Vir Sanghvi’s biography on his website describes him as “the best-known Indian journalist of his generation”. On the jacket of A Rude Life, his new memoir, the claim arrives diluted: “one of the best-known”. But, even allowing for the imprecision of measuring fame, its stronger form seems to me perfectly defensible. Certainly no peer has been so well-known for so long.
MJ Akbar, Swapan Dasgupta and the late Chandan Mitra have long been more associated with politics (or other things) than journalism; Shekhar Gupta and Tavleen Singh’s name recognition is more restricted than Sanghvi’s (to Delhi and to avid, rather than casual, consumers of politics). Twitter followers are one measure of fame: the only journalists with more than Sanghvi’s 4.2 million are a decade or more younger. Except for Rajat Sharma, who does not exactly represent a like-for-like comparison.
An early start
Dhiren Bhagat, who from the generosity of posterity now looks like that generation’s brightest star, died at the wheel of his Maruti Gypsy in 1988, aged thirty-one. In 1988 Sanghvi, only a year older than Bhagat, was already on his third stint as editor of a magazine, the Calcutta weekly Sunday. A decade earlier he had become India’s youngest-ever magazine editor, at Bombay. He then spent several years running another Bombay-based monthly, Imprint. All three magazines – like most magazines – are no longer with us.
Over time Sanghvi’s longevity, and the talents that have sustained it, have become, if anything, more remarkable than his early start. Early starts weren’t uncommon in his generation: Akbar ran Sunday magazine at 25 and was founding editor of the Telegraph newspaper at 31. Tina Brown edited Tatler (in London) at 25 and took over Vanity Fair (in New York) a few days after turning 30. Magazines are an editor’s medium, and can ossify quickly. Proprietors are often willing to bet on someone bright and unproven.
Sanghvi gave up editing of his own volition at 47. Since then, he has suffered two notable professional setbacks, each given its own chapter here – an abortive attempt to run a news channel for Peter Mukerjea, and the Radia tapes. The second of these is now more than a decade ago. Given the demographics of social media and the colanderisation of collective memory, it is conceivable that at least half his Twitter followers are unaware of the Radia controversy, let alone of magazines called Bombay and Sunday.
He has done more than merely survive. Many once-prominent journalists survive; they appear on TV panels accompanied by the label of “senior journalist”, a kindly euphemism for has-been that is also, like “eminent historian”, a uniquely Indian construction. Nor has he aged into a national treasure of the Khushwant Singh variety (perhaps there was no “variety”, just the one), famous for being himself. For the most part, Sanghvi has actually thrived: in old ways and new.
Reinvention doesn’t quite capture it. His superpower is professional self-renovation. Each time the structure is modified and upgraded, its life extended, its features made more contemporary. There is never a new Vir Sanghvi; always the old one, almost as at ease with the times as he was in 2001 or 1981. This in a country that regards buildings as well as careers fit for demolition at the first sign of age, that is itchy always for a replacement, whether clad in batting pads or fresh Alucubond.
Given our national incapacity for renovation and the notorious unviability of journalistic careers in India, Sanghvi could as usefully have written a self-help book as a memoir. How to Succeed (And Keep Succeeding) in Journalism could yet be a hit book or, who knows, YouTube series. Clearly the last thing Sanghvi needs from me or anyone else is career advice, but such a series would constitute a public service.
The book Sanghvi has chosen to write does give away some of what Niall Ferguson might call his killer apps. A vigilant antenna for nascent shifts in the industry, whether cultural or technological (Sanghvi is sometimes ahead of his time, for instance when he starts a YouTube channel, but never behind it).
The importance of managing up: he seems to have got along with every boss he’s ever had, always left on good terms. Many editor’s memoirs are almanacs of complaints against ownership. The way Sanghvi tells it, he has had one dream boss after another, which says more about him than them. When he complains, it is only ever about publisher Aveek Sarkar of the ABP group, and usually about matters of business strategy rather than poor pay or editorial interference.
NewsX aside, he always quits when he’s still wanted (he thinks he stayed at ABP too long, but there’s no sign that Sarkar saw it that way). He is always adding new strings, new beats: food and travel, most famously, but the Bombay boy whose first editing job was at a “soft news” city magazine worked his way into being one of Delhi’s best-connected political correspondents. And he knows the value of accessibility.
