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One of the ‘Most Imposing Figures’ of American Literature Ved Mehta Dies at 86

One of the ‘Most Imposing Figures’ of American Literature Ved Mehta Dies at 86

Staff Writer

Ved Mehta, one of the first Indian writers to introduce Indian history and society for readers of English in the West, died on Jan. 9 of complications of Parkinson’s disease, at his home in Manhattan. He was 86. He is survived by his wife, Linn F.C. Cary, daughters, Sage Mehta Robinson and Dr. Natasha Mehta; his sisters, Promila Mehrotra and Urmila Singh; and two grandchildren.

A longtime writer for The New Yorker, Mehta is best known for a monumental autobiography, “Continents of Exile,” published in 12 installments, between 1972 to 2004. Mehta’s writings, both autobiographical and fictional, were a blend of his multicultural existence spanning East and West and his personal life, revolving around the fact of his blindness. 

Mehta was born on March 21, 1934, into a Hindu family, in Lahore, now in Pakistan. When he was barely 4, Mehta lost his sight as the result of an attack of cerebrospinal meningitis. His father, a doctor, tried to fight the superstition and give his son an education. A year later, Mehta was sent to a blind school in Bombay, 1,300 miles away from his home, in Punjab. “It proved to be, like the score or so of other such schools in the country, an orphanage cum asylum,” Mehta wrote on his website. Mehta spent three years there, “sick a good part of the time”  and then returned home “because the school had nothing more to teach me.”

Mehta was 13 when India gained independence. “We were among the refugees who escaped from newly created Pakistan with the clothes on our backs,” he wrote on his website. “I feared that now I was permanently stuck in India, with no chance of getting a proper education.”

Mehta got an opportunity to study for a few months at a newly established institute for soldiers blinded in World War II, where he learned to do touch typing. He was eventually accepted at the Arkansas School for the Blind. His father raised the necessary money, and he flew to the U.S. alone at age 15. “I was finally on the road to a formal education,” he wrote. “In due course, with the help of many scholarships, he earned a BA from Pomona College, in California, a BA from Balliol College, Oxford, and an MA from Harvard. 

Mehta joined the staff of The New Yorker magazine when he was 26 and, for more than three decades, wrote a stream of pieces, many of them appearing in multipart series. He wrote about Oxford dons, theology, Indian politics, and many other subjects.

“Ved Mehta has established himself as one of the magazine’s most imposing figures,” The New Yorker’s storied editor William Shawn, who hired him as a staff writer in 1961, told The New York Times in 1982. “He writes about serious matters without solemnity, about scholarly matters without pedantry, about abstruse matters without obscurity.”

At age 23, Mehta published his first book, an autobiography, “Face to Face” in 1957, which placed his early life in the context of Indian politics and history and Anglo-Indian relation. “It was written out of a feeling that I could partly alleviate a life of deprivation by writing about it,” Mehta wrote on his website. 

Mehta published his first novel, “Delinquent Chacha,” in 1966. It was serialized in The New Yorker. Since then he has written more than 24 books, including several that deal with the subject of blindness, as well as hundreds of articles and short stories, for British, Indian and American publications.

As the years passed, Mehta decided to give fuller form to the mixed autobiographical/biographical memoir as the literary medium that would become his hallmark. His first major work in this style, “Daddyji,” was published in 1972. Along with its companion volume, “Mamaji,” it dealt with his life with his parents in India, sketching the family background and the historical context as well. 

The third book in this category, “Vedi,”is based on his childhood experiences including his stay at the Dadar School for the Blind. It was followed by “The Ledge Between the Streams,” dealing with the years from the age of 9 to 15, when he left for the United States. Then came”Sound-Shadows of the New World,” which recounts his first impressions of America and Americans and his high school years at the Arkansas School for the Blind, while “The Stolen Light” describes his undergraduate years at Pomona College in California and the writing (or, more accurately, dictation) of “Face to Face.” 

