Just after Indira Gandhi suffered a humiliating defeat in the March 1977 elections, Jaico (publisher) wondered if I would consider a biography of Sanjay Gandhi. I readily accepted the commission. Editing a monthly magazine allows for a fair amount of spare time. Besides, what excited me about the assignment was Sanjay Gandhi: was he as stupid and sadistic as the several Emergency books made him out to be? The question tantalised me.
Sanjay post-election had become a recluse. Nevertheless, I needed to meet him if the book was to have any balance. I wrote a letter to the ‘extra-constitutional authority’ and sent it by hand. I told him I was writing a serious book which would be sympathetic, that is, it would begin from a position of neutrality and examine all the facts on merit. Would he see me? I was briefed that Sanjay read the letter and uttered two words: “No chance.”
On a subsequent trip to the capital, I rang Maneka. We were both editors—she was editing Surya—and I thought if nothing else, I might get the opportunity to discuss the man with his wife. I may have got the odd word wrong but the conversation went something like this.
“Surya? Can I speak to Maneka Gandhi please...? Hello Maneka.”
“Maneka, this is Vinod Mehta from Bombay.”
“Well, I am here for a few days and I thought we might meet.”
“Is it about your book?”
“Well, er, yes.”
“I am sorry I don’t want to meet you. Anything else, Mr Mehta?”
“Well, er, no.”
I published the book in January 1978 without ever meeting Sanjay.
Blind spot Indira and Sanjay, circa 1980. (Photograph by Magnum, From Outlook, November 21, 2011)
The portrait which finally emerged was unflattering. Sanjay was a scary simpleton whose preferred reading matter was Archie comics. He manipulated his mother, sowing inside her a guilt complex about him coping alone with the after-effects of a broken home. The country should be grateful Sanjay’s capacity for inflicting havoc was abruptly curtailed.
The other piquant tidbit concerned Jawaharlal Nehru’s role in the break-up of the Feroze-Indira marriage. Panditji detested Feroze (the feeling was mutual) and used every trick in the book to prevent the union. Had it not been for the timely intervention of Mahatma Gandhi, the marriage may never have taken place. When Feroze, a man of Parsi appetites in regard to food, drink and women, died of a heart attack at the age of 48, Panditji, seeing the crowd at the cremation, meanly remarked, “I didn’t know he had so many friends.”
Vice and verse, shall we say... Meena Kumari, Firaq Gorakhpuri
My Heroine, Meena Kumari
In those days in the Bombay film industry, in the ’40s and ’50s, a lower-middle-class Muslim’s meal ticket was one of his daughters. Ali Bux, a Sunni born in Pakistan, came to Bombay to try his luck as a musician. He failed miserably. He was further disappointed when he produced three daughters, no son. The second he named Mahjabeen, and began hawking her to producers like Vijay Bhatt. He would say, “Sir, this is a very talented child. You must be often needing child artistes. Kindly do not forget this child, sir. It would be very kind of you.” Similar hawking was done by the fathers of Madhubala, Nimmi, Suraiya.... This gender reality was for me both poignant and revealing. It explains, at least in the case of Madhubala and Meena Kumari, their permanent paranoia and manic suspicion.
I was told about one admirer she fornicated with casually who thought he had a good thing going. After a night of satisfactory lovemaking, he knocked the next afternoon on her make-up room. “Kaun?” asked the lady. The admirer gave his name. She again asked, “Kaun?” The admirer again gave his name, this time providing more details, reminding the actress of their union the previous night. “Raat gayi, baat gayi (the night has gone, so has the matter),” she answered nonchalantly.
The great Urdu poet, Raghupati Sahai, better known as Firaq Gorakhpuri, had come for a mushaira to Lucknow and (Saeed) Naqvi’s family, having literary pretensions, offered to host him and put him up in the Dar-ul-Shafa room allotted to Saeed’s MLA uncle. Besides being a renowned Urdu poet, Firaq was a professor of English at Allahabad University. He was also a self-confessed, compulsive homosexual. Even if he knew he was going to fail in his seduction attempt, he would still make a pass. Much like the notorious queer, the Labour MP Tom Driberg who, while travelling in a car with his prime minister, Harold Wilson, tried to unzip Wilson’s trousers and play with his penis. When Wilson said something like, “Steady on, old chap,” Driberg replied, “Sorry Prime Minister, force of habit.”
That was the signal for us to flee to the safety of the Dar-ul-Shafa roof. On one occasion, a bottle of beer we had been saving up was left behind in the room. Who was going to fetch it with a sozzled poet on a homosexual rampage? Unfortunately, I pulled the short straw. I tightened my belt and went into the room trembling. Firaq, mercifully, was in his cups and pyjama down, I caught him masturbating. He saw me, winked and continued, while I hastily retrieved the beer bottle.
Wild streak Protima Bedi on Juhu
Kabir Bedi, then a rising Bollywood star, had emerged as the sole spokesman intelligently defending our magazine (Debonair). In interview after interview, he would ask if we were a nation of prudes and hypocrites. He welcomed Debonair’s brave attempt to make India proud of its heritage and Khajuraho past. The naked female body was a thing to celebrate, he argued. Of course, only till such time as the naked female body did not belong to his wife.
I had got to know Protima Bedi well. She shared her husband’s views on the naked body; only she was more genuine. So, when I got a call from her asking if I would like to have a look at some ‘lovely’ pictures of her in the raw, I could hardly contain my enthusiasm. The pictures were more than ‘lovely’, they were a knockout—beautifully shot and composed, evoking Protima’s scrumptious dark anatomy magnificently. I quickly sent her a model contract form, which she duly signed. I barged into (proprietor) Susheel Somani’s cabin: “You won’t believe it, but we have Protima Bedi’s nudes!” It was a coup.
