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 the absurdity of rejecting the very foreignness they have traveled to experience. The country of the blind is exotic indeed, and Mehta takes us to places in its bleak, impassable terrain that no one from the sighted world has previously penetrated. (The term “sighted world” is itself newly learned from the book—being a term for which there is no need outside the community of the blind, in the way that the term “goyim” has no currency among non-Jews.) Mehta relates, for example, how
All of us totally blind boys were constantly hitting ourselves against something or other. We would feel each other’s bumps and injuries, and we would joke about them. “Let me feel,” we would say. “Is it on your hood or your mudguard? Or is it the wheel again?” “Hood” was our slang for a forehead, “mudguard” for an eyebrow, and “wheel” for a shin…. Even as we made light of our injuries, we endowed whatever we hit—or whatever hit us, as we came to think of it—with the malevolence we attributed to the entire sighted world. It seemed to us that a stationary object, like a wall, no less than a familiar object in an unfamiliar place, like a chair that had been moved, would willfully loom out of the sighted world to vex us. Whenever we hurt ourselves on anything at all, we would kick it and beat it and cry out, “The sighted bastards!”
The principal of the school, Mr. Ras Mohun, though sighted, was somehow exempted from the resentment and fear that the blind children extended to the sighted world, perhaps because of his benignity and genuine interest in the blind. He was a man in his early thirties, a Bengali Christian convert, who had worked with missionaries among the blind and the deaf and had studied at the Perkins Institution for the Blind in America. His wife, who “was the same height he was,” was a little less kind, though hardly a villainess. The villains of the book are poverty, disease, and blindness. Vedi arrived at the school a healthy, sturdy little boy, with fat cheeks that the other children kept pulling at in wonder. “At five, I was the youngest boy in the boys’ dormitory, and the other boys could not understand why I seemed so healthy: why they never heard me scratch my head, why I never coughed at night, why I never complained of a stomach ache in the morning—above all, why I never had a fever. The boys kept coming up and touching my forehead and exclaiming, ‘He still doesn’t have a fever.’ ”
In a few months time, Vedi became as sickly and fever-ridden as the rest, and when he went home for Christmas vacation, his parents removed him from the school. Unaccountably, they sent him back a year later, and once again he fell into a brutal physical decline. When he came home for his second Christmas vacation, his clothes hung from him and his head was so severely infested with ringworm that his father, a doctor, decided to risk baldness, and even brain damage, by having him undergo X-ray treatments, then the only remedy for the condition. Years later, Mehta writes, his father confessed, “Looking back, I blame myself for not having gone to the school and seen for myself the conditions there.” But he still justified his decision to send the small boy away from home. “When you lost your sight, I didn’t know anything about the blind,” he told his grown son, who became blind at the age of four after an attack of meningitis. The father continued,
“Like everyone else, I had, of course, often seen blind people stumbling along, groping their way down a city street. They usually carried a staff in one hand and a tin cup in the other. Also, as a public-health officer, I had visited many villages and seen blind villagers being cared for by the joint-family system, which in those days took in any and all relatives. But all those blind people lived little better than wounded animals. I made up my mind that my blind son would never have to depend on the charity of relatives. I wanted you to be independent, like your sisters and brother. I wanted you to be able to hold your head high in any company. I started looking around for a school for you….”
The irony was, of course, that the school the father selected (after some perfunctory correspondence with its head) plunged the boy into the very society—the indigent blind—that the separation from home was supposed to protect him from. In his books about his parents, Daddyji (1972) and Mamaji (1979), which form a trilogy with Vedi, Mehta draws a sharp contrast between his rational, decisive, tough-minded, Western-educated, physician father and his superstitious, backward, uneducated, childish, tender-hearted mother. Typically, when her son went blind, the mother refused to accept the fact and dragged him around to faith healers and quacks, in the confident belief that the blindness was a temporary punishment for some transgression in this or a previous life. And typically, the father clutched at the idea of “progressive, Western methods of educating the blind” as the answer to his son’s tragic predicament (for which, as Mehta unhappily suggests in Daddyji, recounting the events that led up to the loss of his eyesight, he may have been responsible).
But, paradoxically, it was the emotional, irrational, childish, fanciful, “Indian” parts of Ved Mehta’s nature that were his strongest defense against the harsh actuality of Dadar. The Western values and qualities that his father represented, and that he mistakenly believed the school to embody—realism, pragmatism, stoicism, common sense—had little survival value in the extreme situation that the five-year-old blind child was placed. The following passage, about Vedi’s first bath at the school, wonderfully illustrates the power that the childish imagination may exert over an unpleasant reality.
The ayah had me sit under a tap. The water was cold and came out in a strong jet, making me shiver all over. I howled. I begged for a bucket of hot water and a dipper, as at home, so that I could wet myself slowly.
The ayah held me fast under the tap and said, “Come on now, Vedi, be a brave boy.”
“No, I don’t want to!” I cried.
“It’s just like going out in the rain,” she said.
I thought a moment, and then laughed.
The ayah let go of me.
“Rain, rain!” I yelled, and turned on the tap full blast. The water poured out in a heavy stream and splashed all around me on the cement floor.
I ran to the ayah, who wrapped me in a little towel.
“Brave boy,” she said, hugging me.
