Ved Mehta, whose monumental autobiography explored life in India, dies at 86

World renowned author Ved Mehta who died Jan. 9, 2021 in Manhattan. Photo: screengrab YouTube video

Ved Mehta, an author and journalist who helped introduce Americans to Indian history and culture, most notably in an epic 12-volume autobiography that melded the personal and political, recalling his childhood vision loss and the traumas of Indian partition, died Jan. 9 at his home in Manhattan. He was 86.

The cause was complications from Parkinson’s disease, said his wife, Linn Cary Mehta.

Mehta wrote for the New Yorker magazine for more than three decades, reporting on Oxford philosophers, Christian theologians, Noam Chomsky’s polarizing linguistic theories and the legacy of Mahatma Gandhi, whose disciples he spent years interviewing in the 1970s, long after the Indian independence leader was assassinated.

But his chief subject was loss – including his sight, which disappeared after he was diagnosed with meningitis at age 3; the loss of his home in Lahore, which he and his family were forced to flee after the partition of India; the loss of his language, Punjabi, which he traded for English; and the loss of his country, which he left as a teenager to study in Arkansas, beginning a Western education that included stops at Oxford and Harvard universities.

“I don’t belong to any single tradition,” he told The New York Times in 1984. “I am an amalgam of five cultures – Indian, British, American, blind and The New Yorker.”

Mehta discussed his blindness in his first book, the autobiography “Face to Face” (1957), which he wrote in his early 20s partly as a romantic ploy, an unsuccessful attempt to woo a Pomona College classmate whom he hired to take dictation “eight hours a day, six days a week.” But for many years he avoided the subject, refusing to let publishers reference his blindness on dust jackets.

“He wanted to compete on equal terms,” his wife said in a phone interview, explaining that Mehta “wanted to be viewed as a writer,” not a “blind writer.”

Traveling without a guide dog or white cane, Mehta used what he called “facial vision,” learning to distinguish the roar of a Chevrolet from a Ford and to identify visitors by the sound of their footsteps. In his book “Fly and the Fly-Bottle” (1963), about British intellectuals, he described historian Herbert Butterfield as “puffing every so often at his Player’s, which had a permanent place on his lower lip.”

“People would think that was a visual description,” said Mehta, “but it was purely an auditory impression,” the result of a cigarette that made his subject talk like Humphrey Bogart. Similarly, he explained that he was able to describe landscapes – including a field “with the yellow of mustard flowers outlined by the feathery green of sugarcane” – partly through smell. “If I’m in the Punjab in the spring and I smell mustard flowers, I know what color they are,” he said.

Mehta placed himself in the lineage of blind writers such as Homer and Milton, though some critics accused him of playing tricks on readers by not disclosing his sightlessness. He used a Braille typewriter early in his career but spent decades working with amanuenses, dictating to them pages that he wrote in his head and revised out loud – millions of words in all, spanning 27 books.

Nearly half those works made up his autobiographical project, known as “Continents of Exile.” The series began with two biographies of his parents, “Daddyji” (1972) and “Mamaji” (1979), who put him on a train to Bombay when he was 5, sending him to a school for the blind more than 1,000 miles from home. “To this day I can’t hear the sound of a train without shedding tears in my head,” Mehta once said.

Those early volumes won critical acclaim, and Mehta received a financial boost in 1982 by winning a $236,000 MacArthur Fellowship, commonly known as a “genius grant.” He drew further praise with books including “The Ledge Between the Streams” (1984), which examined his childhood as well as the violence of the 1947 partition, in which British India was divided into two independent states.

Mehta was 13 at the time, and he later wrote that his Hindu family applied a coat of fireproof paint to their home and slept in their clothes, ready to flee from rioting neighbors who wanted them out of Lahore, a predominantly Muslim city in present-day Pakistan.

“In a very quiet way, Ved Mehta is breaking the Western stereotypes and getting America to look at India as something other than a grandiose stage setting,” Robin Lewis, an Indian literature professor at Columbia University, told The Times after the book’s release. “He’s taking the raw material of his personal experience and combining it with some of the pains, crises and historical dislocations that India has gone through.”

The fifth of seven children, Ved Parkash Mehta was born in Lahore on March 21, 1934. His father was a British-educated doctor and public health official who diagnosed his meningitis; his mother, a homemaker, sought to restore his vision through folk cures that included applying raw eggs to his eyes.

“I felt that blindness was a terrible impediment, and that if only I exerted myself, and did everything my big sisters and big brother did, I could somehow become exactly like them,” he wrote in “The Ledge Between the Streams.” To that end, he joined his siblings in neighborhood kite battles, clambering over rooftops while flying kites with strings covered in powdered glass.

“Without knowing it, during the kite chases I was learning how to get around – by sensing the currents of air and by listening to the patter of feet on a roof, to the scrapes of shoes along a wall,” he wrote. He became more independent after studying in Bombay, now Mumbai, where he learned Braille, bicycling, roller skating, horseback riding and rudimentary English.

While the blind in India typically became beggars or caned chairs, Mehta initially pursued a career in academia. After studying at the Arkansas School for the Blind, which he said was “the only place that would have me,” he graduated from Pomona in 1956 and received a scholarship to study history at the University of Oxford.

Mehta received a second bachelor’s degree in 1959, followed by a master’s degree in history from Harvard in 1961. By then he had started writing for magazines, contributing to The Atlantic and Saturday Review before submitting to The New Yorker at the suggestion of British newspaper editor David Astor, to whom he had pitched a 14,000-word travel piece about a recent trip to India.

“Something that long and boring only The New Yorker would publish,” Astor said. Mehta called The New Yorker’s editor, William Shawn, who invited him to the office for tea and published the article in January 1960, later praising Mehta’s “airy, elegant, marvelously clear” style.

“His kindness and generosity,” Mehta wrote of Shawn, “made me believe that I was not losing myself to him but, rather, discovering my true self – that, for once, I was, as it were, speaking not in an Indian-American voice or an English voice but in my own.”

Mehta remained at The New Yorker until 1994, two years after the arrival of editor Tina Brown, whom he described as “cold and unresponsive.” He later wrote a memoir, “Remembering Mr. Shawn’s New Yorker” (1998), describing the magazine as a haven for writers as well as “a cauldron of neurosis and frustration” under Shawn, who was soft-spoken but despotic.

Mehta was himself accused of highhandedness at times, notably in a 1989 article in the satirical magazine Spy, in which former assistants described him as patronizing and domineering. By all accounts, he could be contemptuous of bores and dullards.

“He would tell you point-blank, ‘You bore me. I never want to see you again,’ ” Columbia University historian Stephen Koss told The Times. Friends said he softened after his marriage in 1983 to Linn Cary, the niece of New Yorker writer Henry S.F. Cooper.

In addition to his wife, survivors include two daughters, Natasha Mehta and Sage Mehta Robinson, all of Manhattan; two sisters; and two granddaughters.

Mehta became a naturalized American citizen in 1975, renouncing his Indian citizenship in protest of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s autocratic rule. He later taught writing at universities including Yale and Columbia, and completed his autobiographical odyssey with “The Red Letters” (2004), which returned to the subject of his father.

“When I started to write, I wanted to see how I could exploit my other senses,” Mehta told The Times in 1972, after publishing the series’ first volume. “I reached the point where I wanted to experiment. To really plumb the depths of the experiment, I wanted to explore my own life. I think of autobiographical writing as a letter to myself.”



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