LRB | Vol. 28 No. 4 dated 23 February 2006 | Michael Wood

Chasing Kites

Michael Wood

  • The Red Letters: My Father’s Enchanted Period by Ved Mehta · Sinclair-Stevenson, 190 pp, £15.99
  • Remembering Mr Shawn’s ‘New Yorker’ by Ved Mehta · Sinclair-Stevenson, 414 pp, £19.99
  • Dark Harbour by Ved Mehta · Sinclair-Stevenson, 272 pp, £17.99

In a famous poem by Hopkins, a child called Margaret is rebuked for grieving over the fall of leaves. Leaves fall; stuff happens; we get over it; or, to stay with Hopkins’s idiom, the heart ‘will come to such sights colder/By and by’. The child will one day find better reasons for her tears, including the fate of humankind, falling and falling again since its first lapse in Eden: ‘You will weep and know why.’ And in any case there will always have been a secret reason for her grief. Early and late she will have been crying for herself: ‘It is Margaret you mourn for.’

I have always thought of the conclusion of this poem as remarkably unkind and accusatory. How does the poet know so much about Margaret’s self-concern? Is he right about her? Do we all have to feel the way Margaret is said to? But recently I have come to hear the stress differently. It is not that Margaret is mourning only for herself; just that she is mourning for herself, whatever else she may be mourning for as well, and however deep or shallow that mourning may be. We are always the subject of our own tears, but not the only subject; and knowing the many other reasons why we weep is a complicated affair, often a matter of stealthy Freudian displacement rather than anything resembling immediate cause and effect. ‘Sorrow’s springs are the same,’ Hopkins says. That’s why tears are transferable from one grief to another, and may be genuine even when they pick the wrong occasion.

This perception is precisely where Ved Mehta’s memoir The Red Letters ends, and with it his extraordinary 11-volume autobiography, Continents of Exile, begun in 1972. Mehta is remembering his father’s tears at a particular, unlikely moment, and has been talking with a New York psychoanalyst about his inability to weep at his father’s death in 1986. The analyst, Kurt Eissler, a man closely identified with Freud, shrewdly says that one can grieve without weeping. ‘What is there in crying? Crying in and of itself is not a sign of emotional health. Many people can cry on demand.’ He quotes Hamlet’s speech to the players: ‘What’s Hecuba to him or he to Hecuba/That he should weep for her?’ But then Mehta suddenly thinks he understands his father’s tears – they are the language of one form of guilt covering for another – and begins to sob uncontrollably himself. Reversing his position with analytic ease, Eissler now says: ‘When you cry is not as important as that you are able to cry.’ Mehta doesn’t comment on this change, but clearly thinks his tears are inseparable from his new perception about the springs of sorrow: ‘As I left Eissler’s office, I felt united with my father, through our longest-delayed tears. Although shed for reasons of our own, which even we might not have known for certain, they provided us with a connective release from guilty burdens.’

I’ll return to the detail of this story, not least because Mehta’s writing so often reaches large questions through small
local instances. He says in an afterword to the whole series that it is ‘predicated on the notion that the more particular a story, the more universal it is’. This is an old piety and entirely untrue. Think of all the stories that bored you stiff with their unending particularity. What is true is that well-chosen details represent more than themselves, and we don’t have to go all the way to the universal. A modest generality will do, a sense that pieces of this experience might have been ours, if only by analogy. The trick is to choose the details, which Mehta does with
consummate, sly skill. If his stories, as he says, ‘grew as if by their own momentum’, their development was nevertheless ‘contrary to the spirit of free association’, and the books – individually and collectively – do have, precisely, ‘a distinct design and architecture’.

Mehta was a staff writer at the New Yorker from 1961 to 1994, and has written many books apart from those in this series, notably Fly and Fly-Bottle (1963), The New Theologian (1966), Portrait of India (1970) and Mahatma Gandhi and His Apostles (1977). Most of the work in the series was published in the New Yorker before it reached book form, and only the later volumes had to do without a first home in the magazine. The story of this variety of exile is fully told in one of the books. The titles in the complete series are as follows: Daddyji (1972); Mamaji (1979); Vedi (1982); The Ledge between the Streams (1984); Sound-Shadows of the New World (1986); The Stolen Light (1989); Up at Oxford (1993); Remembering Mr Shawn’s ‘New Yorker’ (1998); All for Love (2001); Dark Harbour (2003); The Red Letters (2004).

