Hunting for a good read in the college library, I studiously avoided the row of volumes written by a Mehta, a fellow Punjabi, which invariably had Indian familial sobriquets for titles. There was no chance a person from my own community could a) conjure the steaming sex we all looked for in weekend reading to ward off the ennui inflicted by prescribed classics, or b) open doors to a new world, or even to one beyond Punjabi sub-cultural confines. Further, learning that the writer was blind only strengthened my resolve. My cultivated distaste for such crude corruptions of language (both Punjabi and English) as ‘daddyji’ meant the books of Ved Mehta were not half about to find their way to my bedside table.
Having since read a handful of Mehta’s books I found how wrong I was on the second count and how spot-on on the first. Now, after reading his recently published autobiography, All for Love: A Personal History of Desire and Disappointment (Granta, 2001), I have been proven somewhat wrong even on the first: still no steaming sex but sexual relationships do make a belated appearance, their delay in coming speaking simultaneously of authorial discretion and social conservatism.
All for Love is that rare account of the love life of a Punjabi male. In India, where the phenomenon of a 40- year-old virgin is not the stuff of bawdy humour but a lesson in a morality lecture that common Western view would find moribund, this would be taken as an ironic comment. Sex before marriage, especially between consenting adults is considered egregious and dirty. Virginity is a prize, a virtue; its loss, ignominy. ‘Relationships’ for the most part still require the social sanction of marriage in a society where matrimony is less a union of two individuals, more a ‘memorandum of understanding’ between two families, with the boy and girl being only part of the traded consignment.
Ved Mehta, a peerless chronicler of the life and times of middle class Punjabis who migrated to India around partition, is particularly adept with records of the Mehta community. This society that cannot convey its sorrows and joys without saccharine sentimentalism has found in the New York-based Ved an objective and eloquent historian. Far from highlighting its parochial tendencies, his narratives are infused with such universality and humanity that the Mehtas in fact assume a new dignity. Long after my college days were over, I realised after reading Daddyji (1972) and Mamaji (1979) – stylish, unsentimental diptych-accounts of the life of Mehta’s parents in a turn of the century death- and disease-ridden Punjab – how far I had underrated my own world and how pathetic my disavowal of my Punjabi roots had been. In Delhi, where I grew up, we children were taught Hindi and English to protect us from the cruder inflections of Punjabi culture. By not masking it in the rarefied circles of New York’s literati, Mehta made being rooted a desirable, even essential, thing for Indians writing in a second language, and Punjabiyat (-ness) and regional identities respectable, even hip.
In what was perhaps the most defining event of his life, Mehta lost his sight in early childhood to a brain fever. His mother, never able to reconcile herself to his blindness, commonly considered self-inflicted retribution, sought the help of healers and black magic practitioners to rid the child of his karmic burden and restore his vision. Not yet five, he was virtually snatched from her embrace at the Lahore railway station and sent screaming and kicking, escorted by only a teenaged cousin, to a school for the blind in distant Bombay. The incident remained so deeply imprinted in his mind that it is part of most of his narratives, repeated and relived sometimes through his father’s eyes and sometimes his mother’s. Mehta has not used his blindness to garner pity but as a tool to explore and understand his world, both outer and inner. He bears his handicap lightly in his literature, making it appear as simply an incidental part of his being.
Ramachandra Guha writes about the inability of South Asian biographers to write anything but unreadable hagiographies (Himal October 2002). Mehta, however, seems to be an exception. There is a caveat though; he restricts himself to his family’s histories. (One must acknowledge that the immediacy and intimacy of such a subject has its own challenges.) Ved Mehta’s reputation of being a fine stylist is built on his ability to juggle ‘voices’ and perspectives. In Daddyji and Mamaji (and in an earlier autobiography, Face to Face, 1957), he convincingly uses the voices of both parents. This polyphony and mimicry is best captured at the end of Daddyji, where he switches from his father’s limpid voice, the self-congratulatory tone of an overbearing Punjabi, to his own trademark one. Mehta’s style, which can be identified from The Photographs of Chachaji: The Making of a Documentary Film (1980), is distinctly urban American, and his usage is modern and Hemingway-esque. In the 1960s, when exotic India was all the rage, Ved Mehta was offering a homely everyday India – and to eager takers too – balancing the more far-out images of India wildly popular then. It is just that homely everyday India is the site of fairly wild occurrences, complicated intrigues of sex and sensuality that labour under countless social taboos.
