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On Sankranti, the role of kites in Ved Mehta’s life

The acclaimed writer, who passed away on January 9, lost his sight at age 3. But he’d accompany his elder siblings when they flew kites, and started to learn how to get around based on his other senses.

January 13, 2021 / 08:04 AM IST

Makar Sankranti will be observed on January 14. As is tradition, kites have started soaring and dipping in skies across India, like planes on a radar screen.

The sport played an important role in the development of Ved Mehta, the acclaimed author who passed away on January 9 at the age of 86. Mehta wrote a staggering 27 books and several articles over three decades for The New Yorker despite a condition that would have defeated a lesser man. He had been blind since the age of three. In 1982, Mehta’s work also won him what is often called a ‘genius grant’ - a MacArthur Fellowship worth $2,36,000.

Mehta’s loss of sight was caused by meningitis during his early years in Lahore, his birthplace. But he tried to stay in step with his elder siblings, including at neighborhood kite wars fought from terraces. This helped him grasp the basics of sightless navigation, and honed his other senses.

“I felt that blindness was a terrible impediment, and that if only I exerted myself, and did everything my big sisters and big brother did, I could somehow become exactly like them,” Mehta wrote in his memoir, The Ledge Between the Streams. “Without knowing it, during the kite chases I was learning how to get around — by sensing the currents of air and by listening to the patter of feet on a roof, to the scrapes of shoes along a wall.”

Mehta threw himself at different activities, determined to live a full life. When he moved to Mumbai, he learned cycling, roller skating, horseback riding and Braille.

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He went west for his higher education, getting a BA from Pomona College and another, in modern history, from Oxford. He then did a Masters in history at Harvard.

According to Mehta’s obituary in The Washington Post, his faculties became so sharp over time that he could tell from a subject’s Humphrey Bogart like speech that a cigarette dangled from his lower lip. He could tell a Chevrolet from a Ford based on sound. And when in Punjab, he could describe in great detail the colour of flowers from the way the air felt.

According to The Post’s obit, one of Mehta’s descriptions of a field - “the yellow of mustard flowers outlined by the feathery green of sugarcane” - was partly through smell. “If I’m in Punjab in the spring and I smell mustard flowers, I know what colour they are,” it quotes Mehta as saying.

Mehta did not suffer fools. “He would tell you point-blank, ‘You bore me. I never want to see you again,’ ” Stephen E. Koss, a Columbia University historian, once said. In other words, Mehta told them to go fly a kite.
Akshay Sawai
TAGS: #Ved Mehta
first published: Jan 13, 2021 08:04 am

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