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Saturday, 14 March 2015


This long tribute to Vinod Mehta will appear in Tamil translation in KALACHUVADU [], a renowned monthly magazine of arts and ideas. A shorter version of this has already appeared in CARAVAN.

THE DIARY MIND: Vinod Mehta was quintessentially a diarist. His taut, anecdotal, gossipy and sometimes pithy style of expression was not just limited to his writing, but to his entire cognitive process.  That’s how he perceived the world and the knowledge it threw up. He never accepted information if they did not carry embellishments; if they were not embedded with irreverent opinion. Vinod would reject what the stuffy intellectual world would weightily describe as ‘perspective’, but he certainly wanted colour.

If one were to vote Vinod’s favourite phrase in the last decade or so, perhaps ‘ideological eunuch’ would beat competition hands down. He would often emphasise that ‘one can’t be an ideological eunuch’. This was his typical diary jargon, which quite simply meant one can’t be apolitical in the times we live in or one can’t be apolitical at all. What Edward Said deduced with such theoretical flourish, Vinod had given it a casual bazar feel without taking away the integrity of the thought. So, every complicated construct found an easy expression and hue in his diary-mind and that was indeed his genius.

Although Vinod’s two recent book of memoirs, ‘Lucknow Boy’ or ‘Editor Unplugged’ ran to a few hundred pages, if one takes a careful look, they are not long, descriptive narratives, but a running collection of anecdotes, gossip and opinion woven with a turn-of-phrase humour and uncommon wit. They were nothing but elongated Mumbai, Delhi, Lucknow or London diaries. A form he had invented for the last page of Outlook. In fact, all his books, be it on Sanjay Gandhi or Meena Kumari, bore this trademark style, an imprint and extension of his journalism. 

Anything long, a conversation or a copy, would not sustain Vinod’s attention. Since his attention span was notoriously short, everything had to be broken into tiny consumable nuggets. This, I strongly feel, had to do with the diary construct of his thought process. In this sense, Vinod was far superior to another renowned diarist Kushwant Singh. Anything could get into Kushwant Singh’s diaries, but Vinod’s diaries had a distinct style, which was crafted to perfection over time. Interestingly, Kushwant Singh never wrote a diary in Outlook, perhaps it never fit into the style that Vinod had evolved for himself and the magazine. 

The Long Form:

Even as one marvels at the unique diary-vision of journalism that Vinod shaped, the long form writing that he occasionally encouraged in the magazine can’t be forgotten. In this respect, Arundathi Roy was a singular beneficiary of his generosity. Most of her books, after the work of fiction she published, were a reworking or a collection of essays that first appeared in Outlook. Am sure Vinod fully recognized that Ms. Roy had a pretty face, a razor-sharp reason, and a strong opinion that could even split the sea. Again, basic ingredients that went into a diary piece to act like cannon powder.

Here, I have a claim to make. Besides Arundathi, I was perhaps the only person, that too a staffer, who was allowed to occupy ten pages in the magazine on three different occasions. All three essays were short histories of the magazine. I really wonder if Vinod had the patience to sustain the read of these furlong pieces, but on each occasion he called me up to say ‘well done’. And that clipped phrase of appreciation would give me a brief experience of levitation. When I wrote about the ‘ten years of Outlook in ten-and-a-half chapters’, he showered an extra ounce of affection by leading me to Rajan Raheja, Outlook’s ‘proprietor-prince’, at an office party, and introducing me as the magazine’s historian.

Vinod never published fiction in Outlook, but here too, he made a rare exception when I translated an unpublished Kannada short story of A K Ramanujan. On one occasion, when I had suggested to him that we should attempt a special number on short-fiction by commissioning the living greats of Indian literature, he was excited by the idea, but was skeptical about the ‘unevenness’ in the translation of stories that we would encounter. I tried to push the idea twice with an interval of three years, but he came up with exactly the same response. When he was unrelenting the second time, I said we should at least get Indian language writers with a bilingual competence to occasionally write for the magazine. At that point, he had made a splendid decision to get renowned Tamil writer Ashokamitran to review Vikram Seth’s newly published book ‘Two Lives’. The review was published as ‘Two Lives, Too Long’. However, his enthusiasm to sustain such an innovation didn’t last beyond that moment.

