August 03, 2020
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Il Miglior Editore

Beneath the neon and tinsel his publications battled for the only things that matter in journalism: liberty, equality, justice, equity.

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Il Miglior Editore
Narendra Bisht
Il Miglior Editore

It was around this very time twenty years ago—mid-March, the semuls in unleafed bloom—that I first met Vinod Mehta. It seems appropriate that we met over a long animated Chinese lunch. Food and conversation—some would say gossip—were his abiding passions, along with the reason for our meeting, the launch of a new publication. We found a language immediately: few things are more important between colleagues in journalism. He was trying to emerge from a bruising phase of his life. In less than seven years, he had launched, helmed and quit three newspapers. He was the doctor who killed the lovely babies he delivered.

The truth, as ever, was not so simple.

The problem was he was an outstanding editor of the transition phase, arguably the finest. Before him—for reasons of propriety or editorial ineffectuality—the media owners had by and large left editors alone, who in turn, caring nothing for the profit and loss, had kept their focus on staying lofty. In the after, editors would become owners and owners become editors and it would become impossible to find the fencing between commerce and content; and in fact no one would even be looking for it.

It was only in the transition period that an editor like Vinod could pursue the fantasy of business genuflecting at the altar of the editorial. The marvellous idea that journalism should be sustained no matter how ragged it ran the money. That men of great means should be able to see that platforms of public interest were far more valuable than salons of private interest.

At the time we first met, Vinod had been roundly defeated by money. At the end of the lunch he told me, “This is my last stop. I am not going anywhere after this.” It was a rare admission. A year later, in a moment of greater intimacy, he was to tell me how awful the six months between The Pioneer and Outlook had been. It was then, in those long empty days, devoid of wife or children, desperately filled up by prolonged tasteless lunches at the India International Centre, the understanding had come to him that money could be bested by journalism but it had to be by subterfuge. Troy could fall, but you had to play the horse.

Outlook, in its founding and in its continued existence, has pulled off the dodge.

Vinod’s great virtue was, once he started as an editor—of Debonair, at thirty-three—he never wished to be anything else. He never slipped down the ladder, but he never travelled up it either. Unlike other gifted editors of his time whose restless ambitions made them into politicians, television stars, entrepreneurs, fixers, he was content to live his days within the matrix of sub-editor, reporter, layout artist and photographer. His sorties into the world—lunch every day and dinner most nights: he was a marvellous raconteur—were used to amuse himself and to bring back amusing material for his publication.

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. The struggle would immediately commence to put a tie and a hat on it. The first successful editor in the world understood journalism is basically refined and dres­sed-up gossip—a flourish of facts; of good sense; of fine words—as will the last. Vinod was a very successful editor.

What marked him, I think, was being the outsider. A Punjabi in Lucknow, an Indian in England, a literary man in a girlie magazine, a success at glorious failures...

The sin, in his book, was to be boring. And boring is a result of monotone. So his publications sparked and fizzed with arguments and counter-arguments, controversies and spats, high culture and low culture, the politics of right and left, the uttering of fools and savants. Anyone capable of generating a noisy argument, of getting a rise out of many, was welcomed with open arms. When Arundhati Roy wrote her first polemic, on nuclear India, post her famous novel, I argued with Vinod that we should carry it. He felt it was way too long for a newsmagazine. I told him it was not a piece of literary lyricism. It was in fact a bomb up the arse of the bombers. His eyes lit up.

He disliked bombast, and yet he published more than his share of it. The language we had found on our first meeting, that bound us, was that of books. He had a reverence, a sense of piety, towards scholars and writers. He understood that gossip—dressed and undressed—pulled in the numbers, but there could be no great publication without the presence of thinkers and ideas. And he was the unusual editor who read literary fiction. It leached him of dogma, and gave him priceless perspective in a profession that elevates trivia to gravitas on an hourly basis.

