Biography (Cyclopedia of World Authors, Fourth Revised Edition)
It should not be surprising that Ved Parkash Mehta (MAY-tah) has spent so much of his literary life writing autobiography. On the one hand, Mehta, having lived an unusual multicultural existence spanning East and West, was eminently qualified to depict aspects of Indian history and society for readers of English. On the other hand, Mehta’s own life, revolving around the fact of his blindness, made his experiences—both in India and in the West—personally unique.
This uniqueness is reflected not only in specifically autobiographical writings but also in images he conveyed through fictional situations and figures. The opening chapter of Mehta’s first book, his autobiography Face to Face, dwells on the seeming irony that, in a society which almost has to accept the fact that misfortune often afflicts poverty-stricken masses, the devastating handicap of blindness (as an aftereffect of meningitis when he was three years old) should strike a moderately well-to-do English-educated Indian physician’s family living then in Lahore. A good portion of his family’s efforts to compensate for their son’s blindness was through special, if not to say privileged, educational programs. Many of the human experiences Mehta underwent in his early years of schooling provided material not only for his formal autobiography but also for sketches of Indian society that centered on this very special milieu.
When Mehta was not yet five, the blind boy’s father sent him to the Dadar School for the Blind in Bombay. The youth’s early experiences in school in an urban setting and in close proximity to predominantly British high administrative and social circles were combined with periodic returns to rural settings in various regions of (then still united) India. Diversity in these breaks from primary schooling, which would inspire Mehta’s sketches of traditional Indian society, depended on his father’s posting to different sectors of the country in the service of the Public Health Administration. The fact that Mehta was able to continue his special education at the Emerson Institute for the Blind in Lahore at a very critical time in the 1940’s was significant. It meant that, as a Hindu youth in the Muslim capital of the Punjab, he witnessed at first hand the intercultural tensions that led to the political partition of the Subcontinent (and his family’s temporary refugee status) in 1948. Again, because Mehta would someday serve as a literary link between his own culture and Western readers interested in the effects of conflicting Pakistani and Indian nationalisms, he was able to use these personal emotional experiences as points of reference in studying the history of his country in greater detail.
The turning point that would impel Mehta to develop cross-cultural currents in the literature he wrote as an adult came...
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Ved Mehta has been telling the story of his own life for most of his career. This story includes the cultures in which he has lived. Mehta was born into a well-educated Hindu family in Lahore in 1934. At the age of three he lost his eyesight as a result of meningitis. Mehta’s education took him away from his close-knit family and sent him to places that must have seemed like different worlds: Arkansas in the era of segregation, a college campus in suburban Southern California, and Oxford University. As a staff writer for The New Yorker and in his many books, Mehta makes those different worlds, including the world of blindness, come alive to the reader.
Mehta published his first book, Face to Face, when he was twenty-two. It is a highly readable account of his childhood, of his family’s sufferings during the partition of India (they had to flee their native city when it became part of the new Muslim nation of Pakistan), and of his experiences as a student in America. The central subject, however, is Mehta’s blindness and the ways in which he learns to be independent and successful despite his disability.
For many years after the appearance of Face to Face, Mehta allowed no hint of his disability to appear in his work, which he filled with visual descriptions. He published a novel and became a master of nonfiction. He wrote books introducing Indian culture and politics to Western readers; Mehta has also written a series of books on the excitement of intellectual life. In books on history and philosophy, theology, and linguistics, Mehta makes clashes of ideas vivid by describing intellectuals not only as thinkers but as people.
When Mehta returned to autobiography, beginning with Daddyji, he stopped suppressing the fact of his blindness. Instead, he tried to make the things that had formed his identity—his family, his disability, his experiences at schools for the blind, and the colleges and universities where he studied—as vivid as his other subjects. Beginning with biographies of his mother and father and working ahead through five more books to his graduation from Oxford, Mehta presents the story of his life, always as an exile seeking his place in the world, with eloquence and frankness.
Bibliography (Cyclopedia of World Authors, Fourth Revised Edition)
Embree, Ainslie. Review of The Ledge Between the Streams, by Ved Mehta. The New York Times Book Review, May 6, 1984. A detailed review.
Malcolm, Janet. “School of the Blind.” The New York Times Book Review, March 9, 1986. Offers a detailed examination of the autobiographical Daddyji, Mamaji, Vedi trilogy.
Mehta, Ved. Interview by Stella Dong. Publishers Weekly, January 3, 1986. A good interview with the writer.
Slatin, John M. “Blindness and Self-Perception: The Autobiographies of Ved Mehta.” Mosaic 19, no. 4 (Fall, 1986): 173-193.
Sontag, Frederick. “The Self-Centered Author.” New Quest 79 (July-August, 1989): 229-233.