Many long-term writing projects are unfinished, of course. The author gives up or steps away into death. Other long projects, like Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time, are finished to the slight surprise of their author, who perhaps never entirely believed he would get there and have some life to spare. Even completed works of this scope carry a suggestion of fragility within their sturdy achievement, and Mehta tells us that although he had been thinking of the whole sequence for a long time, it was ‘mostly a private vision’: ‘I wasn’t sure that I would have the physical and emotional stamina – or indeed the means – to keep on with the project.’ It was only with volume six, The Stolen Light, that he became confident of his ‘architecture’ and gave the set the general title he had ‘carried so long in my head’.

Mehta’s afterword doesn’t touch on this doubt, and indeed ends with the words ‘full circle’. But he knows better than most people that any full circle could well have been a broken one. The first three books form a clearly linked group: a portrait of the father, a portrait of the mother, a portrait of the artist as a blind boy. The father, Amolak Ram Mehta, a Punjabi Hindu, was a doctor under the Raj, a health inspector in many places, although the family base was always Lahore. He had studied in England and America, and was a great admirer of English manners though not necessarily of England’s Indian politics (as a student he was a leader of a strike protesting against the massacre at Amritsar). The mother, Shanti Devi Mehra, came from a well-to-do family in Lahore but remained connected throughout her life to a more superstitious, less formally educated India. Mehta regularly pictures his parents, and indeed the Mehtas and the Mehras, as representatives of contrasting cultures: ‘The Mehtas . . . were
always trying something new and outlandish, as if to proclaim to the world their individuality . . . while the Mehras . . . held to the old and ordinary ways, as if to announce to the world their inbred indifference to it.’ As children, Mehta says, he and his six siblings thought of their father ‘as educated, reasonable and compliant, and of Mamaji as uneducated, capricious and stubborn’.

On the way to a holiday in Kashmir the family pauses at a spot where two rivers almost meet, remaining separated only by a small ledge, which provides the title for Mehta’s fourth volume. One river is fast and glacial and clear, the other slow and tepid and muddy. ‘I remember thinking,’ Mehta comments, ‘that, in their way, the two streams were as different as Daddyji and Mamaji.’ The thought is more than a little unjust to the mother, and this injustice is one of the deep themes of the later volumes of the series. A little later, Mehta writes of Lahore as consisting of two cities, a ‘clearly demarcated British city’ which the children associate with their father, and ‘the old, unplanned, chaotic Indian city’ they associate with their mother. But then he goes on to say that ‘in actuality, the two cities had long overlapped’, much as many of the Mehtas’ and the Mehras’ ways of living had criss-crossed over time; and when Mehta writes of the ‘almost Proustian scale’ of his literary undertaking, he may be thinking not only of the scope of the thing but also of Proust’s two ways, the walk towards Swann’s house and that towards the château of Guermantes, which structure and segregate the writer’s world and which, he ultimately discovers, are not opposing walks, just different ones and not at all remote from each other: you could switch or combine walks at almost any time. Mehta’s father is not less Indian than his mother, only differently Indian; and both parents are persons of extraordinary courage and resilience and style, however dissimilar their forms of expression.

The third volume, Vedi, recounts Mehta’s time at the Dadar School for the Blind in Bombay, which he attended, with interruptions, from 1939 to 1943. He became blind, as a result of meningitis, in 1938, just before he turned four. The father was determined the boy should be educated but knew very little about the school, and had not visited it himself. The headmaster, a kindly, well-intentioned man, later told Mehta that he could not quite believe that people of class and position, like my parents, would send a totally blind child of scarcely five to a school in a city 1300 miles away – with a strange language, a strange climate, strange food – on the basis of a perfunctory
correspondence, in which the question of how a well-to-do Punjabi child would survive in a Marathi-speaking orphanage . . . was barely touched upon. The school was as grim as an institution out of Oliver Twist, but Mehta made friends there, and learned Braille, and how to play chess. He was active and cheerful, and, striking a note of physical risk-taking that characterises much of his life, tells us that he ‘never walked anywhere but always ran, not caring what was in the way. Sometimes I would forget where a wall or a post was, and would crash into it . . . There was hardly a day when I did not get a cut or a bump.’ It’s tempting to think of the child as stoic and of the adult writer as uncomplaining, but the effect is both subtler and eerier than that, and is well caught in a phrase in a later volume: ‘Awful things happened in India, but people picked themselves up and went on.’ Mehta’s method, throughout the series, is to show the awful things, usually without comment, and leave us to think about the rest.
And in such a context picking oneself up and going on is not a moral stance, however heroic it may seem. It is a survival tactic, the only alternative to lying down and death. There are plenty of people who don’t manage to pick themselves up. In the desolate last scene of Vedi, Mehta returns to the orphanage in Bombay as an adult to discover that most of his schoolmates are dead of consumption and that the school’s success story, a blind girl who later married the headmaster, is living in a suffocating tenement and has virtually no memories of the school. She asks Mehta to give her a Braille watch, and ‘starts whining like a street beggar’ – the harsh language a sign of the nightmare triggered in the writer. For him and his father, being blind and being a beggar are synonymous in India; that’s why he had to get away.

