Many years ago, while I was still with The Statesman, I met Vinod Mehta for the first time. In those days he was something of a hero for young starry-eyed journalists, having fought with newspaper owners and walked out of jobs. Actually, till then he had walked out of only one job – that of the editor of The Indian Post. Or was asked to put in his papers by Vijaypat Singhania who didn’t quite know how to deal with a Bolshy editor in the habit of throwing caution (and discretion) to the wind and printing stuff that many businessmen-turned-newspaper owners would consider subversive.
Before floating The Indian Post, Vinod had spent a pretty long spell as editor of Debonair, a poor man’s desi version of Playboy with dollops of pretentious highbrow stuff, usually lifted from elsewhere. (In his autobiography A Lucknow Boy, Vinod says he wrote it all himself, issue after issue.) Debonair sold the most at railway stations where travelling salesmen would pick up copies to while away time on overnight journeys and lonely hotels with stained bedsheets in upcountry towns. Vinod was okay with the idea of inserting glossy pages splashed with lurid photographs of women minus their clothes. It was supposed to be ‘art photography’; there was nothing arty about the photographs that were printed — the models looked desperate for money. I doubt Vinod had any compunctions about printing nude photographs to keep Debonair going. It was all freedom of the Press for him — the raunchier Debonair was, the freer it was from what he would consider undesirable shackles, including those of the law. The other publication he had floated and edited was The Sunday Observer, billed as India’s first Sunday newspaper. It didn’t have pin-up girls but their absence was more than compensated by salacious gossipy stories bordering on slander.
Among the many outrages committed by Vinod, admittedly with great dashing and flair, was to publish a fake obituary of Khushwant Singh, written by Dhiren Bhagat (those who knew him found him insufferably obnoxious) in 1983. Beneath the sophistry of Dhiren’s I-am-so-clever language skills lay a vile, vituperative and vicious attack on Khushwant Singh, “giving him a taste of what he has given to many” as Vinod once gleefully told me. There was nothing to suggest that it was a fake take on Khushwant Singh. When it was found to be a tasteless joke, there was understandable anger in the fraternity. But Vinod robustly defended (and still defends) Dhiren Bhagat’s slanderous article as a writer’s prerogative, his freedom of speech.
I had heard quite a few stories about Vinod, the eccentric editor who had pitilessly lampooned those behind Mrs Indira Gandhi’s Emergency, most notably Sanjay Gandhi on whom he had written a book, and prized freedom of expression, of speech and of Press (that was the only medium then as television came many years later) above everything else, including his own job. As I said, he was a bit of a hero for young journalists who, like him, had a Bolshy streak in them. And so it was that I felt excited on spotting him at Samovar, the restaurant at Jehangir Art Gallery (I wouldn’t know if it still exists) where my colleague Shireen had taken me for lunch. Vinod had strolled in with Mario Miranda and a couple of others. The group sat down at the table next to ours. I couldn’t resist the temptation of walking up to him and introducing myself. I don’t remember what he said in response. What I do remember is that he was wearing a funny pair of trousers. The next time I met him was at Ayodhya and we had a long chat at Lucknow airport. A couple of years later I relocated to Delhi to join The Pioneer whose editorship he had taken over under the new owners, the Thapar Group.
Frankly I knew little of Vinod as a person or as an editor till I joined The Pioneer. But there was something about him that inspired confidence. Over the next four odd years, that confidence turned into respect. He wasn’t politically inclined towards any party and fashioned himself as a liberal in a charmingly 1960s sort of way. He would let me write without telling me what not to write and was perfectly at ease with various shades of opinion. Everybody was fair game, including Sonia Gandhi who was very much in purdah as PV Narasimha Rao straddled both the Government and the Congress.
If there was something on which Vinod would often hold forth it was censorship – not only official but also the subtle and not-so-subtle variety imposed by owners and editors. So fierce was he about fighting censorship and making a statement of it that he asked me to get hold of a copy of Taslima Nasreen’s novel, Lajja, which had just been published in Bangladesh and kicked up a massive storm, leading to its instant ban. Mullahs on both sides of the border wanted her dead. Vinod found all of it appalling and unacceptable. Contacts were used to procure a copy and excerpts were translated by my wife for publication in The Pioneer. It was flag-waving at its most vigorous, sloganeering at its most raucous.
I recall three other occasions when Vinod refused to be persuaded by the need to exercise editorial discretion. One day we received a letter in an envelope, written and signed by a Muslim, castigating APJ Abdul Kalam for designing missiles for India to be used against Pakistan. The language was harsh and foul, clearly inflammatory. Vinod was adamant that it should be published in toto despite some of us urging restraint. Vinod would have nothing of it. The letter was prominently published in the Letters to the Editor column. Predictably, its incendiary contents were noticed by law-enforcing agencies and charges were filed against the paper for promoting communal disharmony. Vinod was unimpressed. I understand that case took years to resolve.
On another occasion, he published a letter headlined “RIP Advani” (after December 6, 1992) which was not only in poor taste but actionable under defamation laws. LM Thapar was horrified and wanted Vinod to apologise to Advani. Vinod refused to do anything like that (I don’t know if he did say sorry and kept it a secret). The third occasion when he demonstrated his fierce commitment to the right to publish and be damned was when he ran an interview with General SF Rodrigues in which the Army chief described politicians as ‘bandicoots’. There was predictable uproar and Thapar, to put it mildly, was displeased. Once again Vinod stuck to his guns and had his way. Vinod recounts similar instances in A Lucknow Boy.
In the end Vinod had to go. He resigned rather than compromise on principles.
The story, however, does not end there. Vinod went on to produce Outlook which broke several stories under his tutelage and became a fierce critic of the NDA Government. Sadly, all that fierceness evaporated in the summer of 2004. Overnight, Vinod and Outlook became hand maidens of the Congress — or, to be precise, Sonia Gandhi. Various reasons are mentioned for this, among them Vinod’s craving to feel important. He began running concocted stories to malign the BJP. The Vinod I knew at The Pioneer had a healthy contempt for “according to sources” journalism. This was a different Vinod, one who raised “according to sources” journalism to the lofty heights of ‘exclusive’ cover stories. Everything that made the Congress, the Queen, the Prince and the Regent look good was kosher, as was anything that made others lookbad.
To hide the fact that he had become a Palace loyalist and maintain the façade of his being fiercely independent, periodically he would declare his freedom by running 10,000-word essays by Arundhati Roy through which she openly advocated sedition, promoted terrorism and poured scorn on the state and its laws. Much of what appeared under her name and in Vinod’s magazine would not be touched by other editors, not the least because what Arundhati Roy wrote was hurtful to victims of terrorism, hateful to those who don’t share her ideology, and harmful to the national interest, albeit couched in clever-clever purple haze prose. Yet, to his credit he did not cave in to criticism and outrage. He stood by his (by then tarnished) reputation as a Bolshy editor who wouldn’t countenance censorship in any form.
It is, therefore, with amusement that I read his column in a recent issue of Outlook, in which he has not only endorsed the Congress-led UPA regime’s move to impose Internet censorship but also called for social media to be “kicked out” if it did not suck up to those in power. Is it age that has mellowed Vinod and turned him into a drumbeater of the Establishment? Or was he always like this but pretended not to be because there were many steps to be climbed?