Vinod Mehta, unedited

An insider's story of how the Indian media works.

December 03, 2011 07:34 pm | Updated 07:34 pm IST

Lucknow Boy, Vinod Mehta, Penguin/Viking, p.325, Rs. 499.

Lucknow Boy, Vinod Mehta, Penguin/Viking, p.325, Rs. 499.

There is something called the Theory of the Universal Thump. It states that the universe has a certain quantum of “thump”, or punishment, waiting for all of us in life. Some of us get this thump in small, regular, spaced out instalments; others get it all together, in one great big whammy. But the thing is, the total quantum of thump is generally the same for all of us. I was somehow reminded of this while reading Vinod Mehta's Lucknow Boy .

It's the story of a fascinating life, that starts with a delightful cameo in Lucknow in the 1950s. It then takes us to England, where Mehta spent eight years, “studying at the University of Picadilly Circus”, so to speak. It then brings us back to Mumbai, where he had a brief, forgettable spell as a copywriter. But the real story begins when, desperate to get out of advertising, he pleaded with the publisher of the near-defunct Debonair magazine to give him a chance to turn its fortunes around. He got the job. And what followed, of course, has been the series of very singular magazines and newspapers he has created over the years: Debonair, Sunday Observer, Indian Post, Independent, Pioneer and, ultimately, Outlook . In the process, Mehta became one of the people who have transformed the nature of Indian print journalism. But despite all his talent and success, his has also been a life that's had an almost karmic downswing — attributable, no doubt, to the inexorable workings of the Theory of the Universal Thump.

“Steal Vinod Mehta”

Mehta doesn't know it, but his life and mine sort of intersected once. In early 1987, when I worked for a well-known Mumbai advertising agency, we were asked to help launch a newspaper for industrialist Vijaypat Singhania. After analysing the paper, we told Singhania that no matter how well it was promoted, we believed it would fail. He was startled. Why, he asked. We said that it was all wrong, in content and in design. But, more than that, his choice of editor was all wrong, given the task at hand. So what did we recommend, he asked. We made a presentation to him that ended with one key slide: “Steal Vinod Mehta from Sunday Observer ”. “Nonsense,” said Singhania, “Vinod Mehta is just a magazine editor; he could never edit a daily newspaper.” We tried to argue, but that was that … until three months later, when Singhania's paper had flopped and he decided to hire Mehta, after all, to turn it around. But then — given all that was to later transpire between the two of them — I'm not sure that either Mehta, or Singhania, would thank me today for that advice.

As a regular follower of Mehta's various publications over the years, I found it difficult to read Lucknow Boy in sequence. Instead, I found myself turning, eagerly, to things that I wanted answers to: Why exactly was he forced to leave the Indian Post ? What exactly happened at the Independent that triggered his ignominious exit within a month of its launch? Why did he fall foul of Lalit Thapar, seemingly the most civilised of newspaper proprietors? What was going on in his head when, at the lowest point of his career, he decided to launch a newsmagazine to take on the then impregnable India Today ?

Interesting revelations

One of the book's most interesting revelations is the story of Mehta's stint at the Times of India group, for whom he developed the Independent , an innovative and very successful new paper. But within a month of its launch he'd got the axe, and had to go into hiding, with angry mobs baying for his blood over a story he'd carried: about how it wasn't Morarji Desai who'd had spied for the CIA (as alleged by Seymour Hersh, in his book, The Price of Power) but, instead, Y.B. Chavan, a prominent Maharashtrian politician. I remember many delicious conspiracy theories floating around at the time, about how it was a case of personal sabotage, so it was interesting to read the truth from Mehta himself. Shockingly, it was the editors of his sister publications, Times of India and Maharashtra Times who, apparently, discomfited by the success of Mehta's new paper, decided to fix him. They twisted his story into a deliberate insult to a revered Maharashtrian leader, and blew it up. It worked. And it started a long, dark period, when Mehta was written off as “India's most sacked editor”.

It's also interesting to read Mehta's Radiagate story: he'd apparently gotten hold of leaked transcripts and CBI documents as early as February 2010 — nine months before the story finally broke — but decided not to use them, because of doubts about their authenticity. The first actual CD of the tapes appeared only in mid-November, when it was submitted by Prashant Bhushan to the Supreme Court in support of a PIL. Outlook got its hands on the CD immediately after, and broke its story. In early December, it got its hands on a further 800 tapes which, also, it exposed. But many questions remain unanswered: Who leaked those tapes, and why? (Journalists I know received anonymous packages of transcripts delivered to their offices.) Was it the “corporate house deeply enmeshed in the telecom machinations themselves” that Mehta mentions elsewhere, or a certain senior Cabinet Minister? What's the forensic verdict on the tapes' authenticity? Have they — or have they not — been leaked with strategic selectivity? What's in the rest of the 5,851 recordings that the CBI apparently possesses? If Mehta knows, he's obviously not in a position to tell.

Finally, one quibble: was it really necessary, in the section on famous personalities Mehta has encountered, to profile his wretched dog, Editor, ahead of people like V.S. Naipaul, Salman Rushdie and Sonia Gandhi? Never mind. Lucknow Boy is one of the most interesting books I've read this year: not just the story of a life interestingly lived, but an important book for anyone who wants an insider's view of how the Indian media works.

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