South Asians have in common the experience of difficulties in recounting national and personal histories. Partly to blame is their wanting sense of the past, and the desire, after their respective freedom struggles, to carve out a unique identity that downplays a shared past with the neighbouring nations. Inhibitions that come from and perpetuate social repression also play a role in thwarting candid portrayals in personal histories. Mehta’s searing honesty means that his biographical and autobiographical works suffer from none of these shortcomings.
One wonders what Ved Mehta’s family makes of his disclosures. Considering some of these would be the ruin of a family’s reputation, does he take their permission before, as per the Subcontinental expression, ‘cutting their noses off’? Is the extended Mehta clan in uproar every time someone announces: “Ved di navi kitab chhappi hai” (“Ved’s new book is out!”)? He is the nemesis of the narrow-eyed secretiveness and hush-hush repression of the Indian family, writing with a disarming candour that recalls Gandhi in The Story of My Experiments with Truth (1927). Sample this: “When I was a child that had never stopped me from wishing that a memsahib would take me in her arms and whisper sweet English endearments to me”. I can feel the heat from the blush coming on in the faces of many a male Indian reader.
Unlike Gandhi in Experiments however, which is dismally thin on descriptions (a point picked up by VS Naipaul in India: A Wounded Civilization, 1979), Mehta belies his lack of sight through rich tactile, olfactory and visual details of even facial expressions and colours. Also, the difference in the two worldviews is quite evident: Gandhi’s blinkers of food and bowel movement (what Mehta’s shrink would call oral and anal fixations) make his autobiography torturous reading in stark contrast to Mehta’s, whose worldview respects variety and pleasures in the senses.
Ved di navi kitaab
Mehta has now for the first time written about his adult life, adding a crucial link in his multi-volume autobiographical ‘Continents of Exile’ series exploring a personal history spanning “many continents, real and imagined, that [he has] inhabited and from which [he has been] exiled”. All for Love is the account of a blind Mehta’s passionate love for four women, the loss of each that left him anxious about his ability to hold a woman, and his attempts to come to terms with those losses. He insists he loved them because they colluded with him in maintaining the delusion that he could see. Mehta takes pride in his “facial vision”, and uses neither the white stick nor a guide dog. He alludes to his blindness once at the beginning and then towards the end of the book, letting us forget the extent of his disability as we read about the young lad who cycles around the courtyard of their Lahore house with his younger brother and sister in pillion, or vaults over roofs to chase falling kites.
There is something biblical about the book and the suffering of the Job-like Mehta. Its structure may be seen as a perversion of the accounts of the four apostles, who each tell a tale about the same character; Mehta narrates the story of his love for the four women who relate to him in similar ways. The interactions are marked by recognisable patterns and coincidences. Three are white; the exception, Lola, is half Punjabi and half German. All, except the Jewish ballerina, Gigi, are from dysfunctional families. All four are in awe of his status as a writer for The New Yorker and an established author. They are all floored by his good taste, especially by the English furnishing in his apartment. Two of them, Lola and Kilty, had baby sisters who died in freak accidents. Upon this trauma, that never really leaves them, Mehta believes is predicated their self-destructive behaviour. The narrative of his tempestuous relationships is followed by a final chapter on his psychoanalyst whose diagnosis of the doomed relationships also acts as an analysis of Mehta’s writing and its driving forces: “…deprivation and discontent had made me a writer and I was fearful of tampering with the sources of my craft”. The Book of Revelations after the four Gospels in a way.
Mehta’s relationship with Lola is typical of the other three affairs. Mutual attraction, lunches, sex, the other man and, finally, the break up. However, she takes up more space in his life and consequently in the book than his other loves, perhaps because like him she is such a schizoid mix of the West and the East. Her material circumstances are appalling: Mehta observes “the municipal refuse heap and the nullah with raw sewage” that fronts her mother’s flat and the dissipated atmosphere of the flat in which Lola lives in Delhi without letting it affect his opinion of her. Unlike his Westernised father who had reconciled himself to the fate of an almost uneducated wife, Lola’s lack of college education puts him off. She tells him that she did not go to college because she “had no good clothes”, and “didn’t want to look like a poor cousin… [of] Indian girls from good families”. But she has the verve and intelligence to move in sophisticated circles, so much so that she eventually finds work with the United Nations in New York and charms his recherché circle.
