Sound-Shadows of the New World Analysis

Ved Mehta

Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Ved Mehta was born in India of upper-class parents—his father being a fairly prosperous government official in the health department. Ved became totally blind as a result of illness at the age of three. At first he lived at home with his parents, four sisters, and two brothers. Later, his father sent him to school in Bombay before sending him to the Arkansas School for the Blind. This book is an account of his experience at this high school from August, 1949, until his graduation in May, 1952, and departure for college in California. Throughout his sojourn in the United States, Mehta wrote letters home on a typewriter and kept a journal. Thirty-five years later, these letters and his journal became the basis for a series of articles which first appeared in The New Yorker. They were then published in book form in 1985.

The book forms part of an ongoing autobiography. Vedi (1982) and The Ledge Between the Streams (1984) cover his childhood; two earlier volumes, Daddyji (1972) and Mamaji (1979), center on his father and mother. Face to Face (1957) was the forerunner of Mehta’s autobiographies, covering his life through his college days and introducing many of the themes developed in the later works that focus on particular periods in his life.

Sound-Shadows of the New World follows Mehta through his experiences in high school and offers a glimpse into his thoughts, his hopes, his victories, and his defeats. The book contains 430 pages and is divided into eleven chapters. The first chapter deals with the difficulty of getting Mehta accepted into school, his final acceptance by the Arkansas School for the Blind, his journey to the United States, and his first days in New York and Little Rock. The last chapter deals with his final months in school, his problems in getting accepted into the university, and his graduation. Between these two chapters the book offers a narrative of Mehta’s daily life interspersed with letters and entries from his journal.

Sound-Shadows of the New World

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 9)

The career of Ved Mehta has excited wonderment and admiration virtually since his first arrival in the United States as a fifteen-year-old student in 1949. Blind from the age of four because of meningitis, Mehta overcame this handicap to become a fully mobile, well-educated, and productive writer for The New Yorker, whose articles and books interpreting Indian politics and culture for this sophisticated audience have been quite popular.

In Sound-Shadows of the New World, his sixteenth book, Mehta describes the three years he spent attending the Arkansas School for the Blind (ASB) from 1949 to graduation in 1952. Also recounted are his travels alone from Simla, India, to Little Rock, and his subsequent travels by public transportation to Chicago and elsewhere in the United States. Mehta regards this period of his life essentially in terms of the obstacles that faced him and his efforts to overcome them. These ranged from personal problems, such as acute homesickness that verged on depression, to inadequate funding of the ASB, which resulted in poor-quality food and teaching, to the numerous cultural contrasts between life in India after the partition of India and Pakistan, and life in Little Rock, Arkansas, during the time of the Korean War. Mehta describes, with a novelist’s eye for character, the people who aided him, his classmates at ASB, and the people who obstructed his effort to make his way independently and successfully.

Mehta’s style is clear and accessible, his message inspirational; the difficulties with the book—and there are difficulties—arise both from the nature of autobiography as a genre and from the authorial stance adopted. The book originated as a series of essays for The New Yorker. Mehta thus apparently sees his audience as well-educated and well-to-do with broad, sophisticated, and eclectic interests. Mehta came from a professional but still quite traditional Hindu family that had been forced into refugee status by the partition of India. Worried about money but possessed of a reverence for knowledge and a healthy respect for its pragmatic benefits, Mehta’s father had always encouraged his son to do something more with his life than repairing chairs, tuning pianos, or running a vending stand, the occupations traditionally open to blind people of that era.

Mehta’s years at ASB, the only school out of the thirty to which he applied that would admit him, were also for him a time out of time, a place out of place, an environment which, by its very strangeness, forced him to draw on his own inner resources and the long-distance support of his family. Because his family could involve themselves in his affairs only by letter and occasional cablegram, Mehta had to find his own answers to daily questions, his own models for his behavior. One of Mehta’s purposes in writing these memoirs, therefore, seems to be to show how important the influence and attitudes of his family and culture were in providing these resources of character long before he came to Little Rock. Thus, in this autobiographical narrative, the reader sees Ved discovering what he needs to survive the years from age fifteen to eighteen—the power of family tradition.

At one point Mehta quotes his father: “In life, there is only fight or flight. You must always fight.” His father’s advice in this regard is oddly replicated by the admonitions of Mr. Hartman, the physical education teacher and wrestling coach, who insisted that it was necessary for blind students to be strong and combative to survive. Nevertheless, it is part of the problem with the tone of this book that Mehta does not indicate any awareness on his part, even after thirty years, of this similarity; his understanding of Hartman and others with whom he is associated during these years is limited—as other aspects of the book are not—by being limited to his schoolboy response to them. The very question of the book’s authorial voice is more complicated than it first appears to be. On the one hand, Mehta is clearly telling this tale from a perspective of more than thirty years after the events occurred. On the other hand, Mehta includes...

(The entire section is 1705 words.)


(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Gerrity, Mary T. Review in School Library Journal. XXXIII (September, 1986), p. 155.

Goffman, Amy D. Review in Library Journal. CXI (February 1, 1986), p. 77.

Kureishi, Hanif. Review in The Times Literary Supplement. May 30, 1986, p. 589.

Mehta, Ved. Daddyji, 1972.

Mehta, Ved. Face to Face, 1957.

Mehta, Ved. Mamaji, 1979.

Mehta, Ved. Vedi, 1982.

Sternhell, Carol. Review in The New York Times Book Review. XCI (March 9, 1986), p. 14.