Vinod Mehta

Unlikely editor

Print edition : April 03, 2015

Autographing a copy of “Lucknow Boy” at the launch of the book in Chennai in 2012. Photo: K.V. Srinivasan

Vinod Mehta (1942-2015) was self-taught, intellectually honest and, unlike the typical editor, a minimalist—a man of action and very few words.

FOR those who go by such things, Vinod Mehta was by no stretch your pedigreed editor. By his own admission, he did not come from a lineage of scholars, “toppers, Nobel Prize winners or even those who had the benefit of a higher education”. His schoolmates at La Martiniere (Lucknow) remember him as a below-average student (in his memoir he confesses he was a “dud”). And the only degree he could manage to lay claim to was a “BA Third Class” from Lucknow University.

He did go to England when he was 20 but not to walk through the hallowed portals of Oxford or Cambridge. Instead, he did odd jobs for eight years, watched TV, met the diehard socialist and failed writer Dennis Hill, who introduced him to Kingsley Amis, John Braine, J.B. Priestley and Herman Wouk. During his sojourn in the United Kingdom, Vinod (he hated being called Mr Mehta) also discovered George Orwell and Bertrand Russell, dated English girls, went pubbing and trawled through the papers (tabloids included) at the Kingston County libraries. That constituted, if you must, his higher education.

So, how did this street-smart young man from Lucknow rise to become one of India’s top editors? Remember, he was someone who was consistent enough to be on top of the league for 40 years with his integrity intact. Someone who veteran journalist M.J. Akbar described as a genius of an editor “who was a lodestar in a constellation of creative intellect and diligent integrity”. Vinod Mehta innovated with design, with coverage, with packaging. He breathed life into journalism and changed the rules of the game throughout his career. If one were to go by his prodigious track record, it would be safe to say, as some of his contemporaries have said, that he was one of the finest editors of our times.

One should not expect a background check of such a man to reveal the complete story. But to continue the narrative from where we left off, Vinod moved from London to Bombay via Lucknow. He initially worked in India’s commercial capital as a copywriter with Jaisons Advertising. The job offered him spare time to explore the city and to write. He penned his thoughts but could not find a publisher. So he risked his money and self-published Bombay: A Private View.The first 3,000 copies of the book were sold out and it went into reprint. Its success did not go unnoticed—Jaico Books contracted Vinod to write a book on actress Meena Kumari. He had become a writer of sorts.

But he was not satisfied merely writing biographies. In 1974, on an impulse he wrote to Susheel Somani, owner of Debonair, offering his services. He said he would turn around the fledgling magazine in six months if he was given a chance. Somani signed him on. Vinod gave up his secure advertising job and took up the challenge. He was treading on unfamiliar ground. He had never worked as a journalist, leave alone as an editor. All he knew was what he had imbibed in England by reading papers and magazines. He was purely a self-taught man.

But he slipped well into the new task and restructured the magazine and introduced sensible reading —columns, interviews, art and film reviews and political analysis—amidst the smutty pictures. He was happy to publish the big names —V.S. Naipaul, Khushwant Singh, Nissim Ezekiel and R.K. Narayan. But despite the cerebral content, Vinod found he was not taken seriously enough. In quarters that mattered, he was still the editor of Debonair, the desi Playboy.

What he wanted was to run a publication which would carry his stamp, something he could call his own. A paper which would be designed under his supervision with the editorial content free of any limitations of a predetermined mix as was the case with Debonair. The idea he had in mind was a Sunday paper, much like The Sunday Times (London) and The Observer. He went with the concept note to Ramnath Goenka of The Indian Express, who told him that there was no space in India for such a paper. Instead, he offered him an assistant editor’s job with the Sunday edition of The Express. Vinod politely refused the offer and approached his publishers, Jaico. They were willing to give his project a shot. As a result, on August 22, 1981, the first issue of The Sunday Observer hit the stands. A breath of fresh air among the staid papers of the day, it was an immediate success.

