Obstinate Love: In Memory of the Great Ved Mehta
Chaya Bhuvaneswar Remembers the Renowned Writer
and Influential Mentor
Love is obstinate—more than patient or kind. That fact more than anything is what I learned from the writer Ved Mehta.
We met when I was a freshman and signed up for his writing class. We sat in a basement conference room while a quietly-stoned classmate made funny faces, mocking Ved’s blindness. Though Ved and I never spoke of it, I think he knew fully what was happening. Yet his composure never faltered, and he had an effective way of letting the silence gave way to serious talk. He had a somehow watchful presence when students read their work, sometimes even remarking on their physical features to me later (“Is that one a dancer? I would have thought so. She’s graceful and small.”). I don’t know how much he even believed in the concept of “workshopping” anything, except he managed to create a sense of pleasant suspense in the room. Reading our pieces, it mattered to us what he’d say.
When he stood up, the cane incidental, including to go to the blackboard and, miraculously (I thought) point us to the words he couldn’t actually see, his “amanuensis” leaned close. This word was Ved’s actual term for her, meaning “scribe,” but also “within hand’s reach,” and she did touch him at the end of every class, guiding him out of the room.
Was Homer blind? Ved’s cognitively atypical, truly remarkable ability, of composing lengthy, polished works only orally, dictating to a transcriber who wrote them back and then wrote down his revisions, speaks to his prodigious memory, not just for sounds, but for sights. He had been a seeing person in early childhood, before meningitis and the choice between being institutionalized in India versus finding his own way and making a dazzling, prodigious literary life, which he did at The New Yorker for over 30 years, as “their first ever” Indian writer, and for which he received a MacArthur Genius grant in 1982.
With me, he wouldn’t acknowledge the oppression of “racism” outright. Only his interest, patience, quietly-challenging insistence that I write—only his favoritism, always pushing me to “get whatever all of these Americans have”—referred implicitly to race, to a loyalty he expressed and manifested, planning how I “should try and get a Rhodes,” coaching me on how to submit my fiction to prestigious magazines he knew I thought only white people could get published in.
I wasn’t surprised by his subdued response to hearing that I was heading to med school after all, though a more exhilarated and relieved response came to the news that I had decided to refuse arranged marriage, as Ved emphatically had too. Though as the son of a prominent physician connected enough to the British Raj to gain Ved admission, by special dispensation not usually afforded to Indians, to a British hospital meant for soldiers blinded in the Second World War, Ved could surely have had his marriage arranged. But instead, Ved gloried in a life he’d created, his ability to “build a harbor,” as he did for his family on Islesboro, an island off the coast of Maine.
Some time later, when I had started practicing psychiatry, I discovered his account of undergoing psychoanalysis in the autobiography All For Love.
I suppose you would say that if I had been reconciled to the fact of my blindness, I would have fallen for a different kind of woman—maybe a woman who wouldn’t have ended up hurting me.
Moved and thrilled, I found his number from an old email and called him. On the phone, his voice was still fairly steady but different, hoarser in quality. He explained he couldn’t come and visit the medical school where I was teaching, because he didn’t want people to know about his Parkinson’s. What he had surmounted completely—any fear of being the object of pity—in connection to his blindness, for nearly all his years, eventually became insurmountable when it came to his Parkinson’s. Ved outlined for me, over the phone, how he thought people might respond to his tremors. I pleaded with him to come do a reading at the med school anyway, realizing how precious the opportunity to see him had become, how much time I’d allowed to pass.
He talked in passing of wishing he could spend more time with his daughters, who were busy in their lives, then pointed me toward a write-up (here: Sage Mehta and Michael Robinson – Weddings – The New York Times (nytimes.com)) about the large society wedding of one of his daughters, officiated by the Rabbi of Yale University and located at the Century Association, a private New York club founded in 1847 for white men of literary fame, but “one of Ved’s favorite places… where he knows where every piece of furniture is and walks around there like a person with sight.”
I fell silent, realizing I wouldn’t be able to persuade him to read in public again. Then he reminded me to send him “my first book of fiction when I got published,” insisting to me that I would.