A Journalist Remembers His Former Editor, Vinod Mehta

14 March, 2015

Vinod Mehta was the quintessential diarist. His taut, anecdotal, gossipy, and sometimes pithy, style of expression was not only limited to his writing, but also to his entire worldview. He never accepted information if it was not embedded with irreverent opinion and embellishment. Vinod would reject what the stuffy intellectual world would weightily describe as “perspective”; he wanted colour.

Although Vinod’s two recent memoirs, Lucknow Boy and Editor Unplugged ran to a few hundred pages, if one takes a careful look at them, they are not long, descriptive narratives, but a running collection of anecdotes, gossip and opinion woven presented with his characteristic turn-of-phrase and uncommon wit he had adapted for the last page of Outlook. In fact, everything he wrote, including his books on Sanjay Gandhi and Meena Kumari, bore this trademark style, an imprint and extension of his journalism.

I joined Outlook in 2004 and have many memories of working with Vinod, and to honour his legacy, here are a few of those memories presented in a manner reminiscent of his anecdotal style.


There were moments in the many years that I filed stories for him when I realised that his trust in his reporters like me was reckless. We would smell an interesting story or a scam, and for fear of losing it to a newspaper, we would write it up on a Wednesday morning and only then, retrospectively, start building documents after the issue had gone to bed on a Thursday night. Of course, here one counted on Ajith Pillai, Vinod’s trusted alter ego, and arguably the finest judge of current affairs in any newsroom across India, to make the bid. Luckily for us, when we hedged a bet like this, nothing went wrong in a decade. The Infosys land-grab story that I did in 2005 was similarly put out without adequate documentation at first. My high profile source, who was travelling at the time, had promised to hand over the necessary papers to me on Saturday, while the story had to be filed by noon on Wednesday. When the issue hit the stands on Friday, it created the expected ruckus. My phone rang early in the morning and it was Vinod calling. I was truly afraid and imagined that something had gone horribly wrong. One of the Infosys bosses had even tried to stop the story, and all of us knew their long reach in the power corridors. When I took the call, Vinod uttered only two sentences with a rhetorical question in between: “Fantastic response. Have we restored the balance? Well done.”

I had a similar experience when I was working on the Bellary mining stories in 2008–09, much before other media outlets and the Karnataka Lokayukta sensationalised it. The Reddy brothers were powerful ministers in the Bharatiya Janata Party at the time, and in one of my first stories, I described their modus operandi and labeled Bellary “The Reddy Republic,” a place where no laws applied and no government existed. A lot of it was difficult to establish right away, but we had circumstantial evidence. I had seen government files that couldn’t be copied. We had comducted long interviews with rival miners in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, and I had met politicians across the borders. The Reddy brothers had a sympathetic government in Karnataka and a business partner in YS Rajasekara Reddy, then chief minister of Andhra Pradesh. In no time a criminal defamation case was filed against Outlook. I was worried and asked Vinod what to do. He only said, “It is a good case to fight. Keep digging new information and build your documents.” With the quick turn of events that followed in the next few years, this case had a natural death.

It was one thing for a reporter to feel strongly about a story, but an entirely different thing for an editor to measure the sincerity of the reporter and stand firmly by him. I realized this only after I myself had become an editor of a beast (Vijay Karnataka). On one other occasion, in Delhi, I heard Vinod tell another colleague of mine: “We go down, we go down together.


Vinod had a habit of inviting you to his hotel room to talk when he was travelling. If you called him from Reception, he would say, “Come up, come up.” On one such occasion in Bengaluru, we had decided the previous night that I would turn up at his hotel room at an appointed time to accompany him to the airport. I knocked at his door, and he slowly opened it. He didn’t look at me, but turned his back and walked away. I was in for a shock because he was waltzing around uncaringly in his boxers. I was not that worried about the flight we would miss, but didn’t know how to handle a boss in boxers. As casually as he had opened the door, he showed me his trolley suitcase, which needed to be zipped and taken out. He was still not looking at me. I started adjusting the clothes and suddenly, he recognised me and grew very apologetic: “Oh I didn’t realize it’s you. I called the reception and thought they had sent the bellboy. I am sorry.” For the first time, this revealed the human side of Vinod to me. From that moment on, he ceased to be just a boss. I could recognize an uncle, a father and a grandfather in him. He was exactly my father’s age. Many a time, he would lie down on the hotel bed and make a conversation. I would be sitting stiff on the sofa.


On one occasion Vinod wrote me an apologetic email. I still feel terribly embarrassed to have received it. This was when the Mangalore air crash had just occurred, and I got there by the first available flight in the morning. After having done the rounds of many mortuaries, seeing charred bodies, helping relatives identify them, the photographer and I were physically and emotionally exhausted. When the time came to return to Bengaluru, we called the office in Delhi to arrange for our return tickets. Someone in the office administration lied and told us that the airfares had shot up and we should take a bus back home. I checked on my Blackberry and found that the fares were not steep. In my exhausted state, I couldn’t digest the lies. Sitting on the pavement outside a mortuary, I wrote a long, angry mail to Vinod about what had transpired. Within a few minutes, I got a reply: “I am terribly sorry Sugata. This will not happen again.” I felt terrible that I had extracted this apology from him. I apologized for dragging him into such a silly thing as an air ticket. After the Mangalore story was published, he didn’t forget to call me and tell me how much he appreciated my effort in reporting it. His humility and equanimity have been firmly established in my mind. When people say he was not just a great professional, but a fine human being as well, for me, some of these and many other moments pop us as indisputable evidences.


One of Vinod’s personality traits that I’ve often wondered about was his ability to take any abuse or criticism, be it in the form of a letter-to-the-editor, or a barb during a television debate, or a loud ugly comment from an industry colleague—and convert it into a witty advantage. If there was one person with the ability to convert self-deprecation into  armour, it was him. This would leave people befuddled. Although this looks and reads like a simple trick, it was not.

In 2013, when Vinod’s Sanjay Gandhi book was being launched in Bengaluru, he asked me to be in conversation with him. I was a little terrified. By then, I had quit Outlook to lead a Times Group newspaper. When I introduced Vinod to the audience, I quoted a passage from Ved Mehta’s Remembering Mr. Shawn’s New Yorker. It read:

Without exactly realising it, I made every teacher I loved into my father—into an almost god-like figure. Teachers I didn't like I hated passionately, as though they belonged to the devil's party. For me, as for most people with romantic temperaments, there was no middle ground.

I had paid my tribute to him there, in his presence, when he was alert and alive. After the event Vinod didn’t speak to me for some time. When parting, he asked who had published Ved Mehta’s book? I knew it was an irrelevant prop to break the silence. Vinod Mehta was and will always be my editor.