Deprivation often makes a writer. I was born, in 1934, into a
Hindu family in India. When I was a couple of months short of
my fourth birthday, I lost my sight as the result of an attack
of cerebrospinal meningitis. In India, one of the poorest countries
the world has ever known, the lot of the blind was to beg with
a walking stick in one hand and an alms bowl in the other. Hindus
consider blindness a punishment for sins committed in a previous
incarnation. But my father, a doctor, tried to fight the superstition
and give me an education, like his other children, so that I could
become, as he used to say, a self-supporting citizen of the world.
Before I turned five, he sent me to what he had heard was the
country's best school for the blind, in Bombay, 1,300 miles away
from our home, in the Punjab. It proved to be, like the score
or so of other such schools in the country, an orphanage cum asylum.
I spent a total of three years there, sick a good part of the
time, and then was returned home because the school had nothing
more to teach me. For years, I had no school to go to. All along,
my father was trying to get me across to the West, where the blind
received a proper education, but no school there would have me,
because the authorities said I was too young.
When I was 13, India gained independence, but at the expense
of a partition of the country that left a million people dead
and 11 million homeless. We were among the refugees who escaped
from newly created Pakistan with the clothes on our backs. I feared
that now I was permanently stuck in India, with no chance of getting
a proper education. Then I had an opportunity to study for a few
months at a newly established institute for soldiers blinded in
World War II. There I learned, among other things, to do touch
typing, and afterward I wrote often a barrage of letters to schools
for the blind in England and the United States, telling them of
my plight. Still no school would have me, it seemed, the authorities
now saying that my preparation was sketchy and that, in any case,
my going abroad at such an early age would lead to social maladjustment.
Then one school, the Arkansas School for the Blind, accepted me.
My father raised the necessary money, and I flew there alone when
I was 15. I was finally on the road to a formal education. In
due course, with the help of many scholarships, I earned a B.A.
from Pomona College, in California, a B.A. from Balliol College,
Oxford, and an M.A. from Harvard. While I was still a student,
I started writing for The New Yorker.
When I was 23, I published my first book, an autobiography. It
was written out of a feeling that I could partly alleviate a life
of deprivation by writing about it. Since the age of 26, I have
been writing for my livelihood, and in 1984 my 15th book was published.
Three of my books deal with blindness directly. Two others touch
on the subject. What follows are excerpts from some of these books,
chosen to highlight one handicapped person's struggle to adjust
to the society around him and make something of his life.
WHEN I WAS ALMOST FOUR, my father, Daddyji, and my mother, Mamaji
brought me home to the house of my grandfather, Babuji, after
I had spent a month in the hospital, and they nursed me at home
for another few weeks. Daddyji told Mamaji that the final word
from the doctors was that the meningitis had permanently damaged
my optic nerves, and as a result I would never see again.
Mamaji didn't understand about the optic nerves. She pictured
blindness as a filmlike curtain descending in front of the eyes
and shutting out the light. At the beginning of my illness, my
eyes had become red, but toward the end they had regained their
normal appearance. No one looking into my eyes would have imagined
that I couldn't see. In the last few days of my illness, she had
often folded back my eyelids and looked into my eyes. They looked
nearly clear. She didn't see much of a shadow in them.
She couldn't accept my blindness. Blindness was a fate reserved
for beggars, certainly not something that the child of a well-to-do
family would suffer. She persuaded herself that I could see some.
To prove it, she would approach my bed from one side and hand
me a glass of milk; then, while I was drinking the milk, she would
stealthily tiptoe to the other side, watching me carefully. I
would invariably follow her with my eyes, my head perfectly synchronized
with her movements, like the needle of a compass, and hand her
the empty glass.
Mamaji waited, but the invisible curtain over my eyes didn't
lift. She consulted an elderly Muslim seer who lived just inside
the Shahalmi Gate. "Allah made your son blind because he urinated
on the holy grave of Ahmed, in Gujrat," the seer said. "Go, daughter,
and donate to charity two gold eyeballs as close to the size of
the child's eyeballs as may be."
She took her gold bracelets to the family jeweller and asked
him to melt them down and make the two eyeballs. She dropped the
gold offerings in the tin cup of a halfblind, leprous beggar who
was always to be seen camped outside Nedou's Hotel.
