(Published in the Business Standard, November 7, 2009. Images taken from www.vedmehta.com)
Indian writing has little space for the family album. The few portraits of parents, siblings or partners that emerge are like the photographs that hang in our homes: officially posed, formally garlanded. Ved Mehta’s Continents of Exile series is one of our few, monumental exceptions, a long-playing biography on the screens of our imaginations.
He’s in Delhi for the re-release of the eleven books that make up the series, written over decades, starting with Daddyji and continuing through Mummyji and Mamaji into the personal terrain of All For Love and Red Letters.
Nothing is exempt from Mehta’s need to set it all down, not the years of apprenticeship with Mr Shawn, the legendary New Yorker editor, not his blindness, not his sessions on the psychiatrist’s couch. This has its pitfalls, as Ben Yagoda noted in About Town, a history of the New Yorker: “Ved Mehta’s endless biographies of the various members of his family almost seemed to dare the reader to say, “This is boring!” and flip ahead to the next article.”
Mehta, one of the great raconteurs in person, knows this; he also knows that Continents of Exile cannot be ignored. “When my three-part essay on Mamaji came out, other New Yorker writers asked why Mr Shawn would run this, at a time when people were dying in Vietnam,” he says. Shawn had his own reasons for shaping and encouraging Mehta’s personal and painful brand of honesty.
“I hate the word ‘memoir’,” says Ved Mehta, after I’ve used it for the fifth time. “I prefer biography, or autobiography.” We’re discussing the Indian reluctance to write in the autobiographical vein. My theory is that there are too many unspoken taboos on writing about the personal, the familial. Ved’s hands flicker in disagreement, like an unconscious turning of a page to a different chapter.
“Indians aren’t reticent,” he says. “Maybe we still have a Victorian morality that won’t let us speak our minds. But there’s a freedom in the West you don’t have here. Writers there are not afraid of not making a living. They have the freedom to write about sex. The freedom not to appear dignified, noble, likeable. What would Henry Miller have written if he’d wanted to be liked by his middle-class relatives?”
I think of my impatience as an adolescent reading Mehta’s “endless biographies”, wading through these meandering accounts of parents, relatives, lovers, friends, editors, partners. It was years later before I realised how deeply embedded Mehta’s portraits had become in my mind, as though his family had become mine, as though I knew Kiltykins and Daddyji as well as he did. It took years to see how tight, how taut — Mehta’s adjectives, not mine — the narrative was; how much had been skillfully omitted, how accurate the details were.
Mehta would give the credit to Shawn: “He was a genius, and he also had enormous taste, sympathy and humanity. These sound like abstractions, but they are not.” The preferred adjectives to describe good writing today are “necessary” and “honest”; but as Mehta expands on Shawn’s virtues, they seem like the Holy Trinity of truly timeless writing, including Mehta’s own work. Taste, sympathy; humanity.
How reliable is memory anyway? Here are three Ved Mehta stories. The Neemrana festival gathered together some of India’s greatest writers— V S Naipaul, Vikram Seth, Amitav Ghosh, Khushwant Singh and Ved Mehta among others — and then, for inexplicable reasons, sequestered them in a fort-palace far away from their readers.
The insistent literariness of the Neemrana festival was enlivened by a massive disagreement between the wife of the German ambassador and Naipaul. The author and the ambassador’s wife threatened, from opposite corners of the fort, to leave if the other stayed on; the combined diplomacy of Pico Iyer, Vikram Seth, Amitav Ghosh and Nadira Naipaul finally persuaded a still-furious Naipaul to come down to dinner.
Ved Mehta walks in late. For once, his normally acute senses fail to compensate for his blindness, and he sees only Vikram Seth and Dom Moraes, not Naipaul. “Dom,” says Ved in his clear, carrying voice, “you’ll never guess what that terrible old man has gone and done now.”
“No, no,” says Mehta, though he’s smiling. “That didn’t happen.” He has, he explains, often had to deny stories about himself.
The late Dom Moraes and he once made the same trip, and wrote separate accounts. Dom had a wonderful story about Ved Mehta as the guest of a maharana, drawn to the lifelike figure of a stuffed tiger. “May I pet it?” he asks, and the maharana gives his permission, while Dom signals frantically — but ineffectively, since Mehta can’t see him-from the other end of the room. Ved, petting the stuffed animal, is remarking on the realistic feel of its fur when the tiger gets up, yawns and walks away.
“Dom,” says Mehta with some feeling, “treated me as Quixote treated Sancho Panza. I never rode horses. The maharana never introduced naked ladies into my bedroom. And the stuffed tiger story isn’t true.” I have a clear memory of Dom telling the story in his rich timbre, and Mehta and I both agree that some stories, however false, should be true.
The third story concerns Mehta’s blindness, which he has often written about, commenting that it is for the blind to imagine the world of the sighted — the sighted rarely feel compelled to do the opposite. One of Mehta’s readers, noting the many references in his writing to “seeing” and “scrutiny” or specific colours, particular details, is convinced that Ved Mehta is not really blind. At a book launch, the reader decides to prove his theory.
Ved Mehta is speaking to a group of friends. The reader sneaks up and joins the group; then makes a rapid hand gesture in front of Ved’s face. The writer continues with his tale. The reader tries a more obvious gesture; the writer is unmoved. The reader, still convinced that Mehta’s faking, starts waving his hands in front of the writer’s face, jumping up and down. The writer remains impassive. Defeated, the reader leaves, and tells a friend who’s witnessed the incident that he was wrong, that Ved Mehta is, indeed, blind.
“That wasn’t Ved Mehta,” says the friend. “That was V S Naipaul.”
This story is true.
The conversation has roamed from the short attention span of the modern-day reader to the relative merits of Joyce versus D H Lawrence to a dispute over whether it was alcohol or buggery that fuelled the productivity of Truman Capote. (“Buggery,” says Mehta, and that settles the matter.)
There is one final matter to be addressed. “I never started out wanting to write a million words about my life,” says Ved Mehta, and we both contemplate what it would have been like, in 1972, to look ahead at a vista of writing biography all the way up to 2003. I cannot imagine it, any more than he could, as a young writer. “Writing is in itself a way of growing up; the more difficult the challenges you take on, the more you change.”
Continents of Exile is balanced by the other books — travelogues, political accounts, short stories — but perhaps Ved Mehta knows that his biographies will define him. There is an end to a novel, even a trilogy; but an autobiography can only end with an obituary, which we will hope is long delayed. However inadvertently he began the project of writing his life, the million-plus words it’s taken to cover his history, Ved Mehta has hit upon the only possible answer to writer’s block. Writing your life as you live it is the perfect way to ensure that you will never run out of material.