In the ’70s, four-colour printing was a laborious process; you printed one colour at a time—red, yellow, black and blue. We had printed two of the four colours, when Kabir rang. He did not sound friendly. Would I immediately return the Protima pictures, they were not to be used. Too late, chum, I told him, they are already on the machine, being printed.
A couple of hours later, Protima rang. She was distraught. “Kabir is behaving like a bastard. He says his career will be ruined if the pictures are published. Can you help?” She disclosed that her marriage was on the line. The last plea, about the break-up of marriage, got me. With great difficulty and at enormous cost, we pulled the centrespread off the machine. “I’ll make it up to you,” Protima promised. She never did.
Hell Hath No Fury
Malvika (better known as Mala) Singh, probably Delhi’s best-networked journalist, has a well-deserved reputation for rocking parties. I have watched her in action. She is awesome. However, I would not advise anyone to get on her wrong side. Mala in 1993 was presiding over a mini media empire comprising a number of business and niche publications owned by Ashok Advani of the Business India group. A news channel, BiTV, had been announced. As with everything Mala does, she went about the task with flamboyance and flair. Interestingly, as the launch date neared, BiTV had no transponder in the sky. The Pioneer carried a small story pointing out this critical lacuna. Mala was furious. She was, as you would expect, one of L.M. Thapar’s buddies and complained bitterly against me. She did not deny the veracity of the report but felt it undermined her channel.
LMT wrote me a nasty letter criticising the paper for printing “speculative stories” (where had I heard that before?). Fortunately for me, a few days after the Pioneer report, several other papers confirmed what we had written. I could not make up my mind whether I should reply to the letter underlining the accuracy of our coverage. It would have meant an argument with Thapar, which I thought best to avoid. I rang up Thapar’s secretary to inform him I had received his letter. I never replied to it, adhering to my policy of sidestepping confrontations with the proprietor on minor matters. Malvika Singh, I felt, was a minor matter.
Me and my Maalik
When the editor’s relations with the owner are under strain, the first thing the latter does is delay clearing payments for freelancers. In the two papers I have been sacked from, this has always been the routine. The monthly freelancers’ payments amounted to around Rs 7,000. Peanuts for the management but dal-roti for the freelancers. On one occasion (at the Indian Post), I personally went down to the ground floor where the directors sat and made such a ruckus that eventually I was able to extract a backlog of five months’ payments.
Coomi under her byline had written against Satish Sharma, who, besides being Rajiv Gandhi’s chum, was a member of the Rajya Sabha. A couple of Post reports, one relating to how Mr Sharma illegally imported Italian tiles for his house, and the other about Mr Sharma’s crony, Lalit Suri, firing a pistol in the air when he was approached by income-tax inspectors, had caused consternation in the PMO.
Sometime in April 1989, Ramakrishna Hegde invited me to dinner. He was all praise for the paper but confessed his astonishment at Singhania’s lack of enthusiasm for his own publication. “How do you know?” I asked. Hegde said he was on a flight with Vijaypat during the course of which the Raymond boss disclosed the Indian Post was causing him great “difficulty”, such difficulty that he now wanted to sell the paper. I was not totally surprised. All the pieces began to fall in place. I knew I was on parole.
Vijaypat chose an auspicious day to send me his bombshell. Thirty-first May is my birthday. An unsigned letter in a sealed envelope was delivered. It read, “Dear Vinodji: Some recent reports appearing in our paper against some prominent persons have caused us serious problems and embarrassment. Whether there is any evidence to support these reports or not is for you to judge, though they appear speculative and exaggerated. As a serious and credible paper, we must be very careful in what we say. I have no intention of curbing editorial freedom, as my past actions would confirm, but unless you have absolutely unrefutable (sic) hard evidence, I would request you not permit any stories, at least for the time being, on these persons as they can seriously jeopardise our business interests.”
Mr Singhania then listed the persons:
“Please try to understand my position. Thank you. VPS.”
When I look back, I can’t help feeling a measure of admiration for Vijaypat. Instead of the usual bullshit, he shared with me the appalling reality of India in the 1980s. His dilemma was every businessman’s dilemma.
The way of media moghuls Vijaypat Singhania and L.M. Thapar
An evening durbar on most days was the routine at the Thapar (Lalit Mohan) house. A couple of groupies would attend. LMT never had to light his cigarette, never ask for another drink, never hear his views contradicted or questioned, never felt the need to look after the company (they did it themselves). It was like a Mughal emperor’s mehfil with LMT presiding as the emperor. I went once. Despite the finest alcoholic beverages on offer, the feudal gathering was boring, strained and pointless. Even the jokes were stale.
Sometime in May 1994, Thapar called for a Sunday afternoon luncheon meeting at his residence. I and the entire senior management team were present. The lunch was hot but the atmosphere was cold. After lunch we got down to reviewing what progress the paper was making. The CEO launched a vitriolic attack on the editorial, suggesting the Pioneer’s growth was hampered by inferior content. I was astounded. I let him go on with the tirade, to which I found Thapar listening intently. He appeared to be in agreement with the CEO, but never said so.
All this while, I sat back and took the unfair punches. And then it occurred to me the CEO’s script for the afternoon meeting had probably been discussed and cleared. It was a set-up. At some point, I attempted to intervene and make my case. Thapar raised his voice by quite a few decibels and instructed me to let the CEO continue speaking. The raising of the voice by the proprietor was a clear snub to me in front of the Pioneer team.
I had two options. Shout back or quit the meeting. I opted for the latter. I had neither the inclination nor the stomach to get into a slanging match with Thapar. So, I picked up my papers and left without saying a word.