Nevertheless, an Indian reader, imbued with middle class mores, would be scandalised by Lola who lies naked in the sun in Spain to avoid tan lines, a half breed living on the fringes of a conservative society, an easy pick up. Hours after kissing her other boyfriend (what a shock for Delhiites), she is blasé about sharing a room with Ved. At one point Mehta writes, as if competing for the ‘worst sex scene’ category of some anti-literary award:
We changed mechanically and hurriedly. Lola let down her hair… We got into our charpoys. I haven’t said goodnight to her properly, I thought, and reached for her cautiously, stroking her hair. She responded warmly. I felt charged with animal energy, and I moved on to her charpoy.
If you take a cosmopolitan view, perhaps Lola is okay. But the whole experience is so trashy (like a scene from a B-grade Bollywood film), one suspects Mehta might have given in to the temptation of easy sex with all the vigour of a pushy Punjabi yuppie.
Later Lola falls for a Caliban-like uneducated no-good Punjabi called Gus, and becomes pregnant, with whose baby, the author is not certain. Mehta captures the agony remarkably well, recalling his febrile thoughts with an astonishing immediacy:
She says she was desperate to have that baby, yet she got rid of it behind my back, as if I’d had no part in it. Of course, she was perfectly right in thinking that if I had known at the outset that she was pregnant with my child I would have done virtually anything to make her have it. But I couldn’t have forced her – I couldn’t have. Didn’t she know that! Then why not let me be part of it! Gus must have been at the hospital monitoring her condition and stroking her hand. I wish I could at least have been at her bedside in order to say goodbye to my child – to give a benediction.
The bad child?
Considering that he has one foot in Delhi (his family’s adopted city), unusually missing from Mehta’s reasoning are questions of morality. Giving benediction is not exclusively a cultural prerogative of India; that is a universal gesture, but the stigma attached to a child born outside wedlock is not. In middle class India, an illegitimate child is enough to warrant social boycott.
The deeper he digs into his memory the more schizophrenic Mehta becomes, as his ingrained Indian-ness collides with his Western values and attitude. Lola has been sleeping with others, he knows, but he still wants to possess her. But when she becomes pregnant with what could be Gus’ child, he is confused. He finds alibis in his Indian identity to escape his predicament, invoking the “perfidy of stepchildren” from Hindu mythology to anchor him in his moment of ambivalent anguish.
His plight draws the reader out in gushing sympathy, not just for the painful personal revelations he must make, including his insecurities about his manhood, but also for the blindness he feels compelled to ignore, and his yearning for progeny. He writes, “Rats would have baby rats, dogs would have puppies, the whole world would be giving birth, and I alone would grow childless”. The irony that the wedding vedi (canopy) seems not in dear Ved’s karma touches the reader. But his wish for his marriage to have “all those Hindu traditions, or, at the very least, a religious ceremony to sanctify my karma” sounds stuffy and inappropriate, for none of his relationships could possibly have been approved by the still conservative Indian society.
The accounts in All for Love prompt the question of how Indian Ved Mehta is. His experiences, a blind man living it up (holidays in Spain and three-piece suits bespoke in London), someone who has had not one but four women (something few able-bodied people in India could boast of), his morality undecided, would be alien to many Indian readers. A medieval attitude towards physical disability pervades even the most enlightened circles that subscribe to token political correctness. No wonder Mehta’s father was driven by the nightmares of his blind son becoming a beggar or a helpless cripple at the mercy of an unforgiving society.
All said, Mehta has a breathtaking ability to contain within himself numerous contradictions. Just as he handles deftly various viewpoints in his biographical writings, he effortlessly juggles his own various personae in his mind. “[My] persona as a writer was as different from me as Prospero from Caliban”, he writes. Different to the extent that in the last chapter, lying on the analyst’s couch, he is in fear of resolving these conflicts and his controlled schizophrenia, which he regards as the source of his creativity. The last chapter is the key to understanding Mehta’s art and life, both of which are laid bare with ferocious honesty. The relationship between his Caliban and Prospero (it would be interesting to see someone delve into his proclivity for Shakespeare’s The Tempest, with whose characters he is endlessly identifying himself) or his life and art are for universal appreciation. Seldom does one find a writer as comfortable and confident in making himself as vulnerable to the world as Mehta.
In India, no adjectives equivalent to ‘Rushdie-esque’ have ever been coined for Ved Mehta nor do discussions on Indian writing in English make any significant allusions to him. Perhaps envy forecloses any meaningful discussion of his works; perhaps it even engenders a studied indifference. One day though, when attitudes have changed and honesty is appreciated, he will be accepted in the club. And be hard to ignore.