Aijaz Zaka Syed
Vinod Mehta religiously maintained his distance from power despite his apparent bias for the Congress. He did not play Faust to barter his soul for a price, giving up the lofty ideals and convictions firmly held and defended for a lifetime. Under his leadership, Outlook did not just break some fantastic stories and taboos to entertain and titillate the chattering classes, it often held mirror to the nation
The cultivated nonchalance and casual impudence of Vinod Mehta cloaked indefatigable courage and steely commitment to truth, principles and idealism–qualities that are increasingly rare these days. He did not let his conscience go to sleep to meet the quirks and demands of market forces, saleability or changing political equations. He would launch and quit five publications in six years, rather than compromise on his principles and fierce independence. Which is again a rare commodity when with the increasing corporatization of media, newspapers are commodified just like any other ‘product’ and editors have been reduced to production managers
AIJAZ ZAKA SYED
How do you come to know and love someone you’ve never seen, met or spoken with? Except for exchanging a couple of fawning emails, I’ve never had the pleasure of meeting Vinod Mehta or even seeing him in flesh and blood, something that I will probably regret all my life.
It had been the love at first sight when Outlook’s inaugural issue hit the stands in 1994 with some pretty juicy stuff from The Insider, the autobiography of the former prime minister PV Narasimha Rao.
In the initial phase of my journalistic career that incidentally began around the time Outlook came into being, my friends and I would endlessly dissect the new magazine and dream of making it to Delhi someday. I even remember shooting off my rather sparse resume to VM eagerly assuring him of my nascent potential as a journalist. Unfortunately though, he was the best editor I’ve never had.
The touching, beautiful and most of them sincere tributes being paid to the ‘Lucknow boy’ from across the ideological spectrum shine the light on someone who was far from infallible and never pretended to be ‘holier than thou’. The enduring image of the man, who founded Outlook besides a string of other publications and gifted a new idiom and diction to journalism in India, that comes across is of someone who was funny, warm and humane with his heart and mind in the right place.
Bishwajeet Moitra paints a fascinating portrait of his late boss: “In the 17 years of his editorship, Vinod spoke to us little, he heard us even less, rarely went on sick leave, seldom gave appointments to visitors, went on a junket only twice, took a vacation only during the year-end when the magazine shut for a week, religiously took an hour off every afternoon to check out the new restaurants, mostly all by himself, hung 29 photographs and caricatures of himself in his not-so-large office, broke wind publicly, picked his nose at edit meetings, slipped his hand inside his pants to adjust it, used the office loo without ever bolting the door, all this and more as if no one was watching him.”
With all his frailties and vulnerabilities, VM was curiously charming and lovable. He was bigger than the sum of his imperfections. Despite being a trailblazer in many ways, he wore his greatness lightly. His journalism was inveterately irreverent and iconoclastic in many ways. He hated clichéd, pompous and academic approach to both writing and journalism.
As Tarun Tejpal, editor of Tehelka and once managing editor of Outlook, puts it, the greatest sin in his book was to be boring. And he seemed to really relish the brickbats and abuse that came his way apparently taking it as recognition of a job well done. Perhaps only a Vinod Mehta could have the humility and sense of humor to name his dog as ‘Editor’!
Being the editor of a colorful magazine like Debonair, India’s answer to Penthouse, he wanted ‘color’ in everything he and his publications produced, even in hard news. In Tejpal’s words, he loved gossip more than anything else. “In order of preference sex came first, and second; then politics, literature, sports, cinema, business, and then sex again.
His drowsy manner—slumped in his chair, shambling around on the editorial floor—would turn electric at the whisper of an unverified, uncivil, unprintable story.”
Yet the cultivated nonchalance and casual impudence–the characteristic of British broadsheets–cloaked indefatigable courage and steely commitment to truth, principles and idealism–qualities that are increasingly rare not just in Indian media but around the world. Above all, he did not let his conscience go to sleep to meet the quirks and demands of market forces, saleability or changing political equations.
He would launch and quit five publications in six years, rather than compromise on his principles and fierce independence. Which is again a rare commodity these days when with the increasing corporatization of media and involvement of big money, newspapers are commodified just like any other ‘product’ and editors have been reduced to glorified production managers.
VM had to eventually step down as the editor of Outlook after 17 years at the helm for his audacity to publish the contents of infamous Radia tapes, blowing the lid off a massive corporate-political-media nexus.
No wonder VM’s departure has provoked such spontaneous outpouring of grief and genuine recognition from his fellow travelers, peers and detractors notwithstanding the fact that throughout his career he stepped on some mighty big toes and spared none. But even his bitterest critics and subjects of many of Outlook’s cover stories knew that he was only doing his job, with malice towards none.
Like that other great editor and colorful Anarch, Khushwant Singh, he was incapable of malice. He could be mischievous and impish at times but not capricious. To his team, he was generous and loyal to a fault, always standing by them even when they did not have ‘evidence’ to back some of their biggest scoops and investigations that shook the corridors of power in Lutyen’s Delhi.
VM would have chuckled at the rare tribute that the inimitable MJ Akbar has paid him in pointing out that VM started as an editor and died as an editor, leaving behind an alternative philosophy of journalism. Coming from Akbar, perhaps the greatest editor and journalist India has produced, it is really something.
In his intellectual stature and insight and as an editor and stylish writer of extraordinary brilliance, MJ belongs in a different league altogether. VM could never match him in any of these areas.
Unlike my hero though, VM religiously maintained his distance from power despite his apparent bias for the Congress. He did not play Faust to barter his soul for a price, giving up the lofty ideals and convictions firmly held and defended for a lifetime.
Under his leadership, Outlook did not just break some fantastic stories and taboos to entertain and titillate the chattering classes, it often held mirror to the nation in times like the 2002 Gujarat pogrom, the Kargil war and the 2012 Muzaffarnagar riots.
Despite being seen as a Congress lackey, he did not shy away from exposing corruption in high places under the UPA rule. Nor did he allow the fact that his family was uprooted from what is today’s Pakistan to taint his worldview or liberal values. He called himself a ‘Lucknow boy’ and took immense pride in the city and its syncretic Hindu-Muslim culture, Urdu language and ‘tahzeeb’.
I loved the magazine for its courage to take a stand and stick up for the little guy.
Outlook had the audacity to speak up for values such as tolerance and India’s pluralism when the entire political establishment and media had been tilting right.
Vinod Mehta was, as his successor at Outlook insists, perhaps the ‘last great editor’ after all. He was certainly the most entertaining and endearing. There will be no other ‘Lucknow boy.’
Aijaz Zaka Syed is an award winning journalist and commentator on Middle East and South Asian affairs. For feedback, write to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on twitter.com/aijazzakasyed