Ved Mehta: Painter of words

Print edition : February 12, 2021

Ved Mehta in New Delhi on January 11, 2014. Photo: Kamal Narang

Ved Mehta with his wife Linn Cary Mehta during an interview in New Delhi on October 31, 2009. Photo: V. Sudershan

Famed for introducing the Western reader to India, the prolific writer Ved Mehta (1934-2021) may have lost his vision at the age of three but was gifted instead with visual poetry and perspicacity.

Ved Mehta was a man well ahead of his times. Born in Lahore in undivided Punjab in 1934, he moved to the United States at a time when it was fashionable for writers to talk of alienation in a normless world. Ved Mehta was different. He could visualise the dark nooks and crevices of society that were in danger of coming unhinged. Not blessed with sight, he was gifted instead with the power of visual poetry and rare perspicacity.

Having lost his vision at the age of three to a bout of meningitis, his writing had the kind of detailing that made many wonder if he was actually visually challenged.

In a widely reported anecdote, a veteran New York journalist decided to verify this fact at an informal hangout with writers. Seeing a writer of Indian origin holding court, he went up to him and snapped his fingers at him. The latter continued his discussion with his attentive audience, completely oblivious. The man moved a step back, stood behind one of the listeners and made faces at the writer. The writer continued to address his listener, unfazed. The man retreated from the scene, confident that Ved Mehta was indeed blind. He was soon dispossessed of this notion as he was informed that the unflappable writer had in fact been V.S. Naipaul, not Ved Mehta. Even as the man resorted to gimmickry with Naipaul, Ved Mehta had been in another part of the hall with his own captive audience, probably painting a picture of his listeners in his mind.

Ved Mehta had the rare gift of painting the person in front of him with words. He once interviewed for The New Yorker a man who smoked endlessly and spoke almost as an afterthought. He had a peculiar way of smoking, with his cigarette dangling from the right curve of his lower lip rather than the centre. Ved Mehta was able to describe this with precision, using his keen auditory impressions. He could recognise people by their footsteps, cars by the whir of their engines, and relate it all with an immaculate choice of words.

Ved Mehta won recognition, and applause, for his detailing of subjects, be it a landscape or a person, be it Indian society or Mahatma Gandhi. Little wonder that he felt it unnecessary for the world to talk of his being visually challenged. In fact, the publication of one of his early books got delayed because he did not want the publisher to introduce him as a blind writer.

That, however, did not mean he shied away from his condition. Far from it, as can be made out from the fact that he wrote the first of his autobiographies, Face to Face (1957) in his early twenties. In the book, he wrote frankly, and with good memory, of how he lost his sight. “It was good that I lost my sight when I did, because having no memories of seeing, there was nothing to look back to, nothing to miss...I went blind in November 1937. At that time we were living in Gujrat, in the province of Punjab in northern India. After my sickness we moved to Lahore, a few miles away, but the procession of relatives who came to sympathise made my father ask for another transfer, this time to Karnal, where we had neither friends nor relatives. There we got a cottage on the canal bank, built in very peaceful and quiet surroundings.”

Interestingly, while Ved Mehta’s father came to terms with his visual impairment early, and sought transfers in order to avoid relatives dropping in to express their sympathies, his mother never gave up hope, going as she did to vaids and hakims, applying surma to his eyes and hoping for a divine intervention.

Ved Mehta wanted to take the world on, on an equal footing. He would shrug away a hand extended to open a door for him, and refuse help in taking the next step of the staircase. He walked without a cane, and spurned crutches of any kind. Early in life, he learnt to chart his own course. At the age of five, he was sent to study in Bombay as Lahore had no schools for visually challenged children. It was a separation that was to impact him for the rest of his life.

Moving to the U.S.

If the first loss was one of sight, and the second the loss of his ancestral home in Lahore to Partition, the third was when he had to leave India to study in Arkansas in the United States. This sense of loss and longing never quite left Ved Mehta, as he wrote with subtlety and wit about a life lived with different identities: part Indian, part American, visually impaired, a journalist and a prolific, bestselling writer.

Ved Mehta interviewed philosophers and historians, spoke to clerics and freedom fighters. In The Ledge Between the Streams, he wrote about his childhood experience of flying kites alongside his siblings, although he did not know what the sky looked like. He returned to memories of his father, about whom he had written in Daddyji, in The Red Letters: My Father’s Enchanted Period.

Books

Much before Vikram Seth, Arundhati Roy and Amitav Ghosh, Ved Mehta introduced the Western readers to Indian sensibilities, Indian values. He opened a window to Indian history and culture by consistently talking of the land of his origin in his writing. His first novel, Delinquent Chacha, was serialised in The New Yorker where he worked until 1994. His 12-volume autobiography, Continents of Exile, published between 1972 and 2004, is a unique work in which he welds the personal with the social. In books such as Daddyji and Mamaji, he had the rare knack of talking about his parents, and especially his father’s extramarital relationship, in a dispassionate way. For Mahatma Gandhi and His Apostles, he travelled to India, met Gandhi’s family, took copious notes, made lasting bonds. There were other books which lifted the curtains off India, notably Walking the Indian Street, Portrait of India and The New India.

With each new foray, Ved Mehta bridged the gap between civilisations, between different cultures, and forced people to look beyond their clusters. No handicap was too high, no limitation insurmountable.

Through his prolific career, Ved Mehta wrote 27 books, and was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 2009. He fought Parkinson’s disease until the end on January 9 amidst moral squalor and political turbulence in his adopted homeland. Ved Mehta is survived by his wife Linn Cary Mehta, and millions of readers who, thanks to his resilience and astounding success, realise that there is no obstacle too big to conquer. As for Ved Mehta, he wrote to explore his own life. His autobiographies, as he said, were his own letters to himself.

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