Just finished reading the autobiography – Lucknow Boy: A Memoir, of veteran Journalist Late Vinod Mehta. Vinod Mehta (31 May 1942 – 8 March 2015) was an Indian Journalist and Editor of several Indian newspapers as well as a fine political commentator. Vinod was from a refugee family from Peshawar who grew up in Lucknow. His memoir is divided into six chapters. There are times when Vinod gets too much candid about his and others personal life. Besides that, this autobiography is veritable source of so much about Indian Print Journalism, Journalists, Socialites, Cricketer and last but not least Politics and Politicians.
First Chapter: Hometown
First Chapter of the book is entitled “Hometown”. The chapter gives family details of Vinod. His father was a native of Peshawar. His father short service commission in the Army during World War II. In 1946 his father was transferred to Lucknow. At the time of partition, the family was in Lucknow. Studying at La Martiniere, Lucknow, he has described himself as below average student who would somehow pass and move to next class. In his own words “At school I was a hopeless pupil. Whether this was due to my stupidity or my casual approach, I cannot be sure. I had at that time only one goal: to somehow pass every year. If I failed I’d get a rocket from my parents. They did not seem particularly worried by the low grades I got. They were just relieved to see me move up the ladder one step at a time. The accumulation of knowledge, information, enlightenment, expertise – these attainments did not seem to me to be important or useful”.
He has talked about the hand to mouth survival of the family also “The Mehtas were a bicycle, rickshaw and tonga family. I never got brand new clothes and all my winter wear was hand-me-downs from my grandfather or elder brother. Shorts, generally white, and shirts were the only original items I received. My grandfather’s elegant and stylish suits went first to my father, then to my elder brother, and by the time they came to me they were in pretty bad shape”.
In this chapter, Vinod fondly talks about his school buddies Saeedan Naqvi (well-known Indian journalist Saeed Naqvi), Azad (Buniya) Khan and Ashok Kwatra. There are great details of Ganjing. Ganjing in Lucknow means fooling around in Hazratganj. Hazratganj is Lucknow’s high street famous for Kwality and Royal Café besides other high-end shops. Even today Ganjing is a favourite pastime of young boys and girls in Lucknow. This chapter contains lots of interesting facts as well as stories of people from the Lucknow of 1950’s. Two characters stand out: Safdar and Gianibhai.
According to Vinod “In the Lucknow of the 60’s, we asked some fundamental questions with respect to an individual. Was he a bore or was he funny? Could he spin a decent yarn and keep us entertained? Did he know one or two girls? Could we get a good meal at his house? Was he prepared to make the odd (minor) sacrifice for his mates? Could he be trusted? A human being’s worth was measured by the aforementioned prerequisites rather his father’s name or how and where he prayed, or where he came from”.
Safdar fitted the bill perfectly. He had talent to amuse which was considered vital for anybody in Lucknow. There is a story where a Doctor who used to drive his car very carefully and slowly offered a ride to which Safdar replied “No thank you, I am in a hurry”.
Gianibhai was a tall gentle Sikh who quoted Ghalib frequently and sold open air tandoori food. After partition lots of Sikhs came from Pakistan and settled in Lucknow. The language of the refugees was in stark contrast to the stylized and refined language used in the Lucknow of 1950’s and 60’s. That was too much for Ghalib quoting Gianibhai who lamented that “Saale Sardaron ne Lucknow ko tabah kar diya”. The irony is self-evident and immensely poignant.
For Mehta secularism was a lived reality. He describes himself as “I breathed the secularism they talk of, the composite culture flows in my veins, the syncretic tradition is something, I observed daily as I rode my bicycle from Firangi Mahal to Sanyal Club. I didn’t pick secularism from books or at university or from protest demos. For me it was a lived reality”.
Second Chapter: Passage to England
It was at the insistence of his friend Azad who was in England and encouraged him to come to England. Apparently it the lure of the swinging London which prompted him to finally make up his mind to go to England. Mehta went to England hoping that Azad will look after him. However, he got the shock of his life. Azad fixed a job for him where he had to pick up a load of heavy rods and cut them to size on a machine. It was pure physical work. While describing his first job, Mehta describes as to how he went to his job wearing a suit on first day without realizing that it is going to be a physical work. He describes is disappointment with Azad.
Mehta went on to live in England for eight years before returning to India. The rest of the chapter is about his years in England. There are fairly detailed accounts of how Mehta had several affairs and even a daughter from one of the affairs, a daughter whom he never met and does not know, and this is the only thing in life about which Mehta shows some sadness. The second chapter also details as to how his prowess in table tennis came in handy. He became part of Thames Valley Table Tennis League. This allowed him to not only earn precious money but also allowed him to travel to various parts of the country to play tournaments. An additional bonus was tea and sandwiched which were served after the match. He reports that Kingston won the Thames Valley League for two years in a row.
