Opinion

The All-Seeing Recorder

Ved plunged headlong into life, determined to experience all it had to offer

The All-Seeing Recorder
info_icon

Mehta hated to be called the blind Indian writer. It described him, but didn’t define him. He knew too many adjectives diminished ‘writer’. That single word was enough.

He was the finest of prose stylists, writing with a care for words and a felicity which appeared natural but was in fact finely honed. No word (or experience) was wasted. His aut­obiography in 12 volumes, Continents of Exile, where each book stood independently, was more than just that. It was his history told against the background of the history of his world—in India, UK and the US where he was a New Yorker staffer for 34 years, winning the Macarthur Foundation ‘Genius’ grant in 1982.

“Call me Ved,” he said when we first met at his New York apartment where he was working on a novel. He didn’t like it on completion, and decided not to publish. Self-awareness was a gift. When I think of him, now gone at 86, I recall a line from Borges about God, who, “with magnificent irony, granted me both the gift of books and the night”.

The last time we met was years later at New York’s Metropolitan Opera for Mozart’s Clemenza di Tito. We—my wife and son too–were his guests. We had met for dinner the previous week and admitted to enjoying a modern, fascist-themed version of Macbeth with Patrick Stewart in the lead.

“I hate these modern interpretations,” Ved said, “We should leave Shakespeare alone. There is enough richness, enough unexplored in the plays as he wrote them.” He was a classicist, and the Mozart opera might have been his way of showing us what great works ought to look like.

Ved plunged headlong into life, determined to experience everything it had to offer. He was an inspiration. An attack of meningitis at the age of three took away his sight, so he worked on developing his insight. He wrote of colours and textures and gestures people made, dipping into his bank of memories of the colours, and trained powers of Holmesian deduction. In Up at Oxford, he paid a tribute to his amanuenses who helped him “as much as Milton’s daughters” helped the poet.

In Sound Shadows of the New World he wrote about how he learnt to make better use of the senses he had at the Arkansas School for the Blind. He wrote books about his father (Daddyji), his mother (Mamaji), the Partition (The Ledge Between the Streams), his editor and father-figure at New Yorker (Remembering Mr Shawn’s New Yorker: The Invisible Art of Editing), 27 books in all, including Fly and the Flybottle, gleefully jumping into a controversy in British intellectual life. It is a stunning oueuvre and range.

At Oxford, he climbed drainpipes, and even cycled. It was, Ved says, his happiest phase, days spent with Dom Moraes, and despite once losing out in love to Amartya Sen.

Where other writers struggled to detail their inner life, Ved was all inner life but with an amazing familiarity with what went on outside it. He enjoyed R.K. Narayan and Muriel Spark, couldn’t abide Tom Wolfe or Ian McEwan. When I once wrote that the new journalists owed him for developing their techniques through close questioning and intelligent ded­uction, he wrote to say, “I loathe the so-called new journalists. They imagine what is in people’s heads without any documentary evidence, eg Tom Wolf’s piece Radical Chic, where he ascribes all kinds of thoughts to Bernstein, which were never in his head but sprang straight from Wolfe’s head as surmises.

 “I feel I have much more in common as a rep­orter with Boswell than I do with the likes of Wolfe, who is an anathema to me.”

 Shawn wrote of Ved, “He writes about serious matters without solemnity, about scholarly matters without pedantry, about abstruse matters without obscurity.” That’s a fine epitaph for a writer.

(Suresh Menon’s book of literary essays will be published later this year)

Advertisement

Advertisement

Advertisement

Advertisement

Advertisement