In Search of Sight
Meningitis robbed VED MEHTA of his sight at the age of three. His father was a Western-trained doctor marked for high place in the Indian Civil Service: but though Ved learned English with his brothers and sisters at home, the educational system of India makes no provision for higher education for the blind. The boy studied Braille, and at the age of fourteen he began typing his letters of appeal to American institutions. After more than thirty rejections he was finally admitted to the Arkansas School for the Blind, and here he began his alteration in a new world. His experiences in India and in America are set forth in his book. Face to Face, to be published this month by Atlantic Little, Blown, from which this is the second of two excerpts.
by VED MEHTA
THE air hostess asked us to fasten our belts. From the bumpy jerks, popping cars, and a kind of falling motion, as when I stepped off a high curb unexpectedly, I knew that in a few minutes we would land at the Los Angeles airport, and I would see my father at last.
I was eager to know what had happened to India in the three years I had been away. When I left, free India was only two years old. By now probably she had learned to walk well and, I thought, could not only ask for bread, but knew how and where to get it. I had lived through the birth pains of a nation and shared in the glory of the independence and the shame of the partition, only to spend three years in Arkansas, bottled up in a preserve jar. By coming to America I had exchanged a position at the nerve center of my country for an isolated valley of the blind, without even newspapers to read. In many residential schools for the blind they didn’t have readers, and there were few, if any, Braille or talking books on India.
We were on the ground now, and my father was there, but it was not until we reached the privacy of his small and crowded apartment and the friend who had brought us home left that I felt at one with him. In the flow of the familiar musical Panjabi, all the nuances of awkwardness and estrangement vanished.
Mv father placed his hands on my shoulders and quietly looked at me for what seemed a long while. “You’ve grown, son, in the last three years,”he said, running his hands up and down my more developed arms. “Let’s see, you were ninety pounds when you left home.
“I have put on twenty-five more,”I said.
“You look much fuller, he said warmly, “and certainly an inch taller. I wish your mother were here to see the change.”
But what surprised him more than my physical growth was something else. “It is the confident way you walked down that ramp and followed those two ladies ahead of you to the terminal.”He added thoughtfully, “It is also the way you hold your head, so high.”
But soon, in the press of my questions about the family, all else for a moment was pushed aside.
While I listened to my father talk about home, I paced up and down the apartment, and within a few minutes I had surveyed my narrow surroundings. Father had disassembled the couch and had made two beds on the floor, one on the mattress and one on the springs. Books and papers were piled around, and there was hardly any room to move about. I thought of the large three-story house in India with its abundance of rooms, and I felt a pang of pain for my father. But memories of the old splendor were soon deposited deep in the well of the subconscious as my father read to me, day after day, one old newspaper after another and passages from books which told about the surge of political and economic activity at home. I felt once more, as I had in the days of partition, the stimulation of the present.
The present which concerned Columbia, however, was quite another matter. My father had hoped not only for my admission to Columbia, but for a scholarship, and so it was with a discouraged heart that I told him about my failure to be able to go there. I had no illusions about the seriousness of the situation, and however happy I might be at how well I had done at the Arkansas School, I had to entertain the prospect of now going home.
Counting transportation, five thousand dollars had been spent already, twenty-five thousand rupees, enough probably for the full education of at least two or three people in India, and more than my father’s annual salary, even though he was one of the highest-paid officials in the Indian government. The question was whether, after such an expense, I was any better prepared to live an independent file in India than I had been before leaving home. The answer, I knew, was an unqualified no.
My father reminded me that the training of Arkansas would count for nothing in India. Furthermore, the cherished freedom of movement which I had acquored would also have to be surrendered, because in India there were no red and green lights, no regulated traffic laws comparable lo those in America, and the erratic tonga men, bicyclers, and drivers of oxcarts could not bo expected to look after the interests of a pedestrian, especially a blind one. Neither was there a comparable organization of streets or blocks. I could try, of course, to buck all this, if I were stubborn enough, but it would be tough.
