Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 869
Though blinded at the age of three by meningitis, the Indian-born writer Ved Mehta has always been relentlessly self-reliant. After his first book, the autobiographical Face to Face (1957), Mehta ignored the subject of his blindness. He joined The New Yorker as a staff writer in 1961 and focused his...
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Though blinded at the age of three by meningitis, the Indian-born writer Ved Mehta has always been relentlessly self-reliant. After his first book, the autobiographical Face to Face (1957), Mehta ignored the subject of his blindness. He joined The New Yorker as a staff writer in 1961 and focused his attention on postcolonial India, especially its political situation. He went so far in his refusal to make any concession to his blindness as to keep mention of it off the dust jackets of his books. Starting in 1972, however, he began a multivolume autobiographical project, which deals at great length with his handicap and his adaptation to the sighted world. The first two books, serialized before publication in The New Yorker like all subsequent volumes, were biographies of his parents, Daddyji (1972) and Mamaji (1979).
Vedi, its title taken from Mehta’s childhood nickname, is the third volume and deals with his experiences from when he was almost five to the age of nine at the Dadar School for the Blind in Bombay. The narrative is roughly chronological, but most chapters are organized by themes (indicated by titles such as “Activities and Outings” and “Holidays”), and an epilogue relates the author’s return to the school while writing the book. Mehta balances the boy’s sketchy but vivid memories with the mature reflections of the adult Mehta. Interwoven throughout are his father’s commentary about past events and a selection of the correspondence between his father and the headmaster, Mr. Ras Mohun, a use of letters characteristic of Mehta, who makes extensive use of interviews, letters, and diaries in all of his autobiographical writing.
Vedi was a normal boy, despite his blindness, but with the fatalistic Indian attitude toward blindness, his prospects for a normal life were bleak. Conditions in the country’s few schools for the blind, most of which were started by American missionaries, were generally deplorable. The lucky few who were helped could not aspire to much more than learning a simple craft and often died young. The rest were expected to beg or, if they came from a high-caste family such as Vedi’s, live as perpetual invalids without any prospect of marriage or career.
It was with the hope that an education would help Vedi avoid this fate that his father sent the very young boy more than a thousand miles away from his home in the Punjab to a school located in a polluted and poverty-stricken industrial area of Bombay. Unlike the other boys and girls, indigent orphans, Vedi, the pampered son of a Western-educated doctor with an important post in the Anglo-Indian medical administration, was not prepared for the school’s harsh conditions.
This is not the story of a sensitive boy suffering the torments of boarding-school life. To the contrary, Vedi, a fiercely independent, even willful, young boy, adapted quickly to the Dadar School. Despite the caste differences, he was readily accepted by the boys once they recovered from the initial shock of his fat cheeks and soft clothes.
Exposed to disease and the countless physical injuries of an active childhood, Vedi spent more and more of his time in bed, but he thrived in other ways. Spoiled at home, Vedi learned at school to fend for himself. Mrs. Mohun would not put up with his “jungly boy” ways and taught him some manners. She also made Vedi sleep in the dormitory despite an understanding to the contrary with his parents, but Mehta expresses no rancor against her: “I soon learned that there was no point in refusing [since] there was no one to run to with my complaints and appeals. Besides, I wanted to be a good child. . . .” Vedi was a good-natured child, entering into all the activities of the school—its classes, games, and outings—and the heady mysteries of growing up with an enthusiasm that makes for lively retelling.
Though most of the book is about his school life, some of it deals with Vedi’s two lengthy stays at home because of diseases contracted at the school, typhoid and ringworm among them. Despite his love for his family, it is clear that Vedi felt more comfortable among the blind children. Though he was allowed to have his way and run wild at home, he had to fight constantly for attention, since no one in his family seemed to encourage his attempts to be an equal part of it (with the important exception of his father, always frank and supportive, whose voice figures throughout the book as a soothing presence, always explaining and extolling). Instead, his sighted relatives seemed to use him for their own purposes, sentimental or superstitious. One aunt cried over him every time she saw him, and his mother had him shuffle her cards to bring her luck, but no one bothered to explain how the game was played until a boy at school did.
Consequently, when the threat of bombing raids brought the boy’s stay at the Dadar School to a close, he did not consider it liberation but banishment. Though the grown-up Ved Mehta knows the Dadar School must have been a horrible place, it retains for him, and therefore the reader, a definite appeal in memory.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 78
Blaise, Clark. “Four Senses and Imagination,” in The New York Times Book Review. LXXXV (October 17, 1982), p. 12.
Dong, Stella. “Ved Mehta,” in Publishers Weekly. CCXXIX (January 3, 1985), pp. 57-58.
Dowd, Maureen. “A Writing Odyssey Through India Past and Present,” in The New York Times. June 10, 1984, sec. 6, p. 50.
Malcolm, Janet. “School of the Blind,” in The New York Review of Books. XXIX (October 7, 1982), pp. 3-5.
Sternhell, Carol. “A Donkey Among Horses,” in The New York Times Book Review. XCI (March 9, 1986), p. 14.