On Twitter Sanghvi replies to everybody. I can’t think of another Indian so loaded with the traditional credentials of cultural privilege – Mayo College, English public school, Oxford – who wears them so lightly, or rather so invisibly.
The book he has chosen to write begins with the story of his parents’ courtship and marriage. But the personal swiftly recedes, never really to reappear. There are two books here. The first is a sort of narrative CV, an account of every job Sanghvi has held, from teenage reporter for India Today (during the long Oxford holidays) to co-founder of the restaurant booking site EazyDiner. The second is not a memoir in any usual sense of the genre, but an impressionistic history of national politics from the early 1980s onwards, in the form of a gallery of the politicians Sanghvi has known.
All this is delivered in prose as flat as day-old Cava. Kingsley Amis famously complained that his son Martin’s novels needed more simple sentences like “He put down his drink, got up, and left the room.” The 400 pages of A Rude Life scarcely contain any other kind of sentence. Pranab Mukherjee “was a nice man, with a droll sense of humour”. “A very nice man answered the phone.” “I went out to London as much as I could, saw lots of rock concerts and had a good time.” “The best thing Oxford had to offer was a chance to pit my wits against great minds.” The writing is almost determinedly uninteresting.
All through, cliché spreads like acne over the text, most often in the form of that Sanghvi favourite, the one or two sentence paragraph. Some examples chosen at random: “Obviously, I had a lot to learn.” “It was a no-contest.” “But you win some. And you lose some.” “I had my work cut out for me.”
There is a persistent misapprehension about prose of this kind, particularly in India. It is excused on the spurious grounds of accessibility and clarity; called “chatty” or “relatable”. It is none of these things. To say that we should overlook bad writing if the material is interesting is like asking a diner to look past the sloppy cooking to the nutritive value or freshness of the ingredients. You can’t be expected to appreciate the tenderness of the asparagus if it is served in a thick swamp of Thousand Island. Of course, good writing can be plain or simple so as to not obstruct the material. Writing of this kind, however, only gets in the way.
Yet despite the prose’s best efforts, the story Sanghvi has to tell cannot but be of wide interest. This is a man whose career takes in the Emergency and the Covid-19 pandemic; who has run a daily paper, a weekly, and two monthlies; been a pioneer on TV and online; intimately known several prime ministers; and has a deeper understanding of India’s media proprietors than any other living journalist. The story of Vir Sanghvi is almost by definition the story of nearly half a century of India’s English-language media.
And even as the personal story is an undeniable triumph, the reader opens the book knowing that the wider story is a tragedy. The reputation and influence of the institutions that Vir Sanghvi has worked for and represents have never been lower. Only one piece of evidence need be offered. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has ignored the traditional press for seven years and paid no discernible political price. Clearly the press do not matter as they used to, as they should; as the Republic desperately needs them to.
Vir Sanghvi’s career, as described by Vir Sanghvi, ought to offer some kind of answer to the question: What the hell happened?
The answer it provides is revealed rather than proffered. It doesn’t lie in the handful of occasions when Sanghvi pauses to reflect on the decline of the press: in, for instance, his sermon on the value of old-school reporting in the era of post-truth; nor in the more intriguing section where he explains his decision to quit as editor of the Hindustan Times out of the fear of contracting a disease he calls “editoritis”.
Editoritis patients, Sanghvi tells us, “can’t face life as ordinary citizens. They try to cling on to power somehow. They join lesser publications. They ask their governmental contacts to make them ministers. They lobby for Rajya Sabha seats…they remain obsessed with being ‘relevant’.”
Sanghvi doesn’t name any victims, but there is no doubt that he succeeded in averting editoritis. He has never hankered after political power or patronage. He has remained impressively free of pomposity or the illusion of relevance.
But from the point of view of readers, rather than journalists, and from the point of view of the health of the press, editoritis pales in significance by comparison to a disease that Sanghvi doesn’t name, but which, as his book makes plain, he contracted early and never shook off. Let us call it Delhi Syndrome.
There are many classic symptoms of Delhi Syndrome. But there are three that particularly define the affliction, and which are most obviously in evidence in A Rude Life.
First, the belief that Delhi isn’t just the centre of the universe; it is the universe, or the only part political journalists need concern themselves with. Midway through his stint as editor of Sunday, Sanghvi tells us: “Some of the preceding chapters may have given the impression that I had moved to Delhi where the political action was. In fact, I continued to live in Calcutta.”
