“My Work Is To Introduce The Readers To The Truth” -Vinod Mehta, Editor-in-Chief, Outlook
Some Indian writers have scaled all heights on the global map and are making even bigger. Vinod Mehta Editor-in-Chief of Outlook magazine, himself is a height beyond an easy touch. Very conscientious, gracious and down-to-earth, he admits his faults, negative side, his chequered career and turbulent past candidly, whereas most people prefer taking the secrets to their grave. Mehta started his career from the top and led all the publishing houses from the front. He has fathered four newspapers and magazines; way back in 1974 he began Debonair, then The Independent, The Sunday Observer, The Pioneer, and then Outlook.
He in his book Lucknow Boy illustrates every aspect of his life. In an interview to Uday India he throws light on various covert facts overtly. He does not hitch even one bit to mention the sleazy and a bit of raunchy Debonair. People live in the ego of themselves once they’ve reached this height but he did not let his head swell. Excerpts:
Your father had come from an army background, but you took to writing. How did you discover that editor in you and when did writing come down your way?
I was always interested in writing as I had no other choice. I am not that fabric who sits the Civil Services and gets through nor could I have afforded to become a box-wallah. This is the only thing I had and always tried to magnify it. I started working as a copy writer at Jaisons, Mumbai. At that point in time I was just hopeless and was groping.
What was your journey like with Debonair?
Debonair was launched in 1973 and wasn’t doing well. The owners wanted to shut it down. I asked them to give me six months with the publication. Luckily, I got the chance to do so. I made something of a success out of it. The owner of Debonair, Susheel Somani, had hired an Englishman, Count Anthony Van Bradband as the editor and Ashok Row Kavi as his deputy. Both were practising homosexuals and didn’t have problem with this girly magazine. It didn’t take off as India wasn’t ready for a Playboy kind of magazine. We didn’t have the resources to pay the models and photographers. I was hired at a salary of Rs. 2500 a month plus a reasonable monthly allowance. I had managed to break through into the journalistic world and I entered right at the top, as the editor, that was a good and a bad thing. I joined as a fresher, having the responsibility of the entire publication. I had to discharge all the duties of an editor without knowing what an editor did.
You always began at the top. Did you too have to face nepotism otherwise what all made you reach here?
I am a simple graduate but the trait lies within you. Journalism is all about reflecting the true picture of society—I call it a mirror. My work is to introduce the readers to the truth and also make them aware of other bad and unhygienic things thriving in society. I as such do not have formal education and there are many with red brick qualifications breaking no fresh ground in this profession. There are many I can count without a journalism degree doing pretty well for themselves in this field.
In London, you had a daughter out of wedlock; you even desperately looked for her after you had left England, and the search is still on. What exactly happened?
She too must have been looking for me.
How did the idea of penning Lucknow Boy strike you, wherein you poured everything—even your dark side and failures?
I wanted to share my experiences with readers. I wrote my journey into journalism through different alleys and avenues. One must admit one’s failures and share them with others as well.
You even wrote one more book that fits in a different format, that talks all about Meena Kumari and her lovers but that book mentions nothing about Papaji, (Dharam). Why is it so?
Before 1974, I was very curious about Bombay. I have described everything in my book Bombay: A Private View that I printed with my own money at considerable risk. Hardly 100 copies of the book sold. Then someone from Jaico Publishing House asked me to write a biography on Meena Kumari after she died. I knew nothing about her and the Bollywood. I also wrote on Sanjay Gandhi’s life.
You used to go Ganjing, (Hazratganj). What was the experience like?
Like here we go shopping, in Lucknow we would go to Hazratganj chilling out as there were a lot of shops, eateries and people. In 1960s, the scenario was altogether different. It was too fresh of a real culture. I mean there was a feel of belonging to each other, the city had secularism in its real term.
In journalistic circuit, there is hell lot of exploitation and compromise. Did you too in your time have to undergo the same thing? Nepotism is rife; what is your say on ‘you scratch my back and I do yours’?
As such I do not have a mentor. We rather worked as a team to fight with combined efforts; each of the player contributed his part so as to cement the side against the enemy in front. Talking about nepotism, it was there but not so much as we see now. Other things have crept in as well. Real journalism is still left, and it has not yet died. The trend has undergone a big change over these years. A new lot of intelligent scribes are bursting forth. There’s no denying that competition has shot up exponentially.
