When loss isnt less

Written by Suman Tarafdar | Updated: Nov 9 2009, 02:22am hrs
Writer of 23 books. Part of the New Yorker for over three decades. A double BA and MA from Harvard. India born Ved Mehta, who lost his vision at just age four, has nevertheless lived a life so richand described the world of the sighted so wellthat many contemporaries refused to believe he was totally blind. Norman Mailer even challenged him to a boxing match to prove that!

For decades, well before Indias graph began looking upwards, his books have often introduced India to Americans. The maker of the recent Darjeeling Limited, Wes Anderson is on record saying that Mehtas Delinquent Chacha, his first and only novel, got him interested in India. But for all his acclaim in the West, his writings have only been selectively available in India. Rajkamal Prakashan translated some early books, and later OUP brought out a few. Now Roli Books has decided to publish his best known series, Continents of Exile, a nine-part volume written over three decades, which began and ended with a book on his father.

Mehta, who was in India recently with his wife, says it all began almost as a matter of chance. His first book, a memoir was Face to Face. The first of the Continents of Exile was Daddyji, published in 1972. Mamaji, on his mother, followed in 1979. I had never dreamt of writing about my father. I thought family writing was not worth it. While reactions have largely been positive, there were also unexpected ones. A New York Times reviewer, after reading Daddyji, pulled up my father for wasting his life playing poker in print. My father was in New York at the time, and buttonholed anyone he met indignantly complain about the review, Mehta remembers with a chuckle. Mamaji is a considerably longer book, and it took him two years to write. He really had to draw out his mother to talk, as she would not profer anything readily, and not at all when his father was in the same room. I had to get her away to England so that she could open up.

A New Yorker born

A protege of legendary editor William Shawn, he fondly remembers his New Yorker days, which ended after the magazine was restructured and he was among those asked to leave by editor Tina Brown. Now we are living in an age everything has to be fast. We are living in an odd world where the written word is at a discount. To me a book is a long journey. I dont like short cuts. Literature can only survive with individual taste. It cannot be mass opinion.

1934-born Mehta moved out of home aged just five, to a school for the blind in Dadar, Mumbai. He later went to a school in Arkansas, US when he was just 15, where his greatest learning was facial vision, a way for the visually challenged to see. Theres nothing mysterious about blind people being able to move around. Also, as the hero of Satyajit Rays film, Nayak, saysyou have only one life, one chance. However, he did it, Mehtas prose is rich in descriptions, and known for its clarity. He has written on an eclectic mix of subjects, ranging from Indian politics, Gandhi, philosophy, editing, grammar, love, Christian theology and of course memoirs. He has even made a documentary film. Done commentaries on television and radio. Taught at universities. Designed a home in Maine, going on to write a book about it too! He wrote with extreme candour about four women he was with, and why each left him ultimately in All For Love. Loss above all has been a recurring theme, it has been the main theme of my life, beginning with the loss of my sight, the loss of my home in Pakistan, then the loss of India to go to America.

He had a long stint with psychonanalysis, which he describes as a 19th century way of exploring the mind, which had its heydays in the 1960s and 70s. Of the time, he says it was difficult and made me see life in new light. He recollects coming out weeping from the sessions, and says it is not for everybody, as one has to be very strong.

His critics have not held back, going well beyond the not totally blind charges. His writings, especially on his family, have been termed as boring, and interminable. But at 75, none of it seems to have affected him. May be because, despite all odds, hes achieved his endto live a full and normal life.