The career of Ved Mehta has excited wonderment and admiration virtually since his first arrival in the United States as a fifteen-year-old student in 1949. Blind from the age of four because of meningitis, Mehta overcame this handicap to become a fully mobile, well-educated, and productive writer for The New Yorker, whose articles and books interpreting Indian politics and culture for this sophisticated audience have been quite popular.
In Sound-Shadows of the New World, his sixteenth book, Mehta describes the three years he spent attending the Arkansas School for the Blind (ASB) from 1949 to graduation in 1952. Also recounted are his travels alone from Simla, India, to Little Rock, and his subsequent travels by public transportation to Chicago and elsewhere in the United States. Mehta regards this period of his life essentially in terms of the obstacles that faced him and his efforts to overcome them. These ranged from personal problems, such as acute homesickness that verged on depression, to inadequate funding of the ASB, which resulted in poor-quality food and teaching, to the numerous cultural contrasts between life in India after the partition of India and Pakistan, and life in Little Rock, Arkansas, during the time of the Korean War. Mehta describes, with a novelist’s eye for character, the people who aided him, his classmates at ASB, and the people who obstructed his effort to make his way independently and successfully.
Mehta’s style is clear and accessible, his message inspirational; the difficulties with the book—and there are difficulties—arise both from the nature of autobiography as a genre and from the authorial stance adopted. The book originated as a series of essays for The New Yorker. Mehta thus apparently sees his audience as well-educated and well-to-do with broad, sophisticated, and eclectic interests. Mehta came from a professional but still quite traditional Hindu family that had been forced into refugee status by the partition of India. Worried about money but possessed of a reverence for knowledge and a healthy respect for its pragmatic benefits, Mehta’s father had always encouraged his son to do something more with his life than repairing chairs, tuning pianos, or running a vending stand, the occupations traditionally open to blind people of that era.
Mehta’s years at ASB, the only school out of the thirty to which he applied that would admit him, were also for him a time out of time, a place out of place, an environment which, by its very strangeness, forced him to draw on his own inner resources and the long-distance support of his family. Because his family could involve themselves in his affairs only by letter and occasional cablegram, Mehta had to find his own answers to daily questions, his own models for his behavior. One of Mehta’s purposes in writing these memoirs, therefore, seems to be to show how important the influence and attitudes of his family and culture were in providing these resources of character long before he came to Little Rock. Thus, in this autobiographical narrative, the reader sees Ved discovering what he needs to survive the years from age fifteen to eighteen—the power of family tradition.
At one point Mehta quotes his father: “In life, there is only fight or flight. You must always fight.” His father’s advice in this regard is oddly replicated by the admonitions of Mr. Hartman, the physical education teacher and wrestling coach, who insisted that it was necessary for blind students to be strong and combative to survive. Nevertheless, it is part of the problem with the tone of this book that Mehta does not indicate any awareness on his part, even after thirty years, of this similarity; his understanding of Hartman and others with whom he is associated during these years is limited—as other aspects of the book are not—by being limited to his schoolboy response to them. The very question of the book’s authorial voice is more complicated than it first appears to be. On the one hand, Mehta is clearly telling this tale from a perspective of more than thirty years after the events occurred. On the other hand, Mehta includes...