I did not have to undergo all these despicable things as I never started from the shop floor but then the position at the top is full of responsibilities and you have to be answerable to society, to yourself and to your ultimate boss.
You picked a pariah dog. How did you raise a mutt to the extent of feeding him on foreign candies and chocolates and even call him Editor? How does he edit your life?
It was a freezing cold night and my wife saw a pup, shivering with cold. She got off the car and brought him home. You see, we have three more dogs living in our house. I call him Editor because he does the opposite, he does exactly what he feels comfortable doing like any print editor. He behaves just like a newspaper editor so I started calling him by that name.
Anything you touch turns to gold. How did Outlook happen to you and what makes it a success? How do you look at Rajan Raheja helping you get off to a good start?
Well, I’m indebted and thankful to him. After The Pioneer, again I was going through a very lean patch and was out of work. Just then Rajan Raheja came like an angel with an abiding faith in me who had decided to get into publishing to bring out a magazine like India Today, which at that time was a top dog and a byword for quality journalism. No one could dare to take it on. I was quite determined to try to do for a dare. We had Deepak Shourie on board as well. Tarun and Shourie defected from India Today to join us. The only thing I had on my mind was to come up with a weekly and let India Today compete on our terms rather than us competing on theirs. In April 1995, we moved to Safdarjung Enclave and started Outlook which ran for 18-19 months, as India Today conveniently ignored us. Its stories might have been better, but we stole a march on it. We broke good stories in the past. Outlook carries must-read pieces on various issues.
Looking back on those days when you saw life the hard way which came to such a pass, tell something about your best and worst experiences working with different media houses.
The Sunday Observer in 1981, then I was still trying to gain a foothold in the journalistic arena. I in fact had many different figths to fight. As of now I am content with my present stay with Rajan Raheja who I have dedicated my latest book to.
Share your experience working with KPS Sundar Rajan ToI, Behram Contractor (Busy Bee) and Mario Miranda and a brush with your sworn foe Dilip Padgaonkar.
Let’s forget the past and move on. I had a good time, rather unforgettable moments I spent then. I can’t go beyond this.
At the time of LN Thapar, you were sacked from The Pioneer, many a door was shut upon you. Joshi, Sheila Reddy, Shefali Vasudev, Sandipan Deb and Kanchan Gupta—some of them green horns whom you corralled and taught the tricks of the trade at your knee. You long remained out of work. You had intent to do something that scripted history. Please elaborate on that patch.
I was flat broke when I was sacked but I never gave way to despair. I fought back. Kanchan Gupta is a great and prolific writer without an iota of doubt. When I was chucked out I teamed up with many budding scribes, polished them, taught the ethics and the tricks of the trade, they picked and the show began. You need a team with proper co-ordination and understanding. It should be like a close-knit family working for a new-born baby to raise.
Having been to hell and back, life once fell apart troubles ganged up and came knocking at your door but then Raheja descended like manna from heaven. Now you have your own ashiana in the posh Nizamuddin East, you have your ‘own’ car, driver, barsati days are gone. How hard was it?
Really too tough that time was. I ran into rough weather. I’m happy as I’ve got all that I ever wanted. I used to have a car, driver and roof over the head but that wasn’t mine. You know when I was sacked all went with that.
How do you rate Indian authors who write in English, like Vidia Sagar Naipaul, Salman Rushdie, Fareed Zakaria and Pankaj Mishra?
They are terrific and established writers.
Share with Uday India a clash of the titans—Salman Rushdie and Pankaj Mishra.
It was when there was a literary duel between Pankaj Mishra and Salman Rushdie. Salman Rushdie was miffed with me as we had published a vitrolic review by Pankaj Mishra of his book, The Ground Beneath Her Feet. That was a literary splash.
The latest oeuvre of your fine works has travelled far and wide and Lucknow Boy is almost vanishing off the shelf in the tony Khan Market, Jorbagh, Select City Walk and Saket. What recipe have you put in to make it moreish?
Oh is it so? I’ve not got any money yet. Well, as far as Lucknow Boy goes I’ve shared my experiences with my readers. I have written the truth and admitted the sins and blunders in my writing. Why hide the dark side?
When are you going to hang up your pen?
I live and breathe journalism. I can’t do without writing. The ink won’t run dry.
How do you look at yellow journalism, cheque journalism and paid news?
It was there before, but now the scenario has undergone fierce competition. So the scene has undergone a sea change. In the prevailing scenario sensationalism sells. People have gone bone lazy.
By Syed Wazid Ali