He also wrote about his long history of failed relationships with women, and the psychoanalysis he underwent in an effort to understand that history, in “All for Love” (2001), the ninth installment of his autobiography.

As per Mehta’s biography on enotes.com, in a prefatory note to “The Stolen Light,” Mehta explains that he first envisioned this massive ongoing autobiography when he was in his 20s, and has been working on it intermittently ever since. “It was, he acknowledges, a daunting task, and for a time he was not sure that he would be able to realize his vision,” the biography says. “With the publication of this, the sixth book,” he concludes, “I feel that the series has a manifest architecture, and am therefore emboldened to give it the name that I have carried so long in my head: ‘Continents of Exile.’” 

In a 2009 article for Business Standard, writer and critic Nilanjana S Roy noted: “Nothing is exempt from Mehta’s need to set it all down , not the years of apprenticeship with Mr. Shawn [Wimmiam Shawn], the legendary New Yorker editor, not his blindness, not his sessions on the psychiatrist’s couch.”

In an obituary, The New Yorker traces some of Mehta’s “fascinating” works, including “A Battle Against the Bewitchment of Our Intelligence” (1961), “a portrait of British intellectual life and the philosophical debates of the time”; “John Is Easy to Please” (1971), “a piece about the young linguist Noam Chomsky and the critics of his theory of transformational grammar”; “Mahatma Gandhi and his Apostles,” (1976), a three-part profile on Gandhi; and “Remembering Mr. Shawn” (1986), about his longtime editor at the magazine, William Shawn.

His bibliography also includes the nonfiction titles “Fly and the Fly-Bottle: Encounters With British Intellectuals” (1963); and “The New Theologian” (1966). 

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“The recipient of a MacArthur Foundation genius grant in 1982, Mehta was praised by critics for his forthright, luminous prose with its informal elegance, diamond clarity and hypnotic power, as The Sunday Herald of Glasgow put it in a 2005 profile, the New York Times said in it’s obituary. 

“Mehta’s writing often reaches large questions through small local instances,”critic Michael Wood had written in the London Review of Books. “Well-chosen details represent more than themselves… The trick is to choose the details, which Mehta does with consummate, sly skill.”

“Mehta composed all of his work orally, dictating long swaths to an assistant, who read them back again and again for him to polish until the work shone like a mirror,” The New York Times said. “He could rework a single article more than a hundred times, he often said.”

For a 1989 article, Spy magazine, the satirical New York monthly, interviewed several of the women who had worked as Mehta’s assistants over the years, known among staff as the Vedettes. “The article emerged as a caustic portrait of Mr. Mehta as patrician, paternalistic and patronizing,” the New York Times said. 

Mehta, who worked as a staff writer at The New Yorker from 1961 to 1994, left the magazine under the editorship of Tina Brown. In addition, Mehta has served on the literature faculties of a number of colleges and universities, including Yale, Vassar, and Balliol College at Oxford. 

Until then, Mehta worked out of the offices of The New Yorker for years. “You know, writing is a solitary occupation, so I found it more helpful to go to the office, but no one had to,” he told Women Wear Daily, a fashion-industry trade journal, in a Feb. 18, 2014 interview. “John Updike was a staff writer, and he never went to the office — or very seldom, anyway. But I like routine. It also gave me some purpose in life. My office was half the size of this room or less. It was a room where you could hardly fit a coffin.”

Mehta walked the streets of the city without a cane or a seeing-eye dog, and he bristled when someone dared try to assist him. In a June 1984 interview with The New York Times, Madhur Jaffrey, actress and cookbook author, told Maureen Dowd that when she first met Mehta, “I tried to take his arm” to help. “He gave me a shove, and we’ve been friends ever since.”

He was known to dislike promotional endeavors like multi-city book launches and appearances at literary festivals. “Any literary event with more than three or four writers is not a festival. It is a mela,” he told Open magazine in a Jan. 17, 2014 interview. “It all takes away time from writing. I should be dead by now; I want to use my time well.”

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