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Ved Mehta joined the staff of The New Yorker in the 1960s, blind since the age of four and already on his way to a career as a writer. In a series of four relationships he demanded that his lovers, like him, pretend he could see. With lyrical and stirring accuracy, Mehta revisits these love affairs today, tracing the links between his denial of his disability and the cruel transformations that each of his lovers underwent. "Poignant and occasionally hilarious."—The New York Times Book Review "This elegant volume ...
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Ved Mehta joined the staff of The New Yorker in the 1960s, blind since the age of four and already on his way to a career as a writer. In a series of four relationships he demanded that his lovers, like him, pretend he could see. With lyrical and stirring accuracy, Mehta revisits these love affairs today, tracing the links between his denial of his disability and the cruel transformations that each of his lovers underwent. "Poignant and occasionally hilarious."—The New York Times Book Review "This elegant volume remains a striking piece of insight into the nature of love."—Publishers Weekly "[An] excoriatingly truthful and heartbreaking account of the pursuit and loss of love...."—The Times of London "A mesmerizing account ... the most arresting passages are Mehta's mind-expanding descriptions of how he perceives the world."—Booklist
In October of 1962, I met Ivan and Ayako Morris when a friend took me to have dinner with them. It was some twenty months after I decided to leave graduate studies at Harvard and try my hand at writing in New York, at the age of twenty-six. Ivan, a scholar in his thirties who was teaching Japanese at Columbia University, was somewhat plump and quite jolly and had lots of stories about English writers and poets I knew. Ayako, a dancer with the Metropolitan Opera Ballet Company, was a strikingly tall and slender Japanese woman in her late twenties. Provocatively flirtatious, she laughed and drank with abandon, in a way that suggested that her attitude toward life was either bitter or ironic. She had a strong, determined, purposeful way of talking, as if she wanted people to accept her as a native speaker of English. Like Ivan, she had a repertoire of stories—in her case, about Antony Tudor, the renowned choreographer, and about Rudolf Bing, the general manager of the Metropolitan Opera: she worked with both of them. Ivan and Ayako seemed to breathe a cosmopolitan air of the East and the West, of scholarship and dance, of literature and art, of gaiety and mystery.
As soon as I met Ivan, I identified with him, as if I were iron filings and he a magnet. At the source of this attraction, I suspect, was the fact that we were both, in our different ways, exiles. Although he was quite secretive about what country he had been born in, his mother was Swedish and his father was American, and in recent years they had made their home in France. He had gone to high school and college in America and then taken his Ph.D. at London University. But despite having spent only a few years in England, in speech and manner he could have passed for an Englishman. As for me, I had left India in 1949 and spent seven years in America, studying in a high school and a college, then three years at Oxford, taking a second undergraduate degree before going on to Harvard. My Oxford years had affected my thinking and writing more than all the time I had spent in America, so I felt that I was almost British in spirit. Ivan and Ayako reminded me of the sparkle and wit of Oxford. Their apartment had the feel of the rooms of an English antique collector; it was an elegant duplex at Eighty-ninth Street and Riverside Drive, filled with eighteenth- and nineteenth-century English furniture, rare old Japanese screens, and fine Persian rugs.
A month or so after I met the Mortises, Ayako called me and said, as if she would brook no objections, "You're going to come to our Christmas party. I've set you up with one of my girlfriends. I think you'll like her. She's in the ballet company with me. She's the perfect age for you—just twenty-five—and beautiful inside and out."
"I'm sure your ballet dancer has a boyfriend," I said. I had very rarely met a desirable woman in New York who didn't already have a boyfriend, and, perhaps because I was brought up in India, the moment I heard that a woman I liked was seeing someone, I would treat her as if she were already married and beyond my reach.
"She did have a boyfriend some months back," Ayako said. "But she broke up with him, and he's safely in Switzerland. So don't worry—she's unattached."
I smiled to myself. Ayako had the makings of a successful New York hostess.
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. Indeed, I had developed an intense bond with its editor, William Shawn, whom I had quickly come to think of as a second father. Having been away from my home and my family since I was a boy, and having lived completely on my own, I needed the anchor of a strong relationship. Because I was looking to form another kind of relationship, I went to every party expectantly. I drank more than I should have and tried to impress everybody by talking a lot. 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.
"It sounds like a large party," I now said to Ayako, hedging. Not only did parties, particularly large ones, take a great deal out of me, but I couldn't imagine that a dancer would be right for me. I fancied that dancers were narcissistic and were preoccupied with their bodies—not giving and imaginative.
