Vinod Mehta Author and Editor-in-Chief, Outlook
EARNING A BA third class, in 1962, Vinod Mehta had just enough money for one international flight. In his piquant memoir Lucknow Boy: A Memoir, the iconic editor details his journey from UP’s addas to London’s factories, from “au pair hunting” to discovering Orwell, from launching India’s first Sunday paper to becoming the country’s most sacked editor. In his Outlook office on a crisp winter evening, Mehta, 69, spoke to Tusha Mittal about shifting convictions, journalism myths and being an ageing subversive.
Edited Excerpts From An Interview
Your memoir begins with an engaging account of growing up in Lucknow at a time of great political churning – refugees coming in post-Partition, Hindu and Muslim aristocracy on the run, the disintegration of an old feudal order. Yet, you describe how you were oblivious to the history around you, too engrossed in Operation Chase Women. How did the Lucknow of the 1950’s and 60’s influence you?
It shaped me imperceptibly but very strongly. My secularism was implanted in my DNA. Lucknow was a very non-communal, non-casteist society. I’m sure there were some communal feelings around, but nobody talked about these things in my circles. My Muslim and Hindu friends were picked up by the quality of their friendship as opposed to their caste. Secularism was not intellectually imbibed. Because I grew up with it, I think it’s stronger than those people who have become secularists by ideological commitment. It was only later, when I went to England, that I discovered this Hindu-Muslim thing. In Lucknow, I had no idea.
You talk of how you frequented Kazim and Co in Lucknow, an adda “for intellectuals and pseudo-intellectuals and aspiring intellectuals.” What kind of conversations excited you?
There wasn’t too much cerebral thinking. We talked about girls. Who’s screwing whom. Well, not screwing, because none of us were screwing at the time. Who’s going out with whom. Usually, it was who’s trying to meet whom, because the love affairs and romances were all very unsuccessful but they were attempted with great vigour. The worst insult you could give someone then was that he was a bore. We cracked jokes and indulged in small time mischief. Small time.
Moving on to London where you worked at a thermostat factory. You have an anecdote about how a girlfriend in London dumped you because of your ignorance of global affairs. You say how it was in London that you discovered Orwell and Marx, that you began reading, engaging. Who were your political and literary mentors?
In 1962, at age 20, I landed up in London, coming from an entertaining but small, insular and parochial society. When I saw the world in front of me, I was horrified with my own lack of knowledge about it. I thought to myself, ‘how am I going to make a way in this world I know nothing about.’ What I wanted to be hadn’t struck me. My first task was to cure my own ignorance. I had to start at the bottom. That was good and bad. I had no money; I couldn’t go to college in Oxford or Cambridge. I’m an autodidact. What shaped me the most was that in 1962 in Britain, a few months after I arrived, a new Labour government came to power. This was the first time that socialists, left-intellectuals came to power. I saw this happening. Even before I started reading, I tried to understand the world around me. It was in such a state of transition – politically, intellectually, and sexually. I was happy to find myself in the middle of that churning. Instead of making myself a master of the Roman Empire or the Greek civilisations, I thought I must understand the world of the 60’s.
Coming back to secularism, there is a view that Indian secularism is a failed project; it hasn’t been able to resonate with the masses in the way that religion does. What does it mean to you to be a secularist? Is there a misplaced definition of secularism today as an antithesis to religion?
Yes. You see, in the 90s, people tried to polarise Indian society in this secular, non-secular way. Hindus were told you’re actually a minority. That this other 10 percent has all the privileges and you are being discriminated against. That project always assumed that the BJP stood for Hinduism. Those who immediately rejected that were okay. BJP’s religion was communal mobilisation. In 2011, can we say secularism is a failed project? The BJP today will say Hindu mobilisation is dead, Ram Mandir is dead, all their slogans are dead. What do they talk of? Good governance. That’s the biggest tribute you can pay to secularism. That they tried communal mobilisation, and it didn’t work.
I came from a very religious family. We were not the temple-going variety of Hindus, but we were very definitely Hindus and my friends were fairly devout Muslims. I’m quite happy to meet Hindus and Muslims who are comfortable in their skin being Hindus and Muslims and yet being secular. I see no contradiction between the two. Being secular doesn’t mean being anti-religious.
‘I came close to suspending objectivity in the ’90s, during the BJP rath yatra. What they were trying to do was transparent’
You write that while your faith in secularism “needed no post-modern adjustments”, you have, over the years, modified your position on other core beliefs. What convictions have shifted?
