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

VENGEANCE IS a dish best savoured cold. Ved Mehta was one of the casualties of the Tina Brown takeover of the New Yorker. Four years later, Brown herself is a casualty in that magazine's downward spiral. All eight essays Mehta has selected for this book first appeared in the New Yorker, and seven have already been reprinted as chapters in his other books. Is Yale University Press justified in serving them up again, or was Ms Brown right in thinking we had had enough of Mr Mehta?

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.

Arts and Entertainment

Film Leonardo DiCaprio hunts Tom Hardy

Arts and Entertainment
And now for something completely different: the ‘Sin City’ episode of ‘Casualty’
TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A Very British Coup, part two: New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel

    A Very British Coup, part two

    New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel
    Philae lander data show comets could have brought 'building blocks of life' to Earth

    Philae lander data show comets could have brought 'building blocks of life' to Earth

    Icy dust layer holds organic compounds similar to those found in living organisms
    What turns someone into a conspiracy theorist? Study to look at why some are more 'receptive' to such theories

    What turns someone into a conspiracy theorist?

    Study to look at why some are more 'receptive' to such theories
    Chinese web dissenters using coded language to dodge censorship filters and vent frustration at government

    Are you a 50-center?

    Decoding the Chinese web dissenters
    The Beatles film Help, released 50 years ago, signalled the birth of the 'metrosexual' man

    Help signalled birth of 'metrosexual' man

    The Beatles' moptop haircuts and dandified fashion introduced a new style for the modern Englishman, says Martin King
    Hollywood's new diet: Has LA stolen New York's crown as the ultimate foodie trend-setter?

    Hollywood's new diet trends

    Has LA stolen New York's crown as the ultimate foodie trend-setter?
    6 best recipe files

    6 best recipe files

    Get organised like a Bake Off champion and put all your show-stopping recipes in one place
    Ashes 2015: Steven Finn goes from being unselectable to simply unplayable

    Finn goes from being unselectable to simply unplayable

    Middlesex bowler claims Ashes hat-trick of Clarke, Voges and Marsh
    Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... for the fourth time

    Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... again

    I was once told that intelligence services declare their enemies dead to provoke them into popping up their heads and revealing their location, says Robert Fisk
    Margaret Attwood on climate change: 'Time is running out for our fragile, Goldilocks planet'

    Margaret Atwood on climate change

    The author looks back on what she wrote about oil in 2009, and reflects on how the conversation has changed in a mere six years
    New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered: What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week

    New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered

    What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week
    Oculus Rift and the lonely cartoon hedgehog who could become the first ever virtual reality movie star

    The cartoon hedgehog leading the way into a whole new reality

    Virtual reality is the 'next chapter' of entertainment. Tim Walker gives it a try
    Ants have unique ability to switch between individual and collective action, says study

    Secrets of ants' teamwork revealed

    The insects have an almost unique ability to switch between individual and collective action
    Donovan interview: The singer is releasing a greatest hits album to mark his 50th year in folk

    Donovan marks his 50th year in folk

    The singer tells Nick Duerden about receiving death threats, why the world is 'mentally ill', and how he can write a song about anything, from ecology to crumpets
    Let's Race simulator: Ultra-realistic technology recreates thrill of the Formula One circuit

    Simulator recreates thrill of F1 circuit

    Rory Buckeridge gets behind the wheel and explains how it works