She watched me and she waited, but still the curtain didn't lift.
She turned to the family hakim (practitioner of the Unani system
of medicine). Daddyji had forbidden her to have the hakim care
for any of their children, saying that he was a quack and a charlatan,
who would give rock salt for appendicitis. But the hakim had been
coming to Babuji's house for many years; ever since he cured my
maternal grandmother, Mataji, of irregular menstrual periods.
Babuji himself had frequently consulted the hakim for his digestive
problems; he had his father's faith in indigenous systems of medicine.
One morning after Daddyji had left for the office, the hakim,
a thin, elegant Muslim, arrived at the house, carrying, as always,
a bulging black cloth satchel, which rattled and crunched as he
walked. He lifted me up and looked long at the pupils of my eyes
and then at the back of my neck. He put me down and did some calculations,
his fingers and lips moving rapidly. He clicked his tongue, 'tch,
tch, tch', and sighed. "It is a very difficult case and will require
many kinds of treatment," he said. He took two spice bottles and
a newspaper packet out of his satchel. Handing them to Mamaji,
he said, "Give him four pinches of salt from this packet of Sulemani
Salt with breakfast every morning. Give him one of these yellow
pills every night at bedtime. The pill is terminalia chebula,
the pill of life. Apply this antimony solution to his eyes every
morning, afternoon, and evening. Always make sure that he keeps
his eyes tightly closed for three minutes after the solution has
been applied. Then wash out his eyes with warm water and massage
the eyeballs with your finger for a minute or two." Mamaji gave
the hakim twenty rupees. He folded the notes carefully, pocketed
them, and said, "I'm not finished. To exorcise the evil eye, you
must gently flog him every day with freshly gathered birch twigs.
For a whole week, before the sun is up, you must take two raw
eggs and touch them to his eyes and place the eggs on a crossroads.
For another whole week, you must put a piece of raw meat under
his pillow overnight and, before the sun is up, leave the meat
on the crossroads. The eggs will serve as a warning to the evil
eye that you are on its trail, and the meat will put the vultures
on the evil eye's trail with you."
Mamaji followed the instructions down to the minutest detail.
Every day, she gave me the Sulemani Salt and the "pill of life."
Every day, she faithfully applied the antimony. The solution stung
my eyes. No sooner would she approach than I would start to scream,
as if I saw the bottle in her hand. Every day, she flogged me
lightly. For two weeks, she got up surreptitiously before dawn,
went to Mozang Chowk, and deposited first the eggs and then the
meat. Every day, she looked for signs that my sight was returning.
Every night, she turned on the light and asked me what I saw.
"The light is on," I would say.
After a while, she began to suspect that I was only trying to
please her by pretending to see, and that perhaps the click of
the switch told me that the light was on. She started testing
me by moving the switch back and forth so rapidly that she herself
lost count, all the while breathing hard and coughing from the
onrush of an asthmatic attack. And yet when she asked me "Is the
light on or off?" I was almost always right in my reply.
– Adapted from Mamaji,
Oxford University Press, 1979
ONE MORNING, when I was ten years old, I found a discarded bicycle
in the servants' quarters. Its tires were flat; its back mudguard
was broken, and scraped against the tire, its hand brakes hung
loose, its handgrips were missing, so that the ends of the handlebars
were cold and hollow to the touch. It was in complete disrepair.
I got hold of some wrenches, a pair of pliers, and a bicycle pump,
and, over the next many days, took it apart almost to the last
nut. I tried to put it together again. At first, nothing fitted.
Even when I eventually managed to put most of it together, it
required several new parts. I got Gian Chand, our cook, to buy
me new mudguards and new handgrips. I greased the chain, straightened
the brakes, and filled the tires with air. But the tube in the
front tire leaked. I had Gian Chand take the bicycle and me to
a bicycle repair shop. I followed the hand of the repairman as
he slipped a spanner under the tire, removed the tube, filled
it with air, then rotated it in a basin of water to pinpoint the
leak by the bubbles, and fixed a postage stamp of a patch over
the puncture. Except for the puncture, which required the repairman's
special patching machine, there was hardly anything about the
bicycle that I didn't, in time, learn to fix myself.
