February 21, 2020
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Shuffled Off Somewhere, Have You?

He's gone now, and with him perhaps the era of the intractable, unpredictable, idiosyncratic editor.

Shuffled Off Somewhere, Have You?
Sanjay Rawat
Shuffled Off Somewhere, Have You?

When he published the Radia tapes, Vinod Mehta did what a good editor should. By making public the dirty diaries of the ongoing cluster-f..k between politicians, journalists, journalist/lobbyists and their corporate sponsors, he broke the club rules of the cosy oligarchy that runs our country. Not surprisingly, when the curtain went down on the show, for the people who were exposed in the Radia tapes, it turned out to be nothing more than a slightly embarrassing blip in the upward arc of their ambitions. For Vinod Mehta, however, the consequences were serious. I have no doubt they played a role in hastening his end.

Anyway, he’s gone now, and with him perhaps the era of the intractable, unpredictable, idiosyncratic editor. Not because there aren’t idiosyncratic folks around any more, but because we live in a climate where it’s becoming increasingly difficult for them to function. The outpouring of grief at his passing by all kinds of people, including those who are professionally his polar opposite, seems to be as much for him as for the end of idea of the independent-minded editor. In some ways it must be seen as a credit to Outlook’s proprietors that they made room for a maverick like Vinod Mehta, despite being targeted and having their offices raided several times. As for the rest of us, while we grieve for Vinod, we cannot give up on the possibility that there can be independent editors in future too.

I will miss Vinod very much. He played such an important part in my life as a writer.

It’s not that we agreed about everything, we certainly had our differences—about the Congress party, about Kashmir (of course), about the politics of caste, about his strange, recently rehashed biography of Meena Kumari. But this time around, the disagreement between us is permanent and irreversible. I maintain that he shouldn’t have left. He could have stuck around with us a little longer. But he’s just bloody well gone. It’s ridiculous. I don’t agree.

After The God of Small Things was published in 1997, I was aware that I ran the risk of turning into a sort of Interpreter of the East for the western media. This I did not wish upon myself. Whatever I wrote, whatever arguments I got into, whatever hooliganism I was involved in, I wanted it to be here. Not for reasons of any great nationalism on my part, nor because this is my country, but simply because this is where I live. Vinod Mehta became my partner in this enterprise. Almost everything I have written since 1998 was first published by him in Outlook.

There we were, Advani and I, across Vinod’s body. Perhaps it showed grace on his part, none on mine. Wonder what Vinod would’ve thought.

Very early on in our alliance, regardless of any commentary to the contrary (and of that there was plenty) we both understood that neither was doing the other a favour. That, I believe, is a rare and wonderful thing in any relationship. Over the many years we worked together, we spoke several times on the phone, but we hardly ever met. I’ve never been to his house. He visited me only once, recently, but it was more like an inspection tour than a visit. It was as though he had come just to confirm an idea he had in his head about the way I live. He shuffled in, took a look around and shuffled out. I don’t think either of us knew how to play Guest and Host. At any rate we weren’t very good at it. That’s about it as far as our social life went.

And yet, out of this peculiar, laconic, minimalist relationship came a body of work that amounts to five volumes of collected essays and interviews that have been subsequently republished in several languages in several newspapers and magazines in India as well as the rest of the world. What does all this have to do with Vinod Mehta?  Quite a lot actually. I wrote the essays, yes, but the freedom and the urgency with which I wrote had much to do with knowing that Vinod Mehta would publish them—without force-fitting them into some pre-determined magazine format. This was no joke. Outlook was, and is, a major, commercial, mass-circulation newsmagazine. That is its strength. And yet, Vinod had the self-confidence and the flexibility to publish, from time to time, these long, unorthodox, often unpopular essays that almost always created a storm.

The rules were set early on. When I sent him The End of Imagination, the essay I wrote after the 1998 nuclear tests, he called me and said, “Do you really want to say ‘Who the hell is the Prime Minister to have his finger on the nuclear button?’ Can I change it to ‘Who is the Prime Minister?’” I said I’d rather he didn’t. So ‘who the hell’ stayed. Then came my turn to ask him for something. Acutely aware of the mined terrain I was wading into, I asked him whether he could avoid putting a picture of me on the cover. He said he’d see what he could do. It was his delicate way of telling me to take a hike. The issue came out, with a photograph of me on the cover, and the most controversial sentence in the essay splashed across it: I Secede. All hell broke loose.

