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Long before there was a Jhumpa Lahiri or a Chitra Divakaruni there was Ved Mehta. The original Indian immigrant writer, his literary career started with the autobiographical Face to Face in 1957, spanned some 30 years at the holiest of literary grails in American literature, the New Yorker, and shows no signs of slowing down. Mehta is almost 70, with about 24 books under his belt. The latest is Dark Harbor: Building House and Home on an Enchanted Island. Recently, he was in San Francisco on his first ever book tour and sighed that whistlestop tours were just not for him and it would probably be his last tour. Book tours are exhausting even for much younger writers, but Mehta has been blind since he was a child. But he still resolutely orients himself in new cities, crowded bookstores and radio stations with unflagging grace and without a white cane.
Your book is a memoir about how you built a summer home on a small island in Maine. This would be challenging enough since you were living in Manhattan while trying to have this house built long-distance. But on top of that you have been blind since you were 4. How did you have the courage to embark on this project?
I don’t think it was a matter of courage. I think it was more a piece of insanity especially since I could only stay there a few months in the summer. It took 12-15 years. I was living in Manhattan trying to build a house in a place nine hours away by car that I could not get to by myself. I got caught up in the project serendipitously. My temperament is such that once I start a project I cannot leave it alone until I finish it. Many people start books they never finish. I never did that.
People build houses in remote places like islands in Maine for many reasons—to watch sailboats go past, to see the woods fill up with snow. But so much of it is visual. What were your reasons for building a dream house? After all, your first encounter with nature in Maine wasn’t very promising. In the book you describe how on your first outing there you stumbled painfully into a nest of yellowjacket wasps.
My manhood was spared by half an inch. I had 18 bee stings, all embedded and pustulated when I showed them to the doctor. But I wanted to give my children an experience of nature. I got married in my late 40s. Until then I had been married to my writing. So, when finally I had children I wanted them to have a counterpoint to Manhattan—another island where they could swim and play tennis and do all the normal things children do in the summer—eat ice-cream cones, run around woods, and lie on hammocks. This island is really a pleasure garden for those things.
But this is not really my dream house. I need very little space. Even in this house I just sit in one corner and write all day. I told the architect to build his dream house. He finally had a client who had no vision of the kind of house he wants. The house is the house he wanted to build. I am just a cuckoo nesting there.
Your family had to flee Pakistan during Partition in 1947 and leave your home and much of your belongings behind. What did the concept of home mean to you?
My father’s brother used to say the house belongs to neither you nor me. Ultimately, it belongs to the birds. What he meant by that was that when we build houses and live in them we are just birds of passage. We die and disappear and the house is just a shell.
My father built the very first pucca house in the family history. Before that we lived in wattle and daub huts in the village. My ancestors came from mud villages in the Punjab. My father built what I thought was a wonderful house near Lawrence Garden and the statue of Queen Victoria in a very pleasant part of Lahore which we always thought was Paris of the subcontinent.
We didn’t know till the last minute whether Lahore would go to India or Pakistan. Sir Cyril Radcliffe who had never even been to India was given the charge to draw what would be India and what would be Pakistan in 1947, and Lahore went to Pakistan. We were lucky to come to India alive. We lost everything—house, furniture, pictures, and even more importantly for my father, all his old associations from Government College and King Edward Medical School.
A house is a focal point of certain associations, a place where you set down roots. I have been an exile all my life. First I became an exile when I went blind. I became an exile from the sighted world. Then we became exiles from what became Pakistan. Then, from India when I came to America alone at the age of 15 in 1949. Then, from America when I went to Oxford for three years. Then, when I chose the vocation of a writer that was an exile from what I thought of as the normal world.
So, in a way my attempt to build a house was a counterbalance to this life history of being an exile everywhere, belonging nowhere. Though all writers in 20th century were exiles, from Joyce to Nabokov to Gide to Beckett. Before that, writers belonged to a nationalist tradition—can you imagine Dickens or Shakespeare not being Englishmen?
What was your family home like in Lahore? You write in the book about going back to India with your wife and realizing that houses there had bare walls, while here people put art up.
When my father built the house in 1929 it was enough that you had a house with distempered floors for the bathroom and some marble. We had only one art piece—a marble statue of the Madonna my father had picked up in England. Otherwise, there were just blank walls with some family pictures. The main thing though was my father had seven children, and each of us had our own room and practically our own bathroom. That was a great luxury in Lahore, to have a pucca house where you also had a room for a cow, servants’ quarters, a courtyard, three storys, and in the summer we could sleep outside on the roof. I went back to the house for the first time in 1978 and was quite surprised at how small the rooms feel now.
