The Autobiographical Artist

Retracing Ved Mehta’s long career

Many of Ved Mehta’s 26 books bear the stamp of someone who has reached for self-sufficiency from an early age. Paul Oxborough
01 February, 2014

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.

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, for instance, the barely-five-year-old Ved, already disoriented, is addressed first in Marathi, then in English, neither of which he understands; he lands in America ten years later not having eaten anything on the long flight because of his embarrassment about being unable to use a knife and fork. There was a news peg to the story too: “I was the first blind boy, it seemed, who had ever left home to go to America.” In honour of this distinction, the 15-year-old Ved was invited to Prime Minister Nehru’s residence before he left, an episode he describes with touching matter-of-factness.

Even so, a memoir begun at age 20 can 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, 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 the linguist and philosopher 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, largely relating the memories of Gandhians from around the world (Mahatma Gandhi and his Apostles, 1977). 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 has 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 Mehta’s 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 reading the books closely 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. And this straining for a 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.) In this context, it is worth remembering that in 1949 it was extremely rare 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 to stand alone.

Perhaps the need to explain himself and his background is why a clear, precise writing style has been Mehta’s hallmark throughout 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, standing on a railway platform, hoisted him through a compartment window into 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, Mehta 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, 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; and “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 RK 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 there 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 repetition in subject matter, 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 story on its own terms, but there is another dimension to it: since Lola was of invaluable aid to Mehta during the writing of Portrait of India, this account of their professional and personal relationship, and their travels together, provides a fresh perspective on the earlier book.

So a passage in Portrait of India (where Mehta uses only “I” as if he were conducting the 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.

“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. “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, the expansion and compression of time (so that an account of making his way downtown without his cane reads like a scene from a suspenseful thriller), 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 lighta 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.

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, a search for 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.

SOME OF THE JOURNALISTIC WORK Mehta 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. These are the lemon sweets in the jar: writing that doesn’t have much personality, is about things widely covered elsewhere, and hence doesn’t date particularly well. 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 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 Mehta 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.” He then consistently 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 inseparable 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 encyclopaedic. 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, Portrait of India 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 in the anthology, 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 would otherwise slip away, and someone who also uses himself as a prism to examine a larger socio-cultural universe. Given that Mehta’s 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.

The Essential Ved Mehta

Hamish Hamilton, 400 pages, Rs 599