by Ved Mehta
Oxford University Press, 258 pp., $16.95
We are forever telling stories about ourselves.
—Roy Schafer, “Narration in the Psychoanalytic Dialogue”
Every good autobiography raises the question of whose story to credit—that of the intelligent, critically observing, narrating adult or that of the uncomprehending, dumbly accepting, experiencing child. In Vedi, Ved Mehta’s extraordinary memoir of the four years he spent as a young child in an appalling place in Bombay called the Dadar School for the Blind, the tension between the two “I’s” is particularly pronounced. The adult “I” is outraged by what his father did to him when he abruptly removed him—a blind child not yet five—from his affectionate and comfortable middle-class home in the Punjab and sent him a thousand miles away to an orphanage for destitute blind children located in a mosquito-ridden industrial slum, where he was to contract typhoid within three months (and suffer repeated bouts of it), and where he lived for four years under the harshest of physical conditions and received the most pitifully rudimentary of educations. But the child “I” is unconcerned about the things that pain and appall the grown-up “I.” He is a high-spirited, strong-willed, eager little boy, so intent on exercising his child’s prerogative of enjoyment that he seems almost unaware of the cruelty and difficulty of his predicament. In George Orwell’s bitter memoir of his boarding-school days, “Such, Such Were the Joys…,” the narrating adult dwells on the gratuitous sufferings of children caused by their ignorance of reality. The child Orwell cringes and cowers before the ghastly couple who run the school Crossgates, seeing them as all-powerful monsters, rather than as the mere “silly, shallow, ineffectual people” they are. But in young Mehta’s case, the reality is worse than the child knows. Thus, in Vedi, paradoxically, it is the knowledgeable narrator who suffers over the monstrous events of the story, while the ignorant child at their center accepts them with composure, and even, amazingly, a kind of gaiety.
In Vedi, for the first time in his mature writing, Mehta writes from the perspective of total blindness. The book is entirely without visual descriptions. We follow the blind child into the orphanage, and, like him, we never learn what the place or any of the people in it looked like. We hear, we feel, but we see nothing. We are dislocated and disoriented. As the child misses the familiar persons and things of home, so the reader misses the customary visual clues of literature. One feels a kind of sensory deprivation throughout the book—almost a lack of enjoyment—even as one experiences the excitement that an original work engenders. Not the least of Vedi‘s originality is this very stylistic denial, which amounts to an approximation of the experience of blindness. As we grope through the early sections of the book, trying to get our bearings in its alien literary environment, we are like tourists in a foreign country who have to struggle with themselves not to commit …