Thursday, December 09, 2004

Ved Mehta's The Red Letters

Have just reviewed Ved Mehta’s The Red Letters for the paper (here’s the link). It’s the conclusion to his autobiographical "Continents of Exile" series and tells the story of his (married) father’s brief liaison with a family friend (whom he had first met years earlier as a young medical student). Found myself drawn into the book on reading the prologue, in which the author describes a dinner party in his New York apartment in 1967, at which he brings together his parents and his revered editor at the New Yorker, William Shawn. (Incidentally, I realised only on reading this that Wallace Shawn -- that fine character actor who played Uncle Vanya in Louis Malle’s masterful Vanya on 42nd Street -- is the son of William Shawn. But that’s another story.)

Update: the link no longer works, so here's the full review.

The final book in Ved Mehta's autobiographical "Continents of Exile" series starts with an account of a party that ended on an unhappy note. It was New York, 1967, and the then 33-year-old Mehta had reason to feel upbeat. He was an established staff writer with the New Yorker and a protege of its revered editor-in-chief William Shawn -- quite an achievement for an Indian working in the US at the time, but much more so for one who had been blind since the age of four. Now his parents were visiting him, he was eager to flaunt his self-reliance and he was "bringing together the two men who had had the greatest influence on me -- my father and Mr Shawn". But things didn't quite work as hoped: somehow, an evening that began promisingly ended with Mehta's slightly inebriated father sobbing about how he had always felt guilty about his son's blindness.

This episode has no direct connection with the story at the centre of The Red Letters; but it's significant because it reveals to Mehta an unseen side of his always-composed, always-dignified father, and in a way prepares the ground for what follows. Guilt, regret and the barriers to attaining candour in a parent-child relationship are among the motifs of this new book, in which the author decides to publish a story he first learnt of decades ago: the story of his (married) father's brief affair with a married woman in the early 1930s.

Mehta gleans this information in parts. It begins with his father's seemingly capricious decision to co-write a book with him, about an encounter between a young medical student and a 12-year-old hill girl in the Punjab Himalayas and their chance meeting again years later, when they commence a brief dalliance. The project is abandoned, but a decade on Mehta's father unexpectedly suggests they take it up again. In the course of a long conversation, as the senior Mr Mehta progresses from conditional to indicative mood while relating the plot, the author realises that the story is in fact about his father's affair with a woman he remembers from his childhood as Aunty Rasil.

These dialogues between father and son form the most interesting sections of the book; they are by turn intense, searching and tentative exchanges where both men learn things about each other and about themselves. There are many levels to their conversation. There's shared guilt; the guilt of the father about his adulterous relationship and the guilt of the son about hearing the story ("I felt there was a symbiotic relationship between the impropriety of his relationship with Rasil and the impropriety of my getting involved with it"). There's shyness -- fostered by the generation gap -- which leads to the coining of the euphemistic term "Enchanted Period" to describe the affair ("a love affair...with sex, as you would call it today" is the closest Mehta's father comes to being candid, and that's when he is still pretending the story is about someone else).

There is, too, the inevitable clash of cultures, though with a twist: at one point, Mehta's father defensively says, "There you are applying your Christian, Western concepts to our Indian culture, where Hindus and Muslims have traditionally taken more than one wife." The author subtly conveys his father's lack of self-awareness, or at least his refusal to face up to the full impact of the relationship on the major parties involved, including his wife.

Ved Mehta's writing style is, as William Shawn once described it, "airy, elegant, marvellously clear". But it has also often been contentious, because it is strikingly visual and descriptive; he writes as if he can see, which is disorienting in a non-fiction narrative. (In 1960, a New York Times reviewer decried the author and his publishers for omitting to mention his blindness from a jacket description.) Reading The Red Letters, you might feel a bit cheated by, for instance, this key passage where his father unveils the "red letters" written by Rasil to him:
...he undid the latches, opened the attache case on his lap and, from under his change of clothes, started pulling out the paraphernalia of an old man -- old counterfoils from checkbooks, old clippings, used airmail envelopes, a gold watchband, and an empty Harrod's plastic shopping bag. Then he brought out a packet of letters loosely tied with a string...they were in envelopes of many sizes and colours...
If you're not overly sensitive about such things, however, it's possible to appreciate this unpretentious book on its own terms. The Red Letters is what is spoken of in critspeak as a "little" book -- not just because it's novella-length (which, these days, means anything under 250 pages) but because it isn't about "big" topics; it's an intimate story that might seem too particularised to be of universal interest.

Mehta himself has often rallied against this notion, pointing out that "the story of any person, however insignificant and humble, has intrinsic value -- that the more specifically individual the story, the more universally general it is". He overstates his case -- it's a little embarrassing when he mentions Proust and Joyce as the inspiration for "Continents of Exile" and discusses the significance of all his books in his Afterword -- but the core of his argument can't be faulted. At its best, The Red Letters is a moving and insightful personal history, a fitting conclusion to a series of books that has greater universal appeal than one might think.


  1. I have always been fascinated by Mehta's attention to visual detail. How does he do it?

    I remember his description of R.K.Narayan's coat, its colour, the layout of Narayan's room when Mehta interviewed the writer (when Narayan was visiting New York).

    He probably just asks more questions when he is interviewing people or travelling to a new place?

  2. (Recent lurker delurking)
    I started reading your blog recently, starting with your first post working my way to the present day content.

    While reading this post, the cover art of the book struck me as very familiar even though I've never seen this book, so I went looking thorough my bookshelf and found what I was looking for. I recently purchased A Black Englishman - see for yourself here -


    All that aside, thanks for the interesting reading and add me to your list of fans.
    (recommence lurking)