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Monday, January 25, 2021

For Ved Mehta, the personal was a way to illuminate the universal

Though Ved Mehta practised a great deal of journalism and wrote about “big” subjects — in books such as Portrait of India — he was eventually a master of the intimate canvas, always using the personal to illuminate the universal.

Written by Jai Arjun Singh | Updated: January 14, 2021 8:49:47 am
Ved Mehta passed away earlier this week. (Express Photo/File)

I have two distinct memories from a 2009 meeting with Ved Mehta, who passed away earlier this week. The first is of Mehta speaking about why he always tried to be precise and lucid in his writing — no literary roundabouts or convolutions.

“Because I left India when I was very young, in the 1950s,” he said, “I was very conscious of the explaining I had to do to people, about who I was and where I came from. That initial impulse may have made the writing clearer.” When scientists aren’t precise, he pointed out, the whole edifice collapses: “But we who do non-scientific work, we often get away with murder.”

The second memory is of Mehta — who lost his sight at age three — discussing his use of conjecture. Once, writing about someone he had interviewed, he described the person — accurately, it turned out — as smoking his cigarette from the side of his mouth, so that it seemed like the cigarette was stuck to his lower lip. “I reinterpreted what I was hearing and put it in visual terms. I could have said his voice sounded muffled, which led me to realise this, and so on — but I don’t want to repeatedly draw attention to my blindness by explaining my impressions. It would be cumbersome.”

So here was a writer-journalist who tried to be as direct as possible in his prose, simply setting things down rather than being a stylist; but here, too, was a man who practised a version of imaginative writing even in his non-fiction — to the degree that his visual descriptions made some readers uncomfortable.

Over a long and prolific career, Mehta was both these people and many others. After writing his first book Face to Face — an autobiography in his early twenties, an act of hubris, you might think, until you actually read this gentle, searching work — he began a long stint at The New Yorker with the encouragement of the celebrated editor William Shawn. In the decades that followed, he wrote many features and books on contemporary India, Mahatma Gandhi, philosophy and theology. He also wrote, with characteristic clear-sightedness, about his blindness: The journey to America as a teenager for the education that wasn’t available to an unsighted adolescent in India; how loneliness made way for self-reliance; 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.

However, his defining work remains the autobiographical “Continents of Exile” series, which began with the desire to record the stories of his parents. Though the series wasn’t planned beforehand, the books grew to tell a vast cross-cultural tale involving India, England and America. Shawn even created a “Personal History” section to accommodate the earliest versions of these pieces. (“How absurd it was,” Mehta said, smiling, “for a leading American magazine to publish a multi-part profile of my mother right in the middle of the Vietnam War!”)

Writing several books about one’s family history and personal development can easily be dismissed as navel-gazing, and Mehta was often seen as an unfashionable writer, out of touch with shifting currents in the literary world.

Youngsters working on the literature beat in the early 2000s were tutored in the canon of major Indian-English writers — Rushdie, Roy, Seth, Ghosh, and from an earlier generation, Naipaul and Anita Desai — but Mehta was rarely mentioned (except perhaps in the context of an amusing run-in with the cantankerous Naipaul at a 2002 Neemrana gathering). I knew almost nothing about him until I chanced to read his plaintive 2004 book The Red Letters, about his father’s adulterous relationship with a married woman in the 1930s.

In that book, as in much of his other work, Mehta did justice to his conviction that if you tell a very specific story and tell it well, it will have a wide resonance. His flair for attentive character portraits and for setting an individual tale against a larger background is visible in other works like Sound-Shadows of the New World and Up at Oxford too.

Above all, they have a quiet elegance that makes them very easy to slip into. Though Mehta practised a great deal of journalism and wrote about “big” subjects — in books such as Portrait of India — he was eventually a master of the intimate canvas, always using the personal to illuminate the universal.

This article first appeared in the print edition on January 14, 2021 under the title ‘Master of the intimate canvas’. The writer is a Delhi-based critic and author

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