'I am 79. When I am old enough I'll carry a cane'
Author Ved Mehta worked for The New Yorker magazine for 33 years. The blind raconteur relates some stories to Bishakha De Sarkar
The teenager in Little Rock, Arkansas, hitches a ride. He doesn't want to tell the driver that he is on his way to the school for the blind, where he is a student. But she knows. "The totally blind must have a world all their own, don't you think," she asks. "It's just a world minus eyes," he replies.
He gets off the car near his school, and picks up his cane that he had earlier flung into a gutter. He taps it on the driveway — "it seemed to say Blindie, blindie, blindie", he was to write later. He breaks it into two, and throws the pieces back into the gutter.
Sixty-five years later, the then hitchhiker sits in his room at the India International Centre in New Delhi, patiently answering what is clearly an oft-repeated question on why he doesn't carry a cane, which, after all, can be a tool of convenience. "I am 79. When I am old enough I'll carry a cane. At the moment, I don't feel the need of it," Ved Mehta replies.
The author-journalist is in India for the launch of The Essential Ved Mehta, published by Penguin. Sight — or lack of sight — comes up like a motif in our conversation. His books — starting with Face to Face, which he wrote when he was 20 — were so vividly visual that many thought he could see. Some accused him of misleading people.
"I am not very much worried about what people say, especially when they are wrong," he says quietly.
When he was three, he lost his eyesight to a spinal meningitis attack. His grandfather wanted him to learn music because teaching music was one of the few vocations open to people who couldn't see.
"I was trained to be a musician. My grandfather, pointing out a music master who couldn't see and went around in his own tonga, told me: 'If you do well, you might have your own tonga.' I had never had my own tonga," he says.
Instead, he has a treasure trove of books. A staff writer for The New Yorker for 33 years from 1961, he has penned scores of long articles and written 27 books — each a visual delight.
"I grew up in a very visual family," he explains. "There was always somebody around and a lot of activity." His mother, he says, had "a very good dress sense" and his sisters were forever talking about saris and bangles. "I grew up listening to their chatter," he says. He himself has been commended for his neat Savile Row suits, but Mehta shrugs that off. "I was not particularly fond of clothes — not till I went to Oxford, maybe," he says.
His large and happy family was headed by his father, a doctor. Young Vedi knew that he was not going to teach music. "What I didn't like about it was that it wasn't something different, and I wanted to do something different. I never took the easy road — the more difficult the road the more attracted I was by it."
That's not hard to believe. When he was growing up in Lahore, he followed his siblings and took part in every game there was to play. Once, when a group leapt from terrace to terrace chasing a soaring kite, he jumped along with them — much to the dismay of his sisters. He learnt how to ride a bicycle, falling every now and then and bruising himself. But he mastered it.
"I was always attracted by something hard. I don't why," he says.
So, not surprisingly, at the age of 15 he managed — almost on his own — to get admission to a school for the blind in Arkansas. It was there that he developed an interest in writing. "I realised I was at a handicap compared to the others, who were not well educated but knew English," he says. He started reading more and more.
"Nobody believed I could write, including myself." But there was an urge to tell his story. "I was cut off from India and my family. And most people in my school didn't even know where India was. So there was a wish to capture the romantic past of India, and of telling people what it was and what kind of a family I came from," he says. "I started doing it as much for myself as for anybody else."
He went back to the school only once, and that was decades later, after he had married Linn Cary (a friend's niece) in 1983 — when he was 49, and she 28. "I wanted her to see what kind of a school I was in."
Mehta has studied in the best of places — from Pomona in California to Balliol in Oxford and at Harvard University. His books and essays have often dealt with his student days and are replete with stories that only an able raconteur can tell.
He writes of the time he spent with the poet Dom Moraes in Oxford and recounts a meeting with Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso. Moraes took the two American poets to meet W.H. Auden. Auden didn't know what to do with them, and took them to Christ Church and showed them its cathedral. The Americans followed him, asking all the right questions.
"At the end of the tour," Mehta writes, "Auden walked his guests out of the college, and started to take his leave, saying, 'Gentlemen, it has been a pleasure.'
"Ginsberg thereupon got hold of Auden's tie and started shoving it into his mouth, while Corso grabbed Auden by the knees, and both men cried, 'Maestro, maestro, don't leave us!'
"After Auden finally got away, Ginsberg said to Dom, 'The prig!' And Corso, said, 'Yeah, man, who cares about all those nuns and monks? What has that got to do with the price of hashish in Tangier?'"
I urge him to relate another story — and that's about American writer Norman Mailer challenging him to a fight.
"There was an Easter party at a friend's house," he recalls. "Norman was there, as I was. At that time he was taken up with a woman called Lady Jeanne Campbell," he says — and stops suddenly because he can hear movement. "Linn, are you going," Mehta asks and falls silent as she steps out.
Lady Jeanne Campbell, I say, nudging his thoughts. "Yes, he was flirting with her badly. They were married later. There was another man there who also liked her. These men were sort of sparring. I think I knew Lady Jeanne a little. I wasn't rooting for one side or the other, but Norman came up to me and said, you want to fight. And I said, no. He said, come on, don't be a coward, come out and fight," he recounts. "I never fought with anybody."
Mehta revels in understatements. He speaks in staccato sentences, and though he has spent almost all his life in the West, there is little trace of an American drawl or a British accent in his clearly enunciated words. But like most Americans, he calls Sanjay (Gandhi) Saan-juy, yet refers to Rajiv — as some Punjabis do — as Rjeev.
Mehta's writings have often focused on India. Keen on politics — an interest triggered by the turmoil of Partition — he has penned detailed and lucid accounts of, among a host of subjects, the death of Sanjay Gandhi and the Emergency. During his last visit to India, he met Prime Minister Manmohan Singh at his residence. "He is a wonderful man, I think."
His 1977 book Mahatma Gandhi and his Apostles stirred up a controversy, because it looked at Gandhi sleeping naked with young women. "I met those women. I don't know what went on in their heads. But they said he had a backache, and 'all that we did was try to put some pressure on his back'," he says.
Some of the descriptions in his book are prompted by the author's sense of smell and space. "I have an overdeveloped olfactory nerve," the MacArthur fellow says. "I think very few writers have a strong sense of smell, Proust was one of the few who did. Most writers don't really like to get into the subject."
If you live in India, he adds, "you are assaulted by bad smells, though there are some very good smells too." What kind of smells, I ask him. "Poverty smells very bad," he replies.
Many of his articles on India, running into thousands of words, appeared in The New Yorker, which he left in 1994 after Tina Brown took over as the editor. It was at The New Yorker, under the legendary William Shawn, that he believes he learnt how to write.
"I learnt by osmosis," he says. "Nobody told me that you write this way. But I learnt certain manners about writing, and writing well."
I ask him if he regrets that journals such as The New Yorker are losing their space in the age of microblogs. "We are living in the age of speed — of quick digests. Everybody is in a hurry. What can I do about it, I don't know."
Mehta "loved" going to The New Yorker office. He was there at 10 in the morning, and stayed on till 8 or 9 at night; sometimes till 11.
A room in his New York apartment is his office today. He walks into his office at 10am and works through the day. "I came too late for the computer. I still dictate to somebody who writes with a pencil. Pencil because you can erase what you've written."
I get up to leave, and ask my last question. How would he describe himself? "I am just a penny-a-liner," he smiles. Not by a long shot, I think.