Lunch hour Bengal Sweet House on his table. (Photograph by T. Narayan/Outlook Archive)

Vinod’s great strength and weakness as an editor was he did not know the field; he had never been a reporter, he had never done the beat. On the plus, it ensured he was never in competition with his staff, was never manipulating and protecting contacts and lobbies. It meant the reporters could run with the stories as they came, and the stories lived and died on merit. This cannot be underestimated. The best reportage requires more shielding than shepherding.

On the minus, it made Vinod naive. He had a very shallow understanding of how things worked on the ground, in administration, in government, in the backrooms of political parties, in police stations, in law courts. His knowledge of these things was secondary. He could be perilously—laughably—gullible. When I went to see him after six months in prison, he was touchingly solicitous, and the first thing he said was, “I believe they were torturing you badly in the basement.”

The syndrome was somewhat similar when it came to rural India. I think he had little experience or understanding of it. But as the finest of Indians have done for a hundred years, he honoured the idea of privilege by committing his sympathy and support to the disempowered and the deprived. Beneath the neon and tinsel his publications battled for the only things that matter in journalism: liberty, equality, justice, equity.

In this—in having heart—Vinod was a man of his own time, and his triumph lay in remaining true—as an editor, as an individual—to the schoolings of his youth, India of the Fifties and England of the Sixties. The idealisms of that first decade of Independence, the Nehruvian expansiveness, the belief in socialism, secularism and the syncretic genius of India, the commitment to modernity; and alongside it the bohemian liberations of the Beatles era, the whimsical assertions of the Beats and the flower children, and the belief in individuality, free speech, pleasure, love.

What a wondrous cocktail of human possibility it was; and how wonderfully he embodied it.

His success as an editor obscured his talent as a writer. He was very good with the fleeting stuff, his palate cured on excellent journalism and literature, his touchstones the London broadsheets. His standard routine every afternoon was a few hours with the foreign papers, The Times, The Telegraph and The Guardian. His written voice was decidedly British, relying on irony, understatement, and humorous self-deprecation. He published Indian shrillness but didn’t write it himself.

Much is made about his integrity, his uncompromising journalism, his being an unstarched Bombay man in uptight Delhi. But these are all cliches and reductive of a complex person. What marked him, I think, was being the outsider. A Punjabi in Lucknow; an Indian in England; a literary man in a girlie magazine; a Bombaywallah in Delhi; a success at glorious failures; an essentially lone man in a world obsessed with family. It gave him as an editor a perspective of detachment, curiosity, insight and amusement that is often unavailable to those more invested in their ecosystem.

As for integrity he had it, but of a much higher order than that which is extolled by those who’ve never had to test it against more complicated arm­oury. He has written about how it came to be asked of him to undergo—and he underwent—humiliation at the hands of the first NDA government who rounded on Outlook’s proprietor for the journalism Vinod practised. It redounds to the great credit of both owner and editor that they took the grovelling and the punishment but kept the flame alive. Easy heroics, cheap martyrdom would have denied Indians of Outlook for the last 15 years.

He was not the first or last of the liberal editors who bring intelligence and grace to public discourse. But he was certainly the one with the lightest touch. In my years at Outlook he had this disconcerting habit of sidling in and out of rooms. You would look up from the keyboard and he would be looming at your shoulder; you’d glance down and look back up and he’d be gone. Despite several months in an intensive care unit this is how he seems to have sidled out of the world.

Few people even knew he was ill and dying. In his ideal world he would have broken the story of his own fatal illness, with sexy unconfirmed tidbits of who came to see him and how the doctors screwed up. In this, none of us were true to his tenets. We all held our hand, more cherishing of him than of the story. Even now I suspect if someone arrived with a juicy lead he would spring alive and send his reporters scurrying for interesting scraps of information.

It is why he was il miglior editore. The superior editor.

The writer is the founder-editor of Tehelka and the former managing editor of Outlook.

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