In fact, Vinod’s enthusiasm for art and literature in the magazine or in his writing was limited to either picking weird quotes from writers and artistes to bolster his arguments, or to following their controversial lives. He perhaps thought that cultural exotica wouldn’t sit well with an audience of a general interest magazine. This didn’t mean that he was a philistine. In one of his early Delhi Diaries he recorded with pride that his sub editors read Marquez in their spare time. He was also quite up to date with British and American fiction as well as non-fiction. But it appeared that he didn’t want to disturb the anti-intellectual perception about himself by flaunting his reading and intellect. He perhaps enjoyed keeping appearances. I am entitled to believe that he had read Hemingway so thoroughly that he had the best ‘shit-detector’ installed inside him to recognize bad writing from a mile. Very few understood the weight of an extra adverb or an adjective like him. And, very few understood the value of precision and brevity like him.

The Trust Factor:

In the many years I filed stories for Vinod, there have been moments when I felt that his trust in his reporters like me was reckless. We would smell an interesting story or a scam, and for fear of losing it to a newspaper, we would write it up on a Wednesday morning and only then, retrospectively, start building documents after the issue had gone to bed on a Thursday night. Of course, here, one counted on Ajith Pillai, Vinod’s trusted alter ego, and arguably the finest judge of current affairs in any newsroom across India, to do the bidding. Luckily for us, when we hedged a bet like this, nothing went wrong in a decade. The Infosys land grab story that I did in 2005 was similarly done without adequate documentation at first. My high profile source who was travelling had promised to hand over the necessary papers on Saturday, while the story had to be filed by Wednesday noon. After the issue hit the stands on a Friday, it created the expected ruckus. My phone rang early in the morning and it was Vinod calling. I was truly afraid and imagined that something had horribly gone wrong. One of the Infy bosses had even tried to stop the story, and all of us knew their long reach in the power corridors. When I picked the call, Vinod uttered only two sentences with a rhetorical question in between: “Fantastic response. Have we restored the balance? Well done.” 

I had a similar experience when working on the Bellary mining stories in 2008-09, much before other media outlets and the Karnataka Lokayukta had built sensation around it. The Reddy brothers were powerful ministers in the BJP government and in one of my first stories I had described the modus operandi of their loot and had labeled Bellary ‘The Reddy Republic’ where no laws applied and no government existed. A lot of it was difficult to establish right away, but we had circumstantial evidence, I had seen government files that couldn’t be copied, we had done long interviews with rival miners in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh and I had met politicians across the borders. The Reddy brothers had a sympathetic government in Karnataka and a business partner in Y S Rajashekara Reddy, the chief minister of AP. In no time a criminal defamation case was filed against Outlook. I was worried and asked Vinod what to do? He only said: “It is a good case to fight. Keep digging new information and build your documents.” With the quick turn of events that followed in the next few years, this case had a natural death.

It was one thing for a reporter to feel strongly about a story, but an entirely different order for an editor to measure the sincerity of the reporter and stand firmly by him. I realized this only after I myself had become an editor of a beastly newspaper. On one other occasion, in Delhi, I heard Vinod tell another colleague of mine: “We go down, we go down together.”

Vinod had insatiable curiosity and perhaps believed that all the worlds philosophies, theories and knowledge were distilled into a magic crucible called common sense. He loved to quaff from it at all times. The sharp, but diligently commonsensical questions that he often asked, or advise he imparted, while we were working on stories, would automatically realign the way we had approached them, and also tie up their loose ends. His unorthodox methods of assessing impact and risk of stories were simply brilliant.

