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Mainstream, VOL LIII, No 12, March 14, 2015

Vinod Mehta, On His Own Terms

Saturday 14 March 2015, by John Dayal


In India, we never speak ill of the dead. Those who reviled Vinod Mehta, the founder-editor of Outlook news-weekly, in his lifetime, accusing him of being a courtier of 10, Janpath, the political euphemism for Mrs Sonia Gandhi, the President of the Indian National Congress, an apologist for a “secular” civil society, are now singing high praises for the editor who passed away on March 8, 2015 of multiple organ failure. He was 73, and is survived by his wife Sumita Paul, also a journalist and once his colleague. He also has a love child, a daughter, whose existence he revealed in his autobiography. He would have liked to have mentioned his dog, named Editor, among his survivors as well.

 A very large number of colleagues who worked with him in his 40 years in journalism and admirers wrote more intimate, and therefore warm and honest, personal tributes wherever they could, more specially in social media, the one segment where Vinod was entirely absent in his lifetime. In one small note in the Outlook, the magazine he founded and nurtured and where he was the Editorial Director since he turned 70, Vinod clarified that the Twitter account @DrunkVinodMehta was not his personal, or authorised “handle”. The tech-savvy journalist behind the handle, apparently by an admirer in the media, has promised to continue his Tweets, known for their political incisiveness and wit. Vinod would have understood and enjoyed the irony in this unsought immortality.

 Vinod never did explain, at least I have not come across anything in print, the reason why he chose Editor as the name of the pet he doted on, and whose medical bulletins he issued regularly when the canine once took ill and had to undergo emergency surgery. Ironically, readers did not know of his own serious medical condition and three months of hospitalisation before the news of his passing away came on the mass media.

 Did he name the dog so to reflect the love he had for his profession, or to underscore that his own irreverent assessment of himself? Could be. He took himself lightly. He was among the few persons who was as celebrated as anyone else of his famous contemporaries in the highly caste and status-ridden national capital of India. And yet was among the few who was not pompous, never threw his weight about, did not boast of the intimate teas he may, or may not, have had with Mrs Sonia Gandhi, the then Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh, and earlier with Atal Behari Vajpayee. He could exchange a Punjabi joke or two, and some salacious gossip, with Ministers in a BJP Government too, if it came to that. He did not trade his friendships into seats in the Rajya Sabha, Padma medals at Rashtrapati Bhavan or ambassadorial titles and flagged cars in Western capitals. And when on television in political debates in his later years, he held his own without touting fake accents or inside knowledge, not claiming self-righteous neutrality, banking on common sense and common weal and, above all, in the midst of the screaming cacophony or hyper-nationalism, held firm to his idea of diversity, plurality, even secularism though he defined it in his own way as one without xenophobia, without hate, without adhesive overlays of religion.

 His four-legged Editor could then be a metaphor, rather than a parody. Too big to be a lapdog, but of indeterminate pedigree, collared visibly, often on leash, well fed with his favourite cheese [doffing the hat to Who Moved My Cheese?], cared for when in sickness. Would define several editors I know, or at least have seen at the regular meetings of the Editors Guild of India whose “interventions” and sometimes “decisions” are in defence of and to protect the rights of the “owners”, proprietors, investors of the media companies, rather than watchdogs growling at intruders, barking at suspicious noises and, when needed, tearing a patch out of the trouser seats of those who sought to steal from the citizen.

 Vinod Mehta, in his working life of four decades, in a way held up a mirror to the editors of his generation who came to office riding family, connections, and convenience. That is why he was reviled, possibly hated, mocked at as a politically naïve, loose-jointed journalist with no pretense at academic brilliance or incisive analysis, who catered to an easy generation with a combination of sex, once, design and prose that was easy on the eye and not too demanding on the mind.

He was all that. But also far, far more.

 The Lucknow Boy, the title of his memoirs and his salute to his home town, was an advertising man, with a sense of design, a refined aesthetics, a love for the visual and the turn of phrase. And a derring-do to shatter glass ceilings, disregard conventional wisdom, to borrow when thought fit. This was translated into Debonair, more Playboy than Hustler, but sometimes the change was just the physiological difference between a South Asian nude and a Western one, with some great interviews and articles sourced locally. For India, that was a quantum jump from the soft porn edited from Delhi by Durlabh Singh, with semi-literate prose and third-rate illustrations.

 Vinod went on to launch magazines and newspapers, The Sunday Observer, later sold to the Ambanis, India’s first real Sunday news-paper, and magazines The Independent,The Post before he re-launched the historic Pioneer that had straddled the Raj, but had withered after independence, before eventually launching, and settling down in, the Outlook, currently India’s best known weekly. Outlook, as India’s high and mighty have testified on its pages in recent months, is today a must-read even if it unabashedly lampoons religious nationalism and hyper-patriotism, and often gives a forum to the dissident point of view. It also has the most generous and democratic Letters to the Editor section, often running into several pages, mostly dominated by those who disagree with the magazine’s point of view, and often personally attack its Editor-in-Chief.

 All these journals and newspapers required money, and Vinod was not loth to accept offers to work for industrialists and businessmen who wanted to spare some cash to bring out a newspaper they thought would give them some clout much as the jute and steel mill owners had done in the early decades of independence. These moneybags included India Inc. worthies from various sectors, including real estate, which will arguably be at the bottom of the reputation list. He lost most jobs— barring at Outlook—in short order. Because he would not obey the dictates of the paymasters. He wanted to establish, and often succeeded in establishing, that people who paid the piper could not call the tune. He was a rare species in this category.

 Vinod never worked as a staff or beat reporter, foreign or parliamentary correspon-dent, or even as a leader, or editorial, writer. In a way, therefore, he had no mentor, other than himself. It did show. But then, he never did claim to be an Edatata Narayanan, Nikhil Chakravartty, Ajit Bhattacharjea, Frank Moraes, N.J. Nanporia, or S. Nihal Singh. Or B.G. Verghese for that matter. He was his own man.

 The warmest and most honest tributes to him have come from his reporters. They document his shortness with the routine, the piffle, the humdrum. Above all, they pay homage to an editor who recognised their talent, let them have their head, nurtured their energies and sense of adventure, respected their integrity and independence, shielded them from the owners, did not steal the limelight from them, and above all, protected and defended them when they were attacked. It takes a man of great courage, and a great journalist, to do that.

Dr John Dayal, a former editor, and a former Treasurer of the Editors Guild of India, is a reader of Outlook. He never worked with Vinod Mehta.