Braille Monitor                                                    March 2009

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At the Confluence of Arrogance and Tragedy: A Conversation with Ved Mehta

by Daniel B. Frye

Ved mehtaBecause the National Federation of the Blind is committed to preserving its history, the Federation regularly records interviews with people who knew our founding leaders as part of our oral history project. Ved Mehta is a blind immigrant from India who came to the United States in 1949 to study at the Arkansas School for the Blind and who has since enjoyed academic and commercial success as a teacher and writer. During his college years he knew Jacobus tenBroek, our founder and first president, so Mehta agreed to be interviewed about his connection with Dr. tenBroek and his own career for this project. I accompanied Lou Ann Blake, research specialist with the Jacobus tenBroek Library in the NFB Jernigan Institute, to New York City to conduct this interview on January 21, 2009.

According to the biographical sketch on Mehta’s Website, "Although blind since he was nearly four, the Indian-born American writer Ved Mehta has surmounted his disability to become one of the most versatile contemporary men of letters. In 1957, when he was twenty-three, he published his first book, a young autobiography titled Face to Face. Following the success of that book, Mehta went on to publish several nonfiction books in which he created his own brand of roving journalism. He has written with equal felicity about events and personalities in India, Great Britain, and the United States and about more abstract matters, such as philosophy, history, theology, and linguistics. In 1972 Mehta received much acclaim for his book Daddyji, a delicately crafted portrait of his father, a distinguished Indian public health officer. Between 1961 and 1994 he was a staff writer and reporter with the New Yorker magazine. Since then he has held distinguished chairs at many colleges and universities, including Yale and Williams College.

“Ved (Parkash) Mehta, the fifth of seven children and second son of Dr. Amolak Ram Mehta and Shanti (Mehra) Mehta, was born on March 21, 1934, in Lahore, in the Punjab, then in British India and now in Pakistan.… Mehta was blinded by cerebrospinal meningitis. The boy, not yet five, was sent by his father to an American missionary school in Bombay, some thirteen hundred miles from his home in Lahore, in order to learn Braille and arithmetic. He was sick much of the time and was returned home in broken health after three years. For the next seven years he had very little schooling but learned to play chess, to ride a bicycle, and to form mental images of people and places from the descriptions of others. ...

“After receiving his high school diploma from the Arkansas School, Ved Mehta spent four years at Pomona College in California, and during that period he attended several summer sessions at Harvard University and the University of California at Berkeley. Elected to Phi Beta Kappa during his junior year, he obtained his BA degree from Pomona College in 1956. He then went to England for three years of study in modern history at Balliol College, Oxford, which granted him a second BA degree in 1959. Returning to the United States, Mehta undertook an additional year and a half of graduate study at Harvard under a fellowship, and he obtained his MA degree there in 1961.

“Although Mehta had originally planned for an academic career, he found himself drawn more and more to writing during his student years. When he was twenty, he completed most of his first extended piece of nonfiction, an autobiography that was published under the title Face to Face and drew praise for its candor, elegant prose, and lucid style. Later he contributed stories and articles to British, American, and Indian newspapers and periodicals. In 1959 he met William Shawn, the editor of the New Yorker, who encouraged him to contribute to the magazine and invited him in 1961 to join its editorial staff. ...

“The central themes of his literary career have always been India and his own life as an expatriate Indian. As part of a continuing autobiographical project on an almost Proustian scale, and a step in his own search for identity, Mehta wrote Daddyji, which was serialized in the New Yorker. The book, whose title is derived from a hybrid diminutive, meaning "Beloved Daddy," is a short, sparely written account of his father's life, with the narrative ending a few years after Ved Mehta's birth….Daddyji was a cornerstone of a vast autobiographical series bearing the omnibus title, Continents of Exile.

