Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1825
In “Thyrsis,” an elegy for Arthur Hugh Clough, Matthew Arnold called Oxford “that sweet city with her dreaming spires.” Arnold and Clough had been close friends as undergraduates at Balliol, one of the three oldest of the University of Oxford’s colleges. (Merton and University College, along with Balliol, claim the...
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In “Thyrsis,” an elegy for Arthur Hugh Clough, Matthew Arnold called Oxford “that sweet city with her dreaming spires.” Arnold and Clough had been close friends as undergraduates at Balliol, one of the three oldest of the University of Oxford’s colleges. (Merton and University College, along with Balliol, claim the distinction of being the oldest. All date from the thirteenth century.) For Ved Mehta, too, Oxford is that sweet city. As a Punjabi growing up in the last days of the British Raj, Mebta regarded the city and university as equivalent to “the Mecca of the Muslims, the Golden Temple of the Sikhs—the holiest of the holy places of pilgrimage.” Fifteen of India’s British viceroys had graduated from Oxford, three of them from Balliol. In October, 1956, Balliol became Mehta’s school as well.
The journey to Oxford had not been easy. Blinded at the age of four, Mehta had not begun his formal education until the age of fifteen, when he entered the Arkansas School for the Blind. From there he had gone to Pomona College, the Oxford of the Orange Grove, in Southern California. Encouraged by John Gleason, one of his history teachers and a Balliol graduate, Mehta sought admission to Oxford—and the money to pay his tuition. Mehta’s family had lost everything in the 1947 partition of India; though a physician, Mehta’s father could not afford to send his son to an English university. A subvention from the Razen Foundation provided the money, and in his senior year at Pomona Mehta was accepted to read law at Balliol with the blind legal scholar T. H. Tylor.
Tylor told Mehta that the law was particularly suited to the blind, but Mehta remained uncertain of the subject he wished to pursue. Whereas American undergraduates take a wide range of subjects, their English counterparts must choose a specialty even before they enter college. Indeed, they are accepted to read in a particular area. Mehta’s ignorance of this practice led to embarrassment, as he flirted with PPE. (philosophy, political science, and economics), English, and history. This inability to choose immediately also caused him to squander much of his first term, though he encountered a number of unusual tutors he would not have met had he known his mind earlier. These characters emich Mehta’s narrative and offer a counterpoint to Oxford’s image of academic high seriousness.
Each week every student presented an essay to his tutor, who was supposed to comment and offer direction that would prepare the undergraduate for Schools, the examination at the end of three years that determined whether one obtained a degree and at what level. Those achieving a First were guaranteed a career in academia or the civil service. A Second was likely to lead to a career in the professions, a Third to business. A Fourth, the lowest possible pass, opened few doors. During the experiment with P.P.E., Mehta presented himself to Thomas Balogh, tutor in economics. Balogh suggested no readings and proved inattentive during student recitations, sorting through his mail and even leaving the room while students were reading their papers. Although Mehta found a more conventional tutor, he had to abandon PP.E. because his readers in economics could not stay awake.
John Bryson, who tutored all the Balliol undergraduates specializing in English literature, accepted Mehta as a student but could not understand why anyone would want to pursue the subject. Much of the English literature curriculum was devoted to Anglo-Saxon, and Mehta wondered whether he wanted to learn a language simply to readBeowulf in the original. He was still undecided on a subject when he met Richard W. Southern, author of The Making of the Middle Ages(1953), coming from the Senior Commons Room. Southern resolved Mehta’s quandary by observing that the young man looked like a historian. Mehta then assisted Southern with a problem, too: Southern could not recall which way he had been walking. “You were conung from the S.C.R., sir.” Southern, relieved, replied, “Then I’ve had my lunch.”
The students Mehta met were no less, though perhaps more self- consciously, eccentric. William, Lord Oxmantown, hosted weekly parties at which he served Pink Ladies and flirted with his female guests. At the Arnold and Barkenbury, students delivered elaborate speeches with little content; Mebta addressed the differences between English and American dating habits. Both his matter and his manner upheld the highest traditions of the A. & B., as the society was known; blind though he was, he paced atop a table throughout his speech. Mebta also joined the Thistle, a college dining club exclusively for Scots—Mehta was made an honorary burgess of Berwick-on-Tweed so he could qualify—and the anticlerical Voltaire Society, whose members shunned courtesy.
In choosing Balliol as the college of Lord Peter Wimsey, Dorothy Sayers made an inspired as well as an informed choice. Like Lord Peter, Balliol could appear foppish and trivial, but it also was committed to intellectual standards that had been set by such masters as the outstanding nineteenth century classicist Benjamin Jowett and such graduates as Gerard Manley Hopkins and Arnold Toynbee. Southern might forget whether he had lunched, but there was little about the Middle Ages that he could not recall. Balogh’s tutoring techniques were unconventional, but he served as an economic adviser to Prime Minister Harold Wilson. Among Mehta’s tutors was Christopher Hill, already in the 1950’s a widely published expert on seventeenth century Britain. Balliol’s master in 1956 was Richard David Lindsay, an authority on modern British constitutional history.
