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Ved Mehta Ruminates on Rushdie Furor

Times Staff Writer

Ved Mehta is a man of the world because he had no choice.

Blind since age 4, rootless since his teens, Mehta, a California-educated native of India and author of 18 wide-ranging books, has lived on three continents through the whims of history and personal fate. Rootlessness is a kind of home, he believes, one that he shares with many other modern writers, including his fellow countryman, novelist Salman Rushdie, under a death sentence from Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini for his novel “The Satanic Verses.”

“In order to feel dislocated, you have to belong somewhere,” says Mehta, currently a visiting fellow at England’s Oxford University. “I feel I really don’t belong anywhere. I really belong to the 20th-Century population of displaced persons, refugees.”

Yet Mehta, a naturalized American citizen, has maintained connections with his past, occasionally visiting his native country and other wellsprings of his long-running autobiography, “Continents of Exile,” whose sixth volume has just been published. This option, he fears, may never again be open to Rushdie, who is in hiding somewhere in Great Britain.

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“Some of this reaction (to “Satanic Verses”) was predictable from square one--not the death sentence,” Mehta said in an interview while on a visit to Southern California. “But I wish someone had told him along the way that you just can’t write this particular way because certainly he’s going to be cut off from the very source of his creativity.”

Considered Blasphemous

Rushdie’s bitter, satirical, allegorical novel--the spark of riots, bombings and more than a score of deaths in India and Pakistan--is considered blasphemous by many Muslims because it casts doubt on central tenets of the Muslim religion. Among other things, it suggests that the Prophet Mohammed wrote the Koran, Islam’s holy book, rather than receiving it through the divine inspiration of God.

Mehta, a Hindu who met the Muslim Rushdie when the two were doing a series of television appearances, seemed more saddened than angered by the furor.

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“I think it’s a great tragedy because I can’t imagine his ever being able to live and move freely the way I can or the way any writer must because even if he repents or the Ayatollah withdraws his sentence, there are enough fanatic Muslims that sooner or later somebody will try to kill him,” he said. “So I think that there’s practically no place he can go unless he gets a new identity like some of these FBI witnesses do. But what kind of life is that?”

In contrast, Mehta’s life is a study in freedom of movement--despite his blindness. This week he came back to California, to one of the places he has called home in 40 years of exile.

The autobiographer, biographer, novelist and journalist recently returned to Pomona College to be honored as a globally respected author and a distinguished alumnus--he’s a member of the class of 1956 and has just published the memoirs of his college days.

Now 54, Mehta wore a gray suit, blue-striped shirt and a red tie as he stepped back on campus for a series of lunches, lectures, interviews and other events to officially mark his passage into Pomona stardom.

Fierce Independence

Clearly he was no longer the uncertain, shy, desperate young man he portrays in “The Stolen Light,” published this week by Norton. Just as clearly, Mehta retains the determination, aloofness and fierce independence of the young man who walked around the campus unassisted, often going so fast he passed his sighted classmates like a speeding train.

Much of the six volumes of the extended tour of his life have been published in the New Yorker, where he has long been a staff writer. The other volumes are “Daddyji,” “Mamaji,” “Vedi,” “The Ledge Between the Streams” and “Sound-Shadows of the New World.” The books are profiles of his family, himself and chronicles of the events that shaped all their lives as refugees from what is now Pakistan following the partition of India in 1947.

The best-known aspects of Mehta’s life probably are his meningitis-induced blindness and his subsequent struggles to deal with his handicap. That struggle took him to America, to a school for the blind in Arkansas and, through a chain of events reported in the current volume, to Pomona where as a blind, dark-skinned foreigner he was more than exotic, perhaps almost extraterrestrial.

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But in the 33 years since he graduated, Mehta said he has become at ease with the once strange culture of California and the rites of passage he experienced at Pomona. In fact, he has come so far from his beginnings that he no longer feels the pull of nostalgia for his native country.