"Ved Mehta has widely commented on radio and television on Indian politics and has also narrated and written a documentary film called Chachaji: My Poor Relation (PBS, 1978 and BBC, 1980), which won the DuPont Columbia Award for Excellence in Broadcast Journalism. He has received many honors, including half a dozen honorary degrees (Williams, 1986 and Stirling University, Scotland, 1988), several Ford Foundation grants, and two Guggenheims. He was a MacArthur Prize Fellow (1982-1987). In 1999 he was elected honorary fellow of Balliol College, Oxford."

There you have a much-abbreviated sketch of Mehta’s life and work. We were interested to know what influence Dr. tenBroek had on his life and career and what his perspective was on his own blindness. The answers we gathered to these questions says a great deal about Mehta and his character.

Mehta recalled meeting Dr. tenBroek in the summer of 1952 to seek advice about what college to attend. After he was rejected by the "obvious" East Coast schools because of low SAT scores, his father, then a Fulbright professor at UCLA, arranged for him to meet with Professor tenBroek. He remembered being struck by the fact that a blind man could live in such an imposing, three- or four-story home, and he recalled a conversation with his father in which they both recognized that a blind person living in such overt luxury was a cultural phenomenon that would not have occurred in India. Mehta spoke of being escorted into a room where he sat by Dr. tenBroek at the foot of an enormous fireplace almost as tall as he was. "I was very impressed with his friendly, outgoing, imposing manner. I vividly remember that he had a beard, and I can remember hearing his fingers running through it."

Mehta was drawn to tenBroek, who measured up to a standard of normalcy that appealed to him. "He was married--had three children--besides the fact that he was blind. His mind was never asleep. He was alert, talkative, and never dismissive. I would have liked to have had him as a friend, but I knew from the start that he couldn't be because of our age differences."

As recounted in The Stolen Light and confirmed during our interview, Mehta said that tenBroek urged him to attend Berkeley. He reports that tenBroek promoted the advantages of a Berkeley education and discussed the special resources available to blind college students in California. He told Mehta that he would help him enroll and get settled there. Mehta speculated during our conversation that Dr. tenBroek may have wanted to have a small group of blind students around him that he could influence and guide. "But I was truculent. I didn't want role models, and I didn't want to associate too closely with blind people."

Indeed, despite Mehta's positive memories of Dr. tenBroek, in response to a question about tenBroek's influence on him, Mehta said that he did not regard him as a role model. "I don't believe in role models. I am my own role model." Instead Mehta said, "Really he was much more of a resource." Dr. tenBroek explained how to get readers and deal with campus life. Mehta occasionally appealed to him for financial support, and he generally obliged with a "little check" from one or another of his friends in his Berkeley network. Later in our conversation Mehta conceded that William Shawn, former editor of the New Yorker; Eleanor Gould Packard, the New Yorker’s proofreader and unofficial grammarian; and various professors in college and tutors at Oxford may have been role models for him.

When invited to imagine what his relationship with Dr. tenBroek might have been had he been more open to building one, Mehta said, "It is hard to speculate on what our relationship might have been. I don't have, for whatever psychological reasons, any friends at all who are blind--actually I never have had--any relationships with blind people since I moved out of the Arkansas School for the Blind. I had several black friends, and it always made me sad that these friends ended up studying or writing about black culture or welfare for black people. I, for whatever psychological reasons, wanted to be done with the business of blindness from the very beginning." He told us that his only real foray into the blindness arena was writing a paper condemning the professional blindness establishment of the 1950s for its censorship and unwillingness to translate literature with any overt sexual content into alternative formats. Mehta recalled that Dr. tenBroek liked his paper and urged him to write others, but he also said that his work gained him nothing but the enmity of the blindness profession. That enmity might have served as a source of inspiration to continue his advocacy for blind people, but this was not his reaction. After this experience Mehta said that he moved to England and washed his hands of any further involvement with the blindness community.

