I first met Vinod Mehta in Lucknow in the early 1970s. I was introduced to this long-haired man in jeans and a tee-shirt lounging on a charpoy and soaking in the sun at the Mehta home on Canning Road. Earlier, I and a classmate were told by his younger brother Harish ‒ my senior in school ‒ that Vinod was an author. So we looked at him and the copy of his first book, Bombay: A Private View, lying next to him, with awe. I picked it up and leafed through the contents. Vinod snatched it from my hands. “Let me show you kids the sexy parts,” he said with a deadpan face and opened the book to the chapter on his visit to Mumbai’s red light area. He then slunk away, leaving us wondering what kind of mystery man we had just encountered.

That memory of him being an unpretentious and quirky person who didn’t take himself too seriously remained with me when I met him over a decade later in Mumbai. He was editor of The Sunday Observer. I had dropped out of advertising and was determined to become a journalist. I tried to touch Vinod for a job but he said he would have to put me through a test since “advertising is a hydra-headed monster that defied description”. I did well enough on the reporting assignment that was given and I was taken on board as a trainee.

Even though The Sunday Observer was successful and created waves virtually every week, there were those who did not think much of its editor. They said Vinod was not intellectual enough; that he did not understand politics; he was only good at putting together a team and allowing it to run independently. In short, he was just a good manager with a few innovative ideas, perhaps a good production man with design sense but little else. Such assessments came from men and women who could hold forth on the shape of the world at the Press Club, but had not made much of a mark in print. They, of course, were not savvy enough to produce a paper half as decent as the Observer.

No boring sermons

Years later, when he was at the Outlook, and some of its stories were followed by the national media, there were still those who called him politically naive. Was he? I found him very astute although he didn’t make a virtue out of talking endlessly at edit meetings and espousing his political views to a captive audience. Neither did he drop names or go on about his meeting with one politician or the other. If he did make a reference, it had to have a context or a juicy bit. Vinod wanted his reporters and editors to devote time to the stories given to them rather than sit cooped up in office listening to his sermons.

At one point, rather early in his career, it had become fashionable to say that Vinod Mehta knows nothing but his paper has credibility. So one must use the space he provides.  A rather skewed logic, which did not bother him one bit. I worked with him for over 25 years and I can say that he simply judged stories on their merit and not because of their ideological tilt. This is perhaps why so many left- inclined journalists, human-rights activists and feminists were keen to write for him. At the same time, he accommodated right-wing views and stories provided they stood the test of reason.

But most of all, he allowed fun to pepper the pages. I still remember Anil Dharker’s TV review in the Observer when Doordrashan was the only channel around. It ran over two columns with the words “Rajiv Gandhi” repeated without a break and ended with the punch line “(To be continued later)”. I doubt if many other editors would have run the review.

Not a Congress stooge

In Delhi, Vinod was often labelled as a Congress chamcha or Sonia Gandhi’s stooge. Yet, at Outlook, he approved several stories that embarrassed the Congress party and its United Progressive Alliance government no end. When the magazine broke the food-for-export scam, the Scorpene submarine deal and other stories, he was besieged with calls from Congress leaders and ministers. Many of them wondered how Outlook could have carried such stories. Vinod would often feel the pressure but rarely ever stopped a story. And when he did he was honest enough to admit that his hands were tied – he did not try to pick holes in a reporter’s story or find other excuses to justify spiking it.

He was a man who rarely talked or joked in office. In fact, he was known to be curt and businesslike. But he had a human side to him. I remember reporting sick at the Indian Post and going on a day- long binge in Bombay with my old friends from advertising who were feeling rich. We ended the day at Mela restaurant in Worli . I did not notice Vinod having dinner at a table at the other end. He did not mention this the next day at work.  A few days later, he came to my desk with an afternoon paper which had a story on how Mela’s bar licence had been cancelled. “Ajith, you cannot drink there anymore,” he said and walked away.

Similarly, when a fight broke out late night in the production department of Outlook magazine everyone expected fireworks the next day. One supervisor wanted an enquiry to be launched. But Vinod treated it as a trivial issue that needed to be defused light heartedly. The only thing he wanted to know was who had won. The incident was given a quiet burial.

Caring for the underdog

Vinod was the last of the gutsy editors who was a thorough professional and did not try to be a crusader. He did not also try to please anybody or become part of any lobby. He allowed criticism of the left and the right as well as of the Congress. He personally admitted though that he was partial to the underdog and the less privileged.

Unfortunately, his last years in Outlook were rather traumatic. This is something he has not mentioned in his last book, Editor Unplugged. I was privy to the fact that things began to sour much before the Radia Tapes story was carried by the magazine. In 2008, someone senior from the Outlook management had given an exclusive story to a reporter from a business paper that Vinod Mehta was being eased out. The magazine needed a younger editor, he was told. Vinod was not in the best of health and he was no longer in command. The journalist in question contacted me to check the veracity of the story. I said I had heard no such thing. However, I thought it proper to alert Vinod about this. He made it a point to meet the reporter and the story was not done. “It has all been sorted out,” he told me in private. Obviously it was not.

My last interaction with him was a little before his book was to be launched in December. He said he had opened a Twitter account and was all excited about it. He told me to take a look and offer my comments. I called back and said his self- effacing humour would give many younger Twitter users a run for their money. A few days later I learnt that he was admitted in hospital and that his book launch had been postponed. RIP, Vinod.