In the first paragraph of Vedi, the boy’s father voices the two most important themes of the book, self-reliance and memory: “‘You are a man now,’ he said. This sentence of my father’s was to become the beginning of my clear, conscious memory.”
It was Vedi’s good fortune to have a father who wanted his son to become self-reliant and had the resources to help. Consistently rational in a society permeated with superstition and hidebound traditions, the father took what steps he could to secure his son’s future. On the other hand, Vedi’s mother, though loving and supportive, embodied the fatalistic Eastern attitude he had to resist. Torn between the conflicting needs for independence and security, Vedi was finally oriented toward the West by his father. Necessary as this was, it makes Vedi a book about loss: of sight, of friends, of family. Vedi was always an outsider, the blind among the sighted and the rich boy among the poor. Rejecting pity, he had an impatient, almost imperious need for love, which he demanded of people but which never provided him with the security he sought. There is no self-pity in this book. As crucial to his achieving self-reliance as his father’s support was Vedi’s cheerful self-assurance, which reflects his mother’s emotional, irrational nature as much as his father’s enlightened ways. With a playful imagination that still shines in this writing, Mehta could pretend a cold shower was rain or that his fingers were his friends competing to see who could read Braille letters the fastest. When Mohun first saw him, he thought Vedi was a sighted boy because of his open expression, and this openness and curiosity, along with a sometimes mulish self-confidence, were the boy’s main strengths.Sometimes the wish to touch a thing I had heard about, like Mr. Ras Mohun’s ruler, would so agitate me that I couldn’t stop thinking about it. The name of the thing would go on repeating itself in my head . . . like a permanently stuck record.
This agitation made Vedi stubborn in his refusal to acknowledge limitations. For example, he insisted once that he could see a photograph, and on his first visit to the ocean, he went racing “toward the roar and the rush,” exhilarated by the sense of having nothing in front of him but the wide open ocean.
Beneath his self-confidence, however, is an undercurrent of anxiety running throughout the book. Parting from his family at the train station to return to the school, Vedi heard a blind beggar approach the family. “I remember thinking that I could end up like him, and feeling even more frightened.” This fear was grounded in the sense of powerlessness that came with blindness. All the children felt something malevolent in the sighted world, with its objects that seemed to lunge out at them. “Whenever we hurt outselves on anything at all, we would kick it and beat it and cry out,‘The sighted bastards!’” Their crude equation of sight and power, so strong that the boys hardly believed there could be schools for the blind in America, was mainly associated with the dormitory proctor, the Sighted Master, who handed out beatings with a discarded shoe that he kept under his bed. In the one really shocking incident in the book, the Sighted Master uses a board one night to silence the whimpering of two boys, one blind and deaf, the other retarded, who then mysteriously vanish by the following morning.
Such extreme abuse was the exception, but the children’s fears were not groundless. Returning years later to the school, Mehta found that while one of the boys went on to become a teacher of the blind, several others died young of tuberculosis, and the rest apparently returned to the poverty that had spawned them. He interviewed a woman who had been lucky enough to wed a sighted teacher, but after her husband’s death, she was reduced to such destitution that she had to beg Mehta for money. Though sympathetic, he fled, “her begging tone having stirred up . . . an old fear.”
After years of fleeing this fear of poverty and dependence, Mehta faces it squarely in his autobiographical project, undertaken to recapture the lost places of his youth and assuage the pain of separation and exclusion. He is not interested in dramatizing his past but in rediscovering and reclaiming it. Painful incidents, such as his helping another boy kill a cat to learn what death is like, are not included to shock but because they are part of what the adult has to accept to bring his past into the present.
Toward the end of the book, Mehta relates how one of his sisters stepped on a pin, necessitating an operation and some physical therapy. While he was helping her, Vedi remembered how he had been helped to learn to walk again after his meningitis. In this way, as Mehta explains in the introductory note to this book,memory expands by some kind of associative process, so that a remembered scene that at first seems hardly worth a line grows in the act of thinking and writing into a chapter, and this full-blown memory uncovers other memories, other scenes, which in their turn expand and multiply.
By pursuing this associative process, Mehta succeeds in re-creating the experience of the blind boy. Though he fills in gaps not only of a child’s memory but also of his perspective, the “judgment and experience, which, as a boy, I could not have had,” this is predominantly a memory book, a book about what the child felt and not what the adult knows it must have been like.
Throughout, the writing is clear and forceful, its main stylistic characteristic being the absence of visual detail. The writing abounds with description that relies on his memories of the other senses: the smell of orange fingernail polish, the taste of a flower, the sound of a bouncing ball, the feel of shapes in dough. Limited to four senses, the writing conveys some of the limits of Vedi’s blindness while in no way restricting the power of his writing to create images. “They were all named Nurse,” Mehta writes about a nurse he recalls from a stay in the hospital,but one who was named Nurse was different. I would hear her sandals jauntily stepping toward my bed. She was always quietly humming some tune or other, and there was a scent of jasmine in her hair and on her clothes, which, though faint, seemed to defy the germicidal air.
Mehta imbues even simple sounds with great emotional weight, as when he recalls the jangling of his mother’s jewelry, betraying her furtive signing about him to the rest of the family.
Although the use of English expressions such as “tiffin” (snack break) and “draughts” (checkers) in a book written for an American audience may seem strange at first, they convey the atmosphere of his Anglo-Indian childhood. Similarly, the many lively metaphors make it possible for the reader to understand something of how a blind boy imagines the world. When Vedi was trying to understand what a mirror’s reflection must be like, for example, he thought of an echo. When he first experienced the ocean, “The school compound and the racing track suddenly shrank in my mind, like a woollen sock Mamaji had knitted for me which became so small after Heea’s ayah washed it that I could scarcely get my hand in it.” In this way, careful always to root his images in the concrete experiences of the child, Mehta draws the reader into a shared rediscovery of his lost childhood.
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