeal even to readers who aren’t specifically interested in the New Yorker, or in Mehta’s personal life.


Much of the journalistic work he did for the magazine between the 1960s and the 1980s, on the other hand, reads today as the sort of clinical reportage that might have been produced by any number of diligent journalists – writing that doesn’t have much personality, is about things widely covered elsewhere, and hence doesn’t date particularly well; the lemon sweets in the jar. A question hangs over Mehta’s relevance as a reporter. There are those who feel he overstayed his welcome at the New Yorker, that Shawn over-indulged him. He is often behind the curve, constrained by information not always being available in media he can access. (In an interview four years ago, he spoke to me of Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance—published in 1995—as if it were a brand-new publication.) Partly because his focus in the past three decades has been on the Continents series, partly because he lost his New Yorker job in 1994, you wouldn’t turn to him for insights on very recent events.

Some of his truisms about India can seem patronising—writing in the early 1990s about the hegemony of power and the exploitation of women, he said “The travails of the Indian political establishment may well be only a reflection of the problems of contemporary India, in which a patina of modernity overlies what is essentially a medieval society”. In a mostly warm account of the friendship he struck up with RK Narayan in New York (“it was very late and over Fifty-seventh Street hung a sort of Malgudi hush, shattered only now and again by the clap of a passing truck”), he mentions that Narayan “spoke a certain sort of Indian English; he … prefixed ‘y’ and ‘w’ respectively, to words beginning with ‘e’ and ‘o’. It gave his English a soft, balmy tone” and then throughout reports the older writer’s speech with these and other inflections (“the winter breeze is yeverywhere”, “Oh Lard, what is this modernity?”). Is this a case of a writer-reporter faithfully recording what he hears, or is there a hint of pandering to a readership that expects a dose of exotica in accounts of India and Indians? The answer may be an unknowable mix of the two things. (In another passage, during a conversation with Satyajit Ray, Mehta defends the stilted English spoken by EM Forster’s Indian characters.)

I would still make the case that a sprawling work like Portrait of India, also just out in a Modern Classics edition, deserves to be revisited, rather than dismissed as a Big India Book written by someone viewing—or imagining—the country from a distance. Some passages are dry and read like compilations of basic facts and history for the lay-reader, but this is also a personal project where one sees a writer picking his subjects, focusing on things that intrigue him rather than trying, vainly, to be encyclopedic. There are chapters on such disparate things as jazz in Bombay, birth control, the “liquid gold” in the then-new Bhilai steel plant, a sound-and-light show at the Red Fort; there is a passage on Calcutta with a number of pages written as if in free verse. (“Girls in frocks and boys in knickers playing hopscotch, babies in prams, young men with books of Bengali verse, Europeans, athletes at gymnastics, masseurs giving rub-downs on the grass, sadhus … Howrah Bridge. People taking the evening air. Dramatic bore tide. Jetties bobbing, small boats hurrying to middle of river.”) Importantly, this book wasn’t an armchair project: Mehta worked hard on the book, travelling 30,000 miles “by airplane, train, boat, rickshaw, pony, mule, yak, elephant and, of course, my own two feet” in the course of writing it.

Since it puts these earlier books in context, The Essential Ved Mehta is not just a collection of writings but also an account of the nuts and bolts of a singular writing life. It provides a glimpse of the writer’s many divided selves: the boy from Punjab working within a new culture, writing for an American magazine about such topics as Western philosophy, theology and student life in Arkansas and Oxford while not letting go of the “Indian” subjects like Mahatma Gandhi and the national politics of the 1970s and 1980s; the man who may have become an Anglicised “sahib” figure after his time at Oxford (there are accounts of peremptory behaviour during his New Yorker days) but was still keen to honestly and meticulously chronicle the life of his family and the Indias they lived in; the seemingly arrogant, self-assured writer living with the knowledge that he was dependent on others for many important things.

In my view Mehta’s best books are the personal ones where the main subject is Mehta himself, or where he is a protagonist (as in Walking the Indian Streets). But other readers may disagree, and certainly there are other things worth discovering here, such as his understated sense of humour in an account of the Member of Parliament PC Sethi storming into a telephone exchange with a gun, or an anecdote about those two American subversives Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso being let loose in genteel Oxford and tormenting poor WH Auden. (“Ginsberg thereupon got hold of Auden’s tie and started shoving it into his mouth, while Corso grabbed Auden by the knees, and both men cried, “Maestro, maestro, don’t leave us! Let us be your servants and students!”) The sense one gets of Mehta is that of someone who has spent decades writing as a way of holding on to things—experiences, sounds, tactile impressions—that must otherwise seem in danger of slipping away, while also using himself as a prism to examine a larger socio-cultural universe. Given that his books have not always been easily available in India, and that he continues to have a low profile—or to be considered unfashionable—this collection comes not a moment too soon.


[Here are two earlier pieces about Mehta - an interview-profile done for Tehelka, and this review of The Red Letters]


  1. Truly remarkable to write with a handicap. Borges also wrote but he limited himself to poetry and short fiction. This writer has written long fiction

    1. Apples and oranges. Apart from being very different types of writers who took on different challenges, Borges lost his eyesight gradually, and over a period of time.

      Also, Mehta hasn't written much fiction as such - only one of his 26 books is a novel.

  2. Yeah. I tried reading Ubar by Borges. Found it tough to understand. Reads more like a research paper or may be its a trick. Theres little in that set of stories about latin america. I just kept wondering what it was

  3. It's been a long time since I read anything by Ved Mehta. The visual detail was disconcerting but not really a problem, I guessed he had had an assistant.

    But I had a problem with his writings about his family. I've heard a family elder talk about how somebody (probably 'Daddyji') used to agonise about what the future might hold for Ved Mehta (talking about the time before he was sent abroad). His family was obviously very Punjabi. In real life they would have spoken Punjabi mixed with English & Hindi. When Ved Mehta writes about them it is all in English. He writes in English so it has to be that way - but it never worked for me and they never came alive, even though I'm from the same stock.

  4. Ved Mehta has been part of my life for almost forty years now! I'm glad to see the beautiful new editions of his work. Great review.

    1. Thanks, Dipali. Always nice to meet someone who likes his work.