In Lahore, both at 16 Mozang Road and in Mehta Gulli, where my
Mehta cousins and their families lived, there had always been
aunts or cousins with me or watching me, but in Rawalpindi I was
left alone to play in the compound as I liked. The others were
either at school or busy with their work or their friends. I used
to stand the bicycle up on its kickstand and spend hours turning
the pedals with my hands and listening to the sound of the rear
wheel whirring as the chain engaged it or clicking as it coasted.
I climbed up onto the seat and tried to pedal. But the springs
of the seat were broken, and I discovered that my feet scarcely
reached the pedals. I fell over and scraped my hands and knees.
Mamaji complained to Daddyji that I would hurt myself badly with
the bicycle, but he said, "Let him play. It gives him something
to do, and it's just around the house, in the compound."
I got an idea: I undid the clamp under the seat of the old bicycle;
worked the seat loose from the frame; dismantled the assembly,
separating the pole from the seat; tightened the springs; fitted
the leather cap tightly over the springs and had its rivets soldered
onto them; put the seat assembly together again; worked the seat
back into the frame; fixed the seat as low as it would go; and
tightened the clamp. Finally, I was able to sit comfortably astride
the stationary bicycle and pedal. Before long, I was pushing the
bicycle off its kickstand and walking it around the back of the
house from the left side, as I noticed that everyone else did
it. I would put one foot on the pedal nearer me and propel the
bicycle forward by hopping with the other foot. I remember that
once I took the hopping foot off the ground and was carried along
by the momentum. The bicycle veered from side to side and almost
tipped over on me. But I held fast. I pedalled with one foot,
propelled the bicycle forward with the other foot, raised that
foot off the ground, touched down, ran, and raised the foot off
the ground. I somehow kept the bicycle going.
In time, I discovered that when the bicycle was moving and I
put my leg on the other side I could pedal from both sides, standing
up. If I kept the handlebars very straight, leaned forward, and
pedalled hard, the bicycle would steady itself and stay on course.
If I suddenly slowed down, the bicycle would tilt, but I would
stop my fall by dragging a foot on the ground. Then I would balance
myself again, pedal hard, and gain speed. I discovered that if
I was standing on the pedals and the bicycle was going fast I
could slide onto the seat and pedal sitting down. I realized then
that I knew how to actually ride a bicycle like anyone else. The
realization made me tingle from head to toe.
The house was sheltered by the compound wall and by hedges, and
all around the house was an empty stretch covered with gravel.
I would climb onto the seat of my bicycle and ride around the
house, pretending that I was on the road, going to school with
my big sisters and big brother. I would go around and around,
stopping and starting, falling down and getting up, entranced
by the sound of the rubber tires on the gravel and the rattle
and click-click of the bicycle chain, taking the bends and turns
faster and faster. I would locate myself by the way the sound
of the tires on the gravel bounced off walls and objects. I had
refined my facial vision to a high degree. (Facial vision is an
ability that the blind develop to sense objects and terrain by
the feel of the air and by differences in sound.) I was able to
distinguish a lawn chair from a lawn table by the way the screech
of the bicycle tires sounded on the gravel. But an object had
to be fairly substantial and there had to be no distracting sounds,
like the washer-man's donkey braying, or Gian Chand rattling pots
and pans for me to sense and avoid it, especially since on a bicycle
I approached objects at great speed. I had to learn to react quickly.
Sometimes Daddyj░'s car would suddenly loom ahead, parked to one
side of the veranda rather than in front of it-its usual spot.
I had to decide quickly where I was in relation to it and how
far I had to veer to get around it. If I hesitated for a moment,
I banged into it, possibly denting the bicycle and the car and
skinning my knees. Moreover, even if I sensed an object, that
was no guarantee that I wouldn't bang into it I might be going
fast or not paying attention, or I might simply be unable to stop
quickly enough. Every day, I would ram the bicycle into the walls
or up the veranda steps and into the columns. Every day, I would
bang into flowerpots, stray watering cans, lawn chairs, tables
whatever happened to be in place or out of place. Every day, I
would bang up my bicycle. Every day, I would scrape and bruise
my knees and shins, hands and elbows. But, every time, I would
pick myself up, ignore my bruises and scratches, fix my bicycle
as best I could, and be off again.
