NEW DELHI — After more than three decades as a staff writer with The New Yorker, and writing more than two dozen books, Ved Mehta recently came full circle, returning to India for the launch of a collection of his work, “The Essential Ved Mehta.”
Mehta lost his eyesight at age 4, and over the years has written by dictating his words to assistants, showing the triumph of willpower over disability. The process has made writing precious to him — and he isn’t optimistic about its current state.
“I think the coinage of writing has been debased over the last 50 years,” he says. “Now people don’t know how to write letters. I think hardly anyone writes formal prose these days. John Updike was the last writer I know who wrote formal prose. By formal prose I mean writing that is elegant, precise, clear. Now the writing has become quite a bit like schoolgirls writing to their mums — letters about what’s going on in their schools. It’s different.”
Mehta is rarely seen at book launches and literary festivals, yet here he is for the new edition of his collected writings, drawing a laugh from his audiences during speeches, and later, while speaking to WWD, attentive though occasionally lapsing into exhausted silence.
He talks emotionally about the fact that as his 80th birthday nears next month, there is a Mehta revival going on with a series of his books being launched by Penguin India — Indian readers haven’t read him much, he acknowledges — and “The Essential Ved Mehta” resurrects some of his fine, detailed chronicling. He also brings to life the world of The New Yorker in its years under William Shawn, who was his mentor and an editor he obviously admires a great deal, even years after Shawn’s departure and death in 1992.
Asked if his own writing has gotten easier with experience and time, he repeats the question with a grimace. “Easier? No, I find it more difficult each day. Because the more you write, the more you know the pitfalls as well as the high points. I can’t write at the same speed as I did, although I never did find it easy — I couldn’t write very fast, I had to dictate everything. I could have typed, but I can’t read back what I type, so it’s easier for me to dictate and ask the person I dictate to to read back. Also, you can ask the person to look up dictionaries and words, quotations,” he says, speaking frankly about his blindness and how he worked around it.
He goes on to add that dictating writing was not as unusual as it may sound. “Did you know that Henry James dictated all his writing? Because when you read him, you’d never know that he dictated. I think that in those days, the manual act of writing was considered physical labor — which intelligent people didn’t undertake easily. But I had no choice.”
Mehta, who has written incisively about India for The New Yorker and has done a series of novels about himself and his family, says that he feels that the U.S. and India have equal weight in his consciousness, and that he thinks of himself as belonging to neither of the countries as a writer. Rather, he’s a “rootless writer,” he says, adding that good writing should not be limited by geography.
“I’m not so conscious about the nationality of the author. I’m excited by new authors, and it is more important that the writing speaks to me, just as the first time I read Virginia Woolf, I was very excited,” he observes.
After a moment’s thought, Mehta adds a caveat, in which geography or nationality becomes primary. “On the other hand, can you imagine Joyce not being Irish or Dickens not being an Englishman? The nationality of the writer does have a big impact on what they write.”
As writing from and about the Indian subcontinent has influenced world literature over the last decade, Mehta hasn’t quite disregarded it either. “I love the work of Vikram Seth and Anita Desai,” he says, adding that he finds the best work of V.S. Naipaul “polemical” and Salman Rushdie a “kind of a literary phenomenon.”
“I think he is a brave man and a brave writer,” he says about Rushdie, pointing out that his writing is unique and “sometimes irritating.”
Mehta worked out of the offices of The New Yorker for years. “You know, writing is a solitary occupation, so I found it more helpful to go to the office, but no one had to. John Updike was a staff writer, and he never went to the office — or very seldom, anyway. But I like routine. It also gave me some purpose in life. My office was half the size of this room or less. It was a room where you could hardly fit a coffin.“
He also went back each day for the process and the companionship. “It was wonderful to spend time with other writers — there were many, many writers from whom I learnt indirectly. The whole atmosphere was prone to growth. Intimidating, too, in some ways. And humbling. But it’s better to be humbled by good stuff rather than rotten stuff,” he says.
An extensive article by Spy magazine in September 1989 interviewed assistants who worked for Mehta — referring to them tongue-in-cheek as “Vedettes.” They described his working style as high-handed and traumatizing. Mehta refutes the point categorically. “That was utter rubbish. There’s not one line of truth in it. But that’s part of the price you pay for being well-known. It’s total nonsense. It would have been more aggravating if there had been any truth in it.”
Mehta has often written about politics, which he described as “very important.”
“Our destiny hangs by politics,” he says, pointing out that after the introduction of weapons of mass destruction, “politics can actually mean the end of the world, which it never did before.” Politics has been part of his edge in writing, and in an earlier book, “A Portrait of India,” published in 1970, he was incisive and informed.
India now, he says, has “anarchy and confusion,” but in the end “there is a certain amount of hopefulness in India.”
Mehta recreates the sensibility of The New Yorker in his conversation, emphasizing the tradition of fine writing, and the fact that a magazine must not be run by committee, but rather by one strong editor making decisions, like William Shawn. The result of the Shawn era was the immense freedom it gave writers to carry a story without the constraint of word limits, and a strong differentiation between the business side of the magazine and the editorial one.
Writing is what drives Mehta and totally immerses him. That is why he generally eschews public events, like the literary festival that brought him here. “Literary festivals keep writers from writing,” he says. “I think if you’re a writer, the best thing you can do is to stick your last. Do you know what a last is? The cobbler has his last on which he puts his shoe.”