I began politically as a leftist, not a communist, but a leftist. Then I moved to a more center-left liberal position. I believed in public intervention, that the State has an important role to play in any society. I believed the inequality that capitalism naturally nurtures was something to be avoided; that the state must intervene.
I’ve changed my mind now. I’ve become much more free-market. I’ve now taken this position that Amartya Sen often takes. You believe in the free market but the revenue that any society generates must be spent in the social sector – public health, education. In these matters, I am all for state intervention. I don’t believe in a welfare state, but the state should not abandon its responsibility and leave everything to the market. That idea petrifies me. Markets are completely amoral. In India, the market has not led to the bridging of inequalities, it has actually heightened them. Some examples of the free market are sanguine – telecom, airlines, more things being available to us with globalisation, being part of an international system. That’s good. But I have a big problem with the market ayatollahs. I believe in the mixed economy, where the state makes money from globalisation and capitalism and spends that money on welfare programming.
What was your biggest challenge in writing this memoir?
The biggest challenge is not to edit your memory, not be selective. That’s why I had that Orwell quote – Never trust a memoir that doesn’t reveal something disgraceful about itself. I read Bertrand Russell’s three-volume autobiography. It was absolutely riveting, the way he did a post-mortem on himself. Once I decided to be brutally candid, once I wasn’t fucking around with my memory, the writing came quite easily.
You’ve made many ‘disgraceful revelations’ – the first issue of Debonair that you wrote yourself under various pseudonyms, breaking the CIA mole story without due diligence, falling into a manhole to save five rupees, a Swiss girlfriend who refused abortion and a daughter born out of wedlock who you’ve never met – what was hardest for you to reveal?
This daughter thing was very hard. I showed it to my wife. Autobiographies are like your last will or testament as it were. I had to get this off my chest. I was also hoping, maybe even at this late stage, through some fortuitous set of circumstances, I might get to meet her, or she hears about me. That would be a very big gift to me.
Was there anything you felt compelled to hold back?
No. If I can talk about my daughter…that would have been something I would’ve been tempted to hold back.
As you educated yourself, you found you wanted to have a position on the Cuban missile crisis, the Civil Rights movement. You were looking for a point of view. Transposing that to 2011, is the idea of objective journalism overrated?
Absolutely. The notion of an objective or independent journalist is a pompous myth. The most opinionated people in India must be editors and journalists. How do you expect that their biases do not reflect in their work? They must reflect. Mine certainly do. You have a matrix of dos and don’ts and you pass your biases through that matrix. But there are many occasions when a journalist must jettison objectivity completely. Every story does not have two sides. There are no two sides to the Gujarat massacre or the 1984 massacre or female foeticide. We are taught we need to balance. You mustn’t balance all the time. Some stories are so grotesque they require no balance. I’m not saying this should be the case all the time, but on certain occasions. You must decide which situation is the most abhorrent to you and then you must forget your objectivity. If you are moved and upset by something, if you think some gross cruelty is being perpetrated, why not call it what it is.
What are some stories where you have felt the need to suspend objectivity?
In the 1990s, during the BJP rath yatra, I came quite close to abandoning objectivity. What they were trying to do was transparent. The problem is you shouldn’t try to understand too much. You might even be converted to believe for example, that Khap panchayats have a reason for what they’re doing. You should never get seduced into that argument.
What were your thoughts before Outlook published the Radia tapes expose. You talk in the book, of commercial considerations. What did you weigh?
We gave it a great deal of thought. We considered the kind of people we were taking on. I’m not talking of the journalists; they were collateral damage. Kanimozhi, Raja, Ratan Tata, Nira Radia, the Ambani brothers – the lion’s den. But the story was of such compelling public interest. What attracted me was the kind of Bollywood script around the Radia tapes. It was surreal. We all thought Indian democracy was corrupt, but one didn’t imagine it would be going so far and so brazen.
In the fallout of the 2Gscam, since you mentioned commercial considerations, if I may ask…
We paid the price. I don’t want to say more.
Your book also makes disclosures about Mala Singh, Shobha De, Kabir and Protima Bedi, Dileep Padgaonkar, Arun Shourie. What has been…
Silence! Till now, I have not heard anything from any of the people I’ve written about.