A couple of days after...I had a short, curt, to-the-point meeting with Thapar. What he told me was revealing, for it sums up the attitude of most proprietors. He said, “You are a manager for me, a good manager, but just a manager. If you leave, I’ll find another manager. You are not indispensable.” I thought for a moment to inform him that newspapers are not bags of cement or ceiling fans. Sure, you need a manager, but he has to be a very special manager. Sensing Thapar’s mood and determination to get rid of me, I asked when he would like me to leave. “Tomorrow,” he replied.
On October 6, 1989, a Chicago district court dismissed Morarji Desai’s $50-million libel suit against the formidable American investigative journalist, Seymour Hersh, which the former prime minister had filed in 1983, the year in which Hersh published his book, The Price of Power: Kissinger in the Nixon White House. And thereby hangs a tale which caused me much grief and my job.
The New York Times in 1971 reported that a minister in Indira Gandhi’s cabinet ‘betrayed’ India’s military secrets to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Later, the Washington Post also reported that President Richard Nixon’s India policy was being guided by reports “from a source close to Mrs Gandhi”. In other words, the CIA had managed to plant a mole in Indira Gandhi’s cabinet, who, among other things, leaked the country’s ‘war objectives’ to the agency. These included, besides liberating Bangladesh, take-over of Pakistan occupied Kashmir (PoK) and degrading the Pakistan army so that it “never attempts to challenge India in the future”. Henry Kissinger complimented the CIA for having bagged such an “impressive asset”. The asset’s fee, allegedly, was $20,000 a year.
The CIA mole became headline news in India. While his/her presence was never in doubt—that cabinet decisions taken in 1971 were being leaked to the Americans was conceded in official quarters—the identity of the spy remained a mystery. Mr Hersh in his book claimed to solve it. He identified the spy, courtesy his unnamed sources in the White House and CIA, as Morarji Desai.
Disbelief and outrage swept the country. Morarji described Hersh’s accusation as “sheer madness” and a “malicious lie”. Strangely, the outrage and disbelief did not last long. Mr Desai had retired from public life. He was 87 years old, and notably friendless. The Indira Gandhi government of the early ’80s did not think it fit to contest the charges and finally a group of Gujarati nris got together on Morarji’s behalf to file a $50-million libel suit in Chicago, which Morarji lost.
The CIA’s $20,000-a-year man? Kanti Desai
The irrepressible maverick Subramanian Swamy arrived to complicate matters. He held a press conference in Bombay during which he stated that Morarji had been unfairly indicted. The ‘real’ spy was another deputy prime minister of India and former chief minister of Maharashtra. When asked if Swamy was referring to the late Y.B. Chavan, he smiled knowingly. Except for one paper in Hyderabad, no one took notice of Swamy’s disclosure. Significantly, this was the first time an alternate name to Morarji Desai had reached the public domain.
I and other editors of The Independent followed these developments closely. I asked our Delhi bureau to check out the new revelations. They came back with a copy of the RAW letter to Rajiv and suggested the story had merit. And then I, and I alone, made a terrible, unforgivable error of judgement. I mistook the RAW letter as the gospel truth.
On October 19, we published an eight-column banner headline, ‘Y.B. Chavan, Not Morarji, Spied for the US’.
Dileep and the Maharashtra Times editor, Govind Talwalkar, got together to ensure the Chavan story did not go unnoticed. In an editorial on October 21, the Times viciously attacked me and The Independent. It went so far as to incite physical violence against me, suggesting that if it did occur, it would be my own fault. Departing from its pompous, lofty, measured tone, the Times launched a series of vituperative onslaughts targeting me, which observers found astonishing since the two papers were ‘sister publications’. One Opposition leader told the media that while the story was indeed objectionable, it was the Times group which created the ‘hysteria’ around the report.
I hold no grudges against Dileep Padgaonkar. He is who he is. However, the man who once 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.
There are two important footnotes to this story. As late as 2009, Anju Dhar, author of the book CIA’s Eye on South Asia, wrote to the Central Information Commission via RTI demanding that the government disclose the name of the CIA mole in Indira Gandhi’s cabinet. Anju Dhar is still waiting for a reply.
The second footnote is historically more significant. Last year (2010), I had lunch at the Imperial Hotel with Seymour Hersh, who was investigating Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal and had stopped over in Delhi. I told him I was a great admirer of his work but he had cost me one job and some loss of professional reputation. Hersh recounted the entire spying saga in some detail and gave me the name of the Indian spy. “You can use the information when you write your memoirs, but not before.” I am keeping my word.
Seymour Hersh reiterated that it was indeed Morarji Desai. I inquired if Morarji took the money from the CIA himself. “No. We paid his son Kanti Desai.” Did the old man know the CIA was paying his son? “Of course, he knew,” replied Hersh. Despite Hersh’s categorical claim, I find it hard to believe that Desai would betray his country, and that too for the paltry sum of $20,000 a year.
‘Crusader Shourie’ At the Express office. (Photograph by Express Archive)
Over the years, Mr Shourie and I have not seen eye to eye on many issues—something I don’t regret.
Arun Shourie, as editor of the Indian Express, had broken the big Antulay story, ‘Indira Gandhi as Commerce’. The expose revealed that the Maharashtra chief minister, A.R. Antulay, had started an organisation called the ‘Indira Gandhi Pratibha Pratishthan’ through which he collected illicit funds from builders. The corruption scandal forced Antulay to resign. Arun Shourie and the Express, now implacably opposed to Indira Gandhi and the Congress, had bagged a big Congress scalp. Among journalists and sections of civil society, Mr Shourie was flavour of the month—or shall I say, many months.
