30 November 2011

Lucknow Boy by Vinod Mehta

Life story of an editor
Why would anyone be interested in reading about the life of the editor of Outlook group of magazines? I wasn’t. But when I got home from a trip and found my husband, who had lived a few formative years in Lucknow deeply immersed in it and regaling us with snippets at the dinner table, I knew I had to.
Vinod Mehta’s memoirs are easy to read, spicy, and worthwhile. Being a skilled and experienced journalist, he paints a clear, comprehensive picture of his life and times, and gives a good perspective of the social and political events that shaped world and Indian history in that period. His childhood in Lucknow laid the foundation for his celebrated ‘pseudo-secularism’ and we get a few glimpses of Lucknow humour too.
Eight years in England followed, during which Vinod Mehta got little glimpses of different European cultures through a string of girlfriends. Reading English newspapers helped shape his view of the world – and influenced him to become the writer he became. Back in India, his decades as a journalist had dramatic highs and lows. This book contains his descriptions of various events and how he approached and covered them in the different publications he edited, providing a wide-ranging lesson in contemporary Indian history.
His own life had enough drama to be compelling too. Most poignant of all is the time he fell into a manhole while walking to save a few rupees – “for a few moments in the heart of darkness I touched the depths of despair,” he writes.

Right through the highs and lows, the hype and straight talk, I found it impossible to forget that Vinod Mehta’s success and glory would never have taken its present shape if, at 21, he had married the young Swiss woman who became pregnant in the course of their affair. She chose to have the child; the father was adamant that he did not want anything to do with her. What happened to his daughter? Vinod Mehta does not know.
We may turn resolutely away from that sin – inexcusable, surely? – but the rest of the book, too, shows Vinod Mehta as a man of clear priorities and simple needs. He is good humoured, relaxed – and (one who revels in poking fun at himself) a closet egotist. He never learnt to drive a car. Till the age of forty he owned only one pair of shoes (on the impeccable logic that you can only wear one pair at a time); when they broke irretrievably he would buy another. But as the powerful editor of the burgeoning Sunday Observer, his "social and party status went up a few notches" and, shrugging on the solitary suit in his wardrobe, could he continue to get away with those red loafers?
I noticed that while Vinod Mehta writes affectionately if patronisingly about his mother, his father is just a remote and sketchy character with constipation who does not even feature in the index of this book.
That particular omission, however, could well be because the index is a careless and unprofessional job which leaves out other stuff too, and even repeats entries.

This book has many lessons for journalists. In addition to the example of his own career, Vinod Mehta has also listed FAQs towards the end of the book and aired views on them, including practical observations such as:
Editors and back-of-the book writers may be unaware, but those who take handouts are held in contempt by the providers.
I’m not sure whether the aesthetics of that sentence appealed to me. Any number of abrupt and faintly ungrammatical phrases in this book troubled me. One I noted said,"all his life he had never worked." I was also confused by the many sudden transitions, with subject changes crashing into each other leaving no breathing space for the reader. Vinod Mehta has thanked his editor effusively in the acknowledgements - but really ... I'm not sure.

In this book, Vinod Mehta makes peace with a number of people. He has also indulged himself gloriously by taking digs at many more, from JRD Tata and Balasaheb Thackeray to Shobha‘a’ De and William Dalrymple. Of course the latter exercise is much more fun for the reader.
“Never have I seen such a collection of pompous, self-important, Fortune 500 bores and busybodies pretending to set the economic and political agenda for the world,” he describes Davos, calling it “a charmless rich man’s playground.” I particularly enjoyed his scathing description of the bossy American ambassador Robert D. Blackwill’s overbearing dinner parties at which a post 9/11 premise that America must always set the rules kicked in and had him insulting his guests if they tried to speak. And I loved reading about the design artist Moinuddin and Vinod Mehta’s repeated appreciation of his brilliance, particularly because, many years ago, I had the privilege of working with Moinuddin too.

One of the things I admired in this book was the description of the Editorial Charter of Vinod Mehta’s erstwhile company New Frontier Publishing Ltd (it never actually went into business). This charter dedicated the company to journalism of the highest possible standard, and to creating publications that would owe allegiance to no political party, politician, business house, caste, community, government or interest group. It pledged to frequently challenge the established order and be critical of powerful political, commercial and social institutions and individuals when necessary; to accurately inform members of the community about the way in which their society operates.
There’s not a single Indian media house which comes anywhere near these standards. If only there was.


  1. What about editors with king-size egos? will they be judged? even if i was to be paid, i wouldn't read the autobiography of a single editor today. maybe you've seen this. http://kafila.org/2011/12/01/everything-you-wanted-to-know-about-suhel-seth-but-didnt-know-who-to-ask/

  2. I really resisted reading this one Saaz. With malice towards none, I hate to say, that he is a sucker for the Congress and his opinions are far from original, because they are forever coloured by the mood of the Congress High Command. Frankly, one must exhibit a little dignity as a Journalist.

    Besides, I always thought that he said he was a Bombay Boy....what happened? Don't tell me, his Political ambitions are now leaning dangerously towards the UP High Command, since the Congress High Teas no more see the likes of him any more?


  3. Ann - you're right. Loved the Suhel Seth story! As I said, Vinod Mehta is a closet egotist, he pretends not to be one by constantly poking fun at himself. But I do think editors' memoirs are worth checking out ... having lived in the thick of news, and with the wits to have got as far as they have, their perspective on history can be interesting - or at least entertaining.
    And Julia - you'd just LOVE the last little section of this book. It's an ode to Sonia Gandhi!