I first met Vinod Mehta across the net of a table tennis table. We were at a TT coaching camp in Nainital; he was already the UP champ while I was a budding junior. I was the youngest in the group, and small for my age and so was subjected to bullying by a particularly nasty older and bigger boy. Vinod came to my rescue, and for the 15 days of the camp he became my protector, his weapon a sarcastic wit to which the bully boy had no answer. Was this a sign of Vinod’s later championing of the underdog?
We met years later in London purely by accident. The National Film Theatre was premiering Merchant Ivory’s Shakespearewallah . Somehow, in spite of the years we recognised each other. When we came out of the theatre, we saw Ismail Merchant, James Ivory and the star of the film Felicity Kendal at the door. Vinod and I looked at each other. “We must talk to Felicity,” we said in unison. We looked at each other again. “You go first,” he said. “You go first,” I said. This table tennis like rally went on for a while with both of us indecisively stuck to our spot when a limousine came and whisked Felicity away.
I suppose that was the last time shyness held Vinod Mehta back. When I came back to Bombay in the early 70s he was already here. He had self published 'Bombay, a Private View', a rather presumptuous book considering he was a young man who had just come to the city, but it was a statement of intent Vinod wanted to write; even more, he wanted to be in journalism, and perhaps the book was his passport into this desired territory. He soon met Susheel Somani, an industrialist who had shocked his conservative family by launching Debonair, India’s answer to Playboy.
It was a rather poor answer, but Vinod as editor transformed it. Its nudes continued to be terrible (Vinod probably gave only a fleeting moment to them), but Debonair became a magazine you wanted to read. The qualities that made Vinod Mehta such a very different editor from the usual mould were on display here: his lively irreverence, his unflinching honesty, his sharp wit and his penchant for the gossipy anecdote. He gave me my first column (which he called Dharker’s Dilemma) and I met him quite often but his real Bombay friends were Behram Contractor (Busybee to his countless admirers) and Mario Miranda (the cartoonist). They formed Bombay’s gossip troika , and one wonders how many reputations were good naturedly demolished every evening over a bottle of Old Monk.
Vinod was greatly influenced by British journalism and his oft-stated ambition was to start a Sunday paper like London’s Sunday Times or The Observer. Ashwin Shah of Jaico Publishers gave him that opportunity with The Sunday Observer and while Vinod ran it, it was probably the best Sunday paper in the country with often provocative articles and a letters page which became a Vinod Mehta trademark -- opinions of every shade were allowed to be expressed, the more against the paper’s views the better.
What distinguished Vinod from his contemporaries was that he was no respecter of reputations, and politicians particularly were the objects of his mockery. That’s why when he moved to Delhi, he never developed a cosy relationship with ministers and politicians. His run-ins with proprietors were partly a result of this at-arms-length attitude. His falling out with Vijaypat Singhania at The Indian Post and L M Thapar’s Pioneer were spectacular in their suddenness, but he was stubborn in not following any diktats. In the battle that ensued someone had to go. Obviously that was the Editor.
If he stayed at the helm of Outlook for 17 years it was not because he had mellowed in his approach but because in Rajan Raheja he found a proprietor who supported him in full. In one of his books, Vinod tells the story he calls ‘Foster PM’ ,of how Ranjan Bhattacharya, with the help of N K Singh and Brajesh Mishra seemed to bypass Prime Minister Vajpayee in awarding major contracts to dubious firms. The consequence of the detailed stories was an income tax raid with 700 officials (as reported by The Hindustan Times) descending on the group's offices in 12 cities. Outlook, fortunately, didn't flinch and continued its anti-establishment ways with Arundhati Roy’s long diatribes (10,000 words plus) in sensitive issues like Kashmir, terrorism and Naxalites and gave full rein to the Radia tapes, all of these invariably treading on government and corporate toes.
In a sense, Vinod’s career encapsulates the uneasy relationship between the state and the media: we have on the surface an unbridled free press, but the sub text is, you can go this far, but no further. What Vinod Mehta showed is that if you are fearless, if you are ready with your resignation letter in your pocket (his phrase), you can keep pushing the boundaries one step at a time. You might offend a lot of people, hurt many interests, but in the end you will have bravely served the larger cause. Vinod Mehta continued doing this till the very end.
(This tribute by Anil Dharker, a columnist and author, appeared on Hindustan Times on March 8.)