Delhi, where the political action is: it has the off-handedness of truism. And sure enough, there is nothing distinctive about Sanghvi’s Delhi-centrism. Virtually all Delhi-based journalists can’t be bothered with politics elsewhere. From time to time they might pontificate on regional matters, but with rare exceptions (Rajdeep Sardesai is one) they don’t develop deep knowledge of states far from Delhi or approach the diversity of India’s polity with the curiosity and humility it deserves.
It is Delhi-centrism that leads Sanghvi to declare that Arvind Kejriwal and India Against Corruption finished off the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance, and to leave out of his narrative entirely an event of such profound import to the history of the Congress as the death in a helicopter crash of YS Rajasekhara Reddy. What YSR’s death – and the bungling that followed – meant for the Congress is understood by Congressmen all over the country, but it happened too far from Delhi to register on Delhi’s journalistic radars.
Second, a preference for covering politics as entertainment (gossip, intrigue, personalities and their rivalries) or sport (electoral contests, winners and losers) rather than what used to be called “the people’s business”: that is, covering what is actually happening in the country; what those who hold power are actually doing with it.
Delhi syndrome means knowing plenty about (Delhi-based) politicians and relatively little about the details of government policy or the state of the economy. Sanghvi speaks for the profession when he says, of the years 1990-91: “Few of us realised what bad shape the economy was in or that we had to borrow hundreds of millions just to survive.” Poorly informed journalists naturally lead to a poorly informed public.
Fast forward three decades and compare the level of attention the Delhi press have paid to groundless speculation about an impending change at the Finance Ministry versus the electoral bonds scheme. If most educated, Anglophone, newspaper-reading voters are ignorant of the existence of electoral bonds, let alone of their implications, Delhi Syndrome is substantially to blame.
Finally, Delhi Syndrome leads journalists to think that socialising with politicians is part of their job. Few phrases appear more often in A Rude Life than “my friend” (sometimes “my pal”). In the context of Bal Thackeray – “an unlikely pal” – Sanghvi tells us that there are “few politicians I enjoyed spending time with”. Taken at face value, this suggests that all the time he has spent with politicians constitutes an undertaking of journalistic duty.
But many readers will conclude something rather different: that there are few things Sanghvi enjoys more than the company of politicians, of all parties. He gets to know Rajiv and later Sonia Gandhi well, and becomes “close friends” with Madhavrao Scindia. During Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s Prime Ministership, Sanghvi takes his son each year to the PM’s Diwali party. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with any of this – most of us would happily trade places. It doesn’t make for a “rude life” – I’m not sure I’ve ever read a memoir that was more polite to its characters – but it certainly makes for a lively one.
The question is whether it makes for good journalism. What kind of political history is written by a journalist with a record of befriending politicians? One in which Atal Bihari Vajpayee believed in a “secular, liberal India”; in which Sonia Gandhi “had no real desire for power”; Rahul Gandhi, in the space of three pages, is “well-read and thoughtful”, “very well-read and bright”, and “very well-read and thoughtful”; and the owners of the Hindustan Times never interfere in editorial matters (this may have been Sanghvi’s experience, but he knows full well that not all his successors have been so lucky).
The more intimately Sanghvi knew a prime minister, the keener he is to give them the benefit of the doubt. The prime ministers he appears to have known least well – Morarji Desai, VP Singh, and PV Narasimha Rao – he assesses as somewhere between mediocre and disastrous.
Nowhere is this symptom of Delhi Syndrome more stark than in the book’s treatment of Rajiv Gandhi. Every misstep of Gandhi’s term is attributed to an incompetent or malign adviser. It could reasonably be objected that ill-judgment in personnel matters tends to be fatal to prime ministers. But the real measure of Sanghvi’s fondness for Rajiv Gandhi is his omissions. He glosses over arguably Gandhi’s greatest humiliation, the Indian Peace Keeping Force misadventure in Sri Lanka. And in his account of the Kashmir crisis of 1989-’90, all the blame is heaped on VP Singh and Jagmohan. No mention is made of Rajiv Gandhi’s contribution: the blatant rigging of the 1987 Jammu and Kashmir elections.
Sanghvi describes himself as a loner who doesn’t go to parties. But for nearly half a century he has been intimate with the powerful – politicians most of all, but also industrialists and film stars. They like and trust him. No other Indian journalist can claim to have known so many powerful people so well.