"I hope so," Ayako said.
As I was still trying to decide whether to make an excuse, I asked, "Where are you going to put them all?" The downstairs of the apartment, where the reception rooms were, was fairly small and crowded.
"It will be cozy," she said.
Maybe her girlfriend is another Ayako, I thought, and I accepted the invitation.
* * *
Scarcely had I arrived at the Christmas party when Ayako introduced me to a woman, saying, "Here is my girlfriend I told you about, Judith Chazin. She's been waiting for you." Ayako was nothing if not exuberant.
"Please—Gigi, not Judith," Ayako's friend said as I shook her hand, which was firm and warm. She was about an inch shorter than I was, with a dancer's body and a serious but expressive mouth. She had long, thick, intensely red hair, but it was done up in a discreet chignon.
In France, Gigi is probably what a gamine would be named, I thought, reminded of a novel of that name by Colette. But this Gigi is a strong, confident woman.
"Don't the two of you go off and get married without telling me," Ayako said teasingly.
As I was trying to think of a riposte to take the edge off the embarrassment we both felt, Ivan came over with the English dance critic Arnold Haskell. "Why doesn't The New Yorker cover dance?" Haskell asked, obviously not to needle me but out of genuine curiosity.
"Your magazine couldn't do better than get Arnold to do dance criticism for it," Ivan said, and Ayako eagerly seconded the suggestion. Ivan can be as uninhibited as Ayako, I thought. Indeed, Haskell was momentarily flustered and so was I.
"What a good idea," I said, diplomatically. "I'll mention it to the editor. But, of course, I am just a writer."
Gigi must have sensed my discomfort, because she changed the subject. After the Morrises and Haskell moved away, I talked to Gigi for a while and then moved away myself, thinking that she might like to talk to other guests. Also, always shy with women, I was intimidated by Gigi's beauty and by the thought of her being a ballerina with a great company. Without knowing exactly why, I was a little afraid. But she followed me.
"So you are the author of those amazing pieces on the historians," she said, mentioning a two-part article of mine that had just appeared in The New Yorker. "I couldn't put them down—I read each of them straight through."
People said things like that at parties, and I thanked her and left it at that. But she went on. "I have to say that I was incensed that a great historian like A. J. P. Taylor could claim that there were no concentration camps until the Second World War."
"Actually, he means extermination camps," I said.
"Oh," she said, abruptly, as if she had been taken over by a new thought.
After a while, she said she was going to the dining room to get a drink. She asked me if I wanted anything. It was now my turn to follow her, and we wove our way through the huddles of guests. Some people had pulled up chairs into any space they could find, while others were sitting on the arms of a sofa and club chairs, which were already occupied. As we squeezed past them, people greeted us and introduced us to other guests. At the table, Gigi helped herself to ginger ale. I took champagne, and we moved off to the side.
I asked her about her ballet company and what pieces she was dancing in, but she evaded my questions as if she felt uncomfortable when attention was directed at her, and said, "Ivan gave me your philosophy piece to read." The historian pieces were companions to the philosophy piece, which had appeared in The New Yorker the year before. "The material was difficult, but the philosophers themselves were fascinating," she went on. "Does Iris Murdoch really make everything sound `ishy'? Would she really add `-ish' even to things she says in her tutorials?"
"I think it's probably a form of shyness, like a nervous tic," I said. "After all, she didn't know me when I was interviewing her. She's probably more comfortable in her tutorials."
I went back to the table and got more ginger ale for her and more champagne for me.
"I don't know many people here," she said. "Ayako invited me because she wanted us to meet."
"I don't, either," I said. "But I am captivated by you."
Ivan passed by, remarking ironically over his shoulder that I shouldn't monopolize Gigi.
"I'm very fond of Ivan, but he says some tactless things," Gigi said to me as he walked on.
"Oh, well, I suppose he's doing his duty as a host," I said.
Throughout the evening, wherever I happened to be standing—by the piano, at the buffet table, or in the kitchen getting coffee—Gigi would materialize beside me. I couldn't remember another party where I had received so much flattering attention from a young woman I had just met. I wondered whether if I had been more savvy about women, I would have been the one following her around. But at Oxford parties women had been almost incidental to the men's peacocklike displays of learning and wit, and I was still getting used to American parties and their sexual undercurrents. Lately, Ivan, Ayako, and I had been going to dinners and parties together, and I felt that I had become a third wheel. It was a comfortable thing to be, but I would have happily changed places with Ivan. Now I can have my own Ayako, but without her excesses, I thought, for Gigi seems serious but not earnest.
