From childhood memories to pressing issues in journalism, India's 'most sacked' editor, Vinod Mehta, reveals all in his engaging memoir, Lucknow Boy.
After being forced to resign from L.M. Thapar's Pioneer in 1994, with a measly Rs 42,000 as three months' wages (three months' basic salary mentioned in contract fineprint), Vinod Mehta ruminated on what constituted a “successful editor”.
In his delightful memoir, Lucknow Boy (Penguin Viking), the author recalls that anguished August 1994. “All around me I saw mediocre editors flourish. They possessed minimal competence but were adept at intra-office intrigue. I was advised to become a ‘player' or remain ‘easy meat' for the plotting and scheming inescapable in any office situation.” Then comes this gem: “Even though I come from Lucknow where they teach you to laugh at life's misfortunes, I could not find anything funny in the position I found myself in.”
But there is plenty to laugh at in Mehta's book, because he can laugh at himself. The first few chapters on his early days in Lucknow are hilarious. His schoolmate Saeed Naqvi, one of my editors in earlier years, “was unquestionably the star of our politically correct group. He could recite poetry non-stop and pull girls non-stop... we hung around him because in his black shirt and tight black trousers the women followed him in droves.”
Poking fun at his limited academic prowess, the author recalls how Naqvi, Ashok, Azad (“who was a dud like me”) created a riot at the La Martiniere, and “were caned on our bums, our hands, punished with after-hours detention, fined.”
But the most hilarious story from his Lucknow days is of the Urdu poet Firaq Gorakhpuri, “a self-confessed, compulsive homosexual. Even if he knew he was going to fail in his seduction attempt, he would still make a pass.” While devouring half a bottle of rum, he would lecture the four young lads on Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats and Byron; “his eyes firmly positioned below our waist — a sight which, no doubt, enchanted him because mostly we were in shorts.” But as his eyes became red and he talked about how “love between man and man was perfectly natural, and he asked one of us to come and sit next to him, that was the signal for us to flee.”
Years in the UK
After graduation, Mehta went to the UK where he “nicely balanced lofty preoccupations” such as reading Bertrand Russell and watching Harold Pinter plays with “pleasures of the flesh”. Aware of his physical limitations — “though fair and tall, I had bad teeth, a flat nose, clumsy gait and thin hands. I did have plenty of black hair, though, which for some reason appealed to western women.”
After a couple of gaffes, such as sending, “in a state of inebriation”, a German airhostess home to Lucknow, which gave his family the mistaken impression he wanted their “approval”, Mehta made a Swiss girl pregnant. He was only 21 and could not marry her. They agreed on an abortion, but the Catholic girl backed out and delivered the child in Switzerland. All he got was just one picture of his daughter. This is one of the most poignant parts of the autobiography; says the author: “I have been married twice, but no children. The only child I have is a stranger to me and lives in a faraway land. I don't have many regrets in life and generally I have not been a ‘bastard' with women. On this occasion, I was. I don't expect to be forgiven.”
By 1970, he returned home to a copywriter's job in a Bombay ad agency. During his free weekends, he penned about 30,000 words on Bombay, published the book himself and was amazed it did very well. A book on Meena Kumari followed and then in 1974 he landed the job of editing Debonair. Marshalling the talent and energy of good journalists and columnists, he made a success of this assignment. But despite R.K. Narayan, Nirad C. Chaudhuri and V.S. Naipaul writing for it, it failed to shed its “smutty aura”. After an interview with Atal Bihari Vajpayee, when the latter said, “Your magazine is very good, but I have to keep it under the pillow”, he decided it was time to leave.
Stints at the Sunday Observer (Vijaypat Singhania), and The Independent (Bennet & Coleman) followed; at both places he refused to compromise the role of the editor with the business interests of the bosses and was forced to leave. At the latter, Mehta accuses Dileep Padgaonkar, then Editor of The Times of India, of launching “a series of vituperative onslaughts” against him vis-à-vis the wrong report that it was Y.B. Chavan and not Morarji Desai who had once spied for the US.
Mehta's take on Padgaonkar: “The man who claimed he held ‘the second most important job in the country' can be legitimately charged with single-handedly opening the door for the denigration and decline of the Editor as an institution. When Dileep's bosses asked him to bend, he crawled. Since then it has been downhill all the way for other editors.”
With juicy and brutally frank opinions such as this, Lucknow Boy is an irresistible read not only for journalists but the larger universe, which is now so interested and critical of the media... The “most sacked” editor in India has remained with Outlook magazine for long years, after being eased out of The Pioneer as well.
The most endearing feature of this autobiography is that the story is related as is, in a style that is simple, racy and extremely engaging. Because he takes himself, and his tribe lightly, the pages sparkle with humour and numerous anecdotes to chuckle over. Also, whether it is the spat between Ramachandra Guha and William Dalrymple, or matters related to the Niira Radia tapes and the embroilment of top names such as Vir Sanghvi and Barkha Dutt in them, there is no attempt to whitewash anything.
Pithy portraits of Sonia Gandhi (whom he finds neither a goongi gudiya nor a “headstrong dictator”, and “singularly well informed” about the Congress and other political parties); V.S. Naipaul (“I am unable to provide an instance of generosity, warm-heartedness or compassion on his part”; basically a “son of a bitch” and a kanjoos who never pays for lunches/dinners); Shobhaa De (regarded as “something of a carpetbagger” in some circles; “Shyam and Nira Benegal, Charles and Monica Correa, Gerson and Uma deCunha treated Shobhaa as something of a pariah”), and, of course, his beloved dog called Editor (incorrigible and totally spoilt, with whom he has long monologues which are like free therapy and who has given him “so much, and I have given him so little”) form the last section of this delightful book.
But two things jar; as in his column in Outlook, where he refers to himself as “pseudo secularist” (without the quote marks), here too he flashes the label, rather unnecessarily. Secularism is a badge of honour, to be worn proudly and not belittled by the tag of “pseudo”.
The other pertains to referring to Sumita, a delightful woman I've had the pleasure of meeting, all the time as “my wife”. When he can call his celebrated dog “Editor”, why she should be “my wife” (even in the interview) and not Sumita, not only beats me, but galls too. What is it about the most modern, liberal men, who fail to refer to their spouses by name and call them “my wife” instead? Reminds you of old Hindi movies where the heroine always said “aap ke bhaisaab” or “woh”!