Getting on

Gabriele Annan

  • The Ledge between the Streams by Ved Mehta
    Harvill, 531 pp, £12.50, July 1984, ISBN 0 00 272153 8

At the beginning of The Ledge between the Streams, the fourth volume of his autobiography, Ved Mehta has got to 1942. Many of his readers will already know that he is a blind Indian writer living in New York, and that he was born in the Punjab in 1934, the son of an ‘England-returned’ doctor in the government medical service. Dr Mehta (Daddyji) was a true ‘babu’: he ‘admired everything British’. Born a poor village boy (though of the warrior caste, one rung below the Brahmins), he had raised himself to the middle-class through education. He and his family were mobile, not so much upwardly, because that is not the Indian way, but forwardly into a Westernised way of life. They sat on the symbolic ledge of the title between the two streams of tradition and progress, one slow and deep, the other clear, cold and fast.

The Mehtas were an affectionate, argumentative family. At times their conversation sounds like a Platonic dialogue brought almost up to date with help from P.G. Wodehouse, Angela Brazil and an elderly Times leader writer. Ved had two older brothers and three immensely endearing elder sisters: Pom, gentle and responsible; warm-hearted, idealistic, tomboyish Nimi; and sharp-tongued Umi. There was also a younger sister, Usha, and in due course a baby brother. Except for the eldest brother, killed fighting the Japanese, they all posed for a photograph in 1944: Dr Mehta and his alert, intelligent children gaze eagerly out into the future; apart from Ved, of course, whose eyes are turned down. (When he became self-conscious in adolescence he worried about whether they were open or shut.) Mrs Mehta peers into the future too, but she looks apprehensive. The boys are neatly dressed in tweed jackets, collars and ties. The girls, however, are in saris, except for little Usha, still in short socks and a home-knitted sweater. (The sisters were always knitting – unlike weaving, a suitable occupation for upper-caste women.) The key to the future they are looking into is education. Mrs Mehta (Mamaji) never had any, and this sets her apart: ‘neither among the literate nor among the illiterate – just ignorant’, she complains. She complains a good deal, but accepts her lot as a traditional, submissive Indian wife with a mixture of pride and resentment. The children hold her in affectionate contempt as they hurdle enthusiastically over one exam after another at their English convent schools. Education, Daddyji says, is in the Mehta blood.

Still, when the time comes for 19-year-old Pom to marry, she meekly accepts an unseen dentist from unseen, distant Dehra Dun, where she will have to live. Girls and their dowries are a problem even for well-to-do families. ‘What rubbish!’ Nimi says. ‘I’m jolly well happy to be a girl. I’ll never get married. I’ll take a job.’ But Pom is not ready to face being a career woman ‘in horrible slacks’; and she ‘wouldn’t know how to begin’ to find a husband for herself. Mamaji consults an astrologer to fix the wedding date. ‘ “That’s just three days after she finishes her BA finals,” we cried. “When will she study? You are sacrificing her education to some silly tradition!” ’ The children protest in vain, and as the day approaches, Pom seems more and more like a sacrificial victim. ‘It struck me for the first time that after Sister Pom got married people we didn’t know, people she didn’t know, would become more important to her than we were.’

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