Four years after its launch, I joined The Sunday Observer as a trainee in Bombay. I had at that point given up advertising and was trying my hand at journalism. The Observer was my first job (if you discount the 20-odd days I worked in Mid Day on the desk) and it took me a while to get used to Vinod’s style of functioning. Edit meetings in his cramped office lasted no more than 15 minutes and reporters had to double up as subeditors and proofreaders in their free time. Story ideas had to be pitched almost telegraphically because the editor, I was told, was an impatient man and had a very short attention span. Much the same was said of Vinod in The Indian Post, The Independent, The Pioneer and Outlook—all publications that he edited.

Within in the first month of joining, I happened to discover something rather curious. Many of those who attended Vinod’s edit meetings seriously thought they were more knowledgeable and politically aware and evolved than he was. It was easy to nurture such a misconception because, unlike the typical editor, he was a minimalist—a man of action and very few words. Plus, he never sermonised on the state of the world and he refrained from pompous lecturing on social and moral issues or art and cinema at meetings. Vinod conveyed what he had to say explicitly—minus the fluff—even at the risk of sounding too simplistic. However, that did not necessarily reflect his shallowness as was believed. But it was easy to present this aspect as proof that as the former editor of Debonair his awareness and understanding of politics and art was limited and did not go beyond centrespreads and nudes.

This is how the late Dhiren Bhagat, who used to contribute regularly to The Observer, described Vinod at work: “Vinod Mehta was a shy, taciturn man: even when he accepted your article you were left guessing as to what he really made of it. It was this quiet style of functioning that initially won my respect. I have seen other, more garrulous editors at work: editors who joke, editors who chatter, who confess, editors who yell. Vinod got people to work for him with the sullen whisper.”

One of the earlier stories of mine that he ran the blue pencil through was one in which I had opened with a long-drawn paragraph replete with convoluted sentences. I thought I was being serious and analytical. He summoned me to his office and said if I wrote like this it would “drive the reader to death”. He then showed me a passage he had marked from George Orwell’s essay, “Politics and the English Language”. It read: “When there is a gap between one’s real and declared aims, one turns instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like cuttlefish squirting ink.” I got the point Vinod was making. One does not have to complicate an idea when there is a simpler and easier way of putting it across. That was a lesson that served me well. “Don’t write anything you wouldn’t suffer to read. That is the acid test,” he said.

Vinod’s style of functioning may have been cut and dry and curt, but the publications he edited were lively and full of verve and wit. That was because he allowed people the freedom to work and was receptive to great ideas and writing, whichever quarter they came from. This was perhaps the reason why so many —leftists, rights activists, feminists, film-makers and writers—liked to write for him or wished to be written about in his publications. His credibility quotient was high from the very beginning and this was the manifestation of his intellectual honesty.

He allowed democracy and was open to criticism. On the odd occasion he might have shown his displeasure when shown up as having got something wrong, he was quick to apologise. Or he would quietly accept that he had been mistaken. That is a quality which is hard to find in editors. Also, when he had to yield to pressure—sometimes from the management—and spike a story, he was candid enough to let the reporter know what had happened. He never tried to deflect the blame by picking holes in the report.

Having worked with him for over 25 years, I can say that he was never self-serving. I cannot ever recall him using his influence for personal gain. He never pandered to any lobby and sought no favours. And the pseudo-secularist tag he wore on his sleeve was a misnomer. He was as critical of the Congress as he was of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). You could not possibly be as objective as he was although he did confess at times that his vote was tilted in favour of the underclass and the less privileged.

Vinod is no more with us. But the values he practised in his journalism are there for us to emulate and ponder upon. I shall end with a quote from him on what a journalist should do with his ego: “Keep it locked up. Since his day job involves drawing attention constantly to what is wrong and suggesting how it can be put right, there is a tendency for journalists to become preachy. Some editors think they want to run the country, or at least set the agenda for the country. Editors forget that their thundering editorials and powerful columns have a life of thirty minutes at the most. Then they are used for stuffing broken window panes.... Politicians sweet-talk journalists, praising their brilliance, erudition and insight. The testimonial should be taken with a shovel of salt.”