Sound-Shadows of the New World

by Ved Mehta
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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 327

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.

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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

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1705

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 much reconstituted, remembered, or perhaps even created conversations, sensory data in strongly written passages, and other elements with a dramatic present point of view. Interspersed among these elements are sections of journals Mehta kept, newspaper articles about his activities in the United States, and letters to and from him during those years. One must assume that Mehta has edited these materials, although he does not tell the reader so specifically. He mentions his amanuensis and reports the extreme hesitation with which he entered into the review of these materials from his past because of the emotions of pain, shame, and great reluctance that they elicited, yet it is unclear why he includes some things and not others. Thus the reader is faced with a shifting, inconsistent voice, the consequence, one must suppose, of the painfulness of the recollections and the distance from the experiences and perhaps even its original serial publication. The particular intersection of voices, purpose, audience, message, and tone which emerges from this book finally seems to reveal a writer who, for all his success, for all his triumph over assorted adversities, is oddly lacking in self-knowledge and significant insight.

Mehta’s tone, for example, is throughout somber, serious, straight-faced, and essentially humorless in his recounting of these three years. One longs for a touch of ironic self-awareness. Yet Mehta seems unaware of the ironies involved in anyone’s high school years and recounts each incident with the sort of literalness that must have characterized his approach to them at the time, suggesting an absence of insight that his career, further education, and significant achievements might be expected to have brought him. One comes away from Sound-Shadows of the New World feeling that although Mehta has achieved much, he has yet to achieve the kind of personal insight that such a career as he has followed ought, one hopes, to have engendered.

Mehta does provide richly textured descriptions of his sensory impressions of his surroundings, revealing the possibilities of knowing the world through sound and touch rather than sight. Another strength is the sharp portrayal of a number of individuals who entered his life during the Little Rock years, some of whom he regarded as friends, others as no small obstacles to his survival. One of the more deftly drawn of the latter is Miss Holt, a young singing instructor then recently graduated from Ouachita College in nearby Arkadelphia with whom Mehta studied choir and piano. A devout Baptist Fundamentalist and an avid Bible reader, Miss Holt was, it soon becomes clear, an emotional and perhaps somewhat unstable woman, far more interested in converting the young Hindu to her particular brand of Christianity than in teaching him music. Because of his long-standing interest in music and a feeling that the school benefited from its public performances, Mehta encouraged students to join the choir, and despite her subsequent irrational (from the students’ point of view) behavior in matters of voice and discipline, Mehta also took private piano lessons from her, because, like many students at the school, he considered music a possible livelihood. Miss Holt, however, soon began to spend the class time with Mehta insistently urging him to “say yes to Jesus,” a request that he found confusing and disturbing. He writes, “I was afraid that giving in to her would somehow mean losing my religion and nationality.” Nevertheless, and this seems to be the point of this section, by doing battle with Miss Holt, Mehta developed a stronger sense of his identity—and the courage to seek exemption from compulsory attendance every Sunday morning “at the church of choice,” as was the custom. His argument that he was a Hindu was finally accepted, and he was allowed to forgo Sunday morning services—and therefore to sleep late.

Other touches in the book are also quite moving and affecting. For example, during his first summer in Little Rock, Mehta found a job at an icecream plant, an experience that introduced him directly to a small working-class community. Initiated into the world of assembly-line work, making and packaging ice-cream bars, Mehta was attracted by the easy camaraderie among the workers but found in the end that he could not enter their world.

His adolescent conflicts over sex, exacerbated by vast differences in cultural attitudes toward relationships between the sexes, also provide a number of poignant reminiscences. His first date, with an older girl named Barbara, created wildly conflicting emotions within him, emotions that he recounts with objectivity yet strongly enough to be recognized by anyone who dares recall his or her own teen years. At first, he was delighted to be walking across the lawn with Barbara’s hand in his, then, later, dancingTo the record “Mona Lisa,” her hand lightly resting on my shoulder and a bracelet she was wearing tinkling in my ear, I had a new attack of an unpleasant old thought: Would I be better off with a more desirable date than Barbara? . . . At that moment, more than ever, I wanted to see . . . Barbara’s face. Our ability to choose and be happy with our choice, it seemed, was damaged with our eyes. I no longer trusted the pleasure I took in Barbara’s hand on my shoulder and the tinkling of her bracelet in my ear. The whole dance floor seemed to move to the rhythm of discontent.

Still, for all the “rhythms” of adolescent discontent that permeate the book, it ends appropriately with commencement. The reader sees Mehta, one of seven graduating seniors, musing sadly on the uncertain future that faces him. “After graduation, my life took such a different turn—I didn’t pursue my appeal to Columbia but, instead, started college in California [at Pomona College]—that my experiences in the school and in Arkansas fell away like feathers from a molting bird.” A narrative clearly belonging to the genre of inspirational literature, of triumph in the face of adversity, Sound-Shadows of the New World demonstrates the small steps by which those who possess great talent, character, fortitude, and tenacity of purpose achieve success.


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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 58

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.

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