I would not go overboard to say that Vinod Mehta was perfect. No human being can claim to be free of all shortcomings. Vinod was quirky, sometimes dismissive, irritable and a hard taskmaster. He was impatient to a fault, had a very short attention span and tuned off if you didn’t quickly get to the point. He could also go horribly wrong when judging people and could get carried away by what was told to him. But, having said that, one must hasten to add that he was certainly the last of the credible editors; someone who had his heart in the right place. He stood up for the underdog and the less privileged and was wary of claims made by business houses and politicians, which he took with a pinch of salt. Till his dying day his integrity remained intact. He did not work for any lobby or leverage political influence for his personal gains. He was not, to use a much-used Delhi nomenclature, a “player.” He was simply happy being editor.
Having worked with him for over 25 years I can say this much — he was someone who respected and valued a good story or a telling photograph. He trusted his reporters and reposed faith in his editorial team. In fact, however much he had reservations about a reporter or a photographer, his face lit up when he or she turned in good work. Suddenly, all was forgiven and personal prejudices forgotten. This is what endeared him to those who worked with him. How many times have I heard the remark — “Whatever you say, Vinod is a good editor.”
He was a reporter’s editor but was not cast in the traditional mould of the pontificating editor who loved the sound of his own voice and imposed his world views on a captive audience at edit meetings. Vinod had no pretensions that he was a know-all. In fact, he did not project himself as the best-read man on the planet. Neither did he carry the tag of being a staunch leftist who sharply altered his political beliefs due to a call of his conscience. Simply put, Vinod was a liberal who stood up for what he thought was correct and opposed what he felt was wrong. And should his assessment turn out to be inaccurate he was ready to admit it without being obstinate. That is perhaps what made him a good professional.
His workplace was always where the action was — in the reporters’ section, the design room and at the news desk. He was notorious for leaving his office and prowling around “to see what was happening.” At the Outlook — a magazine which he launched and edited for some 17 years — he was jocularly referred to as the “ghost who walks”: A phantom figure who surfaced behind you out of nowhere and came up with queries and suggestions.
His USP till the very end was respecting and acknowledging a good story or an idea. It did not matter who it came from. And his trust for the person who had gone out into the field was to be seen to be believed. I remember coming back after covering elections in Kashmir in 1996 for the Outlook. It was the first poll to be held in J&K since 1989 and was being closely watched by the national and international media. My own assessment was quite clear — the high turnout polls were rigged. T Narayan, our photographer, even had telling pictures of security personnel stuffing ballot boxes as proof.
Vinod decided to play up the story on the cover despite reservations from some senior staffers in the magazine. He pointed out that an eyewitness account was far more reliable than any armchair assessment made in Delhi. The story we carried attracted much notice and strong criticism from the Narasimha Rao Government. But Vinod was unfazed by calls from senior ministers and bureaucrats.
His faith in reporters has sometimes misfired. But that was a rarity. While at The Independent, a paper launched by the Times of India group, he ran a controversial story alleging that YB Chavan was a US spy, which outraged many in Bombay. Vinod quit, accepting full responsibility. The two reporters who filed the story were spared. One of them is today a Rajya Sabha MP and the other a political commentator in Delhi.
In all the publications Vinod worked he insisted on editorial being given its freedom and primacy. In The Sunday Observer, editorial ruled. So it did in The India Post, till its owners gave the editor a list of politicians, from Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi downwards, against whom he could not write without prior management consent. Vinod walked out. In The Pioneer all was well till differences cropped up between him and the management. In Outlook, he lasted out the most till he was “kicked upstairs” as editorial board chairman three years before his death.
Though he is credited with launching four publications and for ushering in a new sense of design in the industry, Vinod has never been able to shake off the tag of having started his journalistic career as the editor of the Debonair — the desi version of Playboy. So, those who wish to be dismissive about him rake up his past. But by now the world knows that there was more to him than just girlie pictures. This is the reason why rights activists, lawyers and feminists all liked to write or be associated with the publications he edited. He was never a crusader but a credible editor. When I requested him last year to write the preface to my book Off the Record — Untold Stories from a Reporter’s Diary, he took his time over the manuscript. When I finally received his piece, I was surprised that he was generous in his praise. When I called to thank him, he laughed and said he had written what he had “to ensure” that I don’t go “bad mouthing” him.
That was Vinod — at the end of the day, caring and very appreciative.