There is nothing powerful people value so highly in the company they keep as discretion. But discretion is not, on the whole, a journalistic virtue. If journalists are to do their reader’s business – the people’s business – their job is to make known what the powerful wish not to be known, not to keep their secrets. In the long run, the two imperatives – exposing the truth, and retaining the trust of the powerful – cannot coexist. You have to choose.
It is too pat to say that in Sanghvi’s position the rest of us would choose differently. Few have. Sanghvi’s way is the norm, not the exception – he’s just better than most at the things that Delhi journalists value. Sufferers from Delhi Syndrome tend not to be aware that they have a condition that is coming in the way of good journalism.
Think of the two or three generations of journalists that succeeded in convincing themselves that having dinner at Arun Jaitley’s house was a professional obligation. These journalists no doubt said to themselves: without “contacts”, without “access”, how can I know what’s going on? How can I get the story? They got the story all right: the story that Jaitley, and others like him, wanted them to have.
There are many structural factors behind the spread of Delhi Syndrome. As in other democracies, India’s media has steadily centralised since the 1980s. Delhi, where only one part of the action is, is where journalists think they have to be. Media owners have other business interests and are keener than ever to stay on the right side of the government. The journalist who builds “contacts” at the highest level may or may not be serving the reader’s interest, but his or her boss is unlikely to complain. The disappearance of classified advertising, and stagnant or declining circulation figures, have left newspapers and magazines increasingly dependent on government advertising.
None of this is the fault of any individual journalist. But the collective consequences are grim. Delhi’s journalists were discreet when they should have been revelatory; reverent where they should have been suspicious. They saw themselves as part of the same ruling class as politicians, bureaucrats and judges, and their sense of class interest grew far sharper than any sense of reader interest.
The current government’s lack of regard for the press (especially after Jaitley’s death) might have presented an opportunity to reconceive the relationship between journalists and power. Whether or not there are Delhi journalists willing to take such an opportunity, there don’t appear to be proprietors willing to back them. What we have witnessed instead is an intensification of the other aspects of Delhi syndrome. Denied, for the first time, access to a Prime Minister, Delhi’s journalists have spent seven years talking of no one else. The Republic has been reduced to a single individual who lives on Race Course Road and will soon move two kilometres north.
It is no accident that much of the fresh and urgent English-language journalism of recent years has issued from outlets based far away from Delhi: The NewsMinute, Article 14, the late lamented Mumbai Mirror. Our best or only hope may be to reduce our readerly dependence on Delhi; to support and encourage journalism from all parts of the Republic, the further away from Delhi, the better.
Yet it needs to be asserted that Delhi Syndrome is neither inevitable nor incurable. Look at Barkha Dutt, every bit as representative a case of Delhi Syndrome as Sanghvi. Over the course of the pandemic she has done precisely the kind of journalism that Delhi’s stars seemed incapable of producing.
Or, for that matter, look at Vir Sanghvi. Not the author of A Rude Life, but the man who for years has written a weekend lifestyle column for the Hindustan Times; a column that I, and thousands of others, spend much of the previous week looking forward to.
They are the same person, although if you read both the columns and the memoir you’d be entitled to wonder. The Vir Sanghvi who writes on food, travel and wine is unfailingly lively. His prose actually is chatty and relatable. The material shines. He gives the impression, astounding given how long he’s been on the job, of a man who continues to relish not only his subjects but the task of writing 1,200 words about it.
If one Vir Sanghvi is a textbook case of Delhi Syndrome, the other suggests that a famous journalist can spend three decades in Delhi and avoid it. He ranges all over India and the world, from tables at Michelin-starred restaurants to the latest trends on the Indian street. He has plenty of traditional erudition but also abiding curiosity. He is unafraid of criticising fashionable restaurants or beloved dishes. During the pandemic he has written about the devastation of the catering and hospitality industries with deep humanity, drawing attention to important causes and evangelising on behalf of those who truly need it.
Taken as a whole, his columns constitute an essential document of modern Indian social and cultural history. They could be recommended without reservation to any young journalist. How could that columnist produce this book?
If a journalist as curious, wide-ranging and passionate as Vir Sanghvi can so comprehensively succumb to Delhi Syndrome, it only shows how powerful the disease is, and how much we have come to take it for granted. It’s high time we started fighting back.
A Rude Life: The Memoir, Vir Sanghvi, Penguin India.