Thursday, November 05, 2009

'Continents' revisited: meeting Ved Mehta

[Did a version of this profile for Tehelka]

“Most of us experience our parents as authority figures, we don’t think of them as human beings,” says Ved Mehta. We are discussing his books Daddyji and Mamaji, now republished in graceful new editions by Roli, with Krishen Khanna paintings on the covers mirroring the quiet refinement of the prose within. “It’s hard to imagine one’s parents having hungers, fears, problems of their own. For me, this was a way of humanising them, and I hope readers will get something out of that.”

“Secretly,” adds the 75-year-old author, “I hope they’ll also get pleasure from their literary value.”

It would be very surprising if they didn’t. Daddyji and Mamaji, both written in the 1970s, are intimate personal histories of Mehta’s parents and their forebears, but they are also explorations of changing worlds and ways of living, from the provinciality of village life in mid-19th century Punjab (where a journey to Haridwar, lasting several days, could become the achievement of a lifetime – part of a family’s corpus of oral myths passed down over the generations) to “Daddyji” travelling to England to study in the early 20th century. These were the first two books in a large, initially unplanned cycle of autobiographical works that eventually became known as the “Continents of Exile” series. Most of them were published to acclaim in the US, where Mehta has spent much of his life, yet they continue to have a low profile in India; even immediately after the publication of The Red Letters in 2004, it was difficult to find copies of the earlier books in most stores. 

This is a pity, for Mehta is among the most distinguished Indian writers of his generation. Over a career that stretches back to the 1950s, he worked as a staff writer for the New Yorker for three decades and wrote features and books on contemporary India, Mahatma Gandhi, philosophy and theology. He has also written with pragmatic clear-sightedness about being blind (the result of a bout with meningitis at age four): about how, “being a donkey in a world of horses, one would have to justify one’s existence and worth to the horses”; his journey to America at age 14 for the well-rounded education that wasn’t available to an unsighted adolescent in India; how loneliness gradually made way for self-reliance; and his use of “facial vision” (the ability to sense objects by the feel of the air and differences in sound) to navigate the world around him.

But his defining work remains “Continents of Exile”, which began with the simple, unassuming desire to record the story of his father’s life. “My father was a great storyteller – maybe that’s how I ended up becoming a writer – but with seven brothers and sisters clamoring for his attention, I rarely got him to myself,” he tells me. “Once that finally happened, in New York, I asked him to repeat the old stories he used to tell us. Initially it was mainly for my own edification. Then I started taking notes, and the book developed.” 

“I had no real long-term agenda, but creative projects gather their own momentum,” he continues, “After Daddyji was published my sisters said I had to write a book about my mother next. She was very reticent at first but she finally agreed to be interviewed when my father wasn’t present!” The books grew to tell a vast cross-cultural tale involving India, England and America, revealing a great deal about a time when Indians first started moving to other countries in large numbers, breaking cultural strictures against crossing the oceans, tearing themselves away – or being torn away by circumstance – from family, friends and culture. One of the dominant themes of the last century, as Mehta points out, was the huge displacement of people around the world. Naturally, this shaped a literary landscape too. “The word ‘exile’ usually has negative connotations, but it has produced such great literature,” he observes, recounting the works of Nabokov and Conrad among others – and quickly adding “I’m not comparing myself to any of these names!” 

Writing several books about one’s family history and one’s own personal development can sometimes be dismissed as navel-gazing – possibly one reason why Mehta’s place in the pantheon of leading Indian Anglophone writers doesn’t seem as secure as those of his contemporaries like V S Naipaul and Anita Desai – but he had the conviction that “if you write a very specific story and write it well, it will have a wide resonance”. He was so adept at using small stories to cast light on a big picture that his mentor, the legendary New Yorker editor William Shawn, developed a new rubric – “Personal History” – especially for his profiles. Mehta smiles as he recalls “how absurd it was, right in the middle of the Vietnam War, for a leading American magazine to publish a three-part profile of my mother, who no one in the world had ever heard of”. 

The lucidity and precision of Mehta’s prose – Shawn once described it as “airy, elegant, marvellously clear” – may have been honed at the New Yorker, but Mehta himself believes “it originally came out of the impulse to tell people who I was, where I came from – I had a lot of explaining to do, and there was nothing more important to me than clarity. When I wrote Face to Face in my early twenties, I had very little English – I wrote it as a letter, I scarcely knew I was writing a book, it was more like recalling my background for myself”.

