In “Thyrsis,” an elegy for Arthur Hugh Clough, Matthew Arnold called Oxford “that sweet city with her dreaming spires.” Arnold and Clough had been close friends as undergraduates at Balliol, one of the three oldest of the University of Oxford’s colleges. (Merton and University College, along with Balliol, claim the distinction of being the oldest. All date from the thirteenth century.) For Ved Mehta, too, Oxford is that sweet city. As a Punjabi growing up in the last days of the British Raj, Mebta regarded the city and university as equivalent to “the Mecca of the Muslims, the Golden Temple of the Sikhs—the holiest of the holy places of pilgrimage.” Fifteen of India’s British viceroys had graduated from Oxford, three of them from Balliol. In October, 1956, Balliol became Mehta’s school as well.
The journey to Oxford had not been easy. Blinded at the age of four, Mehta had not begun his formal education until the age of fifteen, when he entered the Arkansas School for the Blind. From there he had gone to Pomona College, the Oxford of the Orange Grove, in Southern California. Encouraged by John Gleason, one of his history teachers and a Balliol graduate, Mehta sought admission to Oxford—and the money to pay his tuition. Mehta’s family had lost everything in the 1947 partition of India; though a physician, Mehta’s father could not afford to send his son to an English university. A subvention from the Razen Foundation provided the money, and in his senior year at Pomona Mehta was accepted to read law at Balliol with the blind legal scholar T. H. Tylor.
Tylor told Mehta that the law was particularly suited to the blind, but Mehta remained uncertain of the subject he wished to pursue. Whereas American undergraduates take a wide range of subjects, their English counterparts must choose a specialty even before they enter college. Indeed, they are accepted to read in a particular area. Mehta’s ignorance of this practice led to embarrassment, as he flirted with PPE. (philosophy, political science, and economics), English, and history. This inability to choose immediately also caused him to squander much of his first term, though he encountered a number of unusual tutors he would not have met had he known his mind earlier. These characters emich Mehta’s narrative and offer a counterpoint to Oxford’s image of academic high seriousness.
Each week every student presented an essay to his tutor, who was supposed to comment and offer direction that would prepare the undergraduate for Schools, the examination at the end of three years that determined whether one obtained a degree and at what level. Those achieving a First were guaranteed a career in academia or the civil service. A Second was likely to lead to a career in the professions, a Third to business. A Fourth, the lowest possible pass, opened few doors. During the experiment with P.P.E., Mehta presented himself to Thomas Balogh, tutor in economics. Balogh suggested no readings and proved inattentive during student recitations, sorting through his mail and even leaving the room while students were reading their papers. Although Mehta found a more conventional tutor, he had to abandon PP.E. because his readers in economics could not stay awake.
John Bryson, who tutored all the Balliol undergraduates specializing in English literature, accepted Mehta as a student but could not understand why anyone would want to pursue the subject. Much of the English literature curriculum was devoted to Anglo-Saxon, and Mehta wondered whether he wanted to learn a language simply to readBeowulf in the original. He was still undecided on a subject when he met Richard W. Southern, author of The Making of the Middle Ages(1953), coming from the Senior Commons Room. Southern resolved Mehta’s quandary by observing that the young man looked like a historian. Mehta then assisted Southern with a problem, too: Southern could not recall which way he had been walking. “You were conung from the S.C.R., sir.” Southern, relieved, replied, “Then I’ve had my lunch.”
The students Mehta met were no less, though perhaps more self- consciously, eccentric. William, Lord Oxmantown, hosted weekly parties at which he served Pink Ladies and flirted with his female guests. At the Arnold and Barkenbury, students delivered elaborate speeches with little content; Mebta addressed the differences between English and American dating habits. Both his matter and his manner upheld the highest...
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