How did your family deal with your blindness?
I went blind in 1938. There were no schools to speak of. I was sent to Bombay, 1,300 miles away, to a school for the blind. My father thought it would be like Eton because it was a boarding school. It turned out to be really an orphanage. I was there for three years. And my health completely broke down. I came back, but from age 8-15 I had no education to speak of.
How then did you end up in school in America and what was your experience like, landing from Lahore in Arkansas?
At that time there wasn’t any other Indian in Arkansas. I don’t think people there knew there was another language besides English. I came there 2-3 weeks before school started. I was there all alone for two weeks with nothing to do. I was burning with the desire to learn, but I was stuck in this building and couldn’t go anywhere. It was like imprisonment.
Also I wasn’t used to anything. In India when someone asks if you’d like a second helping, you first say no, thank you. I’d say “no, thank you” to waitresses and they would disappear with the iced tea. That again was something I had never drunk.
I’d never heard hillybilly music. I didn’t know a home run from a strikeout in baseball. During assembly we’d sing songs like “Oh Susanna.” I had grown up with Noor Jehan and “bulbul mat raho.” But it wasn’t a shock. It was thrilling, like discovering a whole new vocabulary.
Years later I was at the White House and then-President Clinton put his arm around me and said “I read your book Face to Face.” I said: “Mr President, we have at least three things in common.” We both went to high school in Little Rock, AK, then we both went to Oxford. And then I was going to say we both managed to dodge the draft but I checked myself. But I was thrilled that someone from Little Rock, AK where I had got my schooling had become the President of the United States.
How did you end up at the New Yorker?
After 10 years of school I scraped together enough money to go to India for a visit. I wanted to write about going back to India after 10 years but didn’t know where I could publish something that long. Someone introduced me to the editor of the New Yorker who said though it was not the kind of piece New Yorker published, he would be happy to give me his opinion on how to place it. So I wrote the piece, sent it to him, and he called and said that though it wasn’t the usual New Yorker piece, he liked it and would publish it. That was the beginning of a long and happy association with the New Yorker.
Till Tina Brown took over?
She came like a barbarian, a wrecker. I understood how difficult it is to build something and how easy it is to wreck something when Tina Brown arrived.
But as immigration changes the demographics of the country, as states like California become minority-majority how can something like the New Yorker remain relevant as the arbiter of intellectual taste?
Magazines have a life like the seasons. If the New Yorker shouldn’t be relevant others will come up which will be relevant. I am not sure whether we are not living at the end of the print age, which has had a long run. Maybe the next age will be of the Web site.
But magazines can also evolve. There is no reason the New Yorker cannot be more multicultural. We certainly were in the old New Yorker. I think we wrote more about India when I was writing for it than we wrote about America in some of those years.
Lately there has been a surge of interest in Indian writing in the West? But you were there before it was the season for Indian writers.
I am older and I got there first. Now these younger writers are having their day and I am very happy about it. Wonderful writers have come out of India like Vikram Seth and Arundhati Roy. I am glad that now I have some company among writers
But you have described this interest in English writing by Indians as “I think that in Europe they’ve lost their nerves. They assume writing originating in Sri Lanka or Australia or India must have an edge over their own writing.”
I mean if you look at the Booker, so often they give it to someone writing outside of England. I think the English-speaking west has lost a certain self-confidence. And they sort of filled the gap with ex-colonial types. I don’t know if it’s gap or guilt. But I celebrate the multiplicity of voices. And it is a compliment to England that the English language is the lingua franca of the whole world and used as a vehicle of literature in all corners.
Your father once quoted an Urdu couplet that said: “It’s best to keep away from the rich. Neither their friendship, nor their enmity is good.” But you have swum in Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s swimming pool, dined with Diana Vreeland, partied on the estate of a tycoon who was the model for Goldfinger of James Bond fame. How did you keep your balance?
Writers and artists always needed patrons. I loved good wine but in those days I couldn’t afford it. So if someone had me to dinner and I could drink a wonderful wine, I enjoyed it. I tried never to have their friendship compromise the integrity of my writing. But I really spent most of my life with my colleagues at the New Yorker and many of them were poor as church mice.
Do you ever think back to your days at the school for the blind in Dadar in Bombay? And do you think about what you thought you might have become?
Well, that experience is never far away from my conscience. When I was there in kindergarten I was the only child of 5. My classmates were 18-19 years old, picked up from Bombay streets for begging. And I often think to myself: “There go I but for the grace of God.”
Sandip Roy-Chowdhury is on the editorial board of India Currents.