The 'Sorry' Episodes:  

Vinod had the habit of inviting you to his hotel room when he was travelling. If you called him from the reception he would say, “come up, come up.” On one such occasion in Bangalore, we had decided the previous night that I would turn up at his hotel room at an appointed time to accompany him to the airport. I knocked at his door and he opened it with his characteristic slowness. He didn’t look at me, but turned his back and walked away. I was in for a shock because he was waltzing around uncaringly in his boxers. I was not so much worried about the flight we would miss, but didn’t know how to handle a boss in boxers. As casually as he had opened the door, he showed me the trolley suitcase that needed to be zipped and taken out.  He was still not looking at me. I started adjusting the clothes before I could down the flap, and suddenly after a few seconds, he recognised me and grew very apologetic: “Oh I didn’t realize its you. I had called the reception and thought they had sent the bellboy. I am sorry.” For the first time, this had revealed the human side of Vinod to me. From that moment on he ceased to be just a boss. I could recognize an uncle, a father and a grandfather in him. Many a times he would lie down on the hotel bed and make a conversation. I would be sitting stiff on the sofa. He was exactly my father’s age.

There was another professional occasion when Vinod wrote a ‘sorry’ mail to me. I still feel terribly embarrassed to have received it. This was when there was an air crash in Mangalore and I had reached there by the first available flight in the morning. After having done the rounds of many mortuaries, seeing charred bodies an also in some cases helping relatives identify them, the photographer and I were physically and emotionally exhausted. When the time came to return to Bangalore, we called the office in Delhi to arrange for our return tickets. Someone in the administration played dirty and told us that the airfares had shot up and we should take a bus back home. I checked on my Blackberry and found that the fares were not steep. I couldn’t digest the lies. Sitting on the pavement outside a mortuary, I wrote a long, angry mail to Vinod about what had transpired. Within a few minutes I got a reply-mail, “I am terribly sorry Sugata. This will not happen again,” he wrote. I felt terrible that I had extracted this ‘sorry’ from him. I apologized for dragging him into such a silly thing as an air ticket. After the Mangalore story was published, he didn’t forget to call me and tell me how much he appreciated my effort. His humility and equanimity had firmly established in my mind. When people say he was not just a great professional, but a fine human being as well, for me some of these and many other moments pop us as indisputable evidences.

The other personality trait of Vinod that often made me wonder was his ability to take any abuse or criticism (be it in the form of a ‘letter to the editor’ or a barb during a television debate, or a loud ugly comment from an industry colleague) and convert it into a witty advantage. If there was one person in recent times, with the ability to convert self-deprecation into powerful armour, it was him. This would leave people clueless and thereafter, they too would contribute to his halo. Although this looks and reads like a simple trick, it was not, it had its origins in some clear, deep springs within him.

The Silence:

In 2013, when Vinod’s ‘Sanjay Gandhi’ book was being launched in Bangalore, he asked me to be in conversation with him. I was a little terrified. By then, I had quit Outlook to lead a Times Group newspaper. When I introduced Vinod to the audience I quoted a passage from Ved Mehta’s ‘Remembering Mr. Shawn’s New Yorker’. It read: “Without exactly realising it, I made every teacher I loved into my father - into an almost god-like figure. Teachers I didn't like I hated passionately, as though they belonged to the devil's party. For me, as for most people with romantic temperaments, there was no middle ground.”  I had paid my tribute to him there, in his presence, when he was alert and alive. After the event Vinod didn’t speak to me for a while. When parting, he asked who had published Ved Mehta’s book? I knew it was an irrelevant prop to break the silence. Vinod Mehta was and will always be my Editor. 



Don’t call me by any other name

Local' is often assumed to be a flat, homogenous terrain. But, one has to only look at the unease and indifference to the renaming of 12 Karnataka cities/towns to comprehend the vibrant diversity of the local. In Karnataka, often presented as a cultural monolith, the local alters its character roughly every 30km with a change in dialect and the alteration of spices.

The proposal to change the names of cities/towns in the state came up nearly a decade ago from a handful of intellectuals, without provocation or a sustained cultural campaign. Expectedly, with the absence of any real development plans for these cities, the state government instantly fell in love with the grand symbolism of renaming them, and enjoyed the nice chauvinistic tailwind that propelled it for a while. The apparent rationale for the change had to do with the official names of these cities still retaining a colonial mustiness. For instance, the capital city was known as Bengaluru among the Kannadaspeakers and Bangalore was an English corruption of the sahibs whose tongue didn't roll. Similar was the case with Mangalore, Bellary, Chikmagalur, Mysore, Hospet, Hubli, Shimoga and Tumkur. They have now become Mangaluru, Ballari, Chikkamagaluru, Hosapete, Hubballi, Shivamogga and Tumakuru, respectively.