These then, were our unspoken Rules of Engagement. Vinod would not make any alteration to my text without my consent. In turn, even if my essay was going to be the cover story, I would stay out of any discussions about the content and design of the cover. This went on for fifteen years.

The three of us—Arnab, I and Vinod—on stage together. Hilarious. I’d have done it for Vinod Mehta, though. Gladly. He shouldn’t have gone.

At one point during his funeral, there was a strange, poignant moment that I don’t really know what to make of. I found myself facing L.K. Advani, separated by the length of Vinod’s flower bedecked body. Advani was laying a wreath at his feet. I was standing around trying to say goodbye (or not) to Vinod in my head. I was reminded of the only time he ever cautioned me. It was 2006. The papers had announced that Afzal Guru, convicted for his role in the December 13, 2001, Parliament attack, was going to be hanged in a few days. I was dismayed because I had followed the case closely for several years and had studied the legal papers. I knew that much of the evidence was either extremely flimsy or fabricated. (There was plenty to suggest that it could even have been a false flag attack.) Hanging Afzal would mean putting an end to the possibility of getting answers to some very disturbing questions. Outrageously, the Supreme Court judgement said that though there was no direct evidence against Afzal, it was sentencing him to death “in order to satisfy the collective conscience of society”. Meanwhile, the BJP, with Advani at the forefront (he was the home minister in 2001 when the attack took place), had begun a noisy campaign: “Desh abhi sharminda hai, Afzal abhi bhi zinda hai  (The country is ashamed, because Afzal is still alive).” I knew I would not be able to live with myself if I said nothing despite knowing what I knew. I called Vinod and said I wanted to write something. For the first (and only) time he said: “Arundhati, don’t. The mood is ugly. They will turn on us. They will harm you.” It didn’t take long to convince him that we could not keep quiet on this one. I wrote a long essay called And his Life Should be made Extinct—the title was a quote from the Supreme Court judgement. The Outlook cover said, in bold letters, Don’t Hang Afzal. (Of course, the Congress-led UPA government—and not the BJP—did eventually hang him a few years later, in 2013, in the most cowardly, illegal and shabby way.)

After the issue came out, the floodgates opened and once again Outlook was deluged with insults for weeks. But this was the other part of our Rules of Engagement. Vinod would publish what I wrote, but then would open up the letters pages for abusive responses for weeks at a stretch. (After the 2008 Mumbai attacks, Sashi, Vinod’s secretary of 25 years showed me some angry letters-to-the editor that had begun to arrive even before I had written anything.) No other magazine I know publishes insults to itself, its contributors and its editor so gleefully. Vinod seemed to derive endless amusement from those letters. Occasionally, he would call and chuckle about the ones he particularly liked. His favourite letter after the Afzal Guru issue was one that said, “Spare Afzal Guru and hang Arundhati Roy.” Of course, he published it.

And now, suddenly, here we were, Advani and I, grieving at his funeral. I was unnerved. Perhaps it showed grace on Advani’s part and none on mine. I don’t know. I can’t imagine what Vinod would have thought.

The last essay of mine that Vinod published before he retired as the editor of Outlook was Walking with the Comrades, my account of the weeks I spent inside the forest in Bastar with Maoist guerrillas. B.G. Verghese, who recently passed away too, wrote a response to it. And then extraordinarily, Vinod published a reply to his response by Cherukuri Rajkumar, better known as Comrade Azad, a member of the politburo of the CPI (Maoist). It was a remarkable thing for him to have done. He called me, sounding pleasantly surprised at how calm and reasonable Azad sounded. By the time his reply (A Last Note to a Neo-colonialist) was published, Azad had been kidnapped in Nagpur by plainclothes policemen and summarily executed in the Dandakaranya forest on the Andhra-Chhattisgarh border.

I had a last phone call from Vinod just before he fell ill. He said, “Listen Arundhati, I’ve never asked you for anything, but I’m asking now. Actually I’m not asking you, I’m telling you. You have to launch my new book, Editor Unplugged. I know you don’t do these things, but you just have to.” I laughed and said I would. A few days later he called again, naughtily. “Oh, I didn’t tell you, but the other person on stage with us will be Arnab Goswami.” I don’t think he told Arnab his plans. The crafty old fox was playing us!

The three of us on stage together. Hilarious. I’d have done it for Vinod Mehta, though. Gladly. But now he’s shuffled off somewhere. He shouldn’t have gone. I really need to talk to him.

The Booker prize winner has published almost all her articles with Outlook first. She is presently working on her second novel.

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