I could not get a job in the States, because I was on a student’s visa. To continue to live here, I had therefore to be a student, but when we asked someone at the Universify of California to estimate the cost of a school year, he gave the flat figure of three thousand dollars. There would be the expenses for board and room, for tuition, and then I had to allow about one thousand dollars to pay readers, to have the class assignments read to me. The B.A. degree, therefore, seemed not only four years but twelve thousand dollars away. And my father told me that when he got his pension, it would be one hundred dollars, or five hundred rupees, a month, which was enough for three or four people to live on in India, leaving nothing to spare.
“Five hundred rupees in India are like five hundred dollars, but when exchanged for American dollars, it is like forfeiting four fifths of their value,” he told me.
As for obtaining any assistance from the Indian government or an Indian foundation, there was not even an iota, ol a chance, because the Indian government had much more pressing problems than to look alter the interests of any special group like the blind. My Arkansas diploma would not be of much weight in the scales of any foundation.
But for all this, my father said he would not think of my going home. He would borrow money.
“But how will you pay it back?” I asked,
“I will open a practice in India.”
“But that will take lots of money,” I said.
“I will get a job here in the States, then,” he said. But I knew that was impossible, because it took Asians ten years, sometimes, to get into the States to become citizens. And then, too, they had to bring some money with them to prove that they would not be public charges.
“Don’t you worry,” he told me. “I’ll manage it somehow. I have some savings from the brief job I had with the World Health Organization after my retirement. They’re all yours.”
“Yes,”I said, and thought of all the education of brother Ashok which was ahead, and of Usha, who hadn t even finished high school, and of sister Nimi, who had to be married and whose dowry had yet to be bought, and of brother Om, who still had two years to go before finishing engineering school. I could have wept for my father then.
DURING the day my father and I went from foundation office lo foundation office, from one philanthropic person to the next. There was no scarcity of these philanthropists. Every day we would get notes and telephone calls from our well-meaning friends, who would point out one person after another to be approached. Wo saw them and they were all generous people, but they either did not believe that a blind person could be educated, or had undertaken some project more worthy than my education. Established organizations like the International Rotary either were not interested in foreign students already in the States, or did not subsidize undergraduate education.
But along with the fatigue and disappointment, there were always humorous incidents, like a millionaire’s quietly slipping a dollar into my pocket, with a note explaining it was for taxi money, or the old lady who kept us two hours, explaining her genealogical connection with a Hindu pandit who lived in the fifteenth century.
One day, when the rank poison of failure after failure to get money had settled in my stomach, the scent of strong wine came from a wealthy family. They seemed not only to be interested in your promise,” my father told me, “but I think are genuinely impressed by your independence and the way you have overcome your blindness.” Of course, their foundation had given scholarships only for graduate study, but my father fell they were ready to make an exception.
After that, I could never be in the presence of these patrons without being self-conscious, and I remember with great mortification the time when, while my grant still hung fire, at one of their dinners they served me squab. The clean tablecloth, starched white napkins, full dishes of the most expensive wild rice, and the eyes of their most intimate friends, all surrounded me. All of them seemed to speak out: “If you can’t eat your squab with a knife and fork, you’ll never get to college. You’ll never get any scholarship — any grant.”
As I sat next to my hosts, slowly, deliberately drinking a glass ol water before touching my silverware, the tiny bones covered with skinlike meat seemed to be the only things between college and me. Self-sufficient I was, but not self-sufficient enough to manage the squab. I picked up mv folk, Started nibbling gradually at the wild rice and the watermelon rind, but carefully avoided the side of the plate with the squab. One of the guests on my right offered to help me. I yielded. For ten minutes she worked on the squab, while I sat idle, hot with shame. It seemed my very presence created a scene. When the plate was finally returned to me, there was nothing more to the squab than a few morsels of skinny meal, and I gulped them down as though I were eating a vegetable I did not like, rather than a very rare delicacy which should be held in the mouth to taste all its rich flavor.