However, with three renames there is a reasonable shift. Belgaum, which apparently had a Marathi twang, has become Belagavi. This is about Karnataka's border politics with Maharashtra. The Maharashtra Ekikaran Samithi (MES) has promptly condemned the name change. The two cities, Gulbarga and Bijapur, in the Hyderabad-Karnataka region with a rich Islamic and Sufi cultural inheritance have been somewhat alienated from their Urdu and Farsi/Persian pasts. These two cities were built by the Bahamani Sultans, Adil Shahis, Mughals and in the recent past, the Nizam of Hyderabad. They have now become Kalburgi and Vijayapura. Besides a familiar Kannada ring to their names, their Hindu emphasis cannot be missed.

Sample some of the statements of protest. A federation of organizations fighting for retaining 'Gulbarga' said in a press statement: "There is an effort to breach Hindu-Muslim amity and unity in the region. The name 'Gulbarga' is not from the English language and nobody has questioned people who call the city 'Kalburgi' as to why they call it so. Locals who want to call the city 'Gulbarga' should be allowed to do so, and those referring to the city as 'Kalburgi' should also be encouraged. The government should not interfere in this matter. "

Refer to this memorandum submitted by a federation of 'progressive organizations' to the district collector in Bijapur. It says that any tinkering with the name of the city would first of all affect its heritage character (the city hosts the Gol Gumbaz among other famed installations of Islamic architecture). It further argues that nowhere in history is the city referred to as 'Vijayapura'. "During the Adil Shahi period there was an effort to rename the city as 'Navarasapura', 'Vidyapura' but they failed to give it currency among the people, therefore the British retained the name 'Bijapura'," it explains. Expressing anguish that the name change is about erasing history, the note records that Ptolemy, the Egyptian astronomer and geographer in 2nd century BC, had "placed the word 'Bijapura' on the world map and therefore such illustrious historical references should not be disturbed for the politics of the present."

While in the case of Gulbarga and Bijapur there is flurry of activity against the name, 'Mangaluru' has drawn a reasonably explicable indifference to name change. Mangalore is a cultural melting pot with incredible linguistic diversity. The official language may be Kannada here, but Tulu has an equal heritage and a dominant demographic, besides Konkani, Byary, Malayalam and English. Strangely, none of these local linguistic communities refer to their city as 'Mangalore' or 'Mangaluru'. For Tuluvas the city is 'Kudla', for Konkanis it is 'Kodiyal', for a Byary it is 'Mykala' and for a Malayali it is 'Mangalapura' and only in the Kannada colloquial is it 'Mangaluru' — and that is by no measure the most popular name. So, people are indifferent to the name change.

When a name change exercise is not driven by popular demand, it becomes rather difficult to build a cogent cultural argument as to what may have led to it. Although some try to point to the weak self-esteem of Kannada subnationalism in comparison with the four dominant linguistic cultures (Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam and Marathi) it is surrounded by, that is not entirely convincing.