Third Chapter: Bombay Masala
Third chapter contains the phase of Mehta’s life after return from London. This chapter is all about Vinod Mehta the Editor of Newspaper after Newspaper. However, it does carry a few details of his stay in Bombay. For example, as to how he posed as boyfriend of a prostitute for her sister’s marriage and got paid 200 rupees by the prostitute. The chapter also details about his first book “Bombay – A Private View” and how it sold like hot cake. After the publication of first book he got assignment to write a biography of Meena Kumar who had recently passed away. The chapter also details about how he got his first chance to edit a magazine – Debonair. This chapter also gives us snippets about of Ruskin Bond, Khushwant Singh, Kuldeep Nayyar, Abu Abraham, Iqbal Masood, Anil Dharkar, Girilal Jain, Rafiq Zakaria, Saeed Mirza, Arun Shourie, Satyajit Ray, Ramnath Goenka, Kabir Bedi to name a few. The chapter also gives details about how he ended up writing another biography – this time on Sanjay Gandhi. The biography named ‘The Sanjay Story’ was written without a single meeting with Sanjay Gandhi. The chapter also throughs light on how much Nehru detested Feroze Gandhi. The reason given by Mehta for leaving Debonair is quite interesting. According to Mehta he decided to leave Debonair after Atal Bihari Vajpayee told him that ‘Your magazine is very good, but I have to keep it under the pillow’.
The chapter also gives interesting details as to how he launched Sunday Observer and the scoop about Girilal Jain getting gift of 3000 F-Series debentures of Reliance from Dhirubhai Ambani. There are details of Vijaypat Singhania and the re launch of Indian Post. The details of Mehta leaving Indian Post is interesting read. It was Ramakrishna Hedge who told him about the plan of Vijaypat Singhania to sell the paper. Hedge claimed that Vijaypat gave this information to Vajpayee on a flight and that’s how information passed to Mehta. According to Mehta it was pressure from Satish Sharma and R. K. Dhawan that forced Vijaypat to take the drastic decision. The next job was to launch a new newspaper – Independent. The story about the launch of Independent is quite interesting giving details of inside tussles in the Times of India group. However, he could not continue in the new job for long. It was a piece on CIA having a mole in Indira Cabinet that got Mehta undone. Independent reported that CIA payed $20000 hinted at a mole in Indira Gandhi’s Cabinet selling secrets to CIA. The suspected mole was Morarji Desai. The Independent based on its own sources wrote that it was Y. B. Chawan. However, the political uproar resulted in his resignation within one month of starting the newspaper. Independent had to publish another story saying that they made a mistake by taking the name of Y. B. Chawan. To resign from two newspapers within such a short time earned him the title of carelessness. The rest of the chapter gives details about the planning by the Tata Group to set up a trust and start a newspaper and how the plan was dropped at the last minute.
Fourth Chapter: Interesting Times
Chapter four is called “Interesting Times” and carries in great details about Mehta starting Delhi edition of Pioneer. The chapter gives in details the circumstances in which he had to leave Pioneer and the launch of Outlook. When Outlook was launched the Numero Uno of English magazine in the country was India Today. To challenge India Today was madness. But Mehta not only challenged India Today but even forced India Today to change a few things in its design and publication. It was finally at Outlook that Mehta was able to work for long and create a formidable magazine. There are many stories about Outlook. My favourite was how Outlook broke the news of betting in Cricket. It was a big story which shook the world of cricket like never before. There are details of Azharuddin, Kapil Dev, Manoj Prabhakar and Ajay Jadeja. Mehta’s assessment given in the book is that Kapil Dev was indeed involved but he was too big a icon to be cut to size.
The rest of the chapter is about India’s Nuclear Detonation and its repercussions. It talks about Arundhati Roy’s article in Outlook on Nuclear Detonation. I remember buying Outlook only to read that piece. It indeed showed the command which Arundhati has over the English language. The chapter also details as to how Nirmal Verma refused to write review of Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s poetry calling it work of a well meaning amateur. There are some interesting details about Brijesh Mishra and Vajpayee and how RSS wanted Brijesh out and how Vajpayee resisted and prevailed. Mehta goes on to talk about income tax raids on Outlook and how Yashwant Sinha promised and stopped harassment of Outlook by Income Tax Department. The story of 2004 general elections and Shashi Tharoor shot at UN highest post are good read. The story of Aishwarya Rai’s marriage with tree is also good read. However, besides expose of spot fixing the other very interesting read in this chapter is about Niira Radia tapes and its expose by the Outlook. The chapter talks in detail about Niira Radia, A. Raja, Kanimozhi, Ratan Tata. It also gives certain excerpts of telephonic talk between Niira Radia and A. Raja, Kanimozhi, Ratan Tata, Burkha Dutt, Vir Sanghvi. This chapter is definitely spiciest one.
Fifth Chapter: Sweeper’s Wisdom
This chapter is full of advice for journalist and deals with topics like “should journalists take freebies?”, “Should a journalist always carry a resignation letter in his pocket?”, ‘What should a journalist to if he is put on page Three beat”, “Should a journalist try and be a rebel?” This chapter is good for would be journalists.
Sixth Chapter: Some People
The sixth chapter which is the last one is entitled “Some People” talks about some important people in Mehta’s personal and professional life. In this chapter he talks about his grandfather and Mohit Sen from personal point of view. There are anecdotes about V.S. Naipaul, Salman Rushdie, Shobha De and Sonia Gandhi.
The book is written in very candid and irreverent style and is a pleasure to read. The language used is very simple and does not require dictionary to go through it. It is definitely a must read for anybody who aspired to be a journalist. There are lot of things to connect for those who have lived through 80’s, 90’s and the first decade of the 21st Century in India or who are interested in Indian Politics. The book also shed light, though in bits and pieces, on the relationship of Journalists to Businessmen and Politicians.
Publisher: Penguin / Viking
Year of Publication: 2011
Price: 499 Indian Rupees.