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.’

The Ledge between the Streams is about an Indian family in transition between colonialism and independence, tradition and progress; and it is also about the blind boy’s own predicament. I met Ved Mehta some years ago at a large London dinner-party. He was the last to arrive, and our hostess carefully introduced each of her other guests to him. When she named a Cambridge don, Mehta held out his hand and said: ‘How nice to see you again.’ He said ‘see’, not ‘meet’. ‘Oh dear,’ said the other man. ‘Have we met before? I’m terribly sorry, I’d quite forgotten.’ After Mehta had left, the don apologised to his hostess for what might have seemed an unfriendly gaffe. ‘Don’t be silly,’ she said: ‘you made Ved’s evening. The one thing he wants is to be exactly like everyone else.’

In 1942 Ved had just returned to the family home in Lahore after four years in a Bombay school for blind boys. He had been the only middle-class child among a crowd of little peasants and paupers: the only child with shoes. But once he had got over the misery of being torn from his family at the age of four, he was happy there. He learnt only a very little English Braille (there was no Indian Braille in those days), but acquired amazing skill and confidence in managing his blindness. His facial vision – a sort of feeling with the face, as though it had sprouted antennae to pick up the position and volume of people and objects – had developed to the point where he was almost as mobile as any member of the gang of male cousins who romped around the extended family’s cluster of houses known as Mehta Gulli. Their favourite game was capturing one another’s kites by entangling the strings in the air as they raced from rooftop to rooftop. Ved joined in as string-winder to one of the older boys. One day, as he was jumping from one parapet to another like a miniature Harold Lloyd, he ‘missed the parapet and started hurtling through the air. But, as I had on so many other occasions, I saved myself from a fall – this time by catching hold of a brick projection.’

  When Mamaji came to hear of the incident, she forbade me to have anything more to do with kite flying. ‘You are to stay with your big sisters and let them watch you,’ she said.

  I complained to Daddyji but he wouldn’t listen.

  For many days, Mamaji and my big sisters did not let me out of their sight. But then, one day, they began letting me do what I liked. Years later, Daddyji explained: ‘You grew irritable and sullen. You would throw a tantrum at the smallest thing, like not getting your meal on time. I noticed the change and decided that yours was one case where an ounce of prevention was not better than a pound of cure. I told everyone to let you do whatever you wished.’ After that, my cousins began treating me as if I was really one of them – with, as Cousin Yog put it, ‘two good eyes’.

This episode contains all the elements of Mehta’s life at the time: his frustration and determination, his mother’s over-protectiveness, the other children’s cheerful tolerance; and the phalanx of reliable elder sisters. But gradually all the other children went to school, even little Usha who had been his devoted guide-dog and friend. ‘I would go from room to room, sitting now on one cot, now on another, or go round and round the inner courtyard, the way a pet myna I once had used to go round and round her cage.’ This is the only passage in which Mehta allows himself any pathos: otherwise he conveys only his furious impatience to be like the others: ‘Nothing could take the place of studying – of reading and writing and taking examinations, of learning English, of progressing from standard to standard, like my sisters and my big brother. I had the helpless feeling of falling behind.’

Ved’s education was to remain in abeyance until after the war when Dr Mehta promised to send him to the Perkins Institute for the Blind in Massachusetts – the best in the world. Meanwhile, affectionate though they were, none of his family tried to teach him anything; they did not even read to him. They had an excuse: they could not easily manage Hindi or Urdu script, and Ved knew hardly any English, certainly not enough to appreciate Nimi’s favourite Gone with the Wind. Sometimes Daddyji would take him along on a tour of duty in the countryside, and the blind child would be shocked by the appalling poverty. He could never get over the injustice of being comparatively rich, but the medical service peon could explain it: ‘The Sahib-people did good deeds in their last incarnation. Whatever bad deeds Little Sahib did in his last incarnation, God has already punished him enough by taking away his eyes.’

Music was the only training thought suitable for him: he could always earn his living by teaching it. ‘The beauty of Indian music,’ said Daddyji, ‘is that it has no notation so people who can neither read nor write can be great musicians.’ The traditional way to learn was by living with a guru and acting as his servant in return for the secrets he had to impart. Masterji had studied by this system: now he taught all the well-brought-up young ladies and was engaged to teach Ved. For three rupees an hour, though, he had no intention of revealing all his guru’s secrets. The first part of the lesson was spent lubricating his throat with buttermilk and sweetmeats; the second passed swiftly because he put the clock forward. Unfortunately Ved heard him do it. Daddyji remonstrated: ‘Putting the clock forward and saying to Ved you didn’t do it is lying.’ ‘Doctorji, why did God make lies if he didn’t expect men to tell them along with the truth? ... I tell lies just as often as truth, to give truth more value.’ The argument continues along these lines until Daddyji says: ‘Masterji, I see you were well trained in Hindu logic by your guru. But I hope under this roof the climate may be more conducive to truth than to lies. At least, that is the way we are trying to bring up our children.’ Is a high – perhaps excessive – regard for factual truth another step in the process of Westernisation? It is hard to say because Masterji, by any standard, is not exactly straight. He shares a very funny chapter with Pom’s Goan violin master who taught her to play Indian film tunes ‘English style’ (i.e. standing up instead of sitting down), and ‘what we took to be great English classics like “Jealousy” ’.

