We live in the world of senses, Home or Abroad

Published Date:   Saturday, Jun 22, 2013

“Ved Mehta’s Continent of Blind Culture: Challenges in reading the narrative domain using conventional frameworks in diasporic theory”, a talk by Dr. Hemachandran Karah, Faculty at The Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, New Delhi was held on 22 June 2013 at CSSS, Jawaharlal Nehru University.

The talk was based on ‘Continent of Blind Culture’, a narrative domain in Ved Mehta’s autobiography. As a sensorium, the Continent of blind culture binds together rest of the narrative domains, also known as Continents. These are the Continents of India, Britain, America, The New Yorker, a psychoanalysis. Clearly, the Continent signifies much more than a lexical definition. It signifies a social scape, a cultural event, memory, the craft of writing, and at times, a geographical mass.

The Continent of blind culture or culture of the blind signifies lived experiences of the narrator and his blind colleagues amidst the realms of the visual. Immersed in the scopic, the Continent emerges as a narrative derivative of the real system of blind culture which itself is an inferior binary of visual culture that treats blindness as a lack, and an inferior episteme to sightedness. The Continent of blind culture binds together all the other five narrative domains of the autobiographical compendium in this capacity as a narrative derivative of the binary of blind culture which seems to go with the visual in all possible directions. The Continent appears intertwined with the binary system of blind cultures that are implicated within the visual systems of empiricism, the literary form of the essay, the Hindu and Greek cosmologies, rehabilitation technology, blind psychology, Arya Samaj, and Freudianism.

Blind culture mediates the notions of home, exile, and cosmopolitanism in Mehta’s writings. The mediation is such that it can offer valuable feedback on the ways in which the terms are deployed in diasporic theory. The idea of home for example, denotes a sensory world where Mehta is free from ocular surveillance. It is also a place where he is in touch with the feminine cosmos of his mother. Naturally, such a location is consistently reconstructed by the author. Like exile, home signifies an enduring conscious of an ideal place that is somehow lost during migration. In Mehta’s case, it manifests as a sensorium where he no longer feels subjected to by an alien institutional setting. This is something diasporic theory can reflect upon. After all, we live in the world of senses, home or abroad.

Being detested and celebrated alike, states of deprivation and discontent continue to serve Mehta as his primary narrative resources. Among other things, deprivation signifies lack of sight, abrupt loss of childhood serenity, loss of ego independence, lack of sexual satisfaction, institutional confinement and the very sense of uprootedness that comes with global mobility. The deprivation of blindness even feels like a mark of divine retribution, for the narrator believes that he lost his sight because of a sacrilegious act that he is supposed to have committed by chance during his early childhood. Thus, a general sense of dissatisfaction, displeasure and discontent predominates in Mehta’s lives of exile. The passing thought that the life of exile in, say, America is preferable to life in India does not hold good for long. At every point Mehta realises that one set of circumstances of estrangement is always replaced by another and is never completely overcome. His psychoanalytic experience only expands this view to include even serenity as an exilic experience in itself. Thus, exile in Mehta’s writings signifies experiences of deprivation and discontent that cannot be stated in simple and straightforward terms.

So what does Mehta’s notion of exile means for people like us who are concerned about diasporic consciousness? Well, first and foremost, we can borrow the idea of deprivation and discontent. Also, we can make use of his critique of the visual which can indeed alienate each of us whether or not one is blind. Talking about access to the image, I am concerned about a different form of isolation ethic which is slowly gaining social legitimacy; especially among those who seek an identity based on an attachment to an image.

Mehta’s version of cosmopolitanism osscilates between a jetsetting dynamic and a cultural space that he carves out for himself within visual culture. Mehta emulates his father as a globe trotter and even aspires further. He flies to America at the age of 17 for his high school education at ASB. Mehta’s own image as a globe trotter is well displayed in Face to Face, his debut. All in all, he flies 14 times across the United States and gets to visit 38 states. Further, he chooses to do an undergraduate degree at Oxford so that he is able to get into the cosmopolitan circles of Oxford life. He joins Pomona College for a BA degree and Harvard University for a Masters in history for the same reason. Sometimes he appears like a tourist whose vocation is the consumption of the exotic. At others, he is an interviewer whose travel itinerary extends far and wide. Yet in others, he seems like a celebrity figure who has overcome all the limitations and parochialities of his childhood blindness. In Walking the Indian Streets, for example, Mehta looks more like a sighted visitor from Oxford than a blind writer who needs assistance in reaching the exotic. After ten years of study in England and America, Ved Mehta revisits his home in India in the summer of 1959. He is joined by his friend from Oxford, the poet Dom Moraes, and together they spend a full carefree month which he calls ‘bummy’ days in India and Nepal.[1] At the end of his sojourn, Mehta interviews Jawaharlal Nehru, the then Prime Minister of India, with whom he has been in touch ever since his travel to America for schooling.

