The Ledge Between the Streams is the fourth volume in Ved Mehta’s large, continuing family history and autobiography, the saga of a middle-class Indian family and its blind son who comes to the United States. Previous volumes include Daddyji (1972), Mamaji (1979), and Vedi (1982). The first two of these briefly explore the nineteenth century roots of the Mehta and Mehra families, then relate the biographies of Mehta’s father (Amolak Ram Mehta) and mother (Shanti Devi Mehra Mehta) up to the time of Mehta’s blindness (from cerebrospinal meningitis around his fourth birthday) and departure to the Dadar School for the Blind in Bombay. Vedi treats Mehta’s intermittent stay, from the age of five to the age of nine, at Dadar, a Dickensesque school for blind orphans and street urchins located in the Bombay slums. The Ledge Between the Streams covers the period from about the age of nine, when Mehta returns home permanently from Dadar School, until the age of fifteen, when he leaves India to attend the Arkansas School for the Blind, the only school in Great Britain or the United States that will have him.
Like Vedi, The Ledge Between the Streams enlarges on material already covered in a youthful autobiography, Face to Face (1957), the first of Mehta’s many books. Repetition or overlapping here of the early work is, however, of little consequence, except as an important measure of Mehta’s growth. In a foreword to The Ledge Between the Streams, Mehta calls Face to Face only “a sort of outline” for his larger autobiography, which he hopes will continue “for many years.” He dictated the sketchy Face to Face during his early twenties, when he was a college student; reading it is like going back and reading one’s own college compositions. Since writing Face to Face, Mehta has not merely lived longer but has also developed, matured, and—so the preface to Vedi states—learned “that memory expands by some kind of associative process.” As life lengthens and understanding grows, the past expands exponentially, becomes richer, fuller of memories and meaning. (Perhaps some such explanation will also pacify skeptics who marvel at autobiographers’ powers of recall and consider autobiography the premier revisionist art.)
Mehta’s style has developed with his memory and understanding, but his mastery of the English language merits attention for additional reasons. Like Joseph Conrad and Vladimir Nabokov, Mehta is a consummate stylist whose original language was not English; he first spoke Punjabi, then Marathi. He began learning English along with Braille at Dadar School (no Braille texts were available in Indian languages); after one year, he had accomplished the remarkable feat of learning more than two hundred English words. Later, his progress improved, as he eagerly read every Braille book or magazine he could find (Reader’s Digest was a staple), but his typed letter of application to the Arkansas School for the Blind was filled with funny misspellings, quaint constructions, and other mistakes. Face to Face is passable, but, in the preface to Vedi, Mehta admits that he wrote Face to Face before he had “quite found” his “voice as a writer” or “acquired even the rougher implements of the craft.” Mehta’s style soon developed beyond the passable: Since 1959, when he was twenty-five, Mehta has been a regular contributor to The New Yorker, a magazine that prides itself on good writing. Indeed, all of Mehta’s volumes of family history and autobiography first appeared in installments in The New Yorker.
Mehta’s style, as demonstrated in The Ledge Between the Streams, is a variety of The New Yorker style with a bit of Ernest Hemingway thrown in. It is easy, understated, and factual—the basis of good reporting. It is a pure style, free of localisms, slang, jargon, mannerisms, and posturing: It sets a standard for English in the global village. As the reader might expect, visual elements, so predominant in most writing, are downgraded, while the other senses get ample play. Mehta’s world is delineated by sound and touch (which sometimes escalates to bumps and hard knocks), and he also runs across his share of pungent Indian breaths at fairs and markets. At Saint Dunstan’s, a school for blinded soldiers where the young Mehta is a student, he is shocked...
(The entire section is 1836 words.)