Because of his family’s superior status—and, more to the point, the money that his father sent every month—Vedi received special treatment at the school. He ate his meals with the Ras Mohuns instead of with the other children, and was exempted from chaircaning instruction. But Mrs. Ras Mohun found it inconvenient to honor the agreement that he also sleep in the principal’s quarters, and so he was put into the boys’ dormitory, though he was given a special bed, with a mattress and mosquito netting; the other boys slept on bare wood slats, unprotected from mosquitos. The move to the dormitory was a fortunate one: it brought the child into the life of the school, its real life of mischief, gossip, fighting, ghost-story telling, sex play (called “boy mischief”), cruelty, savagery, camaraderie. His special situation as a boy who wore silk shirts, ate toast and mutton, and slept on a soft mattress was apparently accepted without rancor—perhaps because these things did not spare him the common lot of disgusting sanitary conditions, pitiful educational facilities, disease, and blindness.
It is again interesting to contrast the situation of Vedi at Dadar with that of the young George Orwell at Crossgates, who, as a boy from a poor family among well-to-do boys, was subjected to humiliating distinctions made between scholarship boys and those whose parents paid. But Vedi, no less than the young Orwell, wanted what the rest had, and just as Orwell recalls with bitter rue the longings of his younger self for the small treats and privileges so cruelly and unnecessarily denied him, so Mehta writes with mild irony of the hankerings of his younger self after the harsh food that the indigent orphans ate, and of his desire to learn to cane chairs and to play the musical instruments that many of them would end up playing on the streets of Bombay.
Irony of a sharper character is reserved for the efforts of Mrs. Ras Mohun to educate Vedi in what she believed to be refined behavior. At table, she taught him to ask for food and water by raising his hand with the fourth and the little finger held up when he wanted food, and just the little finger held up when he wanted water. When he was asked “How are you?” he was to answer, “I’m quite well and happy, thank you,” and smile pleasantly, and when he laughed, he was to cover his mouth with his hand. Mrs. Ras Mohun’s stock response to behavior that displeased her was to say, “Don’t be a jungly boy,” or “That’s what jungly boys do.” There is a very funny scene at the Mehta home during Christmas vacation, when Vedi, at the dinner table, holds up his hand and raises this finger and that one, with nobody taking the slightest heed of him. Finally his sister Umi says, “What do you think you are doing? Why are you holding your hand up in that absurd way?”
“Water and vegetables,” I whispered. “Little finger for water, both fingers for water and food.”
“Speak up,” she said. “Why are you whispering? Why don’t you say, ‘I want water and vegetables?’ ”
“That’s what jungly boys do.”
There is a scene toward the end of the book that freezes the blood. It takes place at Dadar in the boys’ dormitory, and it concerns Jaisingh, a boy who is blind, deaf, dumb, and retarded—a large, helpless, miserable, barely human creature, whom Mr. Ras Mohun calls “the Dadar School’s Helen Keller,” and whom the other children dislike. “In fact, we scorned him, as we imagined that the sighted scorned all of us,” Mehta writes. Jaisingh is given to crying at night, making eerie moaning and wailing sounds, and when this happens, the Sighted Master, who is in charge of the boys’ dormitory, subdues him by beating him with a shoe. The Sighted Master is a sinister, shadowy figure without name or any other characteristics besides his brutality and lowness. One night, both Jaisingh and another pathetic child named Ramesh begin howling together, awakening everyone in the dormitory. Vedi hears the Sighted Master get up, and as he passes his bed he hears him mutter, “I will finish Ras Mohun’s Helen Keller.” Vedi hears the Sighted Master walk toward the howling boys, and hears him remove a plank from one of their beds. As Vedi and the other boys listen in terror, first Ramesh’s howling and then Jaisingh’s abruptly stop. The next day, both Ramesh and Jaisingh are gone. They are never seen again at Dadar. Whether the Sighted Master actually killed the two boys—as the other boys speculate—is unclear. What really happened is never known.
What really happened? This is the question that impels every autobiographer, and that gives autobiography its special epistemological interest. In Mehta’s taut, strong, ironic memoir, he restively ponders the question of what his experience at the Dadar School had been, worrying it and turning it this way and that and finally letting it lie there in all its unanswerability—like the question of what happened to Ramesh and Jaisingh, like the question, perhaps, of what happened to all of us in our childhoods. The retrieval of childhood experience is one of the most mysteriously unpropitious of human endeavors; memory is the most feckless and epistemologically useless of our psychic faculties. Neither of the two “I’s” through which the story of a childhood is told is trustworthy: the testimony of the child, who was there, is lacking in understanding; the testimony of the adult, who is omniscient, is lacking in authenticity. At best, an uneasy truce between the child (memory) and the man (understanding) is achieved. In an epilogue, Mehta states the problem of the two “I’s” with almost shocking explicitness. As an adult, he returns to the school, and finds it unchanged in its dirtiness but changed in its occupants. He reports,
The school and the entire building now housed only girls and women, with thin, shrinking, demented voices—it was as if the new residents were not only blind but also retarded. This made me wonder whether the school of my childhood had had the same atmosphere. The thought was depressing—the more so because I knew there was no way I could dispose of the question to my satisfaction, since the answer was a matter not of memory but of judgment and experience, which, as a boy, I could not have had.
He learns that many of his classmates had died of consumption at an early age. He reports a depressing meeting with Deoji, his best friend at the school, who “confirmed this fact and that fact, but what he really succeeded in confirming was the divide between us—both before, during, and after our first meeting, when I was a child, and before, during, and after our last meeting, when I was a man.” His final encounter is with Rajas, a girl at the school, now a destitute woman living in a squalid tenement in Dadar. He does not remember her at all. He presses her for details about himself at the school. To the narrator’s disappointment—and to the reader’s elation—she has only one thing to say about him: “I remember that you were a very jolly child.”