Many other volumes of interviews as in Mahatma Gandhi and his Apostles (1977), The New Theologian (1966) and Fly and the Fly-Bottle (1963) present the interviewer figure as a truly global subject who possesses non-partisan dispositions and views. In the book on the Mahatma, the interviewer emerges as a meritorious scholar who is well versed in Gandhian hagiography. He consults at least 400 of the biographical volumes then available on one or other aspect of the Mahatma and his holy pilgrimage towards truth and nonviolence. Mehta also spends several years travelling through India, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, England, and Austria, among other places, to collect the oral testimony of living Gandhians. He describes the symbolic gestures of Gandhi that move Indians into action. He also describes, in the most precise particulars, the daily life in Gandhi’s ashrams, the everyday behavior Gandhi expected of his followers and demanded of himself. The interviewer's probe into the subject of the Mahatma’s celibacy is elaborate and yet sensitive. Mehta brings out in vivid detail, the embodied aspects of Gandhian celibacy, and the ways in which they relive in the memories of women who were very much part and parcel of the experiment. The New Theologian and Fly and the Fly-Bottle also represent the interviewer as a global citizen. He traverses across diverse schools of philosophy in Europe and America. Whether it is linguistic philosophy or the classical theology of Karl Barth, the scholarly interviewer gives a dispassionate reportage of the arguments of each member of the interpretative communities; and in stunning detail their biographical portraits as well.

During these interviews, and others, the interviewer presents himself as someone who is very keen on the visual aspects of the situations of interviewing. He records in vivid detail, the physical appearance of his interviewees, the costumes they wear, and the ways in which they approach him as a blind interviewer. To access the minute details of the visual environments of interviewing, Mehta deploys facial vision, which is a skill that is associated with obstacle perception of the blind. After having cast the white cane in the gutter, Mehta traverses the streets of Arkansas by using facial vision. He negotiates with lampposts, bypassers, and even unexpected crevices. With his mastery of the art and science of facial vision, Mehta achieves something that is normally not expected of the blind; especially, the ones that populate the Continent of India of his first identity.

Now that the blind narrator has cast away his mobility cane, he comes across as though he were sighted connoisseur of the visual with cosmopolitan aesthetic preferences. In fact, he begins to identify himself with the visual objects that he happens to consume. During his undergraduate days in Pomona College, Mehta gets on well with a model A Truck; by making use of facial vision, he drives the car around the college with windows wide opened.[2] In this instance, and many others, the facial vision user dangerously moves across public spaces in a way that puts himself as much as others in utmost peril. Like a typical American cosmopolitan of his time, Mehta fashionably opts to go for psychoanalysis during the early 1970s. However, the underlying reasons why Mehta opted to go for psychoanalysis in the first place; to get married, to have a family of his own with wife and children, to own a house, to shape himself as a provider like Daddyji, and all that, continue to remain as distant goals. When he is in his early 50s, Mehta becomes a proper householder like Daddyji with his marriage to Lynn, as well as his construction of his own ‘palace on sand’. Thus, Daddyji’s resolve appears fulfilled: his son will be different from the rest of the blind in India who loaf around with their begging bowls and a staff in their hands. Also, Mehta, the cosmopolitan consumer appears more confident because he is unlikely to fall back into the life worlds of those who pass their entire lives rolling condiments and nuts in petty shops.[3]

In sum, Mehta’s continents of exile can help us explore diasporic consciousness with a keen sensitivity for the sensory.  Notions of home, exile, and cosmopolitanism in Mehta’s autobiography are but a few pointers in this regard. Time has come for an interdisciplinary inquiry where disability theory and frameworks of diaspora interact. 

 


[1] Ved Mehta, Walking the Indian Streets (Boston: Atlantic-Little, Brown, 1960) 18.

[2] Ved Mehta, The Stolen Light (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1989) 363.

 

[3] Ved Mehta, 1957: 22.

 

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