From Lahore to London to New York via India: Ved Mehta’s unflinching gaze — and prose

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IN THE beginning, arguably, was Ved Mehta. Long before writers such as Salman Rushdie, Amitav Ghosh and Vikram Seth would become the ambassadors of Indian English writing to the West, a young man born in pre-Independent India found a voice and space in the New York literary scene in the 1960s. Mehta died in New York at the age of 86.

“We are extremely sorry to learn about the passing of Ved Mehta. He was a master of the autobiographical genre and a pioneer of Indian writing in English. We will remember him for his keen insight into Indian society and what it means to bridge the gap between the east and the West,” said Meru Gokhale, publisher, Penguin Press, Penguin Random House India.

Mehta leaves behind a remarkable legacy as a memoirist, and essayist for The New Yorker — and a man who, early on, seized upon his subject: the remarkable life and times of Ved Mehta and his family, which he wrote about, over three decades, in his 12-volume autobiography, Continents of Exile.

Born in 1934 in Lahore to a Punjabi family, young Ved lost his vision at the age of three. Remarkably for that time, his father, a London-educated public health officer refused to believe that was a permanent setback; he sent him first to a school for the blind in Bombay — and then, at the age of 15, to another blind school in Arkansas, US.

He was a student in California when he began writing his first book, Face to Face (1957) — the autobiography of a young man in his 20s, who had overcome great odds, from blindness to the tumult of Partition, to fashion a sturdy self-independence. It was the first instance of what novelist and critic Nilanjana S Roy described as Mehta’s “need to set it all down”. “It was written out of a feeling that I could partly alleviate a life of deprivation by writing about it,” Mehta wrote.

In the next two decades, Mehta found a mentor in The New Yorker editor William Shawn, who encouraged him to write on subjects as varied as theology and philosophy, R K Narayan and Satyajit Ray. In a 2009 Idea Exchange held in the Delhi office of The Indian Express, he recalled: “One thing I learnt from The New Yorker was the minute you start thinking about your readers you are lost.” Shawn, who considered Mehta a protege, called his “prose style – airy, elegant, marvellously clear”.

More strikingly, Mehta’s writing carried a surfeit of visual detail that would often flummox his readers — and lead to one of the most interesting cases of mistaken literary identity. In The World is What It Is, the biography of V S Naipaul by Patrick French, the author recounts, “A literary groupie is searching for Ved Mehta, disbelieving that a blind writer could produce such vivid descriptive prose. Finding a distinguished Indian man sitting on a sofa, she waves her hand in front of his face while he looks on unblinking”. She is convinced Mehta is blind, until she is corrected by someone: “That isn’t Ved, that’s V S Naipaul”. It was a story that Mehta was known to recount, too, with a wicked chuckle.

In the 1970s, a chance conversation with his father, Amolak Ram Mehta, set Mehta off on the series of books — a million-plus words in all — that explore and document the life of his parents and family. Writing at a time when, as he recalled, “the image of India was of a leprous beggar crawling along Calcutta streets”, he turned the focus on the universal experience of home and family in books such as Daddyji and Mamaji. “My process of writing is assembling details, assembling material,” he said. The personal story also told a larger tale of the north Indian home in pre-Independent India, and the big subterranean shifts in Indian society.

In his subsequent books such as The Stolen Light, Up at Oxford, All for Love and The Red Letters, Mehta held up his remarkable life — of a man who lost his sight but fashioned a rich life — to a steady, unflinching gaze. To the delight and exasperation of his readers in India and elsewhere, it was a story that found resonance in their own.

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