b. 1934 – d. 2021
Ved Mehta was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 2009.
Ved Mehta remembered – by Anne Chisholm
Ved Mehta once said: ‘I’ve always wanted simply to be a writer; not a blind writer, not an Indian-born writer, not an American writer.’ He was all these things, but indeed above all an internationally acclaimed writer of great achievement, impressive output and strength of character.
Those of us who knew him early in his career, as a star writer for The New Yorker, a smallish, charming, well-dressed man who gave legendary parties and always had a pretty girl on his arm, quickly learned that he not only did not need but fiercely did not want any recognition of his blindness. This determination, he later wrote, was part of him from the start: ‘I merely felt that I was not limited in any way, and I felt that from the moment I became blind, two months short of my fourth birthday, as a result of an attack of cerebrospinal meningitis.’
He was born in Lahore, then still part of India, in 1934; his father, a doctor, sent him away for treatment at the age of five, first to Mumbai and then, at 13, to a specialist school in Arkansas. Highly intelligent and ambitious, he quickly mastered English (his first language was Punjabi), typewriting and braille. From there he won a scholarship to college in California, where again he excelled, paying other students to read for him and moving on to study history at Balliol College, Oxford, in 1956. He would return there all his life.
He started a PHD at Harvard, but soon realised that what he really wanted to do was write. His first autobiographical book, Face to Face, had come out in 1957; he caught the attention of the New Yorker editor, William Shawn, and by 1961 he was on the staff of the magazine, where he stayed until 1994. Sixteen of his 24 books began as pieces for The New Yorker.
All this, and more, Mehta recounted himself in his great autobiographical epic Continents of Exile, which appeared in 12 volumes between 1972 and 2004. These books could be said to have pioneered the combining of family history and historical and social enquiry, as well as the unflinching portrayal of personal life and relationships. An exploration of memory, he himself said he would like the saga to be read as a novel. The sequence was interspersed with other books of reportage and Indian history, including studies of philosophers and theologians based on interviews (another form he made fashionable) and accounts of Gandhi and the Indian political scene.
All his writing is elegant, clear and full of precise, often lyrical descriptions of landscape, places and faces. When questions were raised about his methods, he would explain that from childhood he developed the acute sensitivity to physical presence and movement he called facial vision, and his other senses, especially hearing: ‘my ears became my eyes’, as he put it. He relied on amanuenses to help with the vast amount of reading and research he always mastered and to take dictation, but he never took notes or used a tape recorder, relying instead on his prodigious and well-trained powers of recollection.
For a long time, though, he avoided writing about blindness, and indeed came to realise that for many years he had been ‘in the grip of the fantasy that I could see’. His marriage, in 1983, to the academic Linn Cary, and the birth of two daughters, gave him the happiness and security he needed to let the fantasy go and eventually to write about the reality. On his death, The New York Times called him ‘a writer who illuminated India’. He did more: he illuminated the human condition.