Ved Mehta, the ‘writer’ who was blind’
Blind from the age of practically three, Ved Mehta passed away on January 9 at age of 86
Not just Norman Mailer who didn’t believe Mehta was blind, many of his critics believed as much. This was not only because it seemed incredible that a ‘blind’ writer could cover so much ground as Mehta did and describe people, places and events as sharply; this was also because he refused to use a cane or a dog to guide him while walking the streets of New York.
He actually bristled if someone tried to hold his hand or help him cross the street. Madhur Jaffrey, the Indianborn actress and cookbook author once told Maureen Dowd that when she first met Mehta, “I tried to take his arm” to help. “He gave me a shove, and we’ve been friends ever since.”
He resented being called a ‘blind’ writer and would politely point out that he was a writer who was blind. "I didn’t want to be a blind writer, an Indian writer, a travel writer or any other kind of specialised breed," he writes in aprologue to an anthology of his works, "I wanted instead to be just any old writer."
He had gone to a blind school in Bombay before attending another blind school in Arkansas in the United States. That he could travel, alone, at the age of 15 from India to the US in 1949 also made sceptics disbelieve his blindness. He learnt to use the braille of course and also to type. But all his life he used ‘Readers’ and ‘Assistants’ to read out to him and take down dictations. This was, he explained, because he hated not being able to see the errors as he typed; that he can misspell ‘taxi’ as ‘taxy’ and not know. It bothered him. “I can’t see what I write. I wish I could see my sentences taking shape. But well, that can’t be helped I suppose,” he told an interviewer.
He became an American citizen in 1975 but before that he had already written Portrait of India (1970) and Walking The Indian Streets (1959). The former was not an armchair writing, he in fact travelled 30,000 miles by air, trains, horses, Yaks and boats to write a lucid account of the people, places and events.
Physically handicapped people, he would say, used their senses much better and more extensively because it was a matter of survival. And how well Mehta could use his senses is borne out by not just his descriptions of people he met but also his prescient observations. “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,” he wrote for example in Portrait of India.
But he is even better known for his monumental, 11-volume autobiography, Continents of Exile. It took him 31 years to finish and the volumes describe in intimate detail his family in Lahore, his parents, siblings and even the woman his father had an affair with. The better known of these volumes are on his parents and uncle, titled Daddyji, Mummyji and Mamaji.
Mehta claimed that he would normally work on close to a hundred drafts of each chapter before sending them off to the publisher. Every piece that was accepted by The New Yorker in his time for publication was read 16 times, he reckoned. “Once for fact-checking, once for spelling, and so on.”
“Now people don’t know how to write letters. I think hardly anyone writes formal prose these days. John Updike was the last writer I know who wrote formal prose. By formal prose I mean writing that is elegant, precise, clear. Now the writing has become quite a bit like schoolgirls writing to their mums — letters about what’s going on in their schools. It’s different,” he had cribbed.
Although handicapped, blinded by Meningitis in childhood, he always wanted to succeed and be acknowledged as normal. He describes movingly how he would follow his sisters cycling to school on his own bicycle, guided by their voices as they chatted. But once they got inside the school, Mehta would have to wait till the school ended because he knew that he would not be able to get back home on his own.
In Lahore boys would chase kites from house to house, leaping along the rooftops. The blind Mehta joined in, employing what he later learns is called ‘facial vision’ – ‘an ability that the blind develop to sense objects and terrain by the feel of the air and by differences in sound’. The ability was not enough to prevent him from falling but miraculously, he survived.
In an interview he gave to the National Federation of the Blind in the US, Mehta conceded that he always avoided the company of the blind. Recalling his meeting with Jacobus tenBroek, the founder and first president of the Federation, Mehta said he was impressed that tenBroek was a successful man, was married, had children and lived in a three-storey mansion. But while it motivated him to succeed, he did nothing for the Federation or for the blind.
“I don't have, for whatever psychological reasons, any friends at all who are blind-- actually I never have had any relationship with blind people since I moved out of the Arkansas School for the Blind. I had several black friends, and it always made me sad that these friends ended up studying or writing about black culture or welfare for black people. I, for whatever psychological reasons, wanted to be done with the business of blindness from the very beginning," he added.
He was also unapologetic about liking the good things in life. “I like good wine, I like good restaurants. I have to pay my rent. I married at 49; I had to take the people I was seeing to good restaurants. I had to be able to afford it,” he explained.
Mehta is survived by his wife and two children.