Chasing Kites

Michael Wood

  • The Red Letters: My Father’s Enchanted Period by Ved Mehta
    Sinclair-Stevenson, 190 pp, £15.99, November 2004, ISBN 0 9543520 6 8
  • Remembering Mr Shawn’s ‘New Yorker’ by Ved Mehta
    Sinclair-Stevenson, 414 pp, £19.99, November 2004, ISBN 0 9543520 5 X
  • Dark Harbour by Ved Mehta
    Sinclair-Stevenson, 272 pp, £17.99, November 2004, ISBN 0 9543520 4 1

In a famous poem by Hopkins, a child called Margaret is rebuked for grieving over the fall of leaves. Leaves fall; stuff happens; we get over it; or, to stay with Hopkins’s idiom, the heart ‘will come to such sights colder/By and by’. The child will one day find better reasons for her tears, including the fate of humankind, falling and falling again since its first lapse in Eden: ‘You will weep and know why.’ And in any case there will always have been a secret reason for her grief. Early and late she will have been crying for herself: ‘It is Margaret you mourn for.’

I have always thought of the conclusion of this poem as remarkably unkind and accusatory. How does the poet know so much about Margaret’s self-concern? Is he right about her? Do we all have to feel the way Margaret is said to? But recently I have come to hear the stress differently. It is not that Margaret is mourning only for herself; just that she is mourning for herself, whatever else she may be mourning for as well, and however deep or shallow that mourning may be. We are always the subject of our own tears, but not the only subject; and knowing the many other reasons why we weep is a complicated affair, often a matter of stealthy Freudian displacement rather than anything resembling immediate cause and effect. ‘Sorrow’s springs are the same,’ Hopkins says. That’s why tears are transferable from one grief to another, and may be genuine even when they pick the wrong occasion.

This perception is precisely where Ved Mehta’s memoir The Red Letters ends, and with it his extraordinary 11-volume autobiography, Continents of Exile, begun in 1972. Mehta is remembering his father’s tears at a particular, unlikely moment, and has been talking with a New York psychoanalyst about his inability to weep at his father’s death in 1986. The analyst, Kurt Eissler, a man closely identified with Freud, shrewdly says that one can grieve without weeping. ‘What is there in crying? Crying in and of itself is not a sign of emotional health. Many people can cry on demand.’ He quotes Hamlet’s speech to the players: ‘What’s Hecuba to him or he to Hecuba/That he should weep for her?’ But then Mehta suddenly thinks he understands his father’s tears – they are the language of one form of guilt covering for another – and begins to sob uncontrollably himself. Reversing his position with analytic ease, Eissler now says: ‘When you cry is not as important as that you are able to cry.’ Mehta doesn’t comment on this change, but clearly thinks his tears are inseparable from his new perception about the springs of sorrow: ‘As I left Eissler’s office, I felt united with my father, through our longest-delayed tears. Although shed for reasons of our own, which even we might not have known for certain, they provided us with a connective release from guilty burdens.’

I’ll return to the detail of this story, not least because Mehta’s writing so often reaches large questions through small local instances. He says in an afterword to the whole series that it is ‘predicated on the notion that the more particular a story, the more universal it is’. This is an old piety and entirely untrue. Think of all the stories that bored you stiff with their unending particularity. What is true is that well-chosen details represent more than themselves, and we don’t have to go all the way to the universal. A modest generality will do, a sense that pieces of this experience might have been ours, if only by analogy. The trick is to choose the details, which Mehta does with consummate, sly skill. If his stories, as he says, ‘grew as if by their own momentum’, their development was nevertheless ‘contrary to the spirit of free association’, and the books – individually and collectively – do have, precisely, ‘a distinct design and architecture’.

Mehta was a staff writer at the New Yorker from 1961 to 1994, and has written many books apart from those in this series, notably Fly and Fly-Bottle (1963), The New Theologian (1966), Portrait of India (1970) and Mahatma Gandhi and His Apostles (1977). Most of the work in the series was published in the New Yorker before it reached book form, and only the later volumes had to do without a first home in the magazine. The story of this variety of exile is fully told in one of the books. The titles in the complete series are as follows: Daddyji (1972); Mamaji (1979); Vedi (1982); The Ledge between the Streams (1984); Sound-Shadows of the New World (1986); The Stolen Light (1989); Up at Oxford (1993); Remembering Mr Shawn’s ‘New Yorker’ (1998); All for Love (2001); Dark Harbour (2003); The Red Letters (2004).

Many long-term writing projects are unfinished, of course. The author gives up or steps away into death. Other long projects, like Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time, are finished to the slight surprise of their author, who perhaps never entirely believed he would get there and have some life to spare. Even completed works of this scope carry a suggestion of fragility within their sturdy achievement, and Mehta tells us that although he had been thinking of the whole sequence for a long time, it was ‘mostly a private vision’: ‘I wasn’t sure that I would have the physical and emotional stamina – or indeed the means – to keep on with the project.’ It was only with volume six, The Stolen Light, that he became confident of his ‘architecture’ and gave the set the general title he had ‘carried so long in my head’. Mehta’s afterword doesn’t touch on this doubt, and indeed ends with the words ‘full circle’. But he knows better than most people that any full circle could well have been a broken one.

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