This long tribute to Vinod Mehta will appear in Tamil translation in KALACHUVADU [www.kalachuvadu.com], 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.
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.