A fellow journalist, who like me was part of the team that relaunched The Pioneer newspaper in New Delhi, prefaced his tribute to Vinod Mehta, who died last week, saying, "I was not one of his favourites." But who was? Certainly not me. Having worked with Vinod for four years (in the 1990s), I can't be sure if he had any favourites. I'm not even sure if he liked anyone, or made anyone feel liked. I don't think it was by design or choice. It's just that he wasn't into likes and dislikes. Sure, he admired a few and was friends with a few others. But, favourites? I doubt it. Like Charlie Brown, he loved mankind, but people... not so much.
Affable and accessible as he was, Vinod was also aloof, seemingly detached, if not distant. He was awkward in one-to-one interactions, avoided making eye contact, except when it was imperative to make an assessment. He rarely smiled despite his ready wit and redoubtable sense of humour. When he prowled the newsroom corridors, at least twice during a working day, with his hands in his pockets and with his characteristic slouch perched on his tall frame, he wore a deadpan expression that betrayed no approval, much less, disapproval. He had a temper, but it only flashed after interminable patience. So, why was this buttoned-up crosspatch popular with everyone who worked with him?
"As one who never took himself too seriously, Vinod separated the wheat from the chaff and on occasions printed the chaff."
Vinod's claim to fame was that he launched several popular publications. That all but one of them failed to survive is another story. Over three decades, he must have recruited hundreds of journalists and other media personnel, which accounts for a large pool of fans that no other editor can boast of (who doesn't admire the guy who gave you a job). But that's not the whole reason why journalists swear by him--it's because he brought out the best in them, out of their own free will.
It was never easy to attract recruits for new publications that needed a whole bunch of experienced journalists who could put together a product that (he) had to sell in a tearing hurry. Vinod's strategy was to poach creative and ambitious second-rung professionals in established publications, those chaffing under large bureaucracies and even larger egos. These restive Turks, as it were, flocked to Vinod, banking on his reputation for independence and the creative freedom he allowed. In a way, Vinod may have even exploited their eagerness, considering that he never offered enticing salaries despite the fact that they were jumping (stable) ship into uncertain waters. He was either a penny-pincher or he was always saddled with tight-fisted proprietors.
But what he denied in terms of pay and perks, he compensated by giving journalists considerable professional latitude. He chose his department heads carefully and gave them a free hand, even as he remained accessible to fresh faces. There was no hierarchy in his realm--there was VM and there was the rest, which, rather intriguingly, worked out well for everyone. That's probably because Vinod did not compete with his journalists for attention or honours. He was content to remain in the background and let others take the bow.
" I'd say his oft-cited liberal credentials were vastly exaggerated. If anything, going by his love for the British 'Telegraph' and 'The Spectator' one could even accuse him of being a conservative."
His style of management was unorthodox. As long as you delivered, there were hardly any rules or etiquette to comply with, perhaps reflecting his own habitual irreverence toward authority. A couple of perennially unwashed happy campers even used to get stoned in the office. The newsroom atmosphere was informal when it was not rowdy. The edit meetings were loud and unruly. Languid and reticent as he was, Vinod remained mostly quiet as nearly a dozen hacks ventilated all at the same time--up until the moment when he conceptualised a story idea amid all the din. The discussion would then end abruptly.
As one who never took himself too seriously, Vinod separated the wheat from the chaff and on occasions printed the chaff. He knew there was a market for it. He had the ability to sift through loads of information, opinions and rumours, to pick on an idea or an angle or a narrative that would capture the imaginations of readers. Even for a routine story, he'd give a slight twist that would make it stand out from the competition. He liked adding oomph to the headline, bringing a whiff of the tabloid to a broadsheet. That's what drove his reporters and writers to push the envelope a bit more, make the copy a little more edgy, knowing full well that the editor would stand by them if it came to it. Most of the time, it paid off, except when it didn't.
But Vinod's penchant for making the story stand out never wilfully crossed the line of veracity. His editorial integrity and political impartiality were irreproachable. A maverick to a fault, I'd say his oft-cited liberal credentials were vastly exaggerated. If anything, going by his love for the British Telegraph and The Spectator one could even accuse him of being a conservative. That reminds me, he was also an Anglophile who had a seemly disdain for all things American. Not that it mattered--personal preferences never dictated his professional choices.
" I still remember how nimble he was on his feet, dancing with every woman who jumped in, including his future wife Sumita (I'm pretty certain it was at my house one Christmas Eve that their romance began)"
All he was interested in was a good story, but not just in politics or business. He paid as much attention to the arts and human interest stories as he did to foreign affairs and the style section. Of course, he didn't solely rely on journalists to sell the story. Vinod had an excellent eye for design and layout. All the newspapers he launched--The Sunday Observer, Indian Post, The Independent and The Pioneer--will be remembered for their attractive layouts. He believed in packaging--the whole package.
And then there was Vinod after hours, about which I can vouch from the two occasions he came to my house for parties. He wined and dined and danced till the wee hours, to everyone's delight. I still remember how nimble he was on his feet, dancing with every woman who jumped in, including his future wife Sumita (I'm pretty certain it was at my house one Christmas Eve that their romance began). I have a video of that evening somewhere. I must take it out. It would be nice to watch and remember Indian print media's last man standing, shake a leg.