A well-known sociologist casually asked me at a soiree recently, “Who is a good editor?” My prosaic reply was: a nose for news, integrity, leeway for the contrarian view and so on.... But the question set me thinking.
Vinod Mehta was at the lowest point of his career when a rough-draft of a weekly newsmagazine was being worked on by business mogul Rajan Raheja and Deepak Shourie, the former India Today marketing honcho. Vinod’s acrimonious relationship with his previous employers—seen as medals of gallantry today—were seen as the man’s inability to stick around for long enough. So, despite Vinod’s formidable record as an editor, many journalists wondered whether to risk a career in a start-up whose editor had a reputation for walking even before being given out. The result was that the lot that joined Outlook were all risk-takers, somewhat odd-ball characters. There were no elaborate editorial brainstormings before Outlook was launched. For about two months before the launch, like the editor himself, all we did was lunch—many a time finding Vinod at a restaurant relishing his food all by himself.
Two weeks before the scheduled launch, Vinod called us all to the second floor of our editorial office, some 25 of us then, and delivered what was meant to be a speech to inspire the team. Vinod had spoken little to us before and he stuck to his style (unlike Deepak Shourie who would remind us every day about “an epoch-making point in the history of journalism”). The few things he said were: “Playtime is over, chaps. We are going to be on the stands two weeks from now. We are going to be a left-of-centre magazine. Let’s have some fun, but serious fun.” His motivational speech sounded like what Kapil Dev must have said to his team before going out to defend 183 against the Windies in the ’83 World Cup final.
Outlook’s biggest scoop ever was in its first issue—excerpts from the then PM Narasimha Rao’s yet-to-be-published novel, The Insider. Few know it was the editor who had scooped the story. 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. And none of us really took offence to any of this. Despite his omnipresence in office, almost everyone who worked under him—editors, reporters, photographers, illustrators and designers—were all left alone to go about doing their jobs as long as we shot between the goalposts set by him.
Vinod’s previous publications had always had a fresh look. By the time Outlook came into existence, technology had come about vis-a-vis design which vastly altered the approach to visual story-telling. What we did in the design room was a bit of gobbledygook for Vinod, but that didn’t stop him coming to the design section at least 25 times a day during production time. He was like a fixture behind my chair, quietly looking at my monitor. Rarely would he give a suggestion, and when he did it was followed by a hurried “But you don’t have to do it”. If he didn’t like something, he would walk away muttering, “That’s not going to win you an award.” If I had designed a cover or a layout that went vastly beyond the passing grades, a rare occurrence in the editor’s evaluation, he would say, “We haven’t done a bad job.”
Seventeen years went by, week by week, absorbing Vinod’s idiosyncrasies a little at a time. I had reached a point when I didn’t have to turn my head to know that he was standing behind my chair. He was fond of me and indulged me. Like he did so many of my colleagues who worked in Outlook under him.
On November 26, 2014, I heard Vinod’s shuffling footsteps approaching my office room. He had come to give me an invitation for the launch of his new book, Editor Unplugged. He waited till I finished reading the card. To rib him, I remarked, “Mr Mehta, you have managed quite a star cast for the release.” Vinod, in his own inimitable style, something most journalists who worked with him mimicked all the time, exclaimed, “But what about me, yaar?” Those were the last words we exchanged.
Executive editor Bishwadeep Moitra is a founding member of the Outlook team, as is cartoonist Ajit Ninan who’s done the caricature here.