Sunil Sethi

Journalist in Delhi

My friend Vinod Mehta

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Column in Business Standard, March 13, 2015

As for firing me, he – who had remorselessly been fired so often – considered it his first duty to shield a colleague

 

My first whiff of Vinod Mehta was a curious non-encounter that forged a friendship of nearly 40 years. In the blistering summer of 1978 Indira Gandhi campaigned zealously for Mohsina Kidwai in the Azamgarh by-election that marked her return to power. I had rented a fifty-rupee-a-night room in a small boarding house run by an ex-pahalwan. In those days you sought telex machines in the nearest big town to send your dispatch; I took off to Varanasi for a couple of days to file copy but managed to retain the room. When I returned the pahalwan said, “A friend of yours from Bombay came and insisted on taking your room. He’s left without paying.” He presented me a visiting card, at the back of which was scribbled, “Thanks for the room. Contact me in Bombay. Vinod.” He was still editing Debonair.

Later, when he started The Sunday Observer, I discovered that he had married the warm-hearted Rekha Khanna, his first wife, and in their minuscule flat at Kemp’s Corner, I was drawn into a circle of friends that included Behram “Busybee” Contractor, Dom Moraes and Mario and Habiba Miranda. He offered me jobs but I was gainfully employed. Like the film producer Ismail Merchant, who got the world’s great actors to work for a pittance, Vinod was notoriously tight-fisted. A puzzled frown of why-are-we-having-this-conversation would settle on his face at the smallest mention of salaries or fees. Why, then, did some of the country’s best journalists want to work for him?
I realised when he engaged me as a Saturday op-ed columnist at The Pioneer in 1990. Things were running smoothly until, knowing Vinod’s delight in gossip and catchy headlines, I wrote a column about leaks by government officials. It wasn’t that the facts were unfounded so much as my headline was an unfortunately recognisable pun on a senior civil servant’s name. He threatened libel action, bar which, at least a grovelling retraction. The matter dragged on for weeks; I would go in to see Vinod knowing he was under pressure from management to dismiss me. “He wants an abject apology,” Vinod said, emitting derisive hoots, all stress on the adjective. Finally, he drafted a watered-down apology, tucking it in a discreet corner. As for firing me, he – who had remorselessly been fired so often – considered it his first duty to shield a colleague.

His loyalties were fierce, his compassion abiding, his brooding silences punctuated by profanity-laced humour so infectious, that few journalists could afford to say “No”. In Outlook I once wrote a column on Katherine Frank’s biography of Mrs Gandhi that alleged, based on a conversation with a civil servant’s wife, that Sanjay Gandhi’s “hit men” had liquidated human targets during the Emergency including an underworld figure called Daku Sunder. As a result, Maneka Gandhi sued the author for damages in London and won. The book was pulped. Vinod was in seventh heaven.

Nearly every journalist who worked for him has similar accounts. A senior writer at Outlook told me that a few years ago when R K Pachauri was embroiled in a controversy that was getting bad press, the climate change specialist (who is facing allegations of sexual harassment) strode into Vinod’s cabin, past the reporter’s desk. When the meeting was over, Vinod came up to the reporter. “You know why he was here? He’s doing damage control. He’s from my school, La Martiniere, Lucknow. Now go ahead and write your story.”

In one of the best books written about a remarkable founder-editor, The Years with Ross, the American humourist James Thurber says of Harold Ross who created The New Yorker, that he was “obstinate and reasonable, cosmopolitan and provincial, wide-eyed and world-weary.” The words fit Vinod to the T.

He was a Luddite – hand wrote all his pieces and books, was hopeless on the phone, terse in his emails. He abhorred sloppy writing, romantic liaisons and dodgy connections in his office. On “press nights” he would stealthily pace the news desk peering over editors’ shoulders and stealing their chhola bhaturas. But his antennae were always up. If a staffer’s serious misdemeanor was unmasked, he could explode in a towering rage. The guillotine fell rarely but he was capable of screaming, “Get out! Get out, right now!”

Rarer were invitations to memorable lunches. (Usually, his devoted assistant Sasidharan would call, “Mr Mehta hears you’re going to Pakistan. Will you please file a ‘Diary’ on your return?”) Vinod’s idea of a treat was a Chinese meal: a sparse menu of prawns, steamed rice and sauteed vegetables. He seldom asked your preference and disapproved of dessert. Our last meal was with our old friend Ian Jack, the Guardian columnist. The inexorable advance of Parkinson’s was evident. “I shuffle a little now,” he said, taking my shoulder for support. In the opening pages of Lucknow Boy, he wrote his own epitaph: “In Lucknow…you could be a liar, crook, bigot, miser, ugly, lower caste – that was okay. What you couldn’t be was a bore.”

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