He doesn’t get away yet, and his fourth volume, The Ledge between the Streams, recounts his last years in India, including a blow by blow account of Partition as experienced by a Hindu family surrounded by the rising violence in Lahore. Mobs howl, friends are killed, and the father finally sends most of the family to relatives in Bombay. Later, when Lahore becomes part of Pakistan, they lose everything. At one point the father says the Punjab has been turned over ‘to the rule of fanatics. The music that we hear from this time on out will be the sad music of Partition.’ It is characteristic of the father that he should find music even in distress; and characteristic of the son that he should report this untimely eloquence without remark. At the end of the book Mehta is 15 and all set to go to school in America, but not before we have heard of some extraordinary exacerbations of the idea of running rather than walking. In Lahore the boys chase kites from house to house, leaping along the rooftops. The blind Mehta joins in,
employing what he later learns is called ‘facial vision’ – ‘an ability that the blind develop to sense objects and terrain by the feel of the air and by differences in sound’. An amazing ability but scarcely a licence for running along a roof, and Mehta is always falling.

I leaped over the parapet, but I missed my foothold on the eaves . . . I frantically reached for something that would break my fall. I hit my chin on the edge of the eaves, caught hold of it . . . and pulled myself up with such force that it seemed that I hit my knees on the bottom of the eaves and my forehead on the top at the same time. Another adventure: ‘I missed the parapet and started hurtling through the air. But, as I had on so many other occasions, I saved myself from a fall – this time by catching hold of a brick projection.’ In Bombay, Mehta and a cousin are in the habit of climbing on top of a moving lift cage or hanging from the lift floor, and for once the writer does have something to say. ‘I don’t know how we escaped with our lives, but one thing I do know – though only in retrospect – is that in Lahore we had got so used to living with a sense of danger that in Bombay we couldn’t bear to live without it.’ Among these exploits, Mehta’s learning to ride a bike and following his sisters to school (and, much later, cycling around an island in Maine), which otherwise might seem both miraculous and frightening, becomes one of his safer and more modest accomplishments.

The next volume, Sound-Shadows of the New World, re-creates Mehta’s years at the Arkansas School of the Blind in Little Rock, which he attended from 1949 to 1952. If Vedi is the most closely focused and harrowing of the books in the series, Sound-Shadows is in many ways the most haunting, because it shows us most clearly how the author learned to manage both the fact and the idea of his blindness. There are verbatim quotations from old diaries, in which Mehta, shut away in a broom closet in the school with his typewriter and a radio, dreams of becoming the Ed Murrow of his day, and the mixture of innocence and intelligence is often heartrending. ‘We went to the circus . . . with a group called the Shriners . . . I wish I could say that I enjoyed it, but it was mostly a lot of noise.’ ‘The United States is developing a hydrogen bomb . . . It has been said by the greatest scientists that a mere eight hydrogen bombs could finish off Russia. Just imagine!’ ‘I cannot figure out what I can do for my summer vacation. Whenever I think of the summer, I have a sinking feeling.’ He learns to take a bus into downtown Little Rock and to get around without a cane. He manages so well that a woman who gives him a lift actually thinks he can see. ‘You partially sighted people are the link between the world of the seeing and the world of the blind,’ she says. Mehta adds: ‘It was the first time “partially sighted” had sounded pleasant to me.’ And then the conversation gets even more interesting. The woman says: ‘The totally blind must have a world all their own, don’t you think?’ Mehta says: ‘It’s just a world minus eyes.’ Surely, she says, blind people ‘have so many extra senses’, and Mehta replies: ‘They don’t have any extra senses. They live in a world of four senses but just use those senses better.’