 More intriguingly, his writing is very visual and descriptive. Determinedly avoiding any reference to his blindness except when it’s integral to the narrative, he writes as if he can see, and in a memoir this can be disorienting: what to make of a passage where Mehta “watches” as his father opens a large trunk and takes out “an empty Harrod's plastic shopping bag and a packet of letters in envelopes of many sizes and colours, loosely tied with a string”? 

“Perhaps we shouldn’t compartmentalise fiction and non-fiction so strictly,” Mehta counters when I raise the subject, “Even in old histories there are passages – descriptions of soldiers in war, for instance – that are slightly heightened to make them more immediate.” He recalls that once, after interviewing a well-known historian who smoked throughout the duration of their talk, he wrote, “He smoked from the side of his mouth; there were times the cigarette seemed stuck to his lower lip.” The startled interviewee wrote asking how he had known this. “But I had simply interpreted what I heard – the patterns of his speech – and put it in visual terms,” says Mehta, “I could have written ‘His voice sounded muffled, which led me to conclude that the cigarette was dangling...’, but that would have been cumbersome and distracting. I don’t write for blind people, I write for the general public, and I don’t want to repeatedly draw attention to my blindness by explaining my impressions of thing.”

Making his own way around the world of reading and writing on a daily basis isn't an easy task, however. Since many of the books Mehta wants to read aren’t available in Braille or in talking-book format, he usually has to rely on readers, and this can be an expensive business (in his college days he would pay fellow students 75 cents an hour for their assistance; rates have risen considerably since then). He’s managed well enough – he finished Vikram Seth’s immense A Suitable Boy in just three to four days, less time than most sighted people would take – but it’s difficult for him to closely follow new literary developments as they happen. When he speaks of Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance (which he holds in very high regard) and Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things (“I liked it but it wasn’t an easy read at all, it was very convoluted”) almost as if they were recent publications, I realise that he has to be very selective in his reading, relying mainly on recommendations of “important books”. “I can’t always read books as soon as they are published,” he says in a resigned tone. 

When I ask him to sign my copy of Daddyji, he scrawls a rough “V.M.” under the book’s title and lets his wife Linn write the short dedication. “As you can see, I’m functionally illiterate,” says the man who has filled thousands of pages with explorations of the interior lives of individuals as well as the shifting histories of continents.

[An old post on The Red Letters here. Also see Ved Mehta's website, which contains many of his essays and shorter pieces, as well as information on his books.

And some earlier author profiles/interviews here: Mohsin Hamid; Vikram Chandra; Amitav Ghosh; Anita Desai; Rajorshi Chakraborti; Kiran Desai; Manjula Padmanabhan; Manil Suri; Edward Luce; Amitava Kumar; Sudhir Kakar; Raj Kamal Jha; Kiran Nagarkar


  1. its an excellent piece, jai, as always :)
    somehow although i cannot pin point what it is, but there is an ethereal quality to your essays, which makes these authors far more accessible and 'real' to me than they really might be- i know i might not be making sense, but maybe i think you might understand what i am trying to say here:

    after i read your author profiles and go back to reading books by these authors, there is always a strange more personal connect i feel with them.

    and that alters the way i read a book.


  2. Neha: that's undeserved praise, but thanks anyway! I think what happens is that once some of these authors get comfortable with an interviewer, they start saying some really interesting things about themselves. (Note: for this to happen, the conversation has to be slightly broader-based than the interviewer asking "So, Mr Mehta, what types of books do you write?") After that, the piece just writes itself...sort of.

    But yes, it can be a bit tricky to do a flowing interview-cum-profile-cum-review as opposed to a straightforward Q&A. On balance I enjoyed doing this one.

  3. Enjoyed your piece. It is important to have more personal histories making it to books, if for nothing else than for the fact that they'll help document the era, the age, the landscape for generations to come.

    Documenting a social context is key to retaining a sense of who we are in as much as cementing our diversity of experiences.

  4. I agree with Neha,although I was a bit stumped by her use of the word "ethereal." I believe she means the opposite of what the word stands for :)

    It's always an altogether different and enriching experience to revisit books you have reviewed Jai. Thanks!

  5. Lovely reading this! I grew up reading Face to Face and Daddyji. Mamaji of course I read much later.
    The Red Letters also conveyed to me the anguish of a child who realises that his parents' love for each other is not perfect, and has the space within it for another.

  6. anonymous: i used it in the sense of other wordly and almost spiritual :) :)


  7. Opulently I agree but I about the collection should have more info then it has.