Dinner done, I was again an exhibition piece, because in the living room l had to tell the gucsis about my Arkansas experience. For all my speaking practice, my sentences were hesitant and mangled, and the talk was disconnected, because I could not put the squab out ol my mind.
“You are too sensitive about these things. Father said as we went home. “You overdramatize them.”
Perhaps I did, but I wondered how a surgeon would feel w ho had performed many operations successfully, but botched one in full view of the operating theater. If the gallery of watchers had no know ledge of his past successes, would he not be judged by that operation alone?
A few days later, however, a grant for two years, fifteen hundred dollars a year, was confirmed, and at last I could begin my college career. Although I was not a citizen of the United States, by special arrangement the state of California made available seven hundred and fifty dollars to pay nn readers, provided I went to school there. I had a choice between the universities of California and Stanford, and Pomona College. I chose the last because it was small, because somehow it offered more prospect of a real interlocking of minds between professors and students than did the two bigger universities.
WHEN my father left for India, I entered college full of trepidation. Upon my admission, the deans at both Stanford and Pomona had said exactly the same thing to my father: “Competition in our private school is keen, and if he comes out with a C a verago, you ought to bo thankful. Whether or not I could be grateful for that comment, the prospect of living on what had once been the frontier and somehow still breathed the informal, carefree atmosphere of old excited me, and I was happv to have a chance al both college and competition.
Although Claremont was situated among secluded surroundings close to the hills, and sometimes al night for a stretch of an hour one could walk down the middle of the street without meeting a car, still in some ways it was reminiscent of bittle Hock. To be sure, Claremont was populated with students of four associated colleges, yet the awkwardness, the very misunderstanding, I had experienced in Little Rock buses about what the blind could or could not do seemed, too, to grip my classmates, a few professors, and even a dean.
I had lor my English professor a man of consummate wisdom and skill in dealing with people. My second day in his class he asked me to stay for a moment after he had dismissed the other students.
“You shouldn’t he crossing C ollege Way without your cane, he said. You’ll get killed.
“Yes, sir,” I said shyly, and went away.
Three or four class periods later he talked to me again. “ You’re still not carrying the cane,” he said.
1 knew I would never carry a cane, but I didn’t know how to tell him that or how to explain it. “I will as soon as I get one, sir.” I guess within my soul I still hoped that people watching me cross the street would realize I could do it without a cane and would quit talking to me about it.
About a week later he stopped me again. “The dean called me,” he said, “and he s afraid you will get killed. I hate to keep on bringing up this subject, but your cane . . .”
In those two weeks since I had been at Pomona, I had crossed College Way at least four limes a day, but still the question of a cane seemed to persist.
“I will not carry it, sir, I said.
“If you are shy about it, he went on kindly, “just use it while you are crossing streets and then hide it under bushes before coming to class.
“I am not ashamed of being blind, I said, moved deeply by his sensitivity. “It s just that I don’t need the cane.”
Whether it was my facial expression or his own sensitivity, he never mentioned the subject again, but the dean once accosted me in the middle of the quadrangle.
“Why won’t you carry that cane?" he asked. “You’ll get killed.”
Trying to dismiss the subject with humor, I said. “Death only comes once, and I am not afraid of dying.”
“It might come once, but once is enough to kill me. How about you:” he asked wryly.
In cafeteria lines it was like meeting so many hundreds of deans. No sooner would I enter the room than, although I was quite capable of finding the end of the line myself, all the men standing would start directing me, and once at the counter, would gel the tray, silverware, and even the food. Sometimes, when they put my milk on their own tray, they would drink it for me also. And it I did manage to ignore or slip through these setutmixing ryes, find a tray, get my food, and at random sit down at a table, all of a sudden the conversation would cease, and after a while, when I was no longer an object of curiosity to be stared at — not for being an Indian, but for being blind — people would ignore my existence at the table altogether, and would carry on talk unaware of my very presence.
Girls in class, too, shied from talking to me, not because I had a communicable disease, but, as one of them told me later on, because I seemed to her then “detached from reality.” I never asked her whether it was my facial expression that seemed detached from reality or whether I was outside the pale of her reality.