Rode Bicycle on Campus

“My experience is totally English and American, so what would I miss anymore?” he asked as he strolled across the campus quadrangle where he once rode a bicycle to the consternation of his classmates. “I don’t particularly like Indian food that much; I find it very debilitating. I love it when I am in India. But outside I’d rather eat western food; it’s lighter and I can work longer hours on it. I miss my family. . . . But now I have my own children and my own family. So, you know, one moves on.”

By moving on, writers such as himself and Rushdie have become a part of the 20th Century’s millions who have become cultural hybrids through their dislocation, Mehta said.

“To be an artist is to be alienated from the society in which you live. Alienation is built into the artistic temperament, I think,” Mehta said. “What we are now talking about is an alienation that is kind of an overlay on top of being an outsider, which I think has to do with being outside the national tradition, of belonging to a community of expatriate writers and artists.” Rushdie, himself and other prominent expatriate Indian writers “might be said to belong to English tradition more strongly than to Indian tradition because, after all, we write in English,” he added.

“I think that many of us perhaps have a double vision. We have the vision of our antecedents and then we have another vision that has to do with our education. After all, Rushdie was educated at Rugby and Oxford, I believe. His sensibility has been honed by his English experience. It’s true the antecedents have been important because his parents live in Pakistan and he was born in India. But in a way his cultural experience is not that different from (Indian-born British novelist Rudyard) Kipling, most of whose adult educated life was outside India.”

Novel Is Extension of His Story

In “The Stolen Light,” Mehta said, the story of a fellow student called “K” who committed suicide is “by extension also my story. We were both culturally maladjusted. We belonged neither to East nor West. He belonged neither to Japan nor America. I belonged neither to India nor America. . . . How did cultural maladjustment lead in his case to suicide while I somehow escaped it? . . . I was from India, where marriages were arranged like real estate transactions, and found myself in the car culture of California where in order to have dates you had to have cars.”

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In Mehta’s view, “The Stolen Light” is “ruthlessly honest.” Besides “K’s” suicide, Mehta tells of his own sexual involvement with a woman that leads to an abortion, and of his romantic longings for other female students. It also is a litany of the additional labors of a blind student--finding people to read books to him, finding others to type his papers, the constant race just to stay current in his classes.

In moments of frustration and stress, Mehta--who refuses to use a cane or a seeing-eye dog--recalled that he sometimes would ride a bicycle around the college, one of many fetes that he has taught himself in the struggle for independence.

As he arrived at Pomona this week, he swiveled his head around the campus, trying to recall those moments.

“I would ride along College Way and then--is that 3rd Street down south there?--and then I would go right, or left to Kenyon House,” he said, summoning up a mental map.

Books Stand on Their Own

How he gained his skills, the sacrifices his family made to educate their blind son, the often funny daily events of his extended family, are told in the volumes of “Continents of Exile.” But Mehta stressed that they can all be read independently and that each book is meant to stand on its own.

Apparently responding to the assertions of some critics that he has gone on at too much length about his life, Mehta stressed, too, that he has written many other books in between the volumes of autobiography, which began appearing in 1972. His other works include a biography of Mahatma Gandhi, a novel, a book on television and several books of intellectual reportage, a genre he is credited with inventing.

Although he thinks “my books don’t get the attention that I think they deserve,” Mehta believes that ultimately he will be vindicated.

“It’s always hard when you’re living to get the attention,” he said. “There are 50,000 books published every year and it’s very difficult for critics and people to sort out. What I do know is that there is a body of readers and critics that is slowly building up. When that will come to some kind of maturation, I don’t know. But it doesn’t matter.”

Ironically, Mehta certainty wavers when he’s asked why he has chosen to explore his life in such great detail. He talks about the subject for a time and then concludes: “Anyway, I’m not quite clear why I’m doing it at this length. All I can tell you is that I’ve lived on three continents and I’m exploring myself, but by extension I’m exploring the continents of India and America and, now, England.”

To an observer the answer seems obvious: Ved Mehta has made a home by writing books.


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