The writer Ved Mehta has died. He was 86. He will be remembered in India for his moving account of his childhood – at the age of three, he became blind after suffering from an attack of meningitis. He was admitted by his affluent doctor father at the Dadar School for the Blind. After a distinguished scholarly career that took him from Pomona College in California to Oxford University and then to Harvard, he joined The New Yorker where he worked as a staff writer for 30 years.
When I arrived at Vassar College about 15 years ago, a senior colleague told me that the Mehta used to live in the same faculty housing where I had just moved in. My home is in the middle of a row of dull, surprisingly ugly, apartment buildings across from campus; the fact that Mehta had lived in one of these grey or brown units immediately redeemed them in my eyes.
I hadn’t been aware that Mehta had taught at Vassar in the mid-1990s. This was after he lost the job at The New Yorker. What interested me in my colleague’s account was his description of Mehta trying to teach his daughter to ride a bicycle. There was Mehta, a blind man, anxious that his daughter not fall and hurt herself, and he instructed her to keep ringing the bell on her bicycle. As the little girl went around in a circle, Mehta turned in her direction, alert to any cry.
Mehta had come to the US in 1949, a 15-year-old student at the Arkansas School for the Blind. I was in college in Delhi when I discovered Mehta’s writings. He was living in New York but often wrote about India. In September 1985, the year before I left India, Mehta began a piece with a report about being awakened by a phone call in his room at a five-star hotel in Delhi. The caller said that there was a fire in the hotel’s basement. He wanted to know how many people were in the room with Mehta. “Is your wife wearing a nightie?” the caller wanted to know. “Is it of polyester? If so, ask her to immediately change into a cotton nightie.”
A little later, Mehta learned that it had been a prank call. There was no fire. The report’s beginning was there to point out the absurdity, perhaps even comedy, which Mehta encountered in India. The next morning, Mehta had awoken to a more real piece of news. The newspaper headlines were about bomb blasts in Delhi, Uttar Pradesh and Haryana. Eighty people had died by the day’s end. A boy had found a transistor radio in the street and taken it home. The radio exploded in his hands and killed him and his family. In the space of a few paragraphs, a seamless transition from one kind of absurdity to another, more horrifying, kind of meaninglessness.
When I was reading Mehta at that time, especially all his memoirs about his family members in Lahore or Amritsar, he was giving me a language to describe life around me. Along with his friend and contemporaries like Dom Moraes, with whom he traveled in India, or others like Khushwant Singh and R.K. Narayan, Mehta’s gift to Indian writers was to offer a lesson about how to write about our own streets and our own relatives.
Perhaps I was also attracted to him because he was living in New York and writing about India. This was a fate that I wished for myself, and I remember that my desire had an edge of desperation to it.
More than three decades have passed since then. And now Mehta has died after his struggle with Parkinson’s disease. I met him only once, during a literary festival in Neemrana in 2002. There was the awkwardness of automatically extending one’s hand for handshake, and I was rescued by his wife, Linn, who touched Mehta’s elbow. When he held my hand, I told Mehta that I had long admired him. And then I tried to tell him about a quotation from Mark Twain that he had cited somewhere and which I had carried for long with in my mind (“The difference between the almost right word and the right word is the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning”). But I botched it in my nervousness. He was extremely gracious and forgave my error; there was no lightning falling on my head. I didn’t get a chance to meet him again.
Paying homage to William Shawn, his longstanding editor at The New Yorker, Mehta once wrote that Shawn had been special to him because he was unlike all other editors who had typecast him “as a blind writer or an Indian writer”. For Shawn, all improbable or outlandish projects were worth pursuing.
And Mehta revelled in writing about them. All those years ago, when I was in my early 20s, when the bus taking me to Delhi University crossed Mandi House, I would step off and head to the Sahitya Akademi library where I first discovered Mehta. I read his pieces on anything from Mahatma Gandhi to Noam Chomsky, debates among British philosophers and his meetings with figures like the Dalai Lama and Satyajit Ray.
Such an eclecticism is still welcome, perhaps even more so in our globalised world, but Mehta’s star had waned long before his recent sickness. Why did this happen? There were charges of misogyny and obstreperousness, even rudeness, levelled against him, but the more important change perhaps was that Mehta had lost his place as a writer introducing India to American readers. Now, for many decades, younger writers, often writing out of India, had been doing a fine job of presenting the country’s changing complexities with a great degree of vividness and subtlety.
Amitava Kumar, who teaches at Vassar, is an author. His most recent book is a novel, forthcoming later this year, A Time Outside This Time.