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Ved Mehta, prolific writer who took India to Americans, dies at 86

Blind since the age of three, the Indian-origin memoirist didn't let his impairment get in the way of a flourishing career

Ved Mehta (1934-2021) died on Saturday in New York.
Ved Mehta (1934-2021) died on Saturday in New York. (YouTube screen grab)

Ved Mehta, an Indian-born writer best known for his multi-volume memoir, died in his home in New York on Saturday due to complications from Parkinson's disease, his wife Linn Cary Mehta said in a statement. He was 86.

Born in 1934 in Lahore, undivided India, Mehta was afflicted with blindness at the age of three due to cerebrospinal meningitis. His father, Amolak Ram Mehta, was determined to give him a decent education and sent him off to study in a school for the blind in Bombay (now Mumbai).

Later, Mehta was sent off to Dehra Dun, where he learned Braille reading and touch typing, a skill that enabled him to apply to colleges for the blind in the US. He was eventually accepted by one in Arkansas, where he went on to study, followed by stints at Oxford and Harvard. In 1961, at the age of 26, Mehta was hired as a staff for the New Yorker by William Shawn, one of the legendary editors of the magazine, who was impressed by Mehta's early autobiographical pieces.

In fact, memoir would become Mehta's chosen form for most of his writing life, even though he was equally adept at journalism and also known as a novelist. His first book, Face to Face (1957), explored his struggles with blindness, which would become an abiding theme of his work. He drew luminous portraits of Indian life in books like Walking the Indian Streets (1959) and Portrait of India (1970). In his 12-volume memoir Continents of Exile, published between 1972 and 2004, he wrote about his early life in India, his parents, relatives and the political landscape of the country since independence and Partition.

Although Mehta's prose was acclaimed internationally, especially for bringing India close to American readers, it was also criticised for being intensely self-indulgent, if not dull. Shawn, one of his early mentors, thought otherwise. "He writes about serious matters without solemnity, about scholarly matter without pedantry, about obscure matters without obscurity," he said about Mehta. Later editors of New Yorker, like Tina Brown, begged to differ; Mehta was fired after she took over the magazine in 1994.

Author of over two dozen books, Mehta was also accused of being misogynistic and patrician. The late Norman Mailer doubted his blindness, threatening to punch him into admitting that it was only an act—he never did. In spite of his see-sawing reputation, Mehta's devotion to his craft remained undiminished. He dictated his drafts to (mostly women) assistants (Spy magazine described them as "Vedettes" in an article in 1989) and is believed to have revised his books and articles often over a hundred times before publication.

Mehta had a deep impact on generations of writers and reporters, especially on those who, like him, moved abroad and lived in exile (he became an American citizen in 1975 and was granted the MacArthur 'genius' grant in 1982). In a tribute to Mehta on Twitter, writer Amitava Kumar recalled reading him as a student in Delhi. "He taught me to write about our own streets," Kumar wrote.

Mehta is survived by his wife and two daughters, Sage Mehta Robinson, who is a writer herself, and Dr Natasha Mehta.

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