In the first paragraph of Vedi, the boy’s father voices the two most important themes of the book, self-reliance and memory: “‘You are a man now,’ he said. This sentence of my father’s was to become the beginning of my clear, conscious memory.”
It was Vedi’s good fortune to have a father who wanted his son to become self-reliant and had the resources to help. Consistently rational in a society permeated with superstition and hidebound traditions, the father took what steps he could to secure his son’s future. On the other hand, Vedi’s mother, though loving and supportive, embodied the fatalistic Eastern attitude he had to resist. Torn between the conflicting needs for independence and security, Vedi was finally oriented toward the West by his father. Necessary as this was, it makes Vedi a book about loss: of sight, of friends, of family. Vedi was always an outsider, the blind among the sighted and the rich boy among the poor. Rejecting pity, he had an impatient, almost imperious need for love, which he demanded of people but which never provided him with the security he sought. There is no self-pity in this book. As crucial to his achieving self-reliance as his father’s support was Vedi’s cheerful self-assurance, which reflects his mother’s emotional, irrational nature as much as his father’s enlightened ways. With a playful imagination that still shines in this writing, Mehta could pretend a cold shower was rain or that his fingers were his friends competing to see who could read Braille letters the fastest. When Mohun first saw him, he thought Vedi was a sighted boy because of his open expression, and this openness and curiosity, along with a sometimes mulish self-confidence, were the boy’s main strengths.Sometimes the wish to touch a thing I had heard about, like Mr. Ras Mohun’s ruler, would so agitate me that I couldn’t stop thinking about it. The name of the thing would go on repeating itself in my head . . . like a permanently stuck record.
This agitation made Vedi stubborn in his refusal to acknowledge limitations. For example, he insisted once that he could see a photograph, and on his first visit to the ocean, he went racing “toward the roar and the rush,” exhilarated by the sense of having nothing in front of him but the wide open ocean.
Beneath his self-confidence, however, is an undercurrent of anxiety running throughout the book. Parting from his family at the train station to return to the school, Vedi heard a blind beggar approach the family. “I remember thinking that I could end up like him, and feeling even more frightened.” This fear was grounded in the sense of powerlessness that came with blindness. All the children felt something malevolent in the sighted world, with its objects that seemed to lunge out at them. “Whenever we hurt outselves on anything at all, we would kick it and beat it and cry out,‘The sighted bastards!’” Their crude equation of sight and power, so strong that the boys hardly believed there could be schools for the blind in America, was mainly associated with the dormitory proctor, the Sighted Master, who handed out...
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While Vedi stands on its own merits, it is the first part of an ongoing autobiographical project and has to be seen within that framework. The thirteen-hundred-mile trip from his home in the Punjab to the school in Bombay was only the beginning of a lifelong odyssey. Still a child, Mehta went on to a school for the blind in Arkansas, before going on to a successful college career at Pomona, Oxford, and Harvard, preparatory to becoming a writer. Intending to chronicle his entire life, Mehta recognizes that the labor and time needed for each book means that he may never bring the story up to the time of its writing. Moreover, some critics, such as Carol Sternhell, acknowledge the heroism of the undertaking while questioning the need for such extensive self-absorption, suggesting that such self-indulgence will get tiring long before the project is done.
Also problematic is the book’s depiction of India. It is not surprising that Clark Blaise can say about a book by a man who has written so much on his native country that, “Being blind in colonial India . . . is a kind of personal reflection of the handicap and dependence of the nation itself.” This parallel is not, however, made explicit in the book, and Mehta has said that his autobiography is not intended to explain India to Westerners but to be read like a novel. Though Vedi deals extensively with life in India and differences between Eastern and Western attitudes, Mehta restricts his perspective to a very personal one. A self-styled archaeologist of his own life, Ved Mehta insists that he is content to let the sociologists explain India.