I tried repeatedly to draw Gigi out. I wanted to know which college she had gone to, what she was rehearsing at the Met, whether her parents lived in the city. She told me that she was a recent graduate of Brandeis University, where she had majored in theatre arts, that she was working on a new piece, but it was not far enough along for her to talk about it, and that her parents lived on Long Island, where her father taught French at Queens College. A gambit that with someone else would have been an opening for a revealing conversation elicited from her only a minimalist response. But then that was the way I myself often responded to such questions. Anyway, surely only boring people went in for conversations consisting of questions and answers. The art of true conversation consisted in the play of minds.
As we were drinking our coffee, the cellist and the pianist struck up "Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer" in a sort of burlesque.
"It's not quite the piece for cello and piano," I said.
"But it's almost danceable," she replied.
Eventually, as the guests talked and milled about, the music shifted to one of Bach's cello suites. The clatter of spoons and saucers stopped. There was only the sound of the city traffic below as the cello embroidered the intricate patterns of the melody.
Since the party was ending, I asked Gigi if I could take her home. She promptly accepted. As we were leaving, Ayako, irrepressible as ever, called out, "Don't get married without telling me!"
The joke was bad enough the first time around, I thought, feeling put out with Ayako. But Gigi seemed to consider the remark good fun. Maybe dancers take life as it comes, I thought, and I am simply too sensitive.
* * *
I got out of the taxi and opened the door for Gigi at her building on Twenty-eighth Street near Lexington Avenue. "When can I see you again?" I asked.
"We could have coffee tomorrow evening after my performance," she suggested.
Dare I kiss her? I wondered. It was our first meeting, and I didn't want to spoil things. So instead I stuck out my hand. She took it in both of hers and said, "Do you mind waiting till I've got inside my apartment? It's six floors up, and the stairs are quite dark."
"Shall I come up and open the door for you?"
"Oh, no," she said, running into the building. "I'm a big girl."
"Big" is such a child's word, and I have so many commonplace and strange associations with it, I thought: "My big sisters have gone to school," "My big sister has got married," "I want to go to the big bathroom." I was daunted by my associations with the word, which were both honorific and coarse, but tantalized all the same by the idea of Gigi as a "big girl."
* * *
I picked Gigi up at the stage door of the Metropolitan Opera, and we took a taxi to a café near Union Square. I had chosen it from the telephone directory, thinking that it would be convenient for us to walk to her building afterward, but I regretted my choice the moment we entered the place. It was eerily empty and reeked of ammonia, as if it were already being cleaned for closing, and, except for the hum of a fluorescent light overhead, it had a funereal silence. But Gigi, as she slid onto a bench across from me in a booth at the back, seemed impervious to her surroundings—probably not because she was unobservant but because she was happy to be in a quiet corner of the city after the lights and the crowds at the Met.
"I'm glad to sit down," she said. "I didn't take up dancing until I was eight. My ankles and feet are weak, and performing in toe shoes kills me."
After we had given our orders to the sole attendant, who was also the bartender, I said, "No one has ever taken so much interest in me before, Gigi."
"I don't believe it."
"A young woman might come up to me at a party, as you did, if she'd read something I'd written, but after a while she would invariably move on."
"I didn't talk to you just because of your writing, though."
"Why else, then?"
I meant my tone to be more humorous than biting, but she bridled. "If I hadn't read a word of yours, I would have sought you out. You were the only person at the party who excited me." She paused and continued. "Until I met you, I always thought I would never go out with anybody who wasn't Jewish."
I felt myself blush. She is saying the kind of things a man would say to a woman in a film, I thought. What would she say if I asked her to come back to my apartment and spend the night with me? I wanted to take her in my arms then and there and cover her face and neck with kisses, but the very idea of suggesting that she come home with me paralyzed me.
Suddenly, I was back at a school I had briefly attended in Lahore when I was a boy, and in the throes of adolescent desire, so much so that I was afraid to stand up or walk for fear that the sighted principal would be able to tell, and yet I could scarcely sit still. Our rakish blind schoolmaster was smacking his lips and tapping his cane on the table as he regaled us with stories of the alluring nautch girls loitering in Hira Mandi, or "jewel market"—the notorious red-light district in Lahore that was filled with courtesans more various than the jewels in a jeweller's shop. He was telling us that some "rubies and sapphires" among them could be seen languorously walking about the market, shopping for cigarettes, rouge, and kohl. Yet, even as the schoolmaster stoked our desire, he filled our ears with cautionary tales, saying that although a boy might be treated like a king in Hira Mandi, sooner or later boils would break out all over his body, and eventually charred pieces of his flesh would fall off like burned coal.