A young reporter in the Free Press Journal with friends in the Express came to see me. He said he had a story, but was not sure if a recently launched paper like the (Sunday) Observer had the nerve to publish it. According to him, the chief reporter and several other senior reporters in the Express were sulking because Arun Shourie had hogged all the limelight. While they acknowledged Shourie’s contribution, much of the legwork for the scoop had been done by the Express bureau, a fact which was never acknowledged in the story. Staff morale apparently was at an all-time low.
‘Shourie and the Penthouse Conspiracy’ duly appeared. ‘Penthouse’ was mentioned because Mr Shourie allegedly sat in the Express penthouse with Ramnath Goenka and wrote the expose.
It did not take long for Arun Shourie to come back. He demanded a full rebuttal in the form of an extended interview with him. “Your story is a complete fabrication,” he charged. Kumar Ketkar, then a young and pugnacious Bombay journalist, jumped into the fray. In a letter to the editor, he noted: “The self-righteous breastbeating of Shourie is a fast spreading gangrene in the profession of journalism. If not checked in time, it could acquire the dimensions of witch-hunting and McCarthyism.” And concluded: “Free from any constraint of veracity, Shourie is always able to provide exclusive stories.” The debate on our (Sunday Observer) letters page continued for many weeks.
A likeable old man Vajpayee with Vinod Mehta. (Photograph by Prashant Panjiar)
In the last week of March (2001), our (Outlook’s) second expose—‘Vajpayee’s Achilles Heel’—appeared. It began, “Ever since Atal Behari Vajpayee became prime minister and consolidated his hold over the NDA, the whispers in the corridors of power have been about the formidable clout Brajesh Mishra, N.K. Singh and Ranjan Bhattacharya enjoy.” Later in the report we were more specific: “Over the last couple of years Bhattacharya’s influence has grown...a cross-section of people Outlook spoke to, including bureaucrats, industrialists and politicians, say Bhattacharya is a ‘powerful yet invisible’ force which drives the PMO. His primary conduits, say all, are Mishra and Singh.”
We flagged the deals Ranjan was meddling in. Topping the list was the Rs 58,000-crore national highways project which had been moving at a frenetic pace because of the extra push being given by the PMO. The first lot of contracts had been awarded to a clutch of seven dubious Malaysian firms. The Rs 20,000-crore Reliance Hirma power project, referred to earlier, was also on Ranjan’s radar. He and the PMO were pushing the Reliance case for a counter guarantee which amounted to a gift for Reliance. Dr (E.A.S.) Sarma (we did not identify him in the second report) put it beautifully: “There is a base law in logic. If it rains, then some grass will sprout. If the grass has sprouted, it has rained.”
When Jagmohan’s tenure as telecom minister was abruptly terminated through the powerful lobby of private operators who owed the huge sum of Rs 3,179 crore to the ministry, they knocked on the door of the PMO via Ranjan. The defaulters included Birla, Reliance, Tata and Essar. These influential corporates pressed the PMO for extension of the payment deadlines. They succeeded. Further, they pushed through the draft of a new telecom policy heavily tilted in their favour. The Samata Party, a vital ally of the NDA, in a stinging letter to Vajpayee on March 16, demanded a probe into the various corruption charges against Mishra, Singh and Bhattacharya.
A long-time RSS pracharak who had faithfully served the organisation for little material reward and who saw the BJP as the natural party of governance in place of an atrophying Congress was quoted in the magazine as saying, “In one stroke, the reputation built over 40 years has been destroyed.”
On May 29, 2001, at 8.30 am, “in one of the largest operations launched in recent times”, the proprietor of Outlook, Rajan Raheja, was raided by the income-tax department. As the Hindustan Times put it: “More than 700 officials began search and seizure operations in 12 cities across the country. About 120 premises in Delhi, Mumbai, Calcutta, Chennai, Surat, Madurai among other cities were raided.” The paper also noted that the editorial office of Outlook in Mumbai had been raided.
I was stunned. Dumbfounded. Maybe I was naive, but I thought the crude instrument of income-tax raids on allegedly erring newspapers was a thing of the past. We were in 2001. The discredited device widely used during the licence-quota raj had been rendered obsolescent. I also thought a party which was forever raging over the tyranny of the Emergency on the free press would hesitate to use the very same tyranny when it came to power. I rang up Rajan in Mumbai, who had already been through a lot on account of Outlook. The first thing I said to him was: “Do you want me to resign?” I had absolutely no doubt that the PMO story had caused the raids. Rajan, once again, stood by me. We need somehow to get over this together, he replied.
Once they found little or nothing in Rajan’s house, office and companies, the income-tax authorities resorted to mendacity. They announced the discovery of Rs 51 lakh in unaccountable cash. Again, through a press release I had to set the record straight. Not Rs 51 lakh but Rs 51,000 had been found in the residence of an ailing relative of Rajan Raheja. The cash, Rajan explained, was kept in the house for emergency medical expenses.
The lies did not bother Rajan. The harassment did. He would be summoned to the damp, piss-stinking offices of the Enforcement Directorate and made to wait from 10 am to 6 pm. He would then be told to come again the next day. Besides, the income-tax inspectors would ask for some 20-year-old file, keep it for a while and give it back. Then they would ask for another, and another. It was quite clear that interrogation and examination was not the real purpose; hounding and hassling was. Rajan asked me to see if this could be stopped. His entire group was doing nothing else but looking for files!
I rang up Brajesh Mishra. He agreed to see me. When we met, he feigned surprise, even shock. “You have been raided! I know nothing about this. Very unfortunate. You know both Atalji and I believe in press freedom. We would do nothing to harm the press.” Listening to him, I nearly vomited. He then enlightened me on the importance of a free press in a democracy.