As self-deprecating as the tone is, your memoir reveals an editor who has constantly tried to push the envelope and provoke debate. While at Debonair, you asked KR Sundar Rajan to write an insider account of how TOI sold out to Indira Gandhi during the Emergency. Publishing this, you assess, strengthened your reputation as a ‘promising subversive’. How would you assess yourself today?
Editing Debonair was my first job. There was some sense that this piddling little guy who has come from nowhere is taking on TOI. So my audacity was questioned. Now, I see myself as an ageing subversive. I’ve always enjoyed being a rebel, disagreeing with people intelligently. My adrenaline starts pumping when we’re doing a story taking on somebody high and mighty. But not a schoolteacher. My philosophy has been if you’re going to take on someone, it has to somebody up there.
Do you feel at Outlook you’ve pushed the boundary much as you would’ve liked?
I think I am being restrained by the format of the news magazine. I think I have failed to make Outlook a magazine that connects with young people. In this digital age, I’ve lost my way. I don’t know how to deal with this Twitter and Facebook generation, people who have very short attention spans but who are not unintelligent and who are very interested in public affairs. I don’t know to engage with them. Somebody younger needs to do that. This whole social media thing leaves me a bit cold. Although, I think it’s very important. I don’t know how to handle it. I come from a time of hot metal printing.
Tusha Mittal is a Principal Correspondent with Tehelka.
A Feat Of Clay
Rani Singh’s biography of Sonia Gandhi raises expectations only to belie them later, says Paranjoy Guha Thakurta
SONIA GANDHI’s story represents the greatest transformational journey made by any world leader in the past four decades. Circumstance and tragedy, rather than ambition, paved her path to power.” So read the first two sentences of the inside-cover blurb of this book written by London-based journalist Rani Singh. With a foreword by Mikhail Gorbachev and fulsome praise from Henry Kissinger on the back cover, the volume raises high expectations that are, unfortunately, largely belied.
The book has excruciatingly detailed accounts of the deaths of Indira Gandhi and her two sons, Sanjay and Rajiv, as well as about the lifestyles of the first family of the world’s largest democracy. Still, it is pedestrian when it com es to presenting an incisive ana lysis of the importance of the widow of a former Indian prime minister, president of the Indian National Congress and chairperson of the ruling United Progressive Alliance coalition, who was born Edvige Antonia Albina Maino on 9 December, 1946, in Lusiana, a small town in It aly to Roman Catholic par e nts, her father being a contractor and a former supporter of Benito Mussolini.
The book is clearly intended for a non-Indian audience. Which would have been alright had it not been for the fact that in-between the fineprint are simplistic generalisations about the Emergency and the anti- Sikh riots of 1984, besides at least one goof-up that was clearly avoidable. For example, on page 189, while elucidating on the Congress’ campaign during the 2004 Lok Sabha elections, the following has been written: “It was time to give Indira’s ‘Remove Poverty’ slogan a contemporary feel. ‘The common man’, typified by the skinny basket-carrying mango man, aam aadmi, became the mascot of the Congress campaign.”
The word “hagiography” refers to writings on holy people, especially biographies of saints and religious leaders. The word of Greek origin acquired a negative connotation over the years. It is these days more commonly used to describe the accounts of biographers who are unduly uncritical or excessively deferential to their subjects. This book will inevitably be described as a hagiography. It is not as if the aut hor did not try. She has pored over books and quoted dozens of people, most of whom are favourably inclined towards Gandhi. Not enough space has been given to the critics of a person, who, to use the words of senior journalist Pranay Gupte, has emerged “from obscurity to the most powerful woman in Asia (and, arguably in the world)”.
Gupte is correct about the subject of the book and that it is “enormously readable”. He is wrong when he claims it is a “work of scholarship and journalistic endurance” and that it is a biography that is “carefully researched”, offering “new details”. The author took on a tough task. She had to work harder. Her best is not good enough.
Rani Singh’s perfunctory account about the Bofors scandal and its political fallout is particularly disappointing, as is the absence of any mention of the controversial Italian wheeler-dealer who is often described as a businessman although he represented Italy’s largest public sector company, providing consultancy to the petroleum, petrochemicals and fertiliser industry. He lived with his family in India for decades and was influential. One searched in vain for a reference to his name over 268 pages. There is only one person under the alphabet ‘Q’ in the index: former US Vice President Dan Quayle. He is not the same Mr Q many in India are familiar with.