Now, in the café, I feared that if I even reached over and touched Gigi's hand, I would be going against my karma, which was to know my place, and my dharma, which was to honor her as if she were my mother or my sister.
"You know something?" Gigi was saying. "When you walked in at Ivan and Ayako's, I watched you and listened to you. I was intimidated. You were talking so fast and with such confidence. But after you and I started talking, I saw a whole other side of you—very shy and sweet."
I didn't know how to respond.
"I must be a better actor than I thought I was," I said finally, trying to sound offhand. "If you had an inkling of my real self, you might not be sitting with me now."
"I would, too," she said, laughing.
"I don't fit in anywhere," I said.
"I don't fit in anywhere, either. I didn't fit in at Brandeis, because I was a dancer, and I don't fit in at the Met, because my values are different from the values of the other girls in the company."
"For me, dance is not everything, as it is for them. I love to read and write. Most of the girls in the troupe will follow their whims—do just about anything that they take it into their heads to do. In fact, the atmosphere of the troupe as a whole is wild. While we are in the city, there is some sense of decorum, but when we go on tour, they abandon all restraint."
I found this intriguing, but Gigi's tone was condemnatory, as if she wanted to banish the subject, and the dance troupe as well.
"On tour, when people are playing musical beds," she continued, "I just lose myself in a book and try not to think of my career or anybody else's."
"Are all the dancers wild, then?"
"No. Two of them aren't—Rosa and Nancy. They're close friends of mine, like Ayako. We are so close that we can discuss almost anything. When we are in the city, the four of us often go out to Bill's Bar after the opera. We can stay at the bar as long as we want, even if we order only one beer or a coffee."
Our conversation turned to Ayako. Gigi told me that Ayako's father was a Japanese nobleman and that one of her relatives had committed suicide because of something to do with the Second World War. She and Gigi had both studied under Antony Tudor at the Met Ballet School.
"How is it that you don't have a boyfriend?" I asked, not believing that she could be unattached, as Ayako had said.
"I did have one—David. I almost married him. He's Jewish, and he fit into my family. We all thought he was a perfect match."
"He got cold feet and ran away."
"Just like that?"
"Yeah. He flunked out of med school and went away to study medicine in Switzerland. We still write to each other, but everything between us was really over last winter."
"And after David?"
"No one. I'm not one of those women who flit from man to man. David is about the only serious boyfriend I've ever had."
The bartender started mopping around our booth. Evidently it was closing time.
On the street, I said, tentatively, "Would you like to come back to my apartment?" I then quickly added, in order to provide her with an excuse, "But, of course, it's late, and you have dance class in the morning."
"I'm used to staying up late," she said. "I can also nap after my class."
* * *
I remember Gigi's saying later that she thought my apartment (one L-shaped room in a fairly new building called the Picasso, on East Fifty-eighth Street) was very nice—that it was not large but adequate and very orderly, that it was a little dark but furnished in warm colors, and that there was music. I remember the evening differently. The apartment seemed constricted and felt cold. I put on the first record that came to hand, "Boris Godunov," and the music sounded like a dirge.
Later, I lay beside Gigi, with her long, thick hair thrown over my face and shoulders, her face pressed against mine, and her arms wrapped tightly around my sobbing body.
"What are you thinking, sweetheart?" she asked.
I was trembling uncontrollably.
"Talk to me," she said.
My tongue flopped back into my throat as if it would choke me. I thought of Phyllis—a girl I had known in college in California and to whom I had lost my virginity. With her, I had never experienced any difficulty. But that was years ago, and she hadn't mattered to me.
"You're shivering so," Gigi was saying. "I thought my hair would be like a blanket—warming you all over."
Excerpted from ALL FOR LOVE by Ved Mehta. Copyright © 2001 by Ved Mehta. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
|Prologue: BLINDNESS KEEN||1|
|II. THE BLUE PYJAMAS||38|
|III. TRAVELLING LIGHT||61|
|IV. PATIENCE ON A MONUMENT||92|
|V. CULTIVATING THE WHITE ROSE||131|
|VI. UGLY STUFF||158|
|VII. DUCK POND||194|
|VIII. DEMONS ROAM MOST FREELY||218|
|IX. MEPHISTOPHELES AT WORK||271|