Day 16: Ved Mehta
In the space of these days mind has gone free ranging across vast landscapes of past and future like a cow in the fallow farms of our village. From the distance of these years some outlines emerge. Ved Mehta’s early autobiography ‘Face to Face’ articulates these outlines of development of a person, as seen by himself. As I finished reading this book I thought of the way books enter our lives. The serendipitous nature of finding a book is in contrast with the impact it can have upon reading it. I came across Ved Mehta’s autobiography in a used book store, Any Amount of Books, in Charing Cross. I had recently finished Dom Moraes’ autobiography ‘My Son’s Father’ and there was an anecdote about Dom coming across a man in Oxford. It was Ved Mehta. From that description to this book about that acquaintance, the connection seemed to be leading me. And, Moraes’ life was in turn a reference from Jerry Pinto’s ‘Em and the Hoom’. From last October, it took these months to resume reading it.
Ved Mehta’s life is completely marked by his blindness at the age of three and a half from a prolonged illness. He lived in a world of four senses, as he puts it. It is hard to imagine the life of a visually impaired person for those who can see. Mehta’s writing gets close to understanding such a life. Some moments from his formative years at Arkansas School for the Blind help in understanding the world of the blind. For instance, their classes on ‘social adjustment’ at the school reveals a hardened perception of the world. Perhaps, appropriately so.
Big Jim once remarked, ‘What good does it do us to keep on learning about adjustment, when we are with blind people in school all the time and might even end up working in workshops for the blind, where no one could tell whether you ate with hands or silverware, wiped your mouth with a shirt sleeve or a napkin, or wore a navy-blue shirt with brown pants.’ Indeed, the programme for ‘social adjustment’ got more attention than our academic education. We met in classes, sometimes twice, sometimes four times a week, to learn about social graces and adjustment to a sighted society, which, at least at our school for the blind, would not have been represented at all, were it not for some of our seeing teachers.
Mr Chiles, almost totally blind himself, introducing one of the social-adjustment classes, had remarked, ‘To be blind is an uphill struggle. You’ve got to sell yourself to every seeing man. You’ve got to show him that you can do things that he thinks you can’t possibly do.’
It was true enough – if you were a donkey in a world of horses, you had to justify your worth and existence to the horses. You had, somehow, to prove to them that you could carry as much weight as they could, and if you couldn’t move as fast, you at least were willing to work harder and put in longer hours.
‘Anything you do wrong in the world of seeing,’ Mr Chiles had said, ‘like dressing untidly or putting your elbows on the table while eating, even if half the sighted world themselves commit these sins, people around you will chalk it up to your blindness. They’ll call you poor wretches, feel sorry for you, and they will commit the worst sin of all by excusing it because you’re blind.’
Ved Mehta attended Pomona College and then Oxford where he read history. He spent a major part of his career as a staff writer at the New Yorker. A career as his for a blind person in India could not have been imagined in India during the 1950s. It is valuable that he wrote through his life and left these insights into a life that by all measures was extraordinary.