Nature of visual impairment: Went blind at three years
Born: 21 March, 1934
Ved (Prakash) Mehta, the fifth of seven children and second son of Doctor Amolak Ram Mehta and Shanti (Mehra) Mehta, was born in Lahore, in the Punjab, then in British India, and now in Pakistan.
A couple of months short of his fourth birthday Ved was blinded by cerebrospinal meningitis. Hindus consider blindness, or any other form of disability, a punishment for sins committed in a previous incarnation. But Ved’s father, a doctor, tried to fight the superstition and decided to give him an education, like his other children, so that he could become, as his father used to say, a self-supporting citizen of the world.
Ved was sent to an American missionary school in Bombay, some 1,300 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, ride a bicycle, and to form mental images of people and places from the descriptions of others. Later he was to reimagine his entire childhood in brilliant colours, and to write of the "yellow of mustard flowers outlined by the feathery green of sugarcane," and the "red of coral-tree flowers, and the scarlet of the 'flame-of-the-forest'."
When he was 15, Ved was admitted to the Arkansas State School for the Blind in Little Rock. There, his verbal gifts were recognised, and he developed his sense of touch and hearing – as well as his memory – to an extraordinary level. After receiving his high school diploma from the Arkansas State School, Ved spent four years at Pomona College in California. During that period he attended several summer sessions at Harvard University and the University of California at Berkeley. He obtained his BA degree from Pomona College in 1956. He then went to England for three years to study 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 studies at Harvard under a fellowship, and he obtained his MA degree 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 non-fiction – an autobiography that was published under the title 'Face to Face' and drew praise for its candour, 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 New Yorker, who encouraged him to contribute to the magazine and invited him in 1961 to join its editorial staff. Mehta had already published an impressionistic account of a summer trip to his native India after ten years' exile.
Although blind since he was nearly four, Ved surmounted his disability to become one of the most versatile contemporary men of letters. He went on to publish several non-fiction 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 United States, and about more abstract matters, such as philosophy, history, theology, and linguistics.
Notwithstanding Mehta's excursions into intellectual disciplines, the central theme of his literary career has always been India and his own life as an expatriate Indian. As part of a continuing autobiographical project and a step in his own search for identity, Mehta wrote Daddyji, which was serialised in 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. The book was warmly praised for its descriptions of north Indian upper middle-class life in the first half of the twentieth century and viewed as an accurate and concrete picture of a world and a state-of-mind that disappeared with the departure of the British.
'Daddyji' was the first of Mehta's writings since 'Face to Face' to refer directly to his blindness. In the original edition of 'Walking the Indian Streets', the publisher had included a note mentioning Mehta's blindness, but no further reference was made to it in his subsequent books. In 'Daddyji' Mehta wrote about the illness that had led to his disability and about the incorrect diagnosis given by a senior doctor, resulting in a delay of treatment that caused him to lose his sight. "When I started to write," Mehta told John Corry in an interview about 'Daddyji' in the New York Times, "I wanted to see how I could exploit my other senses. I reached the point where I wanted to experiment. To really plumb the depths of the experiment, I wanted to explore my own life. . . Partly I write because of blindness, because of the heightened sense of loneliness that many intelligent, blind people feel."
'Daddyji' was a cornerstone of a vast autobiographical series bearing the omnibus title, 'Continents of Exile'. Each book in the series is independent and self-contained, but each is also chronologically and thematically related to the other books. The series includes 'Mamaji' (1979), a biographical portrait of his mother; 'Vedi' (1982), his early school days in India; 'The Ledge Between the Streams' (1984), his childhood in British India; 'Sound-Shadows of the New World' (1986), his discovery of America in Arkansas; 'The Stolen Light' (1989), his experiences at college in California, b (1993), his university years in Britain; 'Remembering Mr. Shawn's New Yorker' (1998), the New Yorker years; and, most recently, 'All For Love' (2001), his romantic quest in the sixties. As the author observes in respect to the series, "[I explore] the boundaries of time and memory, the clash of culture and self, and the meaning of place and exile - as I have experienced them." In a 1984 New York Times magazine article, he told the writer of the piece, Maureen Dowd, "I don't belong to any single tradition. I am an amalgam of five cultures Indian, British, American, blind, and The New Yorker."
Although he has written a short satirical novel, 'Delinquent Chacha' (1967), he is best known as a shrewd and observant commentator on Indian society. His most distinguished work is highly autobiographical. 'Face to Face' (1957) describes his childhood and his early struggle with blindness. 'Walking the Indian Streets' (1963) deals with a journey round India after his years abroad. A more ambitious journey resulted in 'Portrait of India' (1970), an epic travelogue which features public figures such as Indira Gandhi alongside ordinary people. Mehta explores the intellectual life not only of India but also of Europe and U.S.A. in 'Fly and the Fly Bottle' (1963) and 'John is Easy to Please: Encounters with the Written and Spoken Word' (1971). He has also published a study of Gandhi (1977). Though some critics have dismissed Mehta as a 'high-class' journalist, it is likely that his work will survive as a testament to the human spirit as well as a penetrating account of contemporary Indian life.
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 honourary 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 honourary fellow of Balliol College, Oxford.
Ved Mehta is a frail but energetic man who sometimes works ten hours a day, seven days a week. Unable to write longhand, he composes his manuscripts with the help of an amanuensis, revising some of his works as many as 150 times. "I am basically a classicist about writing," he says. "I care about the reader, and I explain things." When he is not travelling, Mehta makes his home in an apartment on Manhattan's Upper East Side, where he lives with his wife and two children.
Awards and Honors
- Phi Beta Kappa, 1955
- Hazen Fellow, 1956-59
- Harvard Prize Fellow, 1959-60, Residential Fellow, Eliot House, 1959-61
- Guggenheim Fellow, 1971-72, 1977-78
- Ford Foundation Travel and Study Grantee, 1971-76; Public Policy Grantee, 1979-82
- MacArthur Prize Fellow, 1982-87
- Association of Indians in America Award, 1978
- Member, Council on Foreign Relations, 1979-
- Member, Usage Panel, American Heritage Dictionary, 1982
- Signet medal (Harvard), 1983
- Distinguished Service Award, Asian/Pacific American Library Association, 1986
- New York City Mayor’s Liberty Medal, 1986
- Centenary Barrows Award, Pomona College, 1987
- New York Public Library Literary Lion Medal, 1990, and Literary Lion Centennial Medal, 1996
- New York State Asian-American Heritage Month Award, 1991