The CARAVAN piece


Justice Relayed

By Sugata Srinivasaraju | 1 November 2014
Jayalalithaa is the only sitting chief minister in the country’s history against whom a conviction for corruption has been delivered.
ON 1 OCTOBER 2014, the Vellore municipal council passed a resolution against John Michael Cunha, the judge who presided over the Special Court in Bangalore that sent Jayalalithaa Jayaram to jail in late September. In the resolution, the council claimed to be confounded by a mere mortal’s daring to arrogate himself powers to punish a goddess.
Getting Jayalalithaa—the de facto supreme leader of Tamil Nadu’s ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam—to cooperate with the court may certainly have seemed to her prosecutors like setting human will against superhuman. Charges in the case, which alleged misuse of her office to acquire assets worth Rs 66.65 crore, were framed in 1997. The trial, which culminated dramatically last month in a conviction, a rejected bail plea and a suspended sentence, lasted 18 years, over ten of those in the Bangalore Special Court. Cunha’s judgement, which runs to over a thousand pages, made it clear that the delay was caused mostly by impediments that Jayalalithaa created at every stage of the trial.
The trial ought to have stood as an exemplar of how to bring the powerful to justice. Jayalalithaa is the only sitting chief minister in India’s history against whom a conviction for corruption has been delivered; even the former chief minister of Bihar, Lalu Prasad Yadav, found guilty in September 2013 for his role in one of the major cases related to the fodder scam, had been out of power for several years at the time of his conviction. In reality, achieving a result took an extraordinary combination of individual and institutional perseverance, helped along by a dogged political opposition.
“It is borne out from the records that, after the trial resumed before this court, the accused moved applications after applications before this court at every stage of the proceedings,” Cunha wrote. By purportedly exercising her right to a free and fair trial, “virtually every order passed by this court was carried in appeal or revision to the High Court of Karnataka and then to the Supreme Court of India resulting in considerable delay.”
Jayalalithaa inordinately stretched the provisions of appeal that a court of law allows any accused. She registered hundreds of objections to the proceedings; as many as two hundred of these were filed on her behalf between 2005 and 2013 alone, according to BV Acharya, the Special Public Prosecutor leading the prosecution during that period. All of these applications went all the way to the Supreme Court only to be dismissed, or granted partial relief in a few instances. Jayalalithaa was notably dissatisfied by complications arising from a language barrier: many of the documents produced before the Special Court were originally in Tamil, and required translations into English after the case was moved from Chennai to Bengaluru in 2003: by repeatedly complaining of inaccurate translations, Jayalalithaa was able to delay her case considerably.
“The translation work was completed by 2005 and the copies of the English translation of the deposition and the exhibits were furnished” to Jayalalithaa in March that year, Cunha wrote. In July 2010, the SPP, Acharya, sought to recall 45 witnesses for cross-examination. But “A-1”—Jayalalithaa—“filed an application in I.A-No. 396,” Cunha wrote, “seeking to scrap the English translations of the depositions of all the witnesses and to hold a de novo translation by summoning all the witnesses before the court.” It had taken the court over a year to get the documents translated by a team of twenty assistant professors and lecturers. (The Supreme Court turned down the request, having found no reasonable grounds to order a fresh translation.)
Getting Jayalalithaa to appear before the Special Court in Bangalore was itself a humongous task. When summoned, she often meandered to the Supreme Court instead, in order to express an inability to attend hearings. Once, she cited work exigencies; at another time, she claimed her security detail was inadequate. In December 2011, Jayalalithaa did attend hearings, having received the Supreme Court’s assurances of her security, when the SPP wanted to record the statements of the first accused. After two days of attending court, she stopped, claiming that the apex court had asked her to be present for that duration only, and no longer—requiring the Supreme Court to intervene once again, to order her to complete the legal exercise.
This exceptional resistance required, in turn, exceptional legal precision and perseverance to conduct the case. At one point in the trial, Jayalalithaa was required to answer over 1,900 questions over a period of four days. (Her responses to most of them, unsurprisingly, were staccato and clipped; the court noted in rare cases, however, that a response might be more “argumentative in nature than denial.”) The SPP was a key figure in undoing some of the case’s most crucial procedural wangles, before he was required to step down due to an objection made by Jayalalithaa’s defence over his continuing to hold the SPP’s post after he was appointed Advocate General of Karnataka in 2011. However, a senior lawyer said that Acharya’s stepping down was also due to consistent efforts to implicate and harass him in matters pertaining to his other social and professional involvements.
