The Stolen Light

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 34)

The Stolen Light is the sixth volume in the ongoing serial autobiography of Ved Mehta. In the first two volumes of the series, Daddyji (1972) and Mamaji (1979), Mehta sketched the character and family background of his father and mother; in subsequent volumes he has related his own remarkable story. Sound-Shadows of the New World (1985), the volume immediately preceding The Stolen Light, opens in 1949, with the fifteen-year-old Mehta coming to the United States to attend the Arkansas School for the Blind in Little Rock; the volume concludes with his graduation and departure for Pomona College, a fine liberal arts institution in Claremont, California, where he would spend his undergraduate years.

The Stolen Light picks up the narrative with Mehta’s first day at Pomona College. In a prefatory note to this volume, Mehta introduces an “omnibus title” for the entire series—Continents in Exile—a title which, he says, he has long had in mind, and one which is particularly appropriate for this volume. Doubly exiled by the blindness with which he was stricken in childhood and by his departure in adolescence from his native India in search of educational opportunities in the United States, Mehta documents his quest for independence and selfhood, a quest shared with all adolescents but lent particular poignancy by Mehta’s special problems and needs. This personal narrative is framed by a larger narrative of American culture in the 1950’s as seen by an intelligent young outsider, one who longs desperately to be an insider.

As a personal narrative, Mehta’s account of his undergraduate years is a sensitive evocation of the life of a blind student. In great detail, Mehta shows how the ordinary difficulties which every college student faces daily are infinitely complicated by the particular needs of a blind person. As the first blind student to attend Pomona College, he encountered almost insuperable obstacles in attending to the mundane responsibilities of college life. In order to get his assignments read, he had to hire readers. In order to get his papers written, he had to find someone to whom to dictate them (and, since his classmates faced the same pressing deadlines, he had to look to nonstudents to act as amanuenses). Through many revealing anecdotes, Mehta re-creates his world for the reader—a world filled with perilous adventures, such as Ved’s first railway journey, in which an improperly locked bed in his couchette folds up with him in it and he must extricate himself before it locks and smothers him. The reader also experiences Mehta’s constant anger and frustration, as much at the oversolicitous and overprotective professors and administrators as at the insensitive and unfriendly undergraduates who ignore or shun him. What Mehta finds most undermining of all is the tacit, pervasive opinion held by sighted people that a blind student has no right to a college education, especially not in a college with sighted students. For this reason, Mehta feels that, like Prometheus (the central figure in the wall mural of Frary Hall, the dining center at Pomona College), he has stolen the fire or rather the light of the gods for his own purposes. He feels like a thief and a usurper, not like a rightful heir.

The narrative evokes, as well, the cultural displacement of a foreign student, of a young man who is from but no longer of India. Because he experiences American culture from the outside, he is in a particularly advantageous position to observe its strengths and its weaknesses. He notes with amusement that Southern California, in particular, embraces with eagerness any self-proclaimed Indian guru and rewards materially many an Indian who had been considered hopelessly inept in his own country. On a more serious note, he laments the political quiescence of American students, especially those in a rich, conservative college town. On the other hand, he notes appreciatively: “The intellectual atmosphere is serene and subtle and breathtaking, such an atmosphere as could not be found in any country other than the United States.”

In general, Mehta makes clear that his achievement of an undergraduate degree at an American college was the end result of a long, unlikely, and difficult odyssey—and that he found many of the adventures along the way both painful and costly. First, there was the long and often humiliating search for a sponsor, led by his father, who paraded him before an odd variety of potential benefactors. This search resulted in the adoption of both Ved and his father by Mrs. Ethel Clyde, an opinionated, overbearing, generous, but emotionally exhausting patron. Once at college, Ved found that his greatest and longest-lasting problem had just begun: the problem of taking on the knowledge and culture of the West without despising and repudiating his own culture. This problem was compounded by the built-in Western bias of the entire undergraduate curriculum. “Just...

(The entire section is 2039 words.)