Sevanti Ninan

Media Matters - Histories, personal and political

History as it happens: B.G. Verghese. Photo: R. Shivaji Rao

History as it happens: B.G. Verghese. Photo: R. Shivaji Rao  

When editors write autobiographies today, they are more often concerned with personal anecdotes than history in the making…

What should one expect from an editor's autobiography? Insights into the personalities of rulers they rubbed shoulders with? Gossipy anecdotes about a whole range of people? Accounts of losing tussles with proprietors? Or a ringside view of history being made?

It depends who the editor is. Vinod Mehta's Lucknow Boy, released last fortnight in Delhi before a large gathering of the city's who's who, has elements of all these. But given Mehta's record as a frequent launcher of publications (and his frequent exits), perhaps more than preceding accounts this volume leaves you with a sense of what moves journalists and journalism in contemporary India, as well as the proprietor-editor relationship. Gifted journalists with egos float around producing scoops in the publications that he conceived and launched, while proprietors grow increasingly tetchy — nervous at the goodwill they lose as Mehta's newspapers get into editorial stride, paranoid about the harm the publishing arm will do to the rest of the business empire.

In quick succession

Over the last year, three autobiographies in this genre including Mehta's have been launched. Last year there was First Draft — Witness to the Making of Modern India by B.G. Verghese, and earlier this year Nihal Singh's Ink in My Veins. In Verghese's account, the falling out with K.K. Birla in the Hindustan Times was stretched over a year and had to do with political pressure of various kinds. Nihal Singh's tenure at the Indian Post was brief, he says, because Vijaypat Singhania could not take the monetary losses; Mehta, who followed him at the Indian Post, says Singhania was distraught at being bullied by Satish Sharma and actually sent him a list of names of persons on whom stories should not be written. He felt his business empire was being endangered. A later proprietor, L.M. Thapar, found his editor's journalism upsetting both his friends and his CEO and Mehta was asked to resign.

His exit from the Bennett Coleman venture The Independent within a month of launch though had more to do with an editorial gaffe of some consequence, than any proprietorial pressure on an editorial line. Mehta offers more in the gossipy anecdote department than the other two accounts. And to add to Nicholas Coleridge's chocolate biscuits story about Samir Jain in Paper Tigers, there is a telling pad and pencil one here — Jain noted that while managers attended meetings he chaired with pencil and pad, Mehta, then the editor of the newly launched Independent did not. His observation was conveyed, the new editor fell in line. But he adds that he does not remember whether he doodled or took notes.

It is interesting to contrast these 21st century accounts with Frank Moraes' Witness to an Era which is quintessentially a newspaperman's ringside view of history in the making. It was published in 1973. Moraes was editor too at some point, but proprietors do not figure in his account. They did not loom large in his experiences, the Prime Minister, Mahatma Gandhi, and other world leaders did. He covered a period of 40 years including the war years and the country's transition to independence. He looks at the world around India, and at issues confronting the nation. So does George Verghese, but with a pronounced developmental perspective. In Nihal Singh's volume there is more of the foreign correspondent's experiences to be found, with a non-interview with Martin Luther King which he finds revealing in its own way.

Ringside view

While all four accounts deal in some way with Nehru-Gandhis and their influence on the country's political life, Moraes' intermittent exposure to Nehru over the entire period of his prime ministership offers the most insights, Nihal Singh's quick sketches the least. B.G. Verghese's view of Indira Gandhi and her government was partly from his perch as her information advisor, and describes policy shaping as it occurred. Moraes and Verghese focus much more on the history around them, Nihal Singh and Vinod Mehta on their own personal histories including the former's encounters with women. Even so, Mehta's encounters with Atal Bihari Vapayee and his family members are rather telling, more so than the limited encounters with Sonia Gandhi that he ends with.

For more now-it-can be-told revelations about men and matters we will have to wait for Kuldip Nayar's story of his life and times to be out early next year.

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Printable version | Feb 18, 2020 9:58:28 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/columns/Sevanti_Ninan/media-matters-histories-personal-and-political/article2641975.ece

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