Ved Mehta’s reputation as a writer, as we know, is based primarily on the large corpus of non-fiction he has churned out in a span of 46 years, though he also has novels to his name. In the field of Indian English writing Mehta is indeed among the most prominent exponents of the maverick genre of letters that we have learned to call ‘narrative non-fiction’. The Essential Ved Mehta brings together a collection of Mehta’s non-fiction, edited by the author himself. Each selection is preceded by a brief introduction that indicates its place in Mehta’s life and writings and also provides interesting details of the genesis of the book from which it is culled.
Thus, at the out-set, we learn about the origin of his first book, Face to Face. The vignette of the timorous young man, at college in California, dictating his personal story to his first amenuensis, who is also his secret first love, makes for a heart-warming prelude to the excerpt named ‘School’. The excerpt itself is an unsentimental rendition of the child Ved’s time in a blind boys’ orphanage in Bombay that is touching in its depiction of the vulnerable boy’s first brush with a regimented life away from home, brutish peers and loneliness as also of his growth into independence and maturity.
Part I of the volume, titled ‘Distant India’, continues through excerpts from Mehta’s subsequent books such as Walking the Indian Streets, The New India and The Photographs of Chachaji. ‘Indian Summer’ describes Mehta’s and his Oxford friend Dom Moraes’ passage to Nepal through India. Agra, Benares and Patna feature in the narrative before it shifts to Kathmandu and the royalty and literati of Nepal. “Bapu” reveals many little-known facets of the Mahatma’s life and habits, and “The Train had Just Arrived at Malgudi Station” gives an evocative description of the author’s time with R.K. Narayan that is also a partial biography of the senior author. Both ‘Bapu’ and ‘The Train’, however, suffers from a lack of finesse in blending dialogue and description, with the result that the dialogues tend to be long monologues and the descriptions veer a little towards tedium.
Among the other pieces in this section, ‘The End of the Emergency’ is noteworthy for its critique of Indira Gandhi’s style of functioning, ‘The After-life of Sanjay Gandhi’ describes the posthumous sycophancy bestowed especially by the media on the departed Gandhi scion, and ‘The Telephone Exchange Caper’ is a witty evocation of the inefficiency and corruption that characterised much of Indian public life in those days. Lastly, ‘Chachaji’, is a depiction of the life and times of the author’s paternal uncle and his family that manages to distil out the quintessence of an Indian joint family while also adumbrating the specificities of the community life of a Punjabi family of undivided India.
Section II — a selection from the volumes comprising The Continents of Exile series — completes the family picture with vignettes of Mehta’s grandfather, called ‘Lalaji’, and of his relationships with his parents (‘Daddyji’ and Mummiji’). The other pieces in this section are also autobiographical, starting with an excerpt from Vedi that narrates a facet of Mehta’s interactions with the principal of the ‘Dadar School for the Blind in Bombay’. The section continues through accounts of the Mehta family’s trip to Muree and Kashmir, Mehta’s time at the Arkansas School for the Blind in the U.S., memorable for the depiction of the young Ved’s lessons in walking about alone in the city, and his years at Pamona College and at then Berkeley, giving a glimpse into Ved’s awakening sensuality. The section’s last four pieces capture aspects of Mehta’s time at Harvard (‘Via Dolorosa’), his experiences as a staff writer at the New Yorker (‘Mr. Shawn’s Dismissal’), his short but intense love affair with his brilliant amenuensis Lola (‘Travel Light’), and the growth of his relationship with an English woman twenty years’ his junior whom he came to marry (‘Commitment’).
This omnibus of Mehta’s writings is remarkable both as a collection of personal essays and as samples of a breed of writing that traverses multiple worlds, geographical and cultural. Like all good writers of ‘immigrant literature’ Mehta captures an Indian origin author’s inward and outward experiences of the dialectic of the East and the West. Moreover, his writings convey an elusive but real feel of the world of the blind without taking recourse either to exoticism or sentimentality. In this context, the excerpts, ‘The Ledge’ and ‘Another Pair of Hands’ deserve special mention.
Mehta’s style is a pleasantly low-key affair. His prose, with its unpretentious vocabulary, moves effortlessly through his varied subjects, maintaining withal the tone of a laidback, not-too-intimate journal of a mild-mannered raconteur. At times a discrepancy creeps in between the gravity of the events or the feelings described and the easeful, almost humdrum tenor of the prose. The personal essay, perfected by the likes of Charles Lamb and William Hazlitt, is a form peculiarly suited to the evocation of moods through stylistic variations and finish, and Mehta’s subjects offer a rich scope. But the writer apparently prefers ease over intensity, familiarity over variety, and the result, if not brilliant, is warm and engaging. Sinking into the pages of the book is like digging into comfort food at the end of a hard day: it lulls the palette rather than exciting it and you are grateful for that.