What happened next remains perhaps one of the most humiliating experiences of my life. I had to reassure Brajesh I was never in any doubt about his and the prime minister’s commitment to press freedom. The raids on Outlook must have occurred due to some misunderstanding or perhaps some fault on our part! All this to butter him up for my next move. I told Brajesh I was not seeking any favour in the ongoing tax evasion investigations. All I was asking for was an end to the harassment of my proprietor. Could he please do something? “Of course, of course,” he said. “I am very sorry to hear Mr Raheja is being troubled.” He picked up the phone and fixed a meeting between me and finance minister Yashwant Sinha. My interaction with Brajesh lasted no more than 10 minutes. I shook his hand, thanked him and ran out of his room. I urgently needed fresh air to recover from his hypocritical bullshit. Yashwant Sinha made no pretence of surprise. “I read something about it.” He promised Rajan’s harassment would stop. Miraculously, in 24 hours, it did.
A week later, President Narayanan sent for me. The DUJ resolution had been received by his office. I recounted to the President the whole Mahabharata. He said he had read the Outlook stories. I found out later Narayanan sent the DUJ resolution with a covering letter to Vajpayee, who was most upset at receiving the communication.
It was never the same between me and Vajpayee. I continued to meet him formally and at one briefing he held for editors, something he did rarely, I sat through without saying a word. He came up to me at the end and said, “Aap aaj bahut chup hain (You are very quiet today).” I smiled snidely.
There are not many politicians I like on a personal basis. Vajpayee was one of the few I did. History, I suspect, will remember him with question marks. Was he a liberal conservative, or someone who put his finger up in the air to find out which way the wind was blowing? A politician who aspires to be a statesman needs to have a moral centre. Did Vajpayee have one? That, I am afraid, is a question-mark question. Fali Nariman told me that despite all of Vajpayee’s inconsistencies, he “liked the old boy”. I’ll ditto Fali’s opinion.
The lady irked Flattery, not frankness, pleases her
Sometime in 1994, when I was editing The Pioneer, I got a call from a mutual friend saying, “Shobha is in Delhi, she has been trying to get through to you for the last hour but your phone is always busy. Please call her urgently.” It was a typical Shobha stunt. My lines, both direct and through the board, had been remarkably unbusy. In fact, I had received no call for the past hour. But she wanted me to ring her rather than the other way round. When I did, she made a request. A collection of her articles, Shooting from the Hip, was being published. She wanted me to write the foreword...I agreed.
Then Shooting From the Hip hit the stands. My contribution was missing. I rang up Ashok Chopra. He was almost in tears. “Shobhaa hated your foreword. She said if it was included in her collection, she would withdraw the book.”
That evening, I pored over the affronting article which I had titled ‘If She Did Not Exist, We Would Have to Invent Her.’ That seemed to me high praise. More: “As a deflater of pomposities, as a slaughterer of pretensions, as a mocker of gobbledygook, she remains unparalleled.” Even more praise: “All the literary activities she glancingly attempted had one thing in common; they brought her vast amounts of success. Shobha De, it must be acknowledged, has seldom failed when she has put pen to paper.”
So, what did I do wrong? After a Sherlock Holmes-type of forensic enquiry, I detected my error, two errors in fact.
People like Shobha De, when they become celebrities, when they reach the top of the Page-3 greasy pole, pretend to hate it. It is bothersome, intrusive, irksome, irrelevant. Indeed, they will spend vast amounts of time explaining how celebrityhood is a burden they must carry. The truth is, Shobha would travel to Mars if a photo opportunity existed there. For me to get into greater detail would be embarrassing because I have first-hand knowledge.
In my foreword, I made a gentle reference to her Page-3 triumph. “In Bombay, you can’t open an ice-cream parlour or launch a beauty contest or have a gossipy party without Ms De’s august presence. This must impose crushing responsibilities, but Shobha seems to carry them off with aplomb. She actually enjoys being a celebrity.”
I suspect this was my minor lapse. The next sentiment was inexcusable. “I hope I am not revealing state secrets when I say Shobha arouses mixed feelings, particularly among those with an alleged taste for ‘high culture’. Both intellectually and socially they regard her as something of a carpetbagger, someone of low literary and moral standing. I have not lived in the ‘City of Gold’ for the past three years, but I suspect Charles Correa still does not have her on his party list.”
Shyam and Nira Benegal, Charles and Monica Correa, Gerson and Uma da Cunha, Mario and Habiba Miranda treated Shobha as something of a pariah. She once attempted to gatecrash into a Miranda party and was disallowed entry. I couched this information in optimism. “Thus, there remains one last citadel of fame for Shobha to conquer. It will fall sooner rather than later.”
Since 1994, 17 years have lapsed. Till date, I have received no explanation, no apology, no clarification from Shobha De. I have come face-to-face with her on more than one occasion. She does not blink an eyelid.
The subject never comes up.
Supermum Her children come before ‘save the party’. (Photograph by Narendra Bisht)
My many gaffes include one where I foolishly invited a snub from the US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright. President Clinton had come visiting during the Vajpayee regime and at a Rashtrapati Bhavan banquet, the famously no-nonsense Ms Albright was looking for her place on the seating chart. “I am sitting next to Sonia Gandhi,” she exclaimed. Standing behind her, I offered a piece of gratuitous advice. “She does not talk much.” The US Secretary of State looked at me suspiciously and replied, “Oh, doesn’t she?” in a tone which suggested I should know who I am talking to.
Sonia is no goongi gudiya. Since 1997, when she hesitantly entered public life, her grasp of the ins and outs of Congress and national politics has become formidable. Sure, her perspective is largely based on what is good for her party, but she is also a realist and can be brutally objective.
