SOUND-SHADOWS OF THE NEW WORLD. By Ved Mehta. Norton. 430 pp. $17.95.
VED MEHTA MUST have decided at an early age that he was destined to lead a notable life. He has preserved every scrap of paper -- personal and official correspondence, press clippings, diary jottings, even answers to school examinations -- that could be useful in documenting the events of that life. Beginning with portraits of his parents, Daddiji (1972) and Mamaji (1979), he then wrote Vedi (1982), which told of his four years at a missionary school for the blind in Bombay, and The Ledge Between the Streams (1984), covering the ensuing six years, during which the Mehta family were made refugees by the partition of India. Now we have Sound- Shadows of the New World, which recounts his three years in Little Rock attending the Arkansas School for the Blind, a setting that felt as alien to his Hindu sensibilities as did his life in India to Western readers of his earlier books.
Culture shock assailed the 15-year-old Ved even before his plane touched down on American soil. He passed up dinner during the flight because he didn't know how to use a knife and fork. He discovered that the American couple who housed him for a few weeks until the beginning of the school semester slept in the same bed, a practice unknown in India. He heard them exchange kisses of greeting. "Had a bomb exploded, I could not have been more surprised." He forced himself to eat the spaghetti and meatballs his hostess served, even though beef was a food forbidden to Hindus. At school his first experience with a glass of milk was a revelation. "At home milk smelled foul because it was served hot -- it had to be boiled. But this milk was so cold that it was almost odorless and I drank it happily." Asked by the waitress if he wanted another glass, he automatically refused. "I had been brought up to consider it impolite to accept anything at the first or second offer, and I waited for her to return and ask me again. She never did."
In time he grew accustomed to American food, to dormitory life, and to the twangy southern speech, country manners and racial prejudices of his fellow students. (In Arkansas, one told him, people are either white or not white and "You ain't white.") He caught up with the subjects in which he was behind, advanced rapidly in others. A venturesome gadgeteer, he worked out a way to hook up a radio and a tape recorder and set up a little office for himself in a broom closet. He made the school's honor roll, worked on the student newspaper, discovered the art of politics and was elected president of the student senate.
His most meaningful accomplishment was achieving independent mobility, "the gift of gifts, the prayer of prayers, the dream o dreams of a blind man." Scorning the use of a white cane in favor of what he called "facial vision," he demonstrated that by careful attention to shifting air currents, by listening for auditory signals (the "sound-shadows" of the title), by awareness of changes in underfoot surfaces, by counting steps and memorizing landmarks, he could travel by himself, on foot or by tram, first to downtown Little Rock, then to further destinations involving changes of bus and, ultimately, during a Christmas vacation, by train and car to other cities.
LEAVING ASIDE the adaptations necessitated by blindness, his experiences did not differ materially from those encountered by adolescents at any boarding school. He found understanding teachers, ineffectual ones and some pursuing private agendas (including an evangelical Christian intent on converting him from Hinduism lest he be doomed to eternal damnation). There was a caring and supportive superintendent. There was a bullying athletic coach, insistent that the underweight boy from India join the school's wrestling team. One summer he discovered the thrill of earning money when he took a vacation job in an ice cream plant stacking popsicles.
An overriding concern was awakening sexuality. Shyness and ignorance of Western social customs kept him on the sidelines during the compulsory Saturday night school dances. Dating a girl at a dance, including a goodnight kiss, was standard practice among his fellow seniors, but the prospect appalled him. When he finally found the courage to ask a girl for a date, he was beset by qualms. "I am going against my Indian moral training, I thought. I am giving in to temporary pleasure. I am seeking the company of a lady who is not a relative. I am pretending that my interest in her is something other than infatuation and animal lust." Offsetting these doubts was the satisfied feeling that in dating a girl he was behaving like "a one-hundred- percent-American and a one-hundred-percent-socially-adjusted blind person."
Threading the themes of adolescent yearnings and gradual acculturation was Ved's steadfast determination to achieve the education that represented his only avenue of escape from the occupations traditionally pursued by blind men -- in India, music- teaching or beggary; in the United States, chair-caning, broom-making, piano-tuning, vending-stand operation or employment in a sheltered workshop. The road to college presented some unforeseen obstacles. Harvard turned down his application; Columbia required him to take college board tests. He was told that one of these, the Scholastic Aptitude Test, was available in a Braille edition, but when the papers arrived no Braille version accompanied them. No extra time was allowed for oral administration of an examination involving diagrams, maps and charts. The result was a predictable rout.
Sound-Shadows ends with Ved Mehta's graduation with honors from the Arkansas School for the Blind. But we are not left in suspense over his future. The book jacket informs us that he holds degrees from Pomona College in California, Oxford University in England and Harvard University. Nor will these events be unchronicled; the author's preface states that he is even now at work on a book on his California years and one on his years at Oxford. No doubt we can also look forward to an account of his years as a New Yorker staff writer, a subject on which I recently heard him deliver an entertaining lecture.
Ved Mehta is 52; at his current rate of a book every two years, his autobiography may just about catch up with him if he enjoys a normal life span. And why not? His books provide a unique perspective on both the obscure corners and the broad canvas of the society we all share.