Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1166
It should not be surprising that Ved Parkash Mehta (MAY-tah) has spent so much of his literary life writing autobiography. On the one hand, Mehta, having lived an unusual multicultural existence spanning East and West, was eminently qualified to depict aspects of Indian history and society for readers of English. On the other hand, Mehta’s own life, revolving around the fact of his blindness, made his experiences—both in India and in the West—personally unique.
This uniqueness is reflected not only in specifically autobiographical writings but also in images he conveyed through fictional situations and figures. The opening chapter of Mehta’s first book, his autobiography Face to Face, dwells on the seeming irony that, in a society which almost has to accept the fact that misfortune often afflicts poverty-stricken masses, the devastating handicap of blindness (as an aftereffect of meningitis when he was three years old) should strike a moderately well-to-do English-educated Indian physician’s family living then in Lahore. A good portion of his family’s efforts to compensate for their son’s blindness was through special, if not to say privileged, educational programs. Many of the human experiences Mehta underwent in his early years of schooling provided material not only for his formal autobiography but also for sketches of Indian society that centered on this very special milieu.
When Mehta was not yet five, the blind boy’s father sent him to the Dadar School for the Blind in Bombay. The youth’s early experiences in school in an urban setting and in close proximity to predominantly British high administrative and social circles were combined with periodic returns to rural settings in various regions of (then still united) India. Diversity in these breaks from primary schooling, which would inspire Mehta’s sketches of traditional Indian society, depended on his father’s posting to different sectors of the country in the service of the Public Health Administration. The fact that Mehta was able to continue his special education at the Emerson Institute for the Blind in Lahore at a very critical time in the 1940’s was significant. It meant that, as a Hindu youth in the Muslim capital of the Punjab, he witnessed at first hand the intercultural tensions that led to the political partition of the Subcontinent (and his family’s temporary refugee status) in 1948. Again, because Mehta would someday serve as a literary link between his own culture and Western readers interested in the effects of conflicting Pakistani and Indian nationalisms, he was able to use these personal emotional experiences as points of reference in studying the history of his country in greater detail.
The turning point that would impel Mehta to develop cross-cultural currents in the literature he wrote as an adult came when, after several disappointments stemming from his family’s loss of much of the wealth that had financed his early private education, he was able to enroll in the Arkansas School for the Blind in Little Rock, Arkansas. First there, and then later, when he moved on to a full college academic program at Pomona College in California (where he earned his B.A. in 1956), Mehta experienced interactions with Westerners who had very little idea of his culture. The first indication of the importance Mehta would lend to this admixture of cultures in his life came immediately after his college years in the United States, as part of his general childhood autobiography, Face to Face, published in 1957. From this first experience in the United States, Mehta traveled to England, where he studied at Oxford University; Balliol College awarded him a B.A. degree in 1959. Returning to the United States, he undertook graduate studies at Harvard University, earning an M.A. degree in 1961.
In the same year Mehta joined the staff of The New Yorker magazine, a position which stimulated his talents as a writer. The first major product of his now-professional writing career appeared in 1963 under the title The Fly and the Fly Bottle. It was a series of interviews with prominent British intellectuals of the period, including such figures as Arnold Toynbee and Bertrand Russell. A second work in a similar scholarly vein was The New Theologian, published in 1966. In this case Mehta interviewed “traditionally liberal” theologians such as Karl Barth and compared their views with clearly more radical theological thinkers who had emerged by the mid-1960’s. Finally, his bent for scholarly research was applied (with the assistance of a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1971) to the study of Mahatma Gandhi. This major biography, entitled Mahatma Gandhi and His Apostles, was published in 1977.
In addition to his long career as a staff writer for The New Yorker, Mehta has served on the literature faculties of a number of colleges and universities, including Yale, Vassar, and Balliol College at Oxford. As the years passed, Mehta decided to give fuller form to the mixed autobiographical/biographical memoir as the literary medium that would become his hallmark. His first major work in this style, Daddyji, was published in 1972. It, like its companion volume, Mamaji, dealt with his life with his parents in India, sketching the family background and the historical context as well. As Mehta himself stated in the preface to a third volume based on childhood reminiscences, Vedi, there was some justification for reexamining, here and in other books, experiences described (although not in detail) in his original 1957 autobiography. First, Mehta believed that his style as an author had been insufficiently developed in that early effort. Second, he realized that “memory expands by some kind of associative process” and that scenes that earlier seemed insignificant take on very different proportions following later reflection.
Thus, Vedi, which covers Mehta’s stay at the Dadar School for the Blind, was followed by The Ledge Between the Streams, dealing with the years from the age of nine to fifteen, when he left for the United States. Sound-Shadows of the New World recounts his first impressions of America and Americans and his high school years at the Arkansas School for the Blind. The Stolen Light describes his undergraduate years at Pomona College in California and the writing (or, more accurately, dictation) of Face to Face.
In a prefatory note to The Stolen Light Mehta explains that he first envisioned this massive ongoing autobiography when he was in his twenties and has been working on it intermittently ever since. It was, he acknowledges, a daunting task, and for a time he was not sure that he would be able to realize his vision. “With the publication of this, the sixth book,” he concludes, “I feel that the series has a manifest architecture, and am therefore emboldened to give it the name that I have carried so long in my head: ‘Continents of Exile.’” In this extraordinary work Mehta has vividly re-created his own individual experience; at the same time, in recounting his experience as a blind person and an exile, he has spoken for countless others. The result is a classic of autobiography.