This virtual overcoming of blindness is a fabulous achievement – and also, Mehta later comes to believe, rests on a form of craziness. His analyst keeps telling him that he both undervalues and overvalues sight. He undervalues it because he keeps thinking that its absence can be ignored, that he ‘can do everything that anyone else can do’. He overvalues it because he thinks he is an outcast without it, ‘like a beggar asking for the hand of a princess’. Taught by this analyst, Mehta repeatedly uses the phrase ‘unconscious fantasy’, which is baffling to me, since the fantasy seems fully conscious and in so many ways enabling. What is unconscious is the grounding of the fantasy and the complex of reasons why this particular fantasy – the fantasy of being able to see without seeing – should be the one at work. Unconscious too is the instinct for self-preservation that saves the subject from the more extreme dangers of the fantasy. If it does. In one hair-raising incident, reported both in Mamaji and in All for Love, Mehta finds himself ‘gripped momentarily by a fantasy that I could see’, and drives a car along a stretch of freeway in Southern  California. The girl who is with him thinks this is fun and then is suddenly terrified, and takes over the wheel. There is of course a strong element of pride as well as craziness in this behaviour, and the poignancy of this complicated condition is beautifully caught in a key moment in Arkansas, affording a clear perception of what Mehta calls ‘the dream of dreams, the prayer of prayers, the gift of gifts for a blind man’. What is it? It is ‘the knack’ of getting people to help you without any compromise of your ‘essentially self-reliant, independent nature’. The knack of allowing people to love you as well as help you, which is the theme of Mehta’s later volumes, is even more difficult to acquire.

The Stolen Light and Up at Oxford recount the completion of  Mehta’s formal education. He takes two BA degrees, one at Pomona College in California and one at Balliol College, Oxford. He starts on and quickly abandons a PhD programme in history at Harvard. These volumes are full of vivid evocations of people and places. The Master of Balliol asks Mehta what his plans are ‘for afterlife’, as if Oxford were the world and the world a kind of limbo, and there are some thoughtful pages about what happens to the golden children of England when they reach that afterlife: often suicide. ‘The casualties, no less than the victors, of the complex system of British education were witnesses to its enigma.’ In their upper-class fashion these stories are just as desolate at those of the Dadar School for the Blind in Bombay. But these volumes contain fewer surprises and incidents than the earlier  ones, and are a little low on energy. Too perfectly achieved as New Yorker pieces, perhaps, and that is what the next volume suggests too.

Remembering Mr Shawn’s New Yorker is an account of Mehta’s long association with the magazine and a loving tribute to itselusive editor. Giving up Harvard, Mehta was offered a writing contract and an office at the New Yorker. There is a lot of fun in this book, especially in the circuitous and patronising letter from Isaiah Berlin huffing and puffing about Mehta’s article about Oxford philosophers: ‘The New Yorker is a satirical magazine, and I assume from the start that a satire was intended and not an accurate representation of the truth.’ The comic problem here is that Berlin had written a complimentary letter to Mehta (‘I congratulate you on your long and splendid piece’) and then realised how little his friends in Oxford liked the stuff. Always good to know your own mind. But Remembering Mr Shawn becomes melancholy as it chronicles what Mehta sees as the demise of the New Yorker. Shawn is fired in 1987; Robert Gottlieb becomes editor; then Tina Brown. David Remnick’s tenure is beyond the frame of  this book. Mehta understands that times change and that the New Yorker had become more than a little unworldly. ‘We were courting disaster,’ he says of himself and his colleagues and their refusal to think of their magazine as in any way connected with making money. ‘It has been brought to their attention,’ a commentator unkindly but shrewdly said, ‘that they work for somebody.’ But there is very little understanding of this disaster, and the book, in this sense quite uncharacteristic of the series, exudes helplessness and regret.

The last three volumes of the series, like the first three, make a group, although I doubt whether any reader could have foreseen how the grouping would happen. All for Love is about the adult Mehta’s quest for (and in some respects intricate refusal of) an enduring relationship with a woman. The time is that of the earlier part of the previous book, 1962 to 1974, from the start of Mehta’s first major New York affair to the death of his first analyst, the Hungarian Robert Bak. He recounts four romances, two of them in great detail, and as in the earlier volumes, offers only enough commentary to invite us to make more. Does he understand why these affairs go wrong, why the women end up with someone else? Is he as much at fault as he thinks? Can one understand such things – as distinct from finding a coherent story that one can bring oneself to believe? This seems to be what happens to Mehta in analysis, the last romance, so to speak, in this volume. ‘I came away from my sessions . . . feeling that my analysis was akin to the nightmares of Faust, the trials of Ulysses, and the Stations of the Cross. Throughout, I felt that when it worked, it had more to do with art, myth, faith and, above all, Bak’s personality than with science. No doubt, Bak would have said that my scepticism itself needed to be analysed.’

