Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1148
Sound-Shadows of the New World paints a picture of the world of the blind as perceived by one of its members. It speaks of the fear that the blind have as well as of the skills they are able to master and the life they are able to live in what they call the sighted world. As one follows Mehta through his adolescence one also learns about Indian values and Indian ideas. Mehta’s family was from a high caste—the second highest caste in India—and as such had firm ideas of how life should be lived.
In particular, Mehta’s values were shaped by his father, who had been educated in England and often reminisced about his days at the university. Thus, the already determined Ved Mehta became even more eager to go abroad for study. The first problem for Mehta was to gain admission into a school in the United States; the second was to finance his education, as the family had limited means, having lost most of their wealth when they emigrated from Pakistan when India became independent from Great Britain. Money was always a problem and was often on Mehta’s mind. A scheme to raise money by selling ivory statues and carvings and other semiprecious materials in Little Rock came to nothing.
Throughout his first year, Mehta also had another worry; he had entered the country with a visitor’s visa, as the Arkansas School for the Blind was not on the immigration authority’s list of approved schools for foreign students. Only after intense efforts on the part of school officials did Mehta receive approval for him to stay and complete his education.
In chapter 1, Mehta raises the question of the cultural differences between India and America. The topic was an emotional one: girls and marriage. Just before seeing him off in New Delhi, his father asked him if he would ever marry a Western woman. Mehta replied rather haughtily in the negative, as a good Hindu should; his father noted that it might not be a bad idea, that India is a harsh land and marriage there is like a business transaction. Indian parents carefully measure their children’s liabilities and assets; because of Mehta’s blindness they would never be able to find a wife for him in their caste. Hindus would look down on him. A Christian woman might make him a much better wife than a Hindu woman, in any case, as Christians are taught love and compassion whereas Hindus learn only fate and duty.
Further, in a Western marriage, Mehta’s father noted, “there is the possibility of intellectual companionship of equals—something that doesn’t exist in an Indian marriage at all. Once you’ve seen that kind of marriage, you may want a companion equal to yourself, even if that means staying in the West.”
This conversation—indeed, the entire subject of romance—was an embarrassing one for Mehta. It “wound a tightly coiled spring inside me.” His ambivalence on the subject is well illustrated in an episode concerning a visit he received from his eldest cousin, who had been studying engineering at Oregon State University and was now on his way home to India. Mehta eagerly raised the question of dating, and their conversation illuminated the differences between America and India. Mehta, isolated in Little Rock and hanging on to what he remembered of India, was stymied by the Indian conception of purity. Fascinated by the idea of dating, he was also repelled by it; in India, if young people associated with members of the opposite sex before marriage they acquired a bad reputation and lost their purity. In India, purity, or the threat of its loss, determines a person’s status and governs all actions and relationships between people. The Arkansas School for the Blind, which was coeducational, held dances on Saturday evenings, and all students were required to attend. Mehta had been much too shy to take an active role. He was shocked to discover that his cousin held the belief (common to Indians) that what one did abroad did not count. Since dating was part of the American teenage scene, his cousin believed that he too should date. Moreover, his cousin admitted that he himself had been dating since he first arrived in the United States.
This discussion did nothing to reassure Mehta. His confusion on the subject emerges periodically throughout the book. Feeling that he represented his country in Little Rock, he saw himself as responsible for projecting a proper image.
It was, in fact, as a spokesman for India that Mehta became quite renowned in the community. The local newspaper had carried stories about this boy who had traveled all the way from India to study at the local school for the blind. It was a time when India was in the news. India’s independence in 1947 and the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi in 1948 had made people aware of that country. Mehta was occasionally asked by various organizations to give talks about his homeland, which, with help from his father, he did. In some ways, as he himself recognized, Mehta was mature for his age, and in other ways he was quite the opposite. This public speaking showed his more adult side.
Also during this period Mehta’s interest in journalism was growing. One evening, feeling ill, he went directly upstairs after supper. Someone had left the radio on and Mehta heard a voice on the radio reading the news. He stood transfixed, listening to this man bringing him the world. He had never heard the voice before. The newsman filled a vacuum in his life, a gap whose existence he had not known until that moment. He became an inspiration to Mehta, just as he had become an inspiration to many others. The man was Edward R. Murrow. Mehta asked for, and was given, a room of his own (a tiny broom closet) in which he could put his typewriter, his radio, and his tape recorder. He also purchased a timer so that he could record programs from the radio even when he was in class. Murrow’s broadcasts became Mehta’s inspiration.
Determined on a career as a writer, he was ever conscious of finances. By taking correspondence courses during summer vacation, which he spent alone at the school, he was able to skip a year of instruction, thus relieving his father of some of the financial burden. Mehta also took a summer job in an ice-cream factory after he had learned to get around outside the school alone. He was also elected the school senate’s president in his senior year.
Asked at graduation to name the most precious thing he was taking from the school, Mehta replied, mobility. For Mehta, mobility meant freedom and independence—which this sensitive, proud, talented person had always craved.