AMONG THE EXCERPTS in the new anthology The Essential Ved Mehta is a passage from Mehta’s memoir Vedi (1982), in which he recalls his childhood at a school for the blind. In it, the school principal, attempting to gather material on how the inner worlds of visually impaired people differed from those of the sighted, calls the children into his office by turn and asks them to relate their dreams. Central to the effectiveness of the passage is the reader’s awareness that the young 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 catches the principal off guard. But equally notable is the child’s incentive for “telling a dream” that will please the principal, leading to the reward of a sweet from a jar in the office. Mehta recalls praying for the candy which fell into his hand to 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, which have lasting value. The few pieces that make for pleasant reading without necessarily lingering in one’s mind afterward are those that would have been topical and urgent in their time: an account of Indira Gandhi’s Emergency, and another piece about the Indian media’s posthumous deification of Sanjay Gandhi, both written for the New Yorker during Mehta’s three-decade-long (1961–94) 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, each from a separate book among his 26 published titles, with individual introductions from Mehta to put each excerpt in context, add up to a fine primer—no mean achievement given the length and eclecticism 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 (1957), about his life up to that point: his time at the boarding school (which turned out to be more like an orphanage) in Dadar in central Bombay, his return to Lahore, his admission—after dozens of unsuccessful applications elsewhere—into the Arkansas School for the Blind, and his move 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.