There was no hiding my injuries, and everyone especially Mamaji
regularly scolded me. I recall that several times she forbade
me ever to go near the bicycle. But the moment people's backs
were turned I was on my bicycle again. I remember repeating to
myself, 'I. . . . will. . . . I won't be stopped. I'll show them.
. . . I will go to school.' When I became exhausted, I would drop
the bicycle on the ground wherever I happened to be, and go and
lie down on the first cot I came to. It would be a while before
my breathing became normal and my heart stopped racing. Then I
would get up with renewed energy to do more rounds.
Eventually, my facial vision became so acute and my reaction
so quick that I could circle the house dozens of times without
hitting anything. I would take slightly different routes, intentionally
circle a flowerpot or a watering can, pass a buffalo or the gardener
with hardly any room to spare. I grew in self-confidence, and
before long I was riding any available bicycle. I would get Usha,
my little sister, up onto the bar and pedal fast, sometimes taking
my hands off the handlebars. She would scream with fear and delight.
One day when I was 14, Daddyji's peon Sat Dev told me about roller
skates that they required no rink of any kind, and that if one
was good at balancing, as I was, one could learn to skate quickly
on any wooden floor. I took all my pocket money, went with Sat
Dev to the Mall Road, and bought myself a pair of roller skates.
Like ice skates, the roller skates had tiny lips for attaching
them to the soles of the shoes. Like ice skates, they had little
nuts under the lips for adjusting the lips to fit the shoes snugly.
I fitted the skates onto my shoes with a little skate key that
came with them, and started practicing standing on them on the
wooden floor of our front veranda pretending that they were ice
skates and that the veranda was my private ice-skating rink. Holding
the railing, I went up and down the veranda, half walking, half
sliding. Now I would roll on one foot and bump along with the
other, now roll on both feet. Sometimes the skates would shoot
out from under me, and I would land on my back, but before the
wheels had stopped whirring I would be back on the skates. In
time, I discovered that by half sitting in a crouch with my weight
forward I could skate without holding on to the railing. After
that, it was only a matter of days before I was standing upright
and skating unaided.
Whenever other people were in the cottage the lower-flat tenants
or Mamaji they would complain about my skating. "Grr-rrr-rrr all
day long," Mamaji scolded. "My head hurts. I don't know what tortures
you will think up next." I learned almost to enjoy the deafening
noise of the skates, and sometimes even wished I could make more
noise, so that I could take revenge for not being able to go ice-skating.
The veranda was no more than fifteen feet long and four or five
feet wide. Sometimes I would get so dizzy from skating back and
forth, back and forth, turning and turning, that I would have
to lie down to stop my head from skating, as it were.
One morning, I took my roller skates and went up the slope to
the road. It was after everyone had gone to school or to college,
to the office or to the bazaar, and the road felt empty. I sat
down at the roadside and put on my skates and made them fast with
the skate key. And I was skating on the road. The road was open
and unconfined. The air was bracing. I felt giddy. I'll skate
down to the next house, I thought. I was gaining speed. I heard
a rickshaw coming. I tried to slow down. But I realized in a panic
that skating on tarmac was not at all like skating on a wooden
floor: the skates seemed to be racing ahead on their own momentum.
I swerved to avoid the rickshaw. I missed it but smashed into
I returned to the cottage with my lips swollen and blood trickling
down my face, with my roller skates and half of a broken upper
front tooth in my hands, barely able to enunciate words to explain
what had happened. Even when the swelling in my lips went down,
I had trouble preventing words with the sounds in them from coming
out in a hiss. I had to retrain myself to pronounce such words
by placing my tongue a little higher, above the broken tooth.
One morning, after I had been accepted by the Arkansas School
for the Blind, Daddyji came home from the office and said, "I've
succeeded in getting an appointment for you to see Prime Minister
Nehru tomorrow. It seems you're the first Indian blind boy ever
to go to America for education, and you'll be going off with his
blessings." The most venerated man in India, the leader of three
hundred and fifty million people, and he was going to see me.