As I learned on the first day of college, each and every assignment would have to be read aloud to me. There were no textbooks — indeed, not much nonfiction — in Braille or on talking books. I had never used readers before, but I knew that reading aloud, whether heavy or light books, Hegel or comic strips, all went at I he same speed. My fastest reader would not be able to read more than twenty fullsize pages an hour. These limitations I knew and accepted, and ihen started scouting around for readers among the more serious students, although for a freshman it was hard to know who they were.
I got some bad readers who would call off an appointment, without notice, prefer to talk most of the time rather than read, or waste a lot of time finding sources. Just before my first mid-term, when I needed help most of all, a few of them quit me. By the end of the first three weeks of college,
I was behind about four hundred pages, at least twenty hours of reading, and for the first month and a half the backlog of reading kept accumulating by geometric progression.
In class I found it difficult taking Braille notes, because the professors talked too fast, and besides, the clicking noise of the Braille stylus used to make me self-conscious. I could write Braille fast, very fast, but it still was three or four times slower than writing with pencil. Coming from the Arkansas School, where I had to write scarcely more than two pages of theme every two or three months, organizing and writing papers sometimes twice a month for a class was difficult. For all the accumulated handicaps, I could not afford to go to a professor and explain that I had no readers, or excuse my had work because of my poor background. I could not possibly create the impression that any part of my problem was related to my blindness. Above all, I wanted to be treated as normal.
In my room 1 could not go to sleep. I used to turn my phonograph on full blast and listen to the blurred music, wondering if I would get my grant for the next year or if I would have to go home. Sometimes in the middle of the night I would get out of bed, take the first bicycle standing without a lock, and ride up and down the empty familiar streets. I would pedal hard and would come home tired, and even then I could not always fall asleep.
As the months progressed, however, I lost less and less sleep over my work, because it started improving, and I got assurance that I would have enough money to see me I hrough college. I banished worry for inner quietude and relaxation, and I perfected my technique of getting readers. Professors would point out to me their best students, and I would approach them either at the dinner table or at the student union about reading our assignments together. J found that students working their way through college were more reliable. I also used as fill-ins some elderly readers that the dean, who had by now become a good and resourceful friend, referred me to. Even before the first semester was over, I had about a ten-hours-a-day reading schedule. After my rigorous reading schedule, I still would not be tired, and would come home to read on talking books whatever literature I could find. Gradually I started rutting my sleep from the nine hours I had had in Arkansas to about six, or occasionally even five.
My acquaintance with the belter students, students well nurtured and with solid training, pointed out my own deficiencies, but rather than fret about them as I had done earlier, I just accepted them and read as much as I could above and beyond the class assignments.
Classes, too, became easier, because instead of taking notes, I concentrated on what the professor said, although for tests I occasionally used my readers’ notes. For exams I learned to work accurately on a typewriter, or sometimes, when they were long, I dictated. Headers still would stop reading to me before exams, but if I had done my regular assignments throughout the semester, this did not seem a very great handicap. The most restful week of all was the week before final exams, when I had only two readers left out of nine.
I did not lose any sleep over my relations with other students, either. Idle earlier awkwardness and hesitation in the dining room and classrooms passed into wonder, and students used to walk up to me and ask, “ How do you know when you get to that step?” or “I saw you walk around that parked ear as though you could see it.” To my amazement, I learned the most common misconception among my friends was that I counted steps, that I had had the whole town of Claremont measured by steps when I first arrived there, and therefore I knew where every sharp curve and gutter was. No matter how much I explained about facial vision, it seemed I could never explain enough for anyone to understand fully.
LEGEND has it that there are certain birds which, if kept in a cage too long, lose their faculty to fly. In the same way, it is said of blind people that if they become too entrenelied in one environment, they become lethargic, too careful. Instead of becoming more skilled, they lose their powers of travel. In short, these blind people are “shelved” or “get glued to a rocking chair.”
