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Vinod Mehta I know: ‘Don’t worry, if we go down, we go down together’

Once committed, even a battle tank couldn’t shake Vinod Mehta, as he would stand by his reporters and take the flak for the pieces we wrote. Being summoned to court was like an investiture ceremony for the man, every defamation suit a gallantry medal in defence of great journalism.

india Updated: Mar 08, 2015 18:55 IST
Saikat Datta
Saikat Datta
Hindustan Times
Vinod Mehta,Outlook,journalism

A clutch of memories that define my most memorable moments in journalism rush in as my old friend and colleague Anuradha Raman calls me up to tell me that Vinod Mehta, my former editor and mentor, is no more.

It is a moment we have been dreading since December 7, when he was rushed to hospital, complaining of shortness of breath and chest pain.

Since then, it has been a roller coaster ride, up one day, as the man would peek through the various tubes sticking into him and smile his toothy smile, and down at other times.

The face, handsome as ever, framed by his shock of white hair, eyes staring away in wonder, even as pain wracked his frail physique.

In October 2004, as I walked into the building that housed Outlook, a weekly newsmagazine he started as the founder-editor, I was apprehensive and intrigued.

This was my first major professional switch, having spent my formative years with The Indian Express. I was all set to meet a man whose formidable reputation preceded him.

In some ways, I had already met the man much earlier when, as a young and impressionable reporter in Pune, I had picked up his book ‘Mr Editor, How Close are you to the PM?’

The book opened up to me the charms and the pitfalls of journalism, as Mr Mehta went about writing about his adventures in the colourful career he had led by then.

Editing Debonair, a magazine known for pictures of topless women, always seemed right on top of his CV, framing his persona in a way I suspect he enjoyed very much.

He worked hard on the magazine, pushing in some great investigative stories, interviews and humour, while also balancing it with some “tasteful” images of semi-clad women, hired on shoe-string budgets to keep the presses alive and running.

His subsequent adventures would lead him to the offices of the rich and powerful, keen on starting new publishing ventures, and Mr Mehta would keep hoping that at least one of them would respect journalism, besides the profit margins.

Obviously, many owners ended up disappointing him, leading to his resignations and days spent in penury, fortified with a great sense of humour and pegs of whisky.

But among the essays he authored, one left a deep impression on me as I meandered through the profession. It was an essay he penned on Dhiren Bhagat, an enfant terrible of Indian journalism, who walked into Mr Mehta’s cabin one day and left a deep impression on the man.

Bhagat would go on to pen some of the most devastating investigative pieces in his all-too-brief career as a journalist, but they were stories that only Mr Mehta could steward as one of the greatest editors of his time.

He worked with the mercurial Bhagat as he did exposé after exposé, until the fateful day when Bhagat was killed in a road accident, suspected to be foul play.

His death left Mr Mehta devastated and I could see his fondness for the man as I read that essay several times over.

I read it because it inspired an ambition that I hold on to even today. I, the young reporter, wanted to do work that would make an editor like Vinod Mehta remember me in his writings someday.

Armed with that singular ambition, I walked into his room that October, determined to make a mark on a man who loved journalism like no other man I knew.

The next seven years were probably my best years in journalism.

Mr Mehta was an editor who gave voice to every man and woman who had the good fortune to work with him.

Unlike that fine, investigative newspaper, The Indian Express, where voicing an opinion by youngsters was frowned upon, Mr Mehta encouraged people to speak.

If I found a voice in the profession, then my gratitude goes to this man, who gently encouraged all voices to be heard equally in the newsroom.

Known as a "Congress party chamcha", Mr Mehta would happily encourage me to do some of the most devastating investigative stories against the party if I had the documents.

Once committed, even a battle tank couldn’t shake the man, as he would stand by his reporters and take the flak for the pieces we wrote.

Being summoned to court was like an investiture ceremony for the man, every defamation suit a gallantry medal in defence of great journalism.

Early in my career with him, as I chased down a major arms deal and its attendant kickbacks, the arms dealers were trying their best to shut down the story. They were filing suits in courts, seeking injunctions to ensure that the next story could be killed before publication.

But Mr Mehta gently put an affectionate arm around my shoulder one evening, probably aware of the tension that had crept into my face. "Don’t worry my friend," he said, "if we go down, we will go down together. Just do your story and I will handle the rest". Then, he walked away.

On another occasion, we heard a court in another city had passed an ex-parte order restraining Outlook from publishing anther investigative story I was working on. The order was binding on us only if it was successfully delivered to us in time.

Mr Mehta immediately walked across to the fax room and pulled out the plug. "Just go back and do the story Saikat," he said. "Let me worry about this. Just get the damn facts right," he said, flashing a toothy grin that people would see on TV later.

Every big story would be personally checked by him, late on Wednesdays and Thursdays, when the edition would be "put to bed". His style of editing was to sit with a printout provided to him by his faithful assistant Sashidharan, and the reporter and the bureau chief sitting right next to him.

His editing was inclusive, with the reporter and others drawn into the process, and his pen would fly over the printed word. Quick discussions and debates would be held to ensure that the story was right and worth fighting pitched battles over when it hit the newsstands.

On another occasion, when I was chasing the Radia Tapes, Mr Mehta was waiting patiently at home, waiting to hear from us.

As soon as the batch of tapes were secured, I placed a call to my immediate boss, Ajith Pillai, with a code word that we had agreed upon because we were sure that we were under surveillance. "The album is great," I told Ajith hastily, without even realising how obvious a code it was.

We called up Mr Mehta and rushed to his modest apartment, a rarity for high-profile editors these days. It was after 8pm and the man, true to his style was having the first of the two small pegs he had every night.

"Are you sure it is kosher?" he asked, while offering us a drink. "If it is, then let’s run it on the web, because today is Friday and we can’t afford to wait," he decided.

That meant staying up the whole night and using a new medium called "social media" to start putting out what we could hear, verify and put out. At 3am, he called me to check if everything was all right and then went back to sleep.

That was his way of showing concern for those in the trench lines of the newsroom, gently making sure we were fine as a big story went out to create a storm.

Once I moved to DNA, I was looking for another editor who came close to Mr Mehta. Luckily, I found a man who had trained under him many years ago. Aditya Sinha would prove to be a "Mini-Vinod" as we started another chapter in journalism.

The Outlook office was just across the parking lot in Safdarjung Enclave, a place known more for the liquor shops than journalism. But meeting him frequently would remain one of the best perks of staying in that area, practicing what he had imbibed in us all.

Under him some of the best journalists I knew thrived — Sandipan Deb, Ajaz Ashraf, Alam Srinivas, Anuradha Raman, Ajith Pillai, V Sudarshan and a publisher who was more of a journalist, Maheshwar Peri, and many others who blazed their way through journalism under him.

Together, we believed that every week we could change the world and make it a better place.

A few months ago, when I picked up Mr Mehta’s last book, ‘Editor Unplugged’, I noticed a sudden and early reference to me. In those few lines where he remembered me, he ensconced me in his embrace forever. It was relationship that had shaped and perhaps, even defined me as a journalist.

Every youngster needs a hero. I have had a few in the profession. There is Edward R Murrow, who took on McCarthyism and its venal politics and there is Benjamin Bradlee, the legendary editor of the Washington Post who shepherded the Watergate investigation into the history books.

And then there is Vinod Mehta, who lived and fought and defended a world that would remain gracious, liberal and open, wielding his pen and gentle humour, waiting patiently for the night to pass into a new dawn.

Saikat Datta is the Editor (National Security) with HT

First Published: Mar 08, 2015 14:44 IST