Because she is constantly accused of backseat driving vis-a-vis her prime minister, Sonia told me she takes extra care to ensure Manmohan Singh is never seen to be undermined by her. “I always arrive five minutes before he does at public functions, and I always leave after him,” she said, emphasising how conscious she is of correct protocol. Before Mr Narendra Modi throttles me, yes, this does not mean the prime minister is a free agent but it also does not mean he is a chained captive.
To Sanjaya Baru, Manmohan Singh’s first press advisor and dedicated spreader of mischief between party and government (read PM and Sonia), she gave a long rope. “Manmohan has three daughters, no son; so he treats Sanjaya as a son,” she explained. However, Mr Baru’s record and his attempts to cause a rift, especially during the nuclear deal negotiations, had not escaped her.
She knew every detail of the games he was playing, but preferred, out of regard for Manmohan, to look the other way. She even knew that on the day the BJP lost power in 2004, Sanjaya had written a panegyric on Atal Behari Vajpayee.
Sonia travels the extra mile to make sure she “carries everyone in the party”. Frequently, she postpones or abandons harsh action in order to persuade the errant individual to fall in line. In this act of friendly persuasion, a few sops are usually thrown in. Jaganmohan Reddy, son of YSR, was offered a variety of options both at the state and the Centre, but he insisted on immediate transfer of the CM’s chair.
A decision to expel a Congressman or Congresswoman is an option of the last resort.... As long as her personal and family’s position is not threatened, Sonia Gandhi massively overconsults to establish consensus. Here is one instance. A prominent chief minister in one of India’s most important states was not just incompetent and lazy but amassing vast wealth. Every day he continued in office hurt the party. “He will be removed in a few days, let the Diwali holidays get over,” she told me. Actually, he stayed for 18 months because that is how long the consultative process took. On any contentious issue, Sonia’s first reaction is invariably, tactically and ethically, sound. Sadly, by the time she has finished talking to her advisors and senior leaders, she has been known to make a 180-degree U-turn.
Thus, Priyanka, despite the clamour, despite her undoubted charisma, has not so far been a contender. For Sonia, as she told me, her daughter’s marriage and responsibilities as a mother of young children come much before any call to ‘national duty’ or to ‘save the party’.
If you wish to make a permanent enemy of Sonia, you must have a history, or even a single instance, of betraying or badmouthing her husband. Then you are beyond the pale. To that extent, she is clearly biased. From this follows her protective instincts for all the Nehrus and Gandhis. Even so, in the pecking order, Rajiv is the first among equals. She is the keeper of his flame.
Privately and publicly, she is inordinately reserved and cautious. Her reluctance to give media interviews or speak more often on burning issues stems largely from her self-effacing personality. One reason why Sonia gets on so well with Manmohan Singh is because they are temperamentally similar.
Politics still remains slightly foreign to her. Some years ago, I met her at a chic eatery in Khan Market where the birthday of one of Rajiv’s school chums (Romi Chopra) was being celebrated. I have never seen her more at ease or relaxed. Wearing a salwar-kameez, seated with her daughter and son-in-law, and listening to Mala Singh tearing apart the great and the good of Delhi, she seemed to have not a care in the world—much less in the Congress party. She was not laughing uproariously or trying to match Mala’s gags, she just seemed untypically comfortable. (She had brought along a delicious crab salad to be served at dinner.) Watching her, I thought to myself, at last she is among people with whom she can let her guard down and be herself.
Privately, she is both funny and irreverent. Privately. When you meet her for 20 or 30 minutes, she is all attention. Invariably, she is waiting for you and during the interactions I had, there were absolutely no interruptions with phone calls, or PAs walking in, as is usual with lesser netas. The coffee she serves at 10, Janpath is decent but unlikely to win a Michelin award. However, the chocolates that go with it would, in my gastronomic appraisal, get three Michelin stars.
The excerpts of Vinod Mehta’s book Lucknow Boy (Close Encounters, Nov 28) did not disappoint and I hope they were only the curtain-raiser to more—first-hand accounts are always fascinating. I also look forward to a tsunami of rejoinders and some real critical comments from at least some of those Mr Mehta mentions by name.
Bhavna Mohan, Assam
Fine gambit, Mr Mehta! You’ve persuaded me to buy a copy. I hope you get sufficient royalty, which I’m sure you’ll need to fight the coming libel suits!
Gopi Karunakaran, on e-mail
By reading Lucknow Boy from start to finish, one realises Vinod Mehta does not have a good word for friend or foe. His typical line is, “I don’t have anything against him, but he/she is bad or even worse!” Sonia sycophancy lives.
Kumar Siddharth, Montreal
Just finished reading the excerpts. I certainly have to buy your book now.
Shilpa Lefeer, Muscat
The excerpts of Vinod Mehta’s Lucknow Boy made very interesting reading. Just to correct a fact, Protima Bedi never streaked on Bombay’s Juhu beach, or for that matter anywhere else! I began my photography career working for the Junior Statesman magazine in Bombay. My photographer colleague there, the late Tyeb Badshah, who used to shoot filmstars, confided in us that he shot Protima Bedi in the nude, “streaking” in a studio against a plain backdrop, which negatives he then sandwiched on to the pictures of the city! The whole office was privy to this. I don’t recall the name of the publication which ran a double-spread with the headline screaming; “Protima Bedi streaking at Flora Fountain”. The picture ‘from’ Juhu Beach was similarly juxtaposed. It got Ms Bedi cheap momentary publicity.
Mahendra Sinh, Bombay
A typically voyeuristic, gratifying, megalomaniacal memoir from a typical Indian editor. Kudos!
Abhishek Sharma, on e-mail
The excerpt on Shobha De was quite a revelation. You’ve given her a dose of her own medicine when revealing her hunger for page 3 appearances while, all along, she takes great pleasure in flogging starlets and wannabes in her columns.
