Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1836
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 to shake hands with a hooked prosthesis, and he is repelled by sweaty soldiers putting their arms around him and breathing on him.
Mehta generally stays away from interpretation, except as implied by his choice of details and vocabulary. In any case, his tone is well controlled and understated. For example, when his father collides with office politics right after the family has settled in Lahore, Daddyji walks into the house and says, “Dr. Harnath Singh has done his dirty work. I have been transferred again. I have been posted to Rawalpindi.” Mehta’s sense of humor is sometimes reminiscent of James Thurber (Thurber also inhabited the pages of The New Yorker and himself was going blind): With a note of gentle sadness, it thrives on ironic situations and eccentric characters, including a whole gallery of teachers and servants, such as the young maidservant Raj Kumari, who maintains that she is actually a princess only temporarily working for the Mehtas until the right prince comes along. The humor rises to a high point in the servants’ description of sister Pom’s traditional wedding, which calls for the bridegroom’s entourage of fifty male relatives and friends: “Only healthy men came, because the bride had to be protected and guarded—the world was full of bride thieves.Police? They were good in their way, but they couldn’t take the place of blood relatives.”
Sometimes the humor becomes stronger, fiercer, ranging into caricature or black humor, especially when Mehta describes the folly of Hindu-Muslim antagonism. One of Mehta’s more colorful teachers, the blind Muslim Mr. Baqir, issues a steady stream of insults against Hindus, which he reinforces on the Hindu boys with blows from his cane. Mr. Baqir’s insults forebode the confrontation’s rhetorical phase, which combines intensity with banality. The nightly chants of the Muslim mobs (“Death to Hindustan!” “Death to the infidels!”) are matched by the exhortations of a Hindu extremist group: “Rise, Hindus, rise! Guard your supply of milk and yogurt. Guard your supply of dung and fuel. Guard your mother cow, whose look is love.” Sohan, a member of the Hindu extremist group, slips his young friend Mehta a knife, an enormous switchblade with a clublike wooden handle and foot-long, curved blade guaranteed to twist lethally in the belly of any Muslim. Soon all the Hindus are carrying weapons; even the women pack pistols, knives, and vials of poison (for themselves, in case they fall into the hands of Muslim men).
Eventually, even the black humor dissipates, as the hostile buildup leads inevitably to the horror of atrocities during the Partition, an event on a scale with the Holocaust. Before Lahore is assigned to Pakistan, most of the seven Mehta children are sent to relatives in the new India, but the parents, with the youngest child, Ashok, have to wait until the last minute to flee. At the border they are stopped by Muslim guards brandishing weapons. The road and roadside are littered with writhing, mutilated bodies and with severed heads and limbs. The canal at the border runs red. Somehow the Mehtas are allowed to pass through safely.
Although the Partition dominates the last half of The Ledge Between the Streams, history here is conveyed novelistically—that is, the focus remains on the experiences of young Mehta and his family. Before the Partition, the Mehtas are shown going about their daily life, and a rather good life it is, supported by Daddyji’s position as a high-ranking public-health official and by a staff of servants. There is an emphasis on education in the household, and the family members carry on discussions about such topics as the British, the status of women, and the Hindu-Muslim rift. Though tightly knit as a family, they have diverse personalities and opinions. The children are pulled in different directions by the Westernized Daddyji and by Mamaji, a traditional Hindu, though Mamaji is probably correct in thinking that Daddyji’s influence is stronger.
During one of the family’s many travels, a holiday outing to the Vale of Kashmir, they stop overnight at a mountain bungalow. In the gorge below run two streams, one clear, one muddy: One is the turbulent, icy Jhelum River flowing out of the Himalayas, the other a sluggish, tepid local river. Separating the two streams is a narrow ledge, and the family climbs down onto the ledge to investigate. They are delighted to squat on the ledge and feel the tepid water with one hand and the icy water with the other, but in the process they narrowly escape being swept away by a wall of water rushing down the Jhelum from a cloudburst upstream. In The Ledge Between the Streams, this incident reverberates with numerous symbolic possibilities: The two rivers are suggestive of the streams of influence (Mamaji, Daddyji; East, West; traditional, liberal) which converge on the Mehta children, who can dip their fingers into either of the streams, but only at some risk to their identity.
Facing the most danger is young Ved, who must reconcile not only the other influences but also bridge the gulf between the blind and the sighted. Much of his early life is devoted to proving that the blind can do anything the sighted can do. In hair-raising episodes, he clambers about the rooftops with other children flying kites, rides his bicycle and roller skates down the road, shins up and down the moving cables inside an elevator shaft, and hangs by his fingers over Himalayan precipices (apparently, not seeing is not fearing). His greatest challenge, however, is getting an education. In India, the blind are (or were at the time of the book) considered fit only for caning chairs, singing, or begging, so young Ved must look elsewhere for education beyond the rudimentary level. At the end, he is really going out on the ledge—leaving for the United States. Pandit Nehru salutes him as the first blind Indian boy to study in the United States; Ved’s extended family gathers to see him off at the airport; young Ved eagerly anticipates reaching the land of opportunity.
Mehta has continued his narrative at the Arkansas School for the Blind (in “Sound-Shadows of the New World,” The New Yorker, February 11 and 18, 1985), and presumably future volumes will continue to trace young Ved’s stay in the West. Possibly Mehta at the same time will keep readers posted on family members back in India. In any event, Mehta’s combination family history-autobiography has already grown into a significant work about Indian society and about blindness. It is also a valuable existential document: Ved Mehta has gone to a hard school, and what he has learned should be of interest to everyone.
Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 52
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