Some of the most crucial interventions made by presiding judges were marked by a sense of impatience. BM Mallikarjunaiah, the third of the five judges who presided over the trial at the Special Court, was responsible for summoning Jayalalithaa to court; he was also the judge who facilitated Acharya in asking her over 1,900 questions over four days. Cunha, in his turn, found the slew of applications, interlocutory applications and special leave petitions that delayed the trial akin to speed breakers: “Is this a criminal court or an adjournment court?” he asked at one point during the trial. “This case has been on for years, but the number of days it has been adjourned far outweighs the days some purposeful deliberation has taken place.”
Throughout, Jayalalithaa’s political opposition was as staunch as it was varied. Charges against her were first filed by the BJP leader Subramanian Swamy; over the years, rumours persisted of the involvement of powerful Congress leaders behind the scenes of her prosecution. But some the most important work of public opposition to her was done through the AIADMK’s rival Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, particularly K Anbazhagan, the 91-year-old general secretary of the party and a legal expert in his own right. After Jayalalithaa came back to power in Tamil Nadu in the 2002 elections, the case seemed to be in danger of significant weakening: 79 of the 259 witnesses, many of them government officials, altered their stances once Jayalalithaa took office as chief minister.
At this juncture, Anbazhagan moved the Supreme Court to have the case shifted to the neighbouring state of Karnataka, citing grave doubts over the fairness of the trial in Tamil Nadu. Over the years, he watched the proceedings in Bangalore closely, intervening whenever he felt the case was deviating from course. In 2004, he submitted a 450-page report to the Special Court on the intricacies of the case, and officially became an intervenor in the trial, submitting written arguments in support of the prosecution.
In spite of the DMK’s now successful pursuit of the conviction of its fiercest opponent, the outcome of Jayalalithaa’s trial has led some to claim that the sun is setting on Periyarist politics in Tamil Nadu. The DMK patriarch Karunanidhi is in his own twilight years, and his political heirs, Stalin and Azhagiri, are riven in their ongoing struggle for power. Outside the state, the media seems keen to interpret the conviction, and the DMK’s current unpopularity among voters, as an opportunityfor the Bharatiya Janata Party to unfurl its banner over a state where it has never had a significant presence. But the right-wing party has, for now, little traction on the ground in Tamil Nadu, and its caste calculations are in a state of flux. Its local leadership has moved away from Brahmin men such as Jana Krishnamurthy, L Ganesan and H Raja; it now looks to leaders such as Tamilisai Soundararajan and Pon Radhakrishnan, both from the backward-class Nadar community. The party is yet to field a truly a popular face in state elections, something that has bolstered support for all the Dravidian parties.
Its own superhuman supporter, the movie star Rajinikanth, was among the first to welcome Jayalalithaa’s release from custody when she was granted bail following the suspended sentence. Nearly twenty years ago, Rajinikanth made vehement public criticisms of Jayalalithaa’s corruption in the media, and was instrumental in building an alliance between M Karunanidhi of the DMK and G Moopanar of the Tamil Maanila Congress, which pulled the rug from under the AIADMK’s feet in the 1996 assembly election. His greetings to Jayalalithaa last month were so unambiguously meek and fawning that not even the most die-hard of his fans would interpret it as the gumption of a challenger. The truth is that there is too much at stake for Rajinikanth commercially to commit to leading the BJP in Tamil Nadu, no matter how many pictures he poses for with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. There is little sense that the AIADMK will be generous enough to accommodate the BJP’s ambitions—in fact, in recent local-body polls, the two parties fought each other. If either of them held expectations of an alliance in the future, they seem unlikely to come to fruition now.
In the wake of Jayalalithaa’s conviction, it became an oft-remarked point that the sum found to be disproportionate to her legal sources of income, Rs 66.65 crore, is loose change in comparison with the more elaborate swindles uncovered in Indian politics in the new millennium. But in 1987, the year that her mentor, MG Ramachandran, died, Jayalalithaa’s assets were found to be worth only Rs 7.5 lakh; she claimed a bank balance of Rs 1 lakh, in addition to some jewellery. Jayalalithaa’s career has undoubtedly been one of exceptional triumphs, but whatever rewards a life of public service offers, the opportunity to legally multiply personal wealth by an order of magnitude is not among them.
She ended her acting career in 1980 with a film called Nadhiyai Thedi Vandha Kadal—The Sea That Came in Search of a River. The title could be a poetic metaphor not just for her life, but also for the ambition she has nursed for all these years. She has never preferred to meet the world, instead expecting the world to reach out to her, preferably at the doorstep of her Poes Garden home in Chennai. Everything about her career so far has tended to be unconventional, complicated and—to judge by her devoted party workers’ reactions to her conviction—emotionally violent. But even if a goddess can achieve what mere mortals cannot, the Special Court’s landmark judgement demonstrates that it need not always be admissible in the eyes of the law
Sugata Srinivasaraju is the Editor of Vijay Karnataka (Times Group), the largest circulated daily in Karnataka. He was previously a senior editor with Outlook.
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