Having no love for either cupboards or rockers, during vacations I have traveled a good deal. I have not always traveled in style—it’s impossible when you want to cover the distance from San Francisco to New York, from San Diego to Seattle, and from Miami to Cambridge. I have hitchhiked in 1028-model jalopies, ridden in fuming buses and rattling milk trains. Sometimes I have also had rides in Cadillacs with switches for rolling down the windows, smuggled myself into roomettes on Starlights, and flown in airplanes which had a bar and, because the plane was half empty, a window seat for every passenger. All in all I have crossed the I nited States fourteen times, and visited in or traveled through thirty-seven of the forty-eight states.
Of course, when you are blind, you miss the vie w of a snow-clad peak, the impression of skyscrapers lined up shoulder to shoulder, a vast stretch of range, with cows milling about, or the way a city looks from a plane when draped in a thin veil of clouds. You become, however, more conscious of smells, the gamut of accents, or the unusual names streets have in some cities. Hut what you remember most of all, the thing which imprints itself permanently on your mind, are the people you encounter, even the ones you meet only for a moment on a street corner, or the kind driver whose motor you can hear coining faster and faster while you suspenscfully wait to see whelher he will pass you by like the one before him or slop. You remember vividly the moment when a car slows down, and a voice says, “Hey, feller — want a ride?" or Where are you going?" or “Can I give you a lift? And when you come to the end of the journey, often the driver, who is now a friend, insists on getting out and helping you flag down the next relay.
Sometimes my hitchhiking has turned into a circus. I remember, for instance, a kind elderly lady w ho w as genuinely distressed with my parents not taking better care of me and letting me out on the streets like a “vagabond.”In a wayside place in Texas, under the pretense of taking me to a gas station to catch the next ride, she turned me over to a police deputy with a blistering harangue that I was probably a runaway state ward, and if the Democrats had been in office I would have received belter care. I was irritated until, after she drove off, the deputy told me that she had left twenty dollars with him for a train ticket to take me back to Washington. We had a lively discussion about what to do with the money, and finally decided to send it to the Democratic campaign fund. The deputy then took me to a gas station, where I caught my next ride.
Somewhere I also have tucked aw ay the card of a cutlery salesman who thought my blindness would be a “terrific asset” in salesmanship. “So if you ever get in a jam, he said in that thick Southern accent, “come to me.” I kept the card as a souvenir. After all, he did take me two hundred miles. All these associations, sometimes embarrassing, sometimes touching, make the travelogue of those of us who are blind.
I WAS graduated in June with the class of 1956 and soon thereafter took to the broad highway to the East Coast on the first leg of my journey to England. I felt sad, because before the summer season was up, the huge American continent would be behind me. I had come to love America almost as deeply as home, and I owed more to her than I did to India, because she had given me education, a complete sense of self-reliance, and a glimpse into what a full life could be. All these things my own country had not been able to do, because I was blind.
I was going to Oxford because my teachers had encouraged me to look across the Atlantic to that Pantheon of knowledge. When these professors and the president of Pomona, Wilson Lyon, one of the very best Americans I have met, approached the Indian authorities and the only English source, the It bodes Trust, for financial help, both of them balked on what they called “technical grounds,” the former because I had an American training, the latter because of my hybrid background, Indian citizenship and American education, and both of them because I was blind. Once again it was an American source, a source similar to those that had seen me through four years of college, which, circumventing technical grounds, decided to support me at Balliol College.
As I said good-bys to my friends in California, Texas, Tennessee, and Maryland, they all pleaded for mv return to America. These friends, with generous “sentiment, suggested that I settle in America, instead of returning home by way of England. They argued that here I could find a fuller and richer life, and if settled in a university community,
I could forget altogether the prejudices about blindness and even many of the day-to-day irksome reminders which no handicapped man is allowed to escape.
Living in America is an alluring prospect for me in so many practical ways: the freedom of movement and the accessibility of readers, which will be a great problem for me in India. And I shall also miss the intellectual stimulation of discussing the great tradition of English and American philosophy and letters with others.