George J. Coelho, Mumbai
As regards Meena Kumari, why have you mentioned only her actor-beaus (and others) who’re no longer with us? And omitted the name of a famous and still-alive actor with whom she had a brief liaison?
G. Venkatesh, Chennai
Mr Mehta mentions his bedside table collections a few times in Lucknow Boy. It makes me wonder if it is indeed a table or an almirah since you seem to have quite a collection there!
Sreeja Sreedharan, on e-mail
The excerpts were a riveting read. I can’t wait to get my hands on the book. But only if you sign my copy. So, I’m waiting for you to visit my city for a reading. Glad you tore into that horrible Shobha De.
Anjali Sharma, Chennai
One cannot picture a Lakhnavi nawab cutting steel rods to pay for bed, breakfast, broads and booze amidst the alien corn. I suppose that’s where Vinod’s Punjabi genes came in handy. As for how he gatecrashed into publishing his own book and landed his job at Debonair, that sounds pure Bombay hussy, not Lakhnavi courtesan.
Ashok Lal, Mumbai
You cover story was tempting enough fare for me to order my copy online.
V.N.K. Murti, Pattambi
The juicy tidbits on offer in the cover story have killed my appetite for the book. Thanks for the unintended saving.
Harsh Rai Puri, Bhopal
Vinod is still clinging to the Saint Sonia myth. A pity.
S.S. Nagaraj, Bangalore
You ought to be sued, Vinod. Like a brown sugar trader, you have doled out free samples to get people addicted and now you will encash their craving. Having gone through the book’s free excerpts online, who’ll finance its purchase to quench my curiosity? Or can I expect a courier with a signed copy in the next six hours?
Rajneesh Batra, New Delhi
The book is adequate, especially the bit about that self-righteous, garrulous fellow, Shourie. And who cares about Vijaypat Singhania or L.M. Thapar? Shobha De too is gaudy and passe. The story about Mr Mehta’s current malik, however, is touching.
Manish Banerjee, Calcutta
Why isn’t this book available on the Kindle in the US? I’d like to buy it.
Vikas Chowdhry, Madison
Mr Mehta has a very readable style and the tidbits he turns out on famous personalities are amusing. He does a good job in showing us people and their vanities. But he doesn’t delve into cup sizes as a Khushwant Singh might have. But then, each editor is different.
Dinesh Kumar, Chandigarh
Other than spreading falsehoods like the recent VSNL ‘expose’, it is good to learn that Mr Mehta also printed articles against Arun Shourie on the basis of hearsay. At least he’s consistent!
Novonil Guha, Delhi
The excerpts from Mr Mehta’s memoirs were along expected lines. A mammoth dose of self-glorification, liberal badmouthing of contemporaries and avid name-dropping. But the man knows which side his bread is buttered on. And so Soniaji comes out smelling of roses. Chamchagiri, thy name is Vinod Mehta.
P.N. Radhakrishnan, on e-mail
Mr Mehta, you’ve outdone yourself by carrying your photo on the book cover. Self-promotion goes hand in hand with self-respect.
S. Raghunatha Prabhu, Alappuzha
There are so many things Mr Mehta has written of which the general populace is unaware. That bit about Sanjay Gandhi made for interesting reading, as did the Vajpayee and Shobha De anecdotes. We need honest uncompromising journalists like Mr Mehta in this country.
Shailesh Kumar, Bangalore
My dear Mr Mehta, you’ve done it again. First, you ‘plug’ your readers into buying your book, knowing fully well that we’re quite spellbound by your eccentricities and talent. Then, you publish as excerpts the juiciest parts to tantalise. Mark my words, the first print of Lucknow Boy is going to be snatched up by admirers and critics alike.
R.S. Pillai, Kollam
I must confess that Lucknow Boy is gripping from the first page to the last. Mr Mehta has done a commendable job of holding his readers’ attention. He weaves his life story while craftily inserting interesting anecdotes. Those who pretend to dislike him too may fall for this honest autobiography.
Irfan Iqbal Gheta, Bangalore
Is this book simply a collection of funny anecdotes? Seems like the first family is getting a free pass. Does Mr Mehta have any thoughts on why the BJP/NDA government was a relative failure? Why did it fail to break the Congress’s hold? I don’t think there are answers here.
M.K. Saini, Delhi
Your pat judgement of what would make one an enemy of Sonia seems totally flawed. How do you explain the cosy relationship between the Congress and the DMK and between their respective leaders? Obviously, you have either failed to properly judge or chosen to ignore this.
N.S. Rajan, Bangalore
I have been a regular reader of Outlook for the last 14 years and have just ordered my copy of the book online. I think I owe you this much at least.
Amit Manuviraj, Patna
In his memoirs (Close Encounters, Nov 21), Mr Mehta says Seymour Hersh’s book indicated there was a mole in Mrs Gandhi’s cabinet and suspicion fell on Morarji Desai as he wasn’t on good terms with her. But Desai had resigned from the cabinet in 1969 over the nationalisation of banks and the abolition of privy purse. Leaks regarding India’s aggressive intents on Pakistan could not have been passed to the cia by either Morarji or Kanti since the Indo-Pak drama, escalating into a year-end war, began only in March 1971.
B.N. Roy, Jabalpur
I doubt there was a mole in Mrs G’s cabinet. This fiction must have been created and spread by the cia on instructions from the White House.
Satish Pradhan, Pune
Mr Mehta’s assessment of Sanjay Gandhi as a simpleton whose preferred reading was Archie comics is accurate.
