Aravind Adiga, Time Asia magazine; February 14, 2005
The heavyweight champion of memoir writing is still Indian-born Ved Mehta. Back in 1972, long before memoirs became hip, the 38-year-old Mehta, who had already authored an autobiography in his 20s, got down to composing his memoirs in earnest. Thirty-two years and 11 books later, he has just ended his tale.
The Red Letters: My Father's Enchanted Period, the last book in Mehta's memoir cycle – collectively called Continents of Exile – concludes the most comprehensive autobiography of the past quarter-century. His topics range from going blind at the age of four to his childhood in Lahore, an education at Oxford, working for the New Yorker, love affairs in India and America, and the trials of house building in Maine. The unifying theme is loss, and the recovery, in unexpected places, of part of what has been lost. Going
from his blindness, Mehta adds other privations, such as his bad luck with lovers, to turn his life's story into an epic. Because its author has had a head start on other memoirists, Continents of Exile, now that it's done,
gives us an advance preview of how far the memoir is likely to succeed in its quest for upward mobility.
Mehta's life certainly has the raw material for a great novel – a stark mix of cruelty and grace and the sharp demarcation of light and darkness common to fairy tales. As a boy he is struck blind by meningitis; when he is 13, his country is divided and his family, finding itself in Pakistan, is forced to leave Lahore for India and to start over again. A special programme for blind children sends him to America; there, a wealthy woman becomes his patron and sponsors his studies. Mehta's calm, unhurried prose captures the fable-like events of his life. His effortless description of how good and evil things just happen to him and how he manages to cope as best as he can is the principal charm of his memoirs.
In The Red Letters, the fairy tale takes a turn into darkness. The principal character of this last book is not Mehta himself but his father. The Red Letters gets going when father and son write a story together. To Mehta's surprise, it becomes one of extra-marital infidelity. Eventually it is revealed that the story is an account of an affair that his father had, years ago. He learns of the letters that his father exchanged with his lover. He understands what his father's affair did to his mother; he explores how his mother's anxieties influenced him as he was growing up. The estrangement from his past that spurred the writing of the memoirs has, to some extent, been assuaged. Ved Mehta has made sense of himself.
But have his readers made sense of Ved Mehta – and, in doing so, learned something about themselves? In The Red Letters, as in much of Continents of Exile, Mehta's prose is so polished that readers skate smoothly upon it – without ever breaking the surface, falling in, and getting lost in his life. What's missing from these memoirs, oddly enough, is evidence of the traits that define him. As a journalist for the New Yorker, Mehta refused to be limited by his blindness; he travelled on assignments with guides who described how things and people looked, and he insisted on going everywhere and "seeing" everything. He wrote essays and books on Oxford philosophy, German theology, Gandhi's fight with his sexuality, the life of the writer R.K. Narayan, and Indira Gandhi's political fall and resurrection. His masterpiece is a long essay on Calcutta called "The City of Dreadful Night" – a jarring, clangorous, minor-key symphony, alive with the bustle and despair of the city, which ends with Mehta's quietly following Mother Teresa as she walks through a lepers' colony. At their best, his articles and essays throb with unforgettable details – how the English philosopher Bertrand Russell spoke with exaggerated e's, how Gandhi was extremely eager to know more about Sigmund Freud – that leave the reader with a vivid sense of Mehta's personality, and with his gifts of curiosity, sympathy and intellect. Above all, it is his essays, not his memoirs, that testify to the tenacity and talent that allowed this blind man from an impoverished country to sidestep his bad luck, take full advantage of his good luck, and turn himself into one of the world's best-known journalists of the 1960s and '70s.