Writing in 1998 about the great editors that India had had, Behram ‘Busybee’ Contractor had listed out some legends from the 1950s and 1960s but then had named three he considered the best of their times in later years whose brilliance might never be surpassed by future generations.
The three he named were MJ Akbar, Vinod Mehta and Vir Sanghvi. “But Akbar is an editor from the past decade, Vinod Mehta is in the present and Vir Sanghvi will dominate the coming years. No one will be able to surpass their brilliance,’’ he added.
I am lucky to have had the good fortune to work for two of the three editors named by Busybee — I have never had the opportunity to work with Akbar nor, I believe, I will now. But with Busybee’s comments always uppermost in mind I have always felt fortunate to have worked with both Mehta and Sanghvi. I have learnt immensely from both and today, after the passing away of Mehta on Sunday, I feel rather bereft at the loss of his towering presence from the media scene.
Most obituaries have stressed on Mehta’s honesty and integrity but for me it was a given when I first joined Outlook in 1998. What charmed and tickled me pink was his unabashed irreverence for anything in power. That was the year that film maker Mira Nair had released the second of her three elemental films, Fire, which told the tale of sexuality in traditional orthodox Indian families and the lesbianism it might lead to among the deprived women.
Of course, Bal Thackeray, the self-appointed custodian of Indian culture, had to protest. He sent hordes of women to tear down and burn the posters of Fire and shut down the cinemas showing the film.
Mehta always had a quirky sense of humour and I was startled when he published a joke in the letters column of Outlook the next week. This is how it went: A lawyer dies and goes to hell. He is startled to be greeted by a desperate angel, a priest, a pundit, a mullah and a rabbi all of who are desperately searching their Holy Books for a solution. “Thank God you have arrived!’’ they greet the lawyer in absolute relief. “Only you can tell us how to sort this out. There is a strange man here called Bal Thackeray who insists we ban the fire in hell and we simply don’t know what to do about him!’’
I was never sure whether that was a genuine letter to the editor or a joke made up by Mehta himself. But it was that kind of irreverence for politicians which I picked up from Mehta that went into my bloodstream as a journalist and it is from him that I learnt one will survive the big bad world of Indian politics only if you do not take them seriously and have great fun watching the foaming-at-the mouth reactions of politicians under attack for their misdemeanours. “I am not interested in the nice things people have to say about me. I would rather know who abuses me for what. And any journalist would be a fool if he thinks any politician will be friends with him for friendship’s sake alone.’’
While at Outlook I fell afoul of the saffron forces on several occasions but it was with the irreverence I picked up from him that I reported on Pramod Mahajan’s dirty and sleazy abuse of Sonia Gandhi during the 1999 poll campaign at a border village where he thought no national journalist would be present. All hell broke loose when that issue of Outlook hit the stands. Mahajan tried to make out that I had made up the story as I had something personal against him. But once Mehta had made sure that was not true, he stood by me like the Rock of Gibraltar and left Mahajan frothing at the mouth by closing the debate with the BJP with a firm, “No further arguments will be entertained on the issue.’’
Mehta may have known only how to be an editor but he was truly a reporter’s delight — and comfort. The world of journalism will be a lesser place without him, I am sure.