Eventually Dr Mehta finds a blind day school in Lahore. It is for the poorest of the poor, in a slum, and teaches little except caning and weaving. But Ved insists on going there and sticking it out, even though his teacher is hostile towards the ‘well-to-do day scholar’ – which is how he addresses Ved every time he speaks to him. He is also hostile because Ved is a Hindu while he himself is a Muslim. True, there are other Hindu boys: but Lahore is a city with a large Muslim population, and on the whole it is the Muslims there who are poor and the Hindus better-off. Ved is taken to school on the back of a servant’s bicycle; but quite soon this becomes impossible because they are likely to be attacked in the poor Muslim quarters. About this time Ved makes his first intimate friend outside the family: Sohan is slightly older, and a member of the RSS, a militant Hindu organisation. He takes Ved to a rally:

Boys, show your elders the way! Gandhiji is teaching passivity and non-violence. His message is as old as Buddha and as outdated as Buddha. We became slaves of the British because we were passive and non-violent ... Throw off your slavery. Defend your motherland. Even as I speak ... there are Indians right outside this parade ground who want to kill the mother cow, who want to take the precious gift of the gods and make a meal of it. A meal of the mother cow! For pleasure! Hare Ram! Hare Ram! God save us from such Muslim breath. Guard your supply of milk and yoghurt. Guard your supply of dung and fuel. Guard your mother cow, whose look is love.

Ved hated yoghurt and had always felt particularly attracted to Muslims. The Mehtas had Muslim friends and servants. Dr Mehta got on well with his Muslim colleagues, and, of course, hugely respected the British. In spite of all that, Ved was carried away by Sohan’s fanaticism: arguments for and against the British, for and against co-existence with ‘our Muslim brothers’ now took the place of arguments about the position of Indian women. It was 1948, and events quickly overtook arguments. The next chapters are headed ‘March’, ‘April’, ‘May’, ‘June’ and describe the race riots in Lahore, seen, or rather felt, from inside the Mehta home, which became more and more like a fortress with special iron doors and a secret ‘interfloor’ constructed between the ground and first floors where the family hid its valuables. Watchers on the roof reported on the fires raging through the city.

Independence arrived, and then Partition, but the future of Lahore hung in the balance: would it go to Pakistan or India? The women and children were packed off on trains which they knew might be attacked by fanatics who would kill them all. Ved and his sisters were taken in by cousins in Bombay: 19 people were crammed into a two-bedroom flat. Lahore went to Pakistan, and the Mehtas lost all their possessions. The family was reunited in Simla, where Daddyji was now posted. He took Ved to visit the refugee camps in the plain. Ved heard a man refuse inoculation: ‘I want to die,’ he said. His hands had been cut off. Later on Daddyji used his influence with Mountbatten to get Ved into an institution for blinded soldiers: in the ‘Multiple Disability Ward’ there were men who had lost their arms as well as their eyes. The staff felt it was wrong to have Ved there: a young boy all alone among embittered and sexually deprived men who had not learnt to live with blindness as he had. Again he stuck it out, though often frightened and revolted. Eight months later he had learnt to speak, read and type English.

He was now ready for Perkins, but Perkins turned him down and so did a dismal succession of other blind schools in America, England and even France. Daddyji – but not Ved – had given up hope when the Arkansas School for the Blind, at Little Rock, succumbed to a letter beginning: ‘Dear Sir, Unfortunately I am Blind boy of nearly 15 years of age.’ Daddyji wrote back triumphantly: ‘I am sure that in due course you will find him a credit to his Alma Mater.’

You are meant to find this story funny and so it is. Mehta is keenly aware of the special amused affection that Anglo-Saxons have for Indians: in fact, he seems to share it, sitting apparently quite comfortably on his ledge. But it can make the Western reader feel uncomfortable. Perhaps that is what he wants. Daddyji, in any case, is an ambiguous figure: wise, kind, fair and liberal, he is also a prosy fall-guy like Polonius, and like Polonius always lecturing his family. Perhaps it is hereditary, for Ved Mehta is inclined to lecture his readers. For all its spell-binding evocation of the smells and sounds and even sights of India, The Ledge between the Streams is not really an evocative, impressionistic memoir, nor an introspective one: it is didactic. Every incident is a parable, every conversation expounds a theory. Mehta stands before his class pointing out significances on his blackboard. Like many good schoolmasters, he is an inspired mimic and often has the boys in stitches.