Hut how could I indulge myself to this extent when I have such vivid memories of boys spending their youthful years in an asylum, and men and women committed to the drudgery of begging because this is the only good use they can make of their blindness? How could I justify giving up a larger and more rewarding cause on such selfish grounds?
With the Pacific shoreline; receding and the Atlantic roast looming ahead, I thought about England and my derision to spend two years at Oxford before making my way to the Indian Ocean. I had plenty of misgivings during the time I was making this decision. However much I argued that the two years at Oxford would further fortify my education, allow me leisure to read and reflect at my own pare, and give me more time to mature, I could not help asking myself whether all this was not rationalization, whether I was dreading returning to India because I had become too Americanized, whether this postponement of two years might not ultimately result in my returning to America to live.
Yet against all of these practical arguments I can place my strong love for and devotion to India. My return there constitutes both a challenge and a responsibility. It seems to me that I have acquired a human debt to my professors, to the people who have educated me in American ways, and this debt can at least be partially repaid if I return home to help solidify the bonds of friendship between these nations.
Perhaps going to England is rationalization, but, looked at in another way, it seems a logical route for heading home. I really want to come to know these Englishmen to whom sister Nimi and I had delegated the responsibility for so much evil. I have a different perspective on them now from the one I had in India. At home I had seen them as agents of division and bloodshed. In America I studied their historic institutions and came to love their inspiring literature. I have a compelling desire to see them at home, even if it means owing my loyalty, not to two countries, but to three, and making my “maladjustment” complete.
My desire to get to know Englishmen, to work for peace at home, to try somehow to alleviate the cultural tragedies to which millions have been sacrificed, in the twists and turns of twentieth-century reality, does not divert me from the real test of ultimately returning home. The question is, what shall I do once I do get home, to translate my ideals into working tools? In India I will not only have to surrender my freedom of movement, but may have to join the thousands of students with liberal-arts degrees who sit day after day in a park because there is no job to be had. “A country,” one of my friends reminded me, “locked in a struggle for industrial revolution has use only for professional people, preferably with technical skills.” The ambassador from India, who had been visiting in Los Angeles some months before my departure, pointed out to me that I would not be allowed to take either the civil or diplomatic service examinations, because the Indian government felt that blind persons could not hold jobs with the same degree of competency as the sighted.
“Do you think there is any chance for a change in its attitude’” I asked him.
“I think not,” he said.
As for entering college teaching or a journalistic career, similar handicaps exist in India, because no blind person has been able to pull himself up from the mesh of notoriously bad educational facilities for the blind and hold a topflight job. Those blind individuals who have succeeded have either taken up a law practice or gone into education for the blind. But then another good-natured Indian told me, “Lawyers are starving in India, and unless you tire absolutely sure you want to be nothing else in your life except a lawyer, I would not advise your going into it.”
As for educational work for the blind at home, I cannot help feeling that working through bureaucracy is not the only way to help the wretched lot of the two million so handicapped. What is needed is a living example that, if given the proper opportunities, the blind can succeed. Such an example, from the outside, can do much more in creating opportunities than bucking the red tape.
All these handicaps are negligible when placed against the tremendous obstacle of correcting the attitude which looks upon blindness as a punishment indicted by the gods for a sin committed in the previous incarnation. In a country where many people hold that blindness is a curse, all the accomplishments, all the signs of a successful adjustment to a seeing society, would count for little. Having enjoyed a more understanding, less superstitious, and certainly more educated attitude here in America, I ask myself, can I conceivably return to such a deadening climate? Can I rely ultimately on my love and devotion for India to sustain me there until a signal change can be brought about, which, heaven knows, might not come in my lifetime?
As I prepared to leave for England, I was surrounded by cartons full of books and records, two vices to which I gave free play during my seven years in this country.
As I stacked these books and records in boxes with a musty smell, they seemed like so many fond treasures given to me by America. I should feel sadder and lonelier without these gifts, and without a hope that I shall hear and feel American life again, for now America is as much my home as any place is in this foot-loose world.