Ved Mehta explores the elusiveness of love

September 02, 2001|By Ben Neihart | Ben Neihart,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Continents of Exile: All for Love, by Ved Mehta. Thunder's Mouth Press/Nation Books. 345 pages. $24.95.

All for Love, the new memoir by the long-time New Yorker writer Ved Mehta, works in the manner of an intellectual and emotional mystery novel, minus any crimes but the subtlest crimes of the heart. We read to discover why Mehta's love affairs (and by proxy, our own), are always on the verge of falling apart.

Mehta, an expatriate from India, blind from the age of four, spent the 1960s researching and writing long pieces on India, religion, industry and whatever else struck his fancy for The New Yorker, but most of All For Love works as a bittersweet memoir of young love as it plays out in New York, London, Morocco and India.

Mehta doesn't spare himself when setting up his New York milieu: "In those days I went to a lot of parties. There was no shortage of invitations. I was young and single, had recently arrived in Manhattan, and was already a staff writer on The New Yorker, a magazine that everybody seemed to read. ... Although I enjoyed the fuss that people made over me, I always felt that it had more to do with my New Yorker persona than with me. In fact, I generally went home alone and sad, convinced that I'd never meet the right woman."

When he wasn't going home alone, Mehta was going home with high-strung, Holly Golightly types, and he is most successful at making the simple circumstances of courtship compelling. Phone calls, intimate whispers, awkward, impotent moments - Mehta shapes this raw material into moving drama, even as we sense that he's holding back on us.

The longest section of the book is devoted to Mehta's affair with Lola, a young Indian woman he meets doing research in his homeland. Lola "wore a French perfume, subtle yet powerful enough to stand out over the cigarette smoke and even the smell of masala that was now wafting in from the kitchen. We were both a mixture of East and West, cut adrift from our antecedents. I could talk to her as naturally as I talked to a close English or American friend, yet I could also talk to her in Hindi or Punjabi. I had never imagined that there could be such a woman."

You read with mounting apprehension as their love affair traces a Breakfast at Tiffany's path of glamorous heart-break. You feel genuine loss when it ends badly.

The final long chapter is a compressed transcript of the author's therapy sessions during this lovelorn period. The insights are genuine, but poorly integrated with the rest of the memoir. They do, however, make more clear his extraordinary accomplishment of a sightless life of successful writing and editing, enabled by a series of reading and transcribing assistants.

At the end, you feel slightly cheated, as if a friend had begged you for a compassionate ear, left out crucial facts in his first heartfelt confession to you, and then, sensing that you weren't yet moved to tears, confessed one more time, this time bolstering his story with Freudian interpretation. Stories - especially tragic love stories -are always better on the first telling.

Ben Neihart is the author of the novels Hey, Joe and Burning Girl, recently published in paperback by Harper Perennial.

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