Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Vinod Mehta RIP

Vinod Mehta with his wife Sumita
Vinod Mehta is no more. RIP Vinod, in whatever heavenly newsroom there might be up there, where I am sure you would have wound up with your irreverent pen and favourite tipple.

In 1992, I joined Vinod’s team at the 150-year-old The Pioneer newspaper then recently re-launched from Link House on Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg, New Delhi’s Fleet Street.

It was the best of times and the worst of times, to be a journalist in India. India was opening up to the world, with its own version of `Perestroika’ while combating old passions which manifested itself among others, in the demolition of the Mughal-era Babri Masjid in Ayodhya by an impassioned, partisan crowd. Preceded as these were, in Vinod’s own words “ Rajiv Gandhi’s tragic assassination, P.V.Narasimha Rao’s erratic prime-ministership (and BJP leader) L.K.Advani’s frightening rath yatra and its consequences.” 

At The Pioneer, under Vinod Mehta, we had the right to report on it all, with all its warts and quirks – without fear or favour, as long as we got our facts right and told the story well.

Vinod was arguably among the first modern newspaper editor in India who understood what made the new kind of newspapers tick. As against the old league of Editors who lived in Ivory towers, Vinod lived, breathed and dreamt of the ink that flowed from the newsroom and realised that newspapers could survive only by combining reporting with commentary and splashing news pages with feature stories and large, tell-all photographs,  pushing into the space reserved till then for magazines.

Vinod, after a stint at various jobs in the UK, had started his journalistic debut in India by editing the risqué men’s magazine Debonair, which he turned into a classy magazine with a great choice of reading and  stylishly clicked `For Men’s Eyes Only’ center-spreads.

However, Vinod’s heart lay in launching a Sunday paper on the lines of newspapers he was fond of reading during his stay at England. He got his first big break with a new launch – The Sunday Observer – which a popular publishing house came up with. After that, several Editor-ships later, he was picked up by industrialist L.M.Thapar to run the venerable `The Pioneer’, which the Thapars had bought over for a song.

He redesigned the old newspaper which at one time had Rudyard Kipling, the `Bard of the Empire’ on its staff, into arguably the best looking, modern, newspaper in the country. He brought in a fresh whiff of air into the stodgy BSZ Street which housed most of the Who’s Who of Indian newspaper industry – from Times of India to Indian Express to Patriot, with juicy, breaking news in virtually every sphere – from cabinet meetings to business boardrooms to the world of art.     

He understood the art and science of modern newspaper design, what his readers wanted to read, the value of a photograph to tell the tale, the value of giving his `boys’ and `girls’ freedom to write as they chose and the need to bond his young team together by partying with them as hard as they could stand up to !

In the words of a colleague, Madhumita Ghosh, the grand-daughter of a famous previous Editor of The Pioneer, “Vinod combined the greatest asset of an Editor. An infallible nose for news, and a management style that encouraged complete freedom with an uncanny market sense without giving in to the marketeers.”

However, many on New Delhi’s `Fleet Street’ still castigated him for being a `non-political Editor’, an euphemism for someone who does not understand Indian politics, then the life and blood of Indian journalism. Vinod broke that mis-conception when he wrote a front page news story based on a meeting with then Prime Minister Rao, asking readers to contemplate on the fate of a nation `where the prime minister’s reaction to blood curdling, nation shaking events went no further than (stating) “the soul of India is peaceful”.’

The newspaper’s owner separately confessed to Vinod that the demolition of the centuries old, ruined Masjid by religious zealots who believed it to be the site of an older temple and ostensibly Lord Rama’s mythical palace had him (Thapar) `jumping with joy’ ! However, Vinod, being Vinod merely brushed that aside and continued with the newspaper’s reports on what he considered tragic events for the nation’s secular credentials.  

However, Vinod was not a political animal. He forte lay in being a thorough newsroom man. He would hurl chaste Hindi four letter words at deskmen who could not meet the deadline to print the newspaper and call the same people up for a cup of tea and encouragement on days he felt the page was especially well designed.

He understood the import of news, like no other man I have met. One morning he rang me and my equally young colleague Jay Shankar to his `den’. We went trembling, only to be congratulated for two stories we had broken – one on an American cola giant being allowed to make a comeback in India after being thrown out of the country in misplaced socialistic zeal a decade-and-a-half back, and the other on a state run firm pioneering perfumed condoms! He told us in clear terms, `it’s all right to report on what ministers’ think is policy, or on the GDP going up or down, but what readers really want is news like this …”

Vinod was also the right kind of Editor for young reporters, who wished to follow his equally irreverent style of thumbing their nose at the high and mighty. In the early ’90s, I was assigned along with photo-journalist Arun Jetlie, who later on went on to work for the Indian Express, to cover the opening of a Global Cola giant’s first Indian factory near Agra. We shockingly found under-age child labourers in that plant. I carried out a diversion of the assembled cola officialdom and Jetlie, despite his girth, jumped across bottling lines to take pictures of the kids in question. The race back to The Pioneer to file the story was enlivened by the bus, organised by the Cola firm breaking down and their offering us free stay at a 5-star hotel in Agra.

The Pioneer team still found a way of getting the story and pictures to our newspaper to be printed the next day. I was told much later, that Vinod faced the music for that irreverent story all alone. The proprietors whose business interests seemed to have been hurt,  took him to task for our `misdemeanour’. We never got to know of the storm which brew over The Pioneer that day. All that we knew was that we soon received letters promoting us!

That was Vinod’s way.