Vinod Mehta has been called many names but he is partial to two of them. “At La Martiniere, Lucknow, I had four friends,” he says. “Azad Khan was Baniya Khan. My father was in the army, so I was called ‘Lieut’ and ‘Corpsy’ all through school.” A name is a name and in childhood, they get old really fast. Cities are another matter. You can pick them, leave them but they get built wherever you go.
After Partition, Lucknow, where Mehta grew up, began to smell of sweat from a rather indecent hurry. “The refugees had arrived. They opened up watch, dry cleaning shops, restaurants. They introduced the concept of fast service,” he says. Local Punjabis were most upset. If you could recite a poem or had a drop of nawabi blood, only then were you important. Any idiot — that was the attitude — could make money.
From Pakistan, came an important import — Nanki. Household help, tandoori-roti maker, nanny — “she was everything,” he says. “Mother was a functional cook, so food though simple and tasty was never central to our home.” Having arhar ki dal — made with lots of amchoor — with rice is a fond memory.
Mehta, the epicurean, however, came of age at public places. At Aslam’s hotel with bandh kebabs in Hazratganj. At Kwality’s, with chicken patty and the female population of IT College. “On Thursdays, the girls came down from the rickshaws and had cold coffee,” he remembers. Eating chicken patty, the apparent reason for occupying a seat at Kwality’s, was also a symbol of modernity. “We dipped them in chilli sauce, looked at the girls and decided rather randomly who was easy or not. ‘Easy,’ in our time, meant who’d agree to go on a date,” clarifies Mehta. “We all felt we had a chance.”
By 18, Mehta, then in London, had moved to different fare: Swedes were close to his heart. Beef cutlets were not. “I loved keema. But the butchers in England didn’t want to make mince. I made mutton curry with curry powder. In England, I learnt to cook,” he says. Wife Sumita Paul, a journalist for many years before she began working with CRY, remembers things differently. “Vinod doesn’t know how to boil water,” she adds confidently.
In his 30s, Mumbai, Vinod Mehta became Editor. Of Debonair and The Sunday Observer, India’s first Sunday paper. As editor, Debonair, there were not too many top-of-the-line invitations but he remembers being “very excited” at his first diplomatic party at the French deputy high commissioner’s residence. “In the early 80s, scotch was a very big thing. Wine was unheard of and these places served wine. But they took everything out of you. I had to constantly answer questions like ‘so Mr Mehta, how long do you think democracy will survive in India?’”
With filmstars, he had little truck. Dinner with Rajesh Khanna, he remembers, was a nightmare. “He sat next to me. On the other side, were bigger fools. And he wouldn’t say a word. But the minute I said ‘what a great actor you are’ and that I had seen Aradhana, I didn’t have to do anything. He was telling me his life’s story.”
Are politicians then more engaging dinner partners? “Kapil Sibal has a good collection of people. If he trusts you, he can be remarkably open and tell you useful things. Arun Jaitley too,” he says. With Mehta, the personal is not political. Editors, he believes, should be good acquaintances of politicians. Never friends. Because breaking bread with them means it is a favour that has got to be returned.
At home in Delhi, the Mehtas eat fairly simple meals. Both sides of the family — Sumita is a Bengali — are equally represented on the dinner table. Fish is made Bengali-style. “Vegetarian is made the north Indian way,” she says. Today, there is dal, salad, cauliflower, rohu curry and rosogollah. Editor (much photographed and written about), more child than pet, is also waiting for, what looks like a standard routine: Mrs Mehta forks a sliver of brinjal into his waiting mouth. Mr Mehta caresses his head. “He has taught me to love all animals,” he says. “Since he came in, my meat consumption has gone down by 80 per cent.”
It’s a happy picture. A good diet, successful magazines, a happy marriage. Is that why he still has, unlike most editors in town, a head full of hair? “All of that, plus genetics,” he says with a smile. “We don’t have a bald person in the Mehta family.”