Lucknow Boy

We are expected to say: “He was a decent fellow!”

“Lucknow Boy” tells the story of Vinod Mehta who left his home with a third class BA degree and later rose to edit some of India’s prominent publications. While doing one retarded job after another in Britain, he was forced to confront the fact that his ignorance was, to put it mildly, colossal. Like many of us, he learnt it the ‘hard’ way. His first English girl friend and her father wanted to know the informed Indian’s perspective on the Colombo plan. As it often happens, he didn’t have the faintest clue and his attempt to ‘impress’ was not altogether successful. Before long, he was ditched.

When he returned to India, he was 27 and with his modest savings quickly running out, he was expected to soon make a honest living instead of living off his long-suffering parents. His long hair, kurta-pyjama and broken English ensured that his first job after returning from Britain was that of an advertising copywriter in Bombay. He was a dreadful copywriter, but his first book “Bombay: A private View” was not as big a flop as he had expected. Not surprisingly, he started having delusions of grandiosity.  He soon got a job as the editor of Debonair, a Magazine which was known for its lurid pictures. His father only wanted to know whether he will get a salary every month, and was relieved to know that he will.

Two women who worked for Debonair had only one thing in common: their hatred for pictures of naked women. The art director of Debonair was “vastly talented”. As he writes: “To call M.G. Moinuddin talented would be an understatement. Mouinuddin began life as a linotype operator and gradually taught himself design and typography by reading book after book on the subject. A couple of hours after talking to him, I knew I had a genuine professional to assist me.” After serializing “The Sensualist” of Ruskin Bond, Debonair started looking like a far more respectable publication. Vinod Mehta was no longer treated with contempt by the big shots of Indian journalism.

When Emergency took its toll on Debonair’s naked woman, they had to cover their breasts with dupatta’s. The broad minded Kabir Bedi thought that Debonair was celebrating naked female body and making India proud of its rich culture and heritage. But he was not amused when Debonair went as far as attempting to print his wife Protima Bedi unclad. He threatened to break up with her, and the center spread was instantly pulled off the machine.

Vinod Mehta remembers Rajinder Singh Bedi, the radical Urdu writer who came to meet him. He turned out to be an oddball. “He was an extraordinary person: stubborn but childlike. ‘Will you publish one of my stories? I would be honoured.’ I couldn’t believe my ears. He then began narrating the story and got so carried away by the tale that he had written himself that he began to cry.”

Even after becoming a full-fledged editor, he was snubbed and kept out of their drunken parties by other editors and senior journalists. As he remembers: “When I was introduced, ‘Meet Vinod Mehta, editor of Debonair,’ a snigger would automatically follow.” Even the gracious Atal Bihari Vajpayee remarked: ‘Your magazine is very good, but I have to keep it under the pillow.’

After rejecting Ramnath Goenka’s offer to edit Sunday Standard, he started ‘Sunday Observer’ with Ashwin Shah. He soon had enough money of get himself a second hand car and second hand driver. His ‘party status’ went up. But, he soon moved to Vijaypat Singhania’s ‘India Post’. His relationship with Singhania strained when on his Birthday, he got a letter from Singhania saying: “As a serious and credible paper, we must be very careful in what we say. I have no intention of curbing editorial freedom, as my past actions would confirm, but unless you have hard evidence, I would request you not to permit any stories on some prominent people as they can seriously jeopardize our business interests.”

A guy in the Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s inner circle had threatened to put Singhania’s Rs. 546 crore worth of proposals under risk if he didn’t get rid of ‘India Post’. Singhania asked Vinod Mehta what he would have done if he were in his position. Singhania wanted Mehta to understand his limitations. Vinod Mehta resigned, and his staff wanted to march into the proprietor’s office. The tabloid ‘Mid Day’ published Singhania’s letter, and journalists of various persuasions shed crocodile tears on the perils to press freedom. Reading this story, I felt nothing but deep respect towards Singhania for honestly discussing his dilemma. It is quite understandable. Why do journalists expect proprietors to risk their savings and organizations over a battle they are most likely to lose? I lost some respect I had for Vinod Mehta for taking this into the public domain. However, he was soon the Editor of Times Group’s ‘Independent’ only to resign after 29 days over a report on Y. B. Chawan.

In 1990, he was unemployed, with no definite future prospects. He started a publishing company which didn’t go too far.  He helped out Lalit Mohan Thapar bring out Pioneer from Delhi. Mehta had a fallout with a CEO Thapar relied on. Thapar raised his voice at Mehta in a meeting from which Mehta had to walk out. He was soon asked to leave.  He found himself again looking for a job.

He writes: “My tombstone might read: ‘Here lies the most sacked editor in India.’ People close to me, including some former editors, reproached me for failing to acquire an essential skill: infighting. All around me I saw mediocre editors flourish. They possessed minimal competence but were adept at intra-office intrigue. At first, I found the advice facile, even ridiculous. I had thought being good at one’s job was the only requirement for professional survival and advancement, Now I was not sure. Did I have to master the black arts of proprietor sycophancy and colleague back-stabbing?”

“So, there I was holding a cheque for Rs. 42,000, with no house, no car, no driver (I have never learnt how to drive), sitting in the Delhi monsoon contemplating my fate. I am not a miser. As long as I have enough to live on modestly, I am alright. In October 1994, my bank balance was diminishing rapidly, and nothing was coming in. I started counting my pennies. On a crazy economy drive, I decided I would walk to the taxi stand. The saving was just five rupees, but at that time it seems to matter. One afternoon, distraught and distracted, on my way to the taxi stand, I walked into an open manhole. Before I started to holler and scream, for a few moments in the heart of darkness I touched the depths of despair. I had got myself into this manhole to save five rupees! It was probably the lowest point of my life.”

Rings a bell somewhere!

When Rajan Raheja wanted to take on India Today, India’s leading general interest magazine with a Magazine named Outlook, Mehta brought together an editorial team, which put together a Magazine which soon became highly successful in a short period of time. He still works with Outlook.

Mehta adds: “I am inadequately educated. I did no training in a mass communication institute; I was not even a copyboy in a newspaper office. The little I know, I’ve learned on the job which in my case, luckily, started with being an editor.” You will not become a Shekhar Gupta or a Rajdeep Sardesai or an Arnab Goswami by memorizing a textbook or taking a twelve-month course. You have to do it your way.”

I agree to what he thinks of being opinionated: “You are not a eunuch. When the situation arises, fire on all cylinders. Take sides. Controlled anger and disgust are virtues to be cultivated. Mr Shekhar Gupta is not going to give you a ‘Journalism of Courage’ award if your copy is full of ‘on the other hand’ kind of prose.”

To the question “Should a journalist always carry his resignation letter in his pocket?” he answers, “Most honest journalists, at least once in their career, will need to take a call. In my own career, in more than one occasion, the necessity for dal-roti has made me think three times before going up to my boss and uttering the dreaded words, “I quit.” Make sure you are the best. For that reason alone, give a wide berth to self-admiration-the feeling that you know it all. Believe me, if you are good at your job, you might face unemployment. But it won’t be for long. ”

I do not disagree.

And there is of course his disappointing stance that journalism is not for mavericks. I have always wondered why journalists and the common public alike think that integrity ends at exposing Enron or not taking bribes. Why is it not worth it to stand by an idea or conviction? Why are instances of corruption worse than the ideas and policies which breed it? Why is a symptom worse than the disease? I never understood.

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