"What will we talk about?" I asked.
"Well, you'll bring your typewriter and the Arkansas Braille
News and give a demonstration. Om will come along and bring his
camera and take a couple of snaps of us."
The next day, I got into my newly sewn long trousers and proper
jacket, and Daddyji, Brother Om, and I drove to the Prime Minister's
We were a few minutes early, and we drove around the streets,
which seemed unusually quiet. The air, heavy with August heat
and Delhi dust, blew in through the open windows, messing up my
hair and my new clothes and covering the seat with grit.
We pulled up in front of the Prime Minister's house exactly at
the appointed time, twelve, and were asked to wait in a room just
beyond the front veranda.
I opened and set up my typewriter, inserted a page, and double-checked
the home row. "I hope Pandit Nehru won't object to my taking a
picture," Brother Om said, fidgeting with the camera.
"Why should he?" Daddyji said. "He's probably one of the most
photographed men in the world."
There were gentle but deliberate footsteps, and we all stood
up. "This is my son Ved, about whom I spoke to you, Panditji,"
Daddyji said, putting his arm around my waist. "And this is my
eldest son, Om."
We did our Namaste's [greetings] and sat down, I with Pandit
Nehru on a sofa, and Daddyji and Brother Om across from us.
I wanted to tell Pandit Nehru that I had kept my faith in him
all through the cruel days of Partition, that I loved him like
Daddyji, that I was prepared even to forgo ever going to America
if I could serve him in any way. But my tongue felt like a wedge
of ice in my mouth.
"Panditji, he can type. You can dictate to him," Daddyji said.
"Oh!" he exclaimed.
I waited, my fingers poised over the keys, to do his bidding.
Prime Minister Nehru seemed to be lost in thought, but then he
dictated this slowly, as if he were thinking it out as he went
along: "I shall be an unofficial ambassador of my country. Wherever
I go, I will behave in a manner that will bring honor to my homeland."
I took out the page and handed it to him. The cheep-cheep of
a sparrow on the veranda sounded very loud in the silence.
"Panditji, would you autograph it?" Daddyji said.
"Oh!" he exclaimed. "Oh! If you like."
Daddyji gave Pandit Nehru his fountain pen, and he signed it.
Daddyji asked me to read aloud a few sentences from the Arkansas
"That's not necessary," the Prime Minister said. There was a
little rustling at my side, as if he were gesturing. "What happened?"
"Meningitis," Daddyji said. "He was very small."
"Oh!" he said, again with surprise in his voice. He added, to
me, "I was almost your age when I went to England. But that was
a very long time ago."
I had often heard him speak on the radio, but I was not prepared
for how youthful he sounded. He could be a student, I thought-an
older student, but still a student. I felt very close to him.
Pandit Nehru stood up.
"My eldest son would like to take your picture with Ved, Panditji,"
Daddyji said. "The light on the veranda is good."
We walked out onto the veranda, and Brother Om took two pictures▄one
of Pandit Nehru and me, the other of Pandit Nehru, Daddyji, and
As I was taking leave of him, Pandit Nehru abruptly said, "I
think your father told me you were going to Arkansas. Why Arkansas?"
I felt blood rushing to my cheeks. I didn't want him to know
about all the rejection letters I had received. (I destroyed most
of them one day when I was seventeen, because I thought of them
as constituting a record of my shame.)
"It is Arkansas, isn't it?" he asked.
"Yes," I said, my voice barely audible to me. "That's the only
place that would have me."
– Adapted from The
Ledge Between the Streams, W. W. Norton & Co., 1984
THE SOCIAL-ADJUSTMENT program at the Arkansas School for the
Blind got more attention than our studies. The entire high school
met in classes, sometimes twice, sometimes four times a week,
to learn graces for social life and skills necessary for adjusting
to and functioning in the sighted world, which in our school was
represented only by sighted teachers.
"To be blind is an uphill struggle," Mr. Chiles observed, conducting
one of the first social-adjustment classes. He was almost totally
blind himself. "You've got to sell yourself to every sighted person.