But it did work, and Dark Harbour tells us, among other things, of Mehta’s happy marriage to Linn Cary and their life with their two daughters. It also tells us of – indeed is centred on – another piece of craziness (Mehta’s own word), but this time deeply satisfying. ‘Gripped momentarily’, as he puts it on the other occasion, by the fantasy that a blind man could enjoy the seascapes of Maine, he buys a piece of land on a narrow island. As so often, he writes of seeing things. ‘I decided that before I could make up my mind what to do about the Reidy house, I had to see it for myself.’ This is an old house he thinks of buying before he decides to get an architect to design one. ‘See it for myself’ means walk around, touch the building, feel the air, gather documents, talk to people – in short do whatever it takes to construct a mental image of the place. Reviewers have repeatedly been offended by Mehta’s constant use not only of the vocabulary of seeing (‘even today, the word “seeing” mesmerises me’), but of visual descriptions in prose. Mehta’s answer is that he is a blind man who writes, not a blind writer, and of course it isn’t true that blind people can’t see. ‘She wore her hair in one long braid which fell to her hips and that day she was dressed in an elegant silk sari with tucked and gathered pleats in front that cascaded down to her sandals. She came into the room and greeted me, Indian fashion, by putting her palms together in a namaste.’ I take it Mehta put some of this together by asking, and got the rest by a mixture of listening and guessing. But there is no doubt that he is seeing this woman as he writes; and that we are seeing her because he does. In any case, as one of his supposedly satirised Oxford philosophers might put it, there is a fallacy in thinking perception of any kind is inevitably reliable. The house is a fantasy, of course, but one that gets built. It symbolises marriage and it houses an actual couple; and soon houses their children too. Combining the optimism and imagination of his father with the resilience and superstition of his mother, with a little help from his analyst and the ready affection of his wife, he puts an end to his exile through craziness rather than in spite of it.

This is the end of the story, surely. Well, there are still the connected tears of the father and son, and that is what the last volume, The Red Letters, is about. Visiting New York, meeting William Shawn and other friends of his son, Amolak Ram Mehta has a little too much to drink and passes out. When he comes round, his whole frame is shaken with sobs. He has told a person he has just met that he feels he is to blame for his son’s blindness because he delayed a day in taking him to the hospital in 1938. He had decided not to cancel a tennis match with an important ‘visiting English superior’. Actually, both his parents blamed themselves. Mehta’s mother had taken the boy for a long walk in the cold, ‘and she blamed herself for that, much as my father blamed himself for his tennis party.’ What’s curious here, and very moving, is that Mehta is not really interested in these questions of blame, writing of ‘the irrelevance of the tantalising might-have-beens to the reality of my blindness’. But he is haunted, from this year onwards, from 1967, by the memory of his father sobbing on the bed. The haunting ends only with the 1986 analytic session I have already described.

The truth is, Mehta comes to believe, that his father was not crying over his imagined part in his son’s blindness. He was crying over an affair he had long ago, in Simla in 1932 and 1933, before his son was born. He describes this time, with only half an attempt at irony, as his enchanted period, and gradually reveals the affair to Mehta, first under the disguise of a fiction, then as a confession, and finally hands over a bundle of letters. This happens in 1976, when Mehta is writing his big book about India. Mehta is shocked, but also fascinated and, overtly at least, remarkably unjudgmental. But he thinks his father’s affair is the probable cause of his mother’s asthma – his mother knew the woman in question, indeed she was a close friend of the family – and his feelings for his mother change. There is not exactly a shift of allegiance, a passage from one stream to the other – the father’s magnetic powers are too strong for that. But Mehta is forced to accept what he finds a ‘chilling’ interpretation of the man he has so much loved and admired and imitated. Amolak Ram Mehta had not, as his son had always fondly imagined, ‘been born
without the darkness that shadowed the lives of us lesser mortals’. And we in turn go back to Mehta’s second volume, Mamaji, and see his father’s lover, the woman he calls Rasil, in an entirely different light. Her beauty, her charm, her seemingly constant presence in certain years now become readable for what they are: indications of a story that is just off the page. Mehta knew about the affair when he was writing Mamaji; hadn’t known when he was writing Daddyji.

But was the father weeping for his guilt over his affair, as Mehta supposes in that tear-releasing insight of his own? ‘His guilt over my blindness might be a cover for his guilt over his Enchanted Period.’ It might have been and probably was. But this explanation is far from excluding other grounds for tears, including that very blindness. Amolak Ram Mehta could also have been crying for his lost and ended romance itself, and for the woman he loved as well as for the wife he hurt. And for himself, of course.

Michael Wood is head of the English department at Princeton and the author of Literature and the Taste of Knowledge.
copyright © LRB Ltd, 1997-2006
17 February 2006