Despite this decision he started further correspondence with Dr. tenBroek when he returned to the United States for graduate study at Harvard. Mehta could not clearly recall what prompted his resumption of this correspondence, but he surmised that it was probably either to solicit career advice about his ambition to be a writer or to grumble about his dissatisfaction while at Harvard, which seemed to him "like an intellectual version of Hollywood."

In concluding his reflections on Dr. tenBroek, Mehta acknowledged that despite differences in their early childhoods (Mehta grew up in relative affluence in India under the guardianship of his father, an important public health official, while tenBroek was reared on the prairies of Canada by a farmer) they might have had a lot in common. "I would not protest against that comparison. tenBroek was an intellectual, self-confident man."

Passages from Mehta's book The Stolen Light make it clear that he struggled to reconcile himself to his blindness during his college years. He resisted the requests of college administrators to use a cane and admit his turmoil about matters as simple as disclosing his need for assistance or directions to the bathroom while out with friends or dates. Nevertheless he did write of using Braille and readers and of taking advantage of leaders in the blindness community like Dr. tenBroek

Wondering if his perspective on blindness had evolved over the years, we questioned him indirectly about his current attitudes toward his blindness. Mehta required little coaxing on this topic. In virtually everything he said, he good-naturedly admitted that his views on blindness were paradoxical. On one hand he works to distance himself from anything blindness-related and obviously loathes the fact that he is blind; on the other hand he capitalizes on his blindness to distinguish himself in some of his autobiographical writing and recognizes that blindness has had a significant influence on his life. On his Website he says, "Partly I write because of blindness, because of the heightened sense of loneliness that many intelligent blind people feel." He reaffirmed this view during our interview. "I found my liberation in writing."

Asked why his attitude toward his blindness was so different from that articulated by Dr. tenBroek, Mehta maintained that his view was not different from that of many blind people. "I think a lot of blind people would take my view if they could. I think nobody enjoys being a cripple. If they could step out of it, they would." Mehta told us that his mother never really accepted the fact of his blindness, and he said that he always acted as if he could see around her because "that's what she wanted."

He continued, "I don't think my attitude is abnormal. I didn't want to be a blind writer. I wanted to be a writer who is blind." Mindful of the recent presidential election and in an effort to characterize his feelings as mainstream, Mehta reminded us that Roosevelt went to extraordinary lengths to conceal his disability too. In closing this subject, he reminded us, "My feelings are a normal, human phenomenon." Sadly, for all too many blind people today, Mehta remains correct.

We were curious about the logistics of how a prolific blind writer works. He explained that mostly he works with a Perkins Braillewriter and a typewriter. He said that it's hard to teach an old dog new tricks and that he no longer has the patience to try to learn JAWS, though he has had it installed on his computer. He told us rather defensively that he relies on an amanuensis to do much of his work. He pointed out that sighted authors like Henry James and Joseph Conrad also used this time-tested strategy. "I just stitch together different methods, and they serve me."

When invited to comment on what bolstered his resolve and determination to succeed, Mehta offered, "With respect to determination, often the talent will drive you. If you have talent, you have an obligation to that talent." He also noted that he always felt pressure to succeed and be like his six accomplished sighted siblings. Mehta attributed much of his determination to his father’s fervent determination that he should succeed.

After leaving Mehta's large and beautiful New York apartment, where we had been cordially welcomed, I found myself torn: I was impressed by the indisputable achievements of this blind scholar and author. Yet I felt heartsick at how emotionally tortured Mehta continues to be about his blindness and regretful that this fact will curtail his ability to influence the next generation of blind people. Mostly, though, I was troubled that a blind man of Mehta's standing does not want or feel any obligation to influence blind people who follow him or to give back to the blind community that has--whether he recognizes it or not--done much to bring about his success.

Let us celebrate his many achievements, but mostly let us hope that Mehta can find some measure of peace--with or without accepting our hand of friendship. Blindness is too much a part of every blind person’s life for it to remain a torment.

 

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