The undergraduates exhibited equally impressive credentials. Mehta records two conversations he overheard at the Freshman Dinner at the opening of Michaelmas Term in October, 1956. Two students were discussing Irish literature, one of them dismissing in turn William Butler Yeats, Samuel Beckett, and James Joyce. Behind this bizarre attitude lay an easy familiarity with modern literature. Even more remarkable was the discussion on the other side of the table, as two nineteen-year-old freshmen quoted Plato, Aristotle, and Vergil in the original Greek and Latin. Though a graduate of a fine college and a published author, Mehta considered himself ignorant compared to his classmates. He was not alone in this feeling. He writes of Vivian Dressler, who came to Oxford after taking an M.A. at Radcliffe. She eventually earned a First in Greats (classics), but initially she, too, found her preparation inadequate for an Oxford undergraduate degree, despite her graduate work at a major American university.
Mehta and Dressler were the products of mass education; the freshmen quoting Greek and Latin had emerged from an elitist system that began culling students at the age of eleven. (Mehta’s book offers a guided tour of British education, especially at the university level.) Mehta befriended Jasper Griffin, a graduate of Christ Hospital, the school of Charles Lamb and Samuel Taylor Coleridge; one senses throughout the richness of the historical and literary heritage of English educational institutions. Mehta relates that by the age of fifteen Griffin had mastered differential calculus, and by the time he was graduated from public (in England this word means “private”) school he could read Greek, Latin, and German. As Mehta observes, Griffin learned more in high school than Americans learn in college.
Another of Mehta’s friends, Dom Moraes of Jesus College, at nineteen published a book of poems that earned comparison with the work of William Butler Yeats. The next year (1958) he won the Hawthornden Prize for the best creative writing by a young author; Graham Greene and Robert Graves had been earlier recipients of the award. Mehta was so impressed by his colleagues that he compiled a book of essays by Oxford and Cambridge undergraduates. When he failed to find a publisher, Moraes reassured him, “Don’t worry, Vedkins. We will all write our own books—and a lot of them, too. And they’ll be so good that they’ll set the world on its ear.
To this golden world Mehta juxtaposes a brass one, as he demonstrates the price such a system can exact. In his first term at Balliol Mehta met the blind John Higgins, an Oxford graduate. Had he taken a First in Schools, Higgins would have been assured an academic career. With a Second he had to fend for himself. Yet even a First was not a passport to felicity. Robert Ogilvie attended Rugby and then Balliol, taking a First in Greats. In 1965, he published his celebrated A Commentary on Livy, Books J -S. Ten years later he became professor of humanities at St. Andrews University in Scotland. In 1981, he killed himself. Alasdair Clayre, a head boy at Winchester, was as an undergraduate likened to the brilliant Sir Isaiah Berlin. Clayre took a congratulatory First, the highest possible grade in Schools. Yet unable to settle down professionally or personally, he flitted from one interest and relationship to another. On January 10, 1984, the day his book on China, The Heart of the Dragon, was published, he threw himself under a train.
Despite these dark notes in the book, the bright tones prevail. Mehta’s is the admiration of the outsider. Though he was befriended by writers, intellectuals, and aristocrats, he remained an Indian in the West, a blind man among the sighted, the product of American schools amid Etonians and Wykehamites (graduates of Winchester). Moreover, at sixty the silliness of youth assumes an aureate glow, and the anxieties of the past can evoke an indulgent smile.
One concern that remained immediate was Schools. William Clark offered Mehta a career as a journalist—if he took a First. T. H. Tylor promised Mehta an Oxford Fellowship if he took a First. Crane Brinton of Harvard University told Mehta that with a First he could skip the Ph.D. and become a Junior Fellow; Mehta’s father was certain that a First would earn the young man a post in Jawaharlal Nehru’s Indian government. To this external pressure Mehta added his own desire for a First, which would justify his effort and the expense that his education had demanded. When he achieved a high Second, he was devastated and contemplated suicide. Moraes flew to India to console him, reminding him that Evelyn Waugh took a Third. Mehta recognized that his life was not over after all.
Nor, one hopes, is his autobiography. Up at Oxford ends with Mehta’s returning to America to pursue a Ph.D. at Harvard, and one closes this book eager to read of his adventures there.
Sources for Further Study
Booklist. XC, September 1, 1993, p.14.
Chicago Tribune. September 15, 1993, V, p.3.
The Christian Science Monitor. November 15, 1993, p.15.
Library Journal. CXVIII, August, 1993, p. 114.
The New York Times Book Review. XCVIII, September 12, 1993, p.28.
Publishers Weekly. CCXL, June 28, 1993, p.61.
The Spectator. CCLXXI, September 25, 1993, p.27.
The Times Literary Supplement. October 22, 1993, p.36.
The Virginia Quarterly Review. LXX, Winter, 1994, p. SS2O.
The Washington Post Book World. XXIII, October 24, 1993, p.8.