Ved Mehta, who has led a remarkable life, is engaged in a remarkable enterprise: recapturing his past in a series of writings at once intensely personal and broadly symbolic. This book is the latest entry in a series begun when, at age 22, Mehta wrote "Face to Face," an autobiography undertaken at the urging of admiring friends. The admiration was solidly based: Here was a blind youth, born in India and semi-educated there, who at age 15 traveled alone to the United States to acquire a high school diploma and then a college education, capped by a scholarship to Oxford University.
Hired as a staff writer by The New Yorker, Mehta first wrote several books on India and then, a dozen years ago, resumed his personal history project with "Daddyji," a biographical portrait of his father. This was followed in 1979 by "Mamaji." Now there is "Vedi," which recounts Mehta's life from age 5 to 9.
(It is not quite accurate to call "Vedi" the latest entry in this series, for a continuation, "Family Group," has just been published in The New Yorker and will no doubt appear in hard cover before long.)
In "Vedi" Mehta retells the early chapters of "Face to Face," deepening and sharpening his focus on the four years he spent at the Dadar School for the Blind in Bombay. Called a school, Dadar was actually a mission orphanage. But young Ved Mehta was not an orphan, nor was his background in any way comparable to those of the other inmates. They were homeless children of the streets, while he was the son of a well-to-do Hindu physician who held an important post in India's public health service. Vedi was also much younger than the other children. He arrived at Dadar, 1,300 miles from his home in the northwest city of Lahore, a month before his fifth birthday. He had been born sighted, but was left blind by meningitis before he was 4.
What prompted Dr. Mehta to send Vedi so far away was his resolve that his son not endure the traditional fate of India's blind: beggary or bare subsistence earned at a lowly trade. Vedi was to be given an education at all costs, but Dr. Mehta hardly realized what those costs were to be, or who would pay them. From a cultured home where Vedi was pampered by an indulgent mother, fond older siblings and devoted servants, the little boy was shunted into a community of waifs who made fun of his plump cheeks, his soft hands, his tailored clothes, his shoes. Vedi did not know Marathi, the language of Bombay; no one at the school understood his tongue, Punjabi. His father paid monthly board, so Vedi was given a bed with a soft mattress instead of the wooden planks on which the other children in the dormitory slept. He did not take his meals with the rest, but ate in the private quarters of the principal, Ras Mohun.
One thinks instinctively of what Charles Dickens might have made of such a study in contrasts, but Mehta seemingly harbors no rancor over experiences that might well have embittered any child thus sent into exile. There were tears and occasional tantrums, but Vedi adapted. He made friends, he learned English, he learned braille, he joined enthusiastically in whatever outdoor activities the school could arrange. In a matter of months he grew so institutionalized that he resisted being sent home for the Christmas holidays. When the principal told him that his cousin Prakash, who had originally escorted him to Bombay, would accompany him on the train journey home, Vedi rebelled.
"I didn't want to meet him. He was a sahib, like Mr. Ras Mohun. I was a blind boy from the boys' dormitory. I thought that I had forgotten Punjabi and that he would laugh at my Marathi. I thought that he would make fun of the boys' dormitory."
Informed that Deoji, Abdul and his other friends would remain at the school because they had no families to go to, Vedi protested vainly that he wanted to stay with them. Deoji, a 15-year-old partially sighted lad, had served as Vedi's guide and protector from the beginning. Blind 11-year-old Abdul, on the other hand, had been his tormentor, terrifying him with tales of snakes and ghosts.
"The rains bring out the snakes," Abdul said. "There is a boa constrictor who lives up in that tree just beyond this courtyard -- you know, the tree where the shrieking vultures nest. The boa has been known to drop down and kill a blind boy by wrapping himself around him. If the boa gets you, you will hear him hiss and feel him sway his head in enjoyment as he crushes your bones and listens to your ribs crack and snap."
Vedi had nightmares about the boa until, reassured by the kindly Deoji that Abdul was just trying to frighten him, he found ways to get even. The two boys eventually became friends, and it was Abdul who introduced Vedi to sex play ("boy mischief," the principal called it) and was soundly beaten when they were discovered. It was with Abdul that Vedi buried a live kitten to find out what death was like. The young scamp assured the impressionable child that if he kissed a girl on the mouth, she would start carrying a baby that she would cough up with her spit. And when Abdul introduced Vedi to the forbidden hot-and-spicy Muslim street snacks called bhel-puri, Vedi was won over. "When I finish being a Hindu," he said, "I will become a Muslim and then I'll eat only your Muslim food."
Although the author's tone is carefully matter-of-fact, there is much poignancy in this richly textured story of a small boy's life. But some nagging questions also arise. Why does the author appear to bear no resentment over the casual manner in which his father, after the most perfunctory of correspondence, shipped a 5-year-old across half a continent to what proved to be much the inferior of the two Bombay schools for blind children? Why does Mehta not hold against his superstitious Hindu mother the ordeals he suffered early in his blindness? "I couldn't think of Mamaji without fearing pain, because Mamaji took me to faith healers who prescribed stinging solutions to restore my sight and beat me with birch twigs to exorcise the evil eye." There was ample cause for anger, but none is expressed.
"Memory expands by some kind of associative process," Mehta writes in his foreword. So does insight. To read "Vedi" is to sense the ways in which every small child confronts and internalizes the ever changing, ever mystifying horizons of his world.