Frontlist | Ved Mehta, celebrated writer for The New Yorker, dies at 86
He was best known for his 12-volume memoir, which focused on the troubled modern history of his native India and his early struggles with blindness.
Ved Mehta, a longtime writer for The New Yorker whose best-known work, spanning a dozen volumes, explored the vast, turbulent history of modern India through the intimate lens of his own autobiography, died on Saturday at his home in Manhattan. He was 86.
The cause was complications of Parkinson’s disease, his wife, Linn Cary Mehta, said.
Associated with the magazine for more than three decades — much of his magnum opus began as articles in its pages — Mr. Mehta was widely considered the 20th-century writer most responsible for introducing American readers to India.
Besides his multivolume memoir, published in book form between 1972 and 2004, his more than two dozen books included volumes of reportage on India, among them “Walking the Indian Streets” (1960), “Portrait of India” (1970) and “Mahatma Gandhi and His Apostles” (1977), as well as explorations of philosophy, theology and linguistics.
“Ved Mehta has established himself as one of the magazine’s most imposing figures,” The New Yorker’s storied editor William Shawn, who hired him as a staff writer in 1961, told The New York Times in 1982. “He writes about serious matters without solemnity, about scholarly matters without pedantry, about abstruse matters without obscurity.”
The recipient of a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” in 1982, Mr. Mehta was long praised by critics for his forthright, luminous prose — with its “informal elegance, diamond clarity and hypnotic power,” as The Sunday Herald of Glasgow put it in a 2005 profile.
His literary style derived partly from his singular way of working: Blind from the age of 3, Mr. Mehta composed all of his work orally, dictating long swaths to an assistant, who read them back again and again for him to polish until the work shone like a mirror. He could rework a single article more than a hundred times, he often said.
One of the most striking hallmarks of Mr. Mehta’s prose was its profusion of visual description: of the rich and varied landscapes he encountered, of the people he interviewed, of the cities he visited. (In the line of duty, he traversed India, Britain and the United States, including the teeming streets of New York, nearly always alone, with neither dog nor cane.)
“At the close of winter, Basant-Panchami — a festival honoring the god of work — arrives, and everyone celebrates it by wearing yellow clothes, flying yellow kites and eating yellow sweetmeats,” he wrote in “Daddyji” (1972), the first volume of his memoir. “The fields become bright, first with the yellow of mustard flowers outlined by the feathery green of sugarcane, and later with maturing stands of wheat, barley and tobacco.”