You've got to show him that you can do things that he thinks you
can't possibly do." It was true, I thought. If one were a donkey
in a world of horses, one would have to justify one's existence
and worth to the horses. One would somehow have to prove to them
that one could carry as much weight as they could and that, if
one couldn't move as fast as they could, one was willing to work
harder and put in longer hours. "Anything you do wrong in the
sighted world," Mr. Chiles was saying, "like dressing untidily
or putting your elbows on the table while eating, sighted people
will chalk up to your blindness, even if most of them commit those
sins themselves. They will call you poor wretches, feel sorry
for you, and, to my way of thinking, commit the worst sin of all;
excuse it on the ground that you're blind."
Teachers marshalled us in groups and marched us into classes
where we were given good common-sense lessons that we had to introduce
young to old, that it was good to avoid wearing brown and blue
together, even if some of us did not know what brown or blue signified,
and that if we could not eat half an orange with a spoon it was
better not to eat oranges at all. At the same time, we were told
that, no matter how independent we became, whether we needed help
or not, we must always accept it from the sighted graciously,
since it flowed from a generous impulse.
I remember going out on crowded buses. To my chagrin, ladies
would get up and offer me—indeed, force me—into their
seats, and if I resisted I ran the risk of having everyone in
the bus share in the scene; two or three people would try to direct
me to my seat when I could easily have found it alone. The first
summer I was in America, I got a job at an ice-cream plant. I
had to travel at seven-thirty and five, the morning and evening
rush hours, in crowded buses. It was hard to move in the aisle
without bumping into people and making my blindness obvious.
In coffee shops where I went for lunches, waitresses would shout
out the menu, sometimes attracting the attention of the whole
place. If I was with someone, they would turn to that person and
ask, 'What does he want?', as if I couldn't order for myself,
as if I were deaf and dumb as well as blind. Sometimes strangers,
probably moved by pity, would pay my bills.
At intersections that I could easily have managed myself, people
would often slip a hand under my arm and practically lift me across
the street. If I did escape catching the attention of these vigilant
Boy Scouts and was threading my way through traffic, carefully
calculating my distance from the oncoming cars, someone would
shout from the sidewalk, "Watch out!", as if I were
about to be run over, paralyzing me and making me lose my bearings.
From all sides, there would be the jamming of brakes and honking
of horns, and cars would halt so close to me that I could reach
out and touch them.
Once, I believe it was the first week of my job, I had just got
off the bus and, taking the back way, was walking rapidly toward
the ice-cream plant. All of a sudden I felt the ground under my
feet give way. I was falling. Oather, a classmate, had remarked,
"There is nothing more terrifying for a blind man than losing
his footing." The only glimpse I've ever had of eternity was when
I fell into an open manhole. I landed at the slushy bottom of
a manhole after what seemed an eternity. I was numb with pain
and shock, but I heard through the haze the screaming and clicking
of tongues of people who had gathered above. As I struggled to
my feet, I thought I heard an old woman moan, and someone cried
out, "Why do they allow blind people out on the street alone?"
Someone else asked, "Why doesn't he carry a cane?" All I could
feel was embarrassment. The first manhole I fell into was by no
means the last, but I learned to fall so that I seldom hurt myself,
to climb out quickly, to put on a forced smile for the benefit
of onlookers, and to be on my way before anyone could start fussing
over me. When walking, when getting on and off buses, when crossing
streets, I tried to give the impression that I knew what I was
doing, and this helped to keep meddlesome strangers away. In time,
I even developed a knack of dealing with strangers who did meddle.
If someone tried to propel me across a street, I contained my
anger and gently told him that it was easier for me to walk alongside
than for him to push me along. If a lady on a bus offered me her
seat, I made some gallant remark about "the fair sex" and quietly
but firmly declined it. At a coffee shop or a soda fountain, I
spoke to waitresses in a very low voice before they spoke to me,
and that often had the effect of making them speak to me softly.
I noticed that with my greater proficiency in mobility and in
handling the world outside the school gates people started treating
me as if I were partially sighted. I liked that, because fooling
them, I found, was the simplest way of getting them to treat me
the way I wanted them to.
– Adapted from Face
to Face, Atlantic-Little, Brown, 1957
Ved Mehta takes
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on this Web site that is not directly written by him.