VED MEHTA IS BLIND, of Hindu parentage, and on the staff ot The New Yorker. In Mamaji he continues his exploration -- begun in Face to Face and Daddyji -- of the first two elements of this remarkable triad.
Mamaji -- the suffix "ji" denotes affection and respect -- is Shanta Devi Mehta, Ved's mother, a woman whose life has been dogged by superstition. She was born in Lahore, India (now Pakistan), in 1908, to parents who belonged to what her son calls "the Indian establishment." Her birth itself was subsumed under the superstitious regime of the day, for "it was believed that a girl would cast a shadow on her family all her life." By the time she was 10, three of her siblings were dead, and her reputation as a bringer of bad luck was secure.
Mamaji's father stinted on her education, leaving her the prey of omens and feelings of inferiority. Her marriage was arranged, as was the custom, and she set about sacrificing her life to that of her husband, an ambitious physicial. Despite his stability and relatively enlightened views on women, she was never able to jettison her dread that someday he might abruptly turn her out of the house. She was content enough, however, with running a household crammed with relatives, servants and the eight children she bore.
Mamaji is replate with the stuff of fables. The book opens with a perfervid seance, at which an eldritch woman advises one of Mamaji's forebears that to overcome her barrenness she and her husband must worship the universal mother. They comply and in due course conceive a child. Among the minor characters of the book are a group of deformed gypsies whose line of work is canned emotion. They "earned their keep by marching in funerals and crying laments, or by dancing at weddings and giggling as they made bridal-bed suggestions."
After a funeral at which those same gypsies wailed, the bereaved women gathered to beat their breasts. This was so serious a business that they removed their blouses and draped sheets over themselves. "With a quick jerk of the hand, a woman . . . would toss aside her sheet long enough to slap her breast hard and expose the redness to her neighbors, now and again surreptitiously glancing over to size up her neighbors' welts."
In Daddyji, just republished in paperback (Oxford, $3.95), Mehta gave a full account of how an attack of meningitis left him totally blind at the age of three. In the new book he concentrates on Mamaji's reaction to her son's misfortune. Guiltridden, she at first refused to believe he was blind: after all, his eyes looked clear, and his head would turn as she moved around his room. Once the truth became avoidable, she had recourse -- behind her husband's back -- to astrologers and practitioners of folk-medicine. One of them convinced her if that she gave away a pair of gold eyeballs her son would be cured. She had a jeweler melt down her bracelets and fashion the gold into eyeballs, which she dropped into a leper's cup.
Last, she consulted a Muslim, who prescribed a daily ordeal of senseless treatments, including extra salt in the boy's breakfast, applications of antimony to his eyes, gentle floggins with birch twigs, and deposits of raw meat under his pillow. Tersely, speaking of himself in the third person, Mehta reports the sole result of all this quackery. "Whenever he needed to be taken to the bathroom washed, or dressed, he would no longer call for her but would shout for one of his aunties. If Mamaji tried to lift him, he would push her away." As so often during her life, in her attempts to restore her son's vision, Mamaji was the victim of her folkways.
In Mamaji Mehta is dealing with highly emotional material, yet his prose is laconic, almost bloodless. Only in the book's last three paragraphs, set off from the rest in italics, do we glimpse the motive behind this detachment. Mehta tells how, while in college in California, joyriding on the Passadena Freeway, he heard a sound inside the car that conjured up his mother's early efforts to make him see again. This Proustian association eventually led him to find out all he could about her; however, he adds, "it was many years later . . . before I could bring myself to set it down." Mehta's aloofness, then, masks resentment. As he grew up, there must have been many times when, it his mind at least, he denied Mamaji her suffix.