Born, March 21, 1934;

Died, January 9, 2021.

IN 1949, at the age of fifteen, Ved Mehta boarded a plane in New Delhi and, forty-seven hours later, disembarked in New York. He was travelling alone for the first time, spoke broken English and was desperately homesick. He was also blind.

On arrival in the United States he was met by a woman he did not know who, with her husband, had agreed to look after him. The culture shock was seismic. Everything was different: the food, the on-tap hot water, the casual intimacy of husbands and wives. “As a Hindu, I had never eaten beef,” recalled Mehta, faced with a plate of spaghetti and meatballs, “and the mere thought of it was revolting. But I recalled another of Daddyji’s sayings, ‘When in Rome, do as the Romans do’.”

Mehta, who has died aged 86 from complications of Parkinson’s disease, mined his past with the doggedness of a prospector determined to find gold. Daddyji, his father, was a doctor who served in the Health Services of the Indian Government. The family were not poor by Indian standards but neither were they well-off. Ved was one of seven children. Born in Lahore in the Punjab he had a normal childhood until he was four when he contracted meningitis, which caused him to lose his sight.

It was something for which both his mother – Mamaji – and father never forgave themselves, both believing that had they reacted faster to their son’s symptoms he would not have gone blind. Mehta himself regarded his blindness as a “fait accompli” and that to regret it “would be rather like regretting I wasn’t a musician or a politician. ‘If’s and ‘can’s are fun to dream about, but they have nothing to do with present reality.”

He had long dreamt of going to America, to educate and better himself. He was accepted by the Arkansas School for the Blind in Little Rock, which he attended for three years. In Sound-Shadows of the New World, the fifth of his eleven volumes of memoirs, collectively titled Continents of Exile, he described how he came slowly to terms with an alien environment, using his four functioning senses to compensate for the one he had lost.

At school he ran foul of an evangelical Baptist piano teacher who believed him to be damned because he was Hindu, and a physical education teacher who told him that only combative blind people could survive in a sighted world. In time, however, Mehta learned how to fend for himself, travelling around the country. One summer he worked in an ice-cream plant where, by way of an initiation rite, he was given an ice-cream bath, which made him feel accepted.

Leaving Arkansas, he went on to study at Pomona College, California. and at Oxford and Harvard universities. His ambition was always to be a writer. He published his first autobiographical book, Face to Face, when he was twenty but it was a meeting with William Shawn, editor of The New Yorker, who encouraged him to write a piece, that was to prove inspirational. It was the start of a friendship that lasted nearly four decades.

Mr Shawn, as he was invariably known, acting in “loco parentis”, treated Mehta, then 25, like one of his own sons, and provided him with amanuenses – Vedettes, as they were sneeringly known – who took dictation and did research.

For his part, Mehta hymned his mentor in Remembering Mr Shawn’s New York (1998), bemoaning his unhappy and precipitous departure from The New Yorker in 1987. Subsequent editors, Robert Gottlieb and Tina Brown, were less indulgent to of him and less enthusiastic about publishing excerpts from his on-going family saga, which often ran to more than 20,000 words.

With Brown in the editorial hot seat, Mehta left the magazine after more than thirty years. Her New Yorker, he wrote, “subverted all the editorial principles that Mr Shawn had held inviolable: most obviously, the principle that nothing would ever be published in The New Yorker just to sell magazines, to create a sensation or a controversy, to be popular or fashionable – to be ‘successful’.”

Mehta’s opus was instrumental in introducing western readers to India. Among his subjects were Mahatma Gandhi, the novelist RK Narayan, the poor of Calcutta (now Kolkata) and the British Raj. Other essays were concerned with philosophy, religion and literature. A formative influence was Arthur Quiller-Couch’s Oxford Book of English Prose, which he dipped into whenever he had a spare moment.

His most enduring work is surely the Continents of Exile series, which was written between 1971 and 2005. It began with stories his father used to tell Mehta and his siblings when they were small. Later, the narrative began to gain its own momentum and eventually a distinct design and architecture emerged. Though he took his lead from Proust and Joyce his approach was different. As in their epics, memory was fundamental but no less so were other sources, such as letters, diaries, personal papers and newspaper articles. The series culminated in The Red Letters, which begins in New York and describes a a disastrous dinner party, at which his father and mother met Shawn for the first time, and then backtracks to the 1930s when his father had an affair with a married woman.

Periodically, Mehta – who never had a guide dog or used a stick – would ask himself, “How can anyone be expected to read so much about one life?” His answer was that Continents of Exile is not the story of one life but of hundreds of lives, with characters coming and going in the manner of a roman fleuve. Thus the past is regained.

He is survived by his wife Linn, a direct descendent of James Fenimore Cooper, who is an academic, and their two daughters.