Bharat Trivedi, Ahmedabad
In his memoirs, VM mentions the conflicts between editors and proprietors. In much the same way, there are conflicts between industrialists and bureaucrats. But the bureaucracy is easier to blame. Why is there no legislation to punish those who try to influence bureaucrats to move things to their advantage? Such influencers and those who work for them should be punished.
Abhimanyu Jalan, on e-mail
The purpose of a memoir is to show the growth and evolution of a personality. In this, Mr Mehta fails miserably. His memoirs are a compendium of quarrels he has had over the years with this or that person, quite contrary to the charms of the city he has named his book after. He should have called it ‘UnLucknow Boy’.
Aruvik, on e-mail
Awaiting the day Lucknow Boy is offered free with a year’s subscription of Outlook.
Amar Heblekar, on e-mail
I’ve rarely seen an editor who embraces bouquets and brickbats with equal zest. I’ve tried to look at you from various angles, but, like a sphere, you appear the same. I have great respect for you and for your courage in speaking the truth.
Zakir Mohammed, on e-mail
Apropos Close Encounters (Nov 21), what a wonderful book Mr Mehta has written. It kept me engrossed for three days—and I am a slow reader. It does my ego a world of good to write to someone so exceptionally talented, and such an honest raconteur of his own personal life.
Zafar Futehally, on e-mail
You make for an interesting read. A dip into history. Bravo!
Rajkumar Rakesh, on e-mail
The excerpts from Mr Mehta’s book brought mixed feelings. He lives up to his reputation for unsubstantiated facts and many instances involve people who are unable to retort and his “C ka C” leanings, at a time when public angst is high on corruption, price rise, lawlessness and the targeting of Team Anna, stay intact—though I understand his professional limitations. As such, the book is un-Outlook-like and against the values it stands for. This leaves me in a bit of a dilemma over whether to buy your book or not.
Rajesh Nambiar, Mumbai
While I enjoyed the gossip in Mr Mehta’s book, I was surprised to see no ruminations on the era of P.V. Narasimha Rao (as opposed to his book). He did see it up close. Deliberate, perhaps? Rao was sent to oblivion as he was not paying weekly obeisance to 10, Janpath. The crooked media, both print and electronic, helped aid this disappearing act.
A.K. Deb, on e-mail
I’ve been obsessed with Outlook ever since I glanced at a copy while working in the office of the Commissioner of Income Tax at Madurai in 2005. Given the quality of the magazine, did you really need to spell out the insignificant details about the self-pleasure indulged in by renowned ‘shayar’ Firaq Gorakhpuri? There are third-grade magazines to publish such obnoxious pornographic cameos. Let’s not make moral and ethical transgressions into the private lives of long departed individuals.
A.M.N. Pandian, Tamil Nadu
I thoroughly enjoyed the excerpts from Mr Mehta’s book. While I neither agree with nor like his hymns to 10, Janpath, loyalty is too personal a subject to be challenged. I am going to acquire a copy soon—flipkart.com is offering a hefty discount. It is strange that even in 2010, Seymour Hersh insisted that Morarji Desai was the CIA mole in Mrs Gandhi’s cabinet. As so many on these very pages have pointed out before me, in 1971, neither Morarji nor any of his followers were in the cabinet.
Dipankar Mukhopadhyay, Calcutta
The excerpts from Mr Mehta’s book paint him as an arrogant megalomaniac. He likes no one, not even a gentleman like Atal Behari Vajpayee. I am hesitant about the book: it promises to be boring, one-sided reading.
Captain Udayakumar, on e-mail
Though I very much liked the nuggets of information in the excerpts, at the same time, I am sorry to say that I have to go to the local library to read the book—as I am not in a position to spend Rs 499.
G.L. Karkal, Pune
Dear Mr Mehta, if pricking egos is in order, are you aware of your own (Close Encounters, Nov 21)? Is it old hat to put others before yourself? Is it not un-English-like (or new English) to say “I and my editors and I and my team of editors”? That said, as leader of your team, you remain in a class of good editors, who don’t bother to write much but rather encourage their team.
Lalit Sethi, New Delhi
Good grades for Lucknow Boy, Mr Mehta! Recommended for the James Beard Foundation award for best masala recipe!
Suresh Nellikode, Burlington, Canada
Mr Mehta’s memoir reads like an autobiography at the beginning and ends in pontification and name-dropping.
Mr Mehta, I have a confession to make. While I enjoyed reading your book, I stopped a friend from buying it and gave him my copy instead. I may have contributed to your not getting as much Blue Label as you may have otherwise earned!
C.G. Rishikesh, Chennai
#D-1/80 Dr Rajaratna - Were you by any chance writing letters to The Hindu ? The style of writing is very typical of The Hindu loyalists.
Protima is wearing something - Dark Glasses and mischievious smile. An old B&W photo from Debonair days. But the VM was a lucky boy even then.
Dear Vinodji, your book made a compelling read. Was inspired to read when i read a review that said it is from the editor of Outlook. Such is the credibility of Outlook and i've been reading it since my schooldays. Compulsively bought it after i learnt that it was on the reading list of Sonia Gandhi. Although i was ill-advised by someone against reading this(reasons best known to the cynic), I "managed to do it my way", after dropping the advice!
From the excerpts,it looks that your swan song penned in '" Debonair" style is no more than a futile effort to rubbish the reputation of many and refurbish your image of a suave sycophant. To put it succintly, a guide to write in the FIRST PERSON SINGULAR. Rest assured,though, of huge royalty. At the end of the day,scandals and scams are the best sweeteners of Tea/Coffee.
Aiyee chee Mr.Mehta. andwhy is PRatima naked on outlook unless it is a masala-grade mag ? To these kind of men, women are nothingmore than symbols of erotic imagery !
WAKE UP FEMALES, SPEAK UP ;)
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