An autobiography is a tell-it-all tale of whatever one has endured in a life spanning experiences of sorts, pitfalls that have stunned one, instances and hiccups that have changed the very perspective. Lucknow boy a memoir the biopic by one of the most revered editors of India, Vinod Mehta ruffles through similar aspect of the jamboree called life. For the autobiography aficionados especially the wannabes who look forward to making it big in the journalistic terrain, it is an eye opener in ways more than one!
The riveting tale starts from the city of Lucknow where Mr. Mehta spent a considerable time of his childhood and early days of youth. Like all famous men who have attained a wondrous feat, Vinod too was a laggard in academics. There was one skill however, the Punjabi lad tried mastering at and that was related to garnering attention from gorgeous lasses that larked about in midst of the usual humdrum of Hazratganj. All those not-so-boorish endeavors were not a lonely feat rather a consensual effort by three of his friends – Saeed Naqvi, Azad Khan and Ashok Kwatra, a camaraderie that has survived till date. What did the score-card of the gang look like? Not impressive! Anyways Vinod made it to Britain, the year was 1962 and England was caught up in whirlwind ready to take the en masse by a storm. The fella from the city of Nawabs started off by working as a laborer in a factory that manufactured thermostats.
There comes in life a point when one is not able to stand a state of being into oblivion anymore and imbecility becomes nothing less than a curse. It must have been a Eureka moment for sure for Vinod Mehta as he pondered upon intellectual elevation, wherein he was lacking (well he was dumped by his first English girlfriend for not knowing what the Colombo Plan was all about!). So it all began with Malcolm Muggeridge trying to take a dig on Somerset Maugham regarding sexual orientation, occurrence of the Profumo Affair involving the promiscuous Christine Keeler and Vinod’s cultivation of profuse interest towards dailies such as The Guardian, New Statesman, Daily Telegraph, and few more, natural yet understandable penchant towards George Orwell; perhaps seeds of association with the enchanting world of words were sown way back then, weathers of successive time had to only nurture them with utmost cordiality.
There are two striking features about ‘Lucknow boy a memoir’ – firstly it treads on the path that meanders around the professional discourse of India’s most daring editor, secondly there are some startling revelations that make for the scoop of the day! For instance how many of you knew that Firaq Gorakhpuri was in fact a homosexual! Or that Meena Kumari had traits resembling that of a nymphomaniac! Anyone would however swear an oath that these uncomfortable jibes actually add on to the bawdy quotient of the book that spares virtually none.
From the heady days of being in an ad agency in Bombay in 1970, Mehta ventured into the seedy environs (not literally) of Debonair. The magazine was floated in 1973 in a bid to retrieve the Indian counterpart to Playboy nevertheless the job of an editor out there required dabbling with photos of models in au naturel form. Calling it quits at Debonair was an obvious step since even Atal Behari Vajpayee had conceded to the fact that the magazine was good but he liked keeping it under his pillow. Thus under the proprietorship of Ashwin Shah, Sunday Observer was rolled out, a weekly newspaper-cum-magazine. It was during the blooming period of Sunday Observer that a spat with JRD Tata was nearly averted when loopholes hovering around his lofty plan of NCPA (National Centre for Performing Arts), Bombay were exposed. This was the period marked by drawing of swords between Vinod Mehta and Arun Shourie when the latter tried to hog all the credit in his famous Antulay story leaving other bureau members at the Indian Express in a miffed state.
This illustrious stint was followed by an eventful sojourn at Indian Post under the proprietorship of Vijaypat Singhania. It was a rather blasphemous piece on failing Vayudoot, a subsidiary of Indian Airlines whose head was VPS’ friend followed by a voracious trail of the infantile pursuit of Satish Sharma, Rajiv Gandhi’s close aid that led to Mr. Mehta being shown the door yet again. 1989 brought the emergence of Independent under the umbrella of Bennett & Coleman the bumpy ride coming to a halt regarding the CIA mole fiasco that misled Mehta to conclude that it was YB Chavan and not Morarji Desai who was part of the espionage between Indira Gandhi cabinet and CIA; in fact it was Morarji Desai only who betrayed the nation for a paltry sum of $ 20,000 a year.
Lessons were learnt the hard way but they were learnt by heart. There were unavoidable ego-hassles yet again at Pioneer then owned by industrialist, LM Thapar. So in 1994 when Vinod Mehta was a job seeker yet again, comes in the most potent punch line – ‘Here lies the most sacked editor in India’. Outlook under the proprietorship of Rajan Raheja came his way in 1995 and the rest as they say was certainly history.
It was the grit and gumption of this one man who withstood pressure from the corridors of power and soon turned out to be a hellion for those in charge of the State. Expressing loathe against the Pokhran tests in 1998 via Arundhati Roy’s essay, ‘End of Imagination’; to beholding through the pinhole the murky affairs of Ranjan Bhattacharya-Brijesh Mishra-hallowed PMO in 2001 to the recent Nira Radia tapes in 2011 that shook the pillar of the Fourth State, Vinod Mehta earned friends, colleagues, companions, foes and bitter adversaries but as they say it’s not worth it till you have tasted the sweet and the sour here’s to the man who has set a milestone that many scribes would strive to attain. In a milieu marked by rise of digital media jingoism, Outlook has lessons to offer to compatriots that often brushes aside reading broadsheets as a leisurely activity.