“I think Vikram Seth is one of the best writers among the current crop of Indian writers in English, but even he doesn't measure up to Virginia Woolf's works like The Lighthouse,” says the 79-year-old writer Ved Mehta, who is currently in Mumbai to relaunch his book The Essential Ved Mehta (TEVM).
“I haven't even read the works of writers such as Jhumpa Lahiri. All the publicity around her can be a bit scary and puts me off her books,” he adds, asking, “Is she any good?”
But it's not just the fiction wordsmiths who get slammed. “Some of the non-fiction emerging from India is unreadable,” opines this writer of several nonfiction books, in which he created his own brand of roving journalism. He particularly takes a swipe at activist-writer Arundhati Roy. “They need to supply special dictionaries with her work. I can barely understand the language she uses.”
By the time he's polished off tea and cookies served at his window-side table overlooking the iconic Gateway of India, Mehta is on a roll. “Bombay has always been a city of the working class but it still had its own grace. Much of that is gone. Just the thought of how people in this city survive, in the face of what must be the most difficult circumstances, never fails to surprise me,” he observes, admitting to being taken aback by real estate prices. “It isn't as if the quality of life in the city matches the prices that people are expected to pay.”
It is, after all, a city he shares an association with since he was barely five. The fifth of seven children, he was born to Dr Amolak Ram Mehta and Shanti Mehta on March 21, 1934, in Lahore (then in British India), Pakistan. He lost his sight to cerebrospinal meningitis when he was only four. Since there were no facilities for special children like him, he was packed off to the American missionary-run Dadar School for the Blind, nearly than 1,800km away. “My father was eager that I receive some training in Braille and arithmetic. But he didn't realise how this was more an asylum for delinquents than a school for the blind,” he laughs, remembering the three years he spent there which left him very sickly. “I went back home and spent the next seven years playing chess, riding bicycles and learning to form mental images of people and places from the descriptions of others.”
Speaking about TEVM, the definitive collection of his work with excerpts from nearly all his writings, many of which first appeared in William Shawn’s New Yorker, he says, “Though critically acclaimed, my books haven't really taken off in a big way. I'm hoping Penguin's efforts to relaunch them in India will bring them the elusive success.”
TEVM begins with his first book, Face to Face, the classic autobiography highlighting his blindness and features, among others, his iconic books on India and his great family saga Continents of Exile. Each entry comes with a reflection by Mehta. While many are calling the book “a passionate record of a writer looking back upon his own work”, he dismisses it with a modest wave of the hand. “People are far too kind and heap praise on me unduly.”
On his resolve to succeed, Mehta offers, “Often, talent will drive you. If you have it, you have an obligation to that talent.” Admitting to feeling pressured to do well, he credited his determination to his father’s fervent determination that he should succeed.