Books: From blindness to insight
Was Tina Brown right to sack this New Yorker star? Tony Gould thinks not; A Ved Mehta Reader: the craft of the essay by Ved Mehta Yale UP, pounds 12.50/ pounds 28, 416pp
Saturday 05 September 1998
In length and subject, they vary enormously. The first and last essays focus on Oxford. Three others have Indian subjects; two deal with American experiences; and one investigates the life of Pastor Dietrich Bonhoffer. Their author is cosmopolitan in outlook and has an impressive intellectual reach, embracing both contemporary philosophy and modern theology. If they have "a period flavour", as Mehta suggests, it is only in the sense that their concerns reflect the times in which they were written. What unites them is a writerly curiosity about human beings and what makes them what they are.
Mehta is attracted by extraordinary or outstanding people, whether their accomplishments be intellectual, spiritual or literary. The most successful essay in the book is also one of the shortest: "The Train Had Just Arrived at Malgudi Station" is a richly ambivalent portrait of India's most celebrated novelist, R K Narayan, whom Mehta had planned to visit in Mysore but actually met and got to know in New York.
The least successful, in my view, is the last, in which Mehta strives to make more of the lives of three Oxford contemporaries who should have had glittering careers but didn't, or didn't quite, than they would seem to justify. I may be biased in that I knew and worked with the one who takes up the lion's share of the essay, Alasdair Clayre, and remain unconvinced of the brilliance Mehta so insistently attributes to him.
A more characteristic piece is "City of Dreadful Night", a lengthy essay on Calcutta which starts with a careful description of the city and its setting on the banks of the Hooghly, investigates its poverty and slum life, tells the story of its imperial history from the days of the infamous "Black Hole" to the time of Kipling, and finally encapsulates its modern variety in the stories of film-maker Satyajit Ray and the missionary Mother Teresa. The leisurely development and inclusiveness of this essay perfectly match its subject.
The first mention of the author's blindness, stemming from meningitis in early childhood, is on page 303. It comes as a shock (even to those who knew of it) after reading so many detailed descriptions of people's gestures and the way they look. (Though Mehta tells us something of how he researches and writes, he offers no clue as to how he observes.) Since the subject of this essay is a rich woman who comes to support his education through the American Foundation for the Blind, he has to refer to his affliction here. In describing the curious mutual dependency that develops between the eponymous benefactress, Mrs Clyde, and his doctor father, Mehta wrestles with conflicting emotions of gratitude, indignation and contempt, but manages to present a balanced portrait.
Yale has done us a service in making these remarkable essays available in so handy a form. As for Tina Brown, she did no one any favours in closing the doors of the New Yorker to one of its most distinguished contributors.
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