Complex Relationships


All For Love
ALL FOR LOVE by Ved Mehta. Thunder’s Mouth Press, Nations Books. September 2001.

Ved Mehta is among the most distinguished Indian writers living today. A recipient of both MacArthur and Guggenheim Fellowships, he held the Rosencrantz chair in writing at Yale University. Moreover, he has been a staff writer at The New Yorker for 33 years. Mehta bases much of his body of work on his remarkable experience. Born in Lahore before India’s independence, he suffered a severe case of meningitis at the age of 4. He recovered, but the illness left him blind. For years, his father educated him at home. Then, at the age of 15, Mehta applied and was admitted to the Arkansas State School for the Blind in Little Rock. He attended Pomona College, then obtained another B.A. at Oxford and an M.A. from Harvard.

All for Love chronicles the author’s complicated romantic relationships with women during the 1960s. His first love is Gigi, a successful dancer with the Metropolitan Opera Ballet, who is surprisingly down-to-earth and not particularly interested in the glamor of her career. One day Gigi informs him that she has agreed to marry her old boyfriend. The only explanation she offers is, “when it comes down to it, I can’t marry anyone who isn’t Jewish.”

While still recovering from Gigi’s abandonment, Mehta runs into an old schoolmate—the lovely, waiflike Vanessa. When the two commence a relationship, it’s akin to the high school nobody landing a date with the prom queen at the five-year reunion. But, she, too, has another man waiting in the wings, which she fails to mention.

In 1965 Mehta travels to India to do a series of articles for The New Yorker and falls in love with Lola Khanna, who he hires as his assistant. Lola, half-Indian and half-German, is a beguiling image of east meets west. She, like her predecessors, is easily distracted.

Perhaps his most destructive relationship involves the elusive poet, Kilty. Again, Mehta pursues a mercurial, neurotic woman who may be incapable of loving anyone, including herself. Her rejection is the final blow to Mehta’s fragile, young ego. He seeks out a psychoanalyst for help.

Mehta is meticulous with his portrayal of the relationships. His approach is to over-communicate with the reader, who is privy to what seems like every letter, every endearment, every moment of self-pity and angst. Mehta is to be commended for his unflinching honesty. Indeed, many readers may marvel at author’s willingness to reveal such painful and embarrassing moments of his life. But this does not always make for entertaining reading.

It is frustrating to watch Mehta fall victim to the same pitfalls again and again. He repeatedly finds himself with beautiful but flighty women, whose attentions are divided between him and another lover.

Mehta’s writing style is clearly developed. His prose is lean and precise with an almost journalistic vigor to it. All For LoveAll For Love is never weighed down by complex metaphors or dramatic descriptions. Instead, Mehta uses the events to keep the story moving and the reader’s attention engaged. The result is a very clean style that fully creates the ambiance of New York in the 1960s but never indulges in superfluous atmosphere.

The book, however, requires a certain leap of faith, as it asks the reader to accept Mehta’s observations on things he “sees” even though he is blind. For example, he describes all his women as beautiful. This is not the beautiful as described by a besotted lover who finds his beloved to be the ideal woman. Mehta emphasizes that these women would be judged as beautiful by anyone, although why that would be important to him is unclear.

Initially, one is willing to make this leap. It becomes more difficult however, when Mehta glosses over traveling alone to different countries, hailing cabs, reading love letters and editing his own work. It is not that it would be impossible for a blind person to conduct these activities. Rather, it’s the omission of any discussion of difficulty, as though they pose no challenge whatsoever. Bear in mind, Mehta refuses to use a cane. When asked, he replies, “I’d rather be run over than carry one.”

It’s only in the last quarter of the book, when Mehta undergoes psychoanalysis that this subject is even broached. Only then does the reader understand that this is a deliberate device to show how Mehta himself denied his disability. In fact, the very focus of the book is to reveal how Mehta unknowingly sabotaged his relationships by not coming to terms with his blindness and how it affects his life. He writes “I had to live as though I could see, and yet that very way of living was a hurdle to acceptance by others, especially by a woman I loved, for, as long as I continued to hide from myself how could I expect her … to truly know and love me?”

All For Love All for Love is the ninth book in his autobiographical series “Continents of Exile.” Other books in the series include Remembering Mr. Shawn’s New Yorker, Up at Oxford, The Stolen Light, Sound Shadows of the New World, The Ledge Between Streams, Vedi, Mamaji, and Daddyji.—V.S. Kane

MASTERFUL STORYTELLING
NEELA: Victory Song By Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. Pleasant Company Publications. October 2002. americangirl.com

Bengal, 1939—A 15-year-old girl named Usha sits under her wedding canopy, savoring the last few moments that she will spend at her childhood home. A 13-year-old boy named Samar blackens his face with ash, preparing for a public confrontation with the British police. A 70-year-old man named Mohandas Gandhi begins his “fast unto death,” protesting the British control over India. In her novel Neela: Victory Song , Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni masterfully intertwines a fictional tale of traditional India with the history of the Freedom Movement and a nation’s fight for independence.

The novel opens with Neela, a 12-year-old girl, preparing for the wedding of her older sister, Usha. The ceremony carries on flawlessly when, suddenly, a group of freedom fighters interrupts the proceedings to request donations for the cause of an independent India. Clearly intrigued by this notion of liberty, Neela’s father is one of the first to offer money to the bandits. The following morning, he pulls Neela aside to tell her that he is going to Calcutta to walk in a peaceful freedom march and she is to take care of her mother while he is away. Though worried and frightened inside, Neela forces a composed look on her face and wishes her father well. However, after three weeks and no word from him, Neela decides she must go to Calcutta to look for her missing father.

The maturity and composure with which Neela faces perplexing situations belies her tender young age. It is difficult to believe that Neela is only 12 years old. I look back on myself at that age: a gawky seventh grader, still completely dependent on my parents, and totally in awe of my brother, who was leaving home for college all the way across the country. But in the novel, Neela takes on the responsibility of caring for her family, and also initiates a search for her father in a city far from her home. However, after discussing this with my mother, I now understand that in the time that the novel is set, girls of that age were often married and managing households of their own. Life’s responsibilities compelled them to mature at an early age.

Through just the basic plot, it is easily seen what a truly wonderful job Divakaruni has done combining fiction and history. Packed with riveting adventure, emotion, and excitement, Neela: Victory Song is a great read for pre-teens who are looking for entertainment, but who will experience the meaningful story of the birth of a nation as well.

— Nisha Sahay




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