Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Vinod Mehta (RIP): How I Became A Pseudo-Secularist // The VM School Of Journalism

Truth to tell, I am a philistine Punjabi who managed, in the most formative years of his life, to be lucky enough to claim residence in Lucknow. The Mehtas are middle-class merchant refugees from Pakistan, allegedly the land of the pure. So, you will not be surprised to learn that no one in my immediate or extended family has ever won a Nobel prize or even had the benefit of serious education. I am just about a middle-class Punjabi, born to an army father who in 1947 happened to be posted in Lucknow, while the rest of the Mehta-Talwar clan came variously from Rawalpindi, Lahore and Peshawar. The declaration of domicile is necessary if I am to interest you in the haphazard tale of how to acquire a civilisational veneer and some elements of culture through osmosis, or simply by living and breathing the air of a blessed soil.

My earliest memory of Lucknow is a largish house in the cantonment area that suddenly became full of strangers. The Mehta-Talwar refugee fugitives from across the LoC arrived carrying odd pieces of hastily assembled luggage and heart-rending stories of horror. I was too young to understand what the commotion in our house was all about; my mother simply told me something "bad" had happened far away. Strangely, there was an air of optimism and hope as lives were being rebuilt brick by brick. One day, suddenly, the crowd disappeared. I didn't know where they went, all I discovered was that our house was empty again and I could go back to looking after my pigeons.

Lucknow in the very late 1940s, I now realise, was sitting on top of a communal volcano. After all, it was the Muslims of Lucknow and north India who had led the campaign for a separate homeland. Nathuram Godse was sentenced to death in February 1949 just as Sardar Patel was putting pressure (sometimes force) on the 563 princely states to accede to the Indian Union. Twelve million were displaced in the biggest mass exodus recorded in human history. My knowledge, much less comprehension, of these momentous events was zero. We were living in the sanitised army cantonment cut off from the main city, and my parents did not seem overly interested in national affairs.

I went off to Loreto Convent which admitted boys up to Standard II. Since I am in a confessional mode I might as well come upfront: I was expelled from Loreto Convent for making a pass at a girl! She wanted to borrow my rubber (that's what we called it then), I asked her to be my girlfriend. Mother Alacock, the no-nonsense Mother Superior, did not approve. I was shunted off to La Martiniere College where I spent ten of the happiest years of my life. Acquisition of learning or earning a degree was the least of my concerns in that carefree decade.

If you observe the facade of La Martiniere you cannot believe that such a humongous, sprawling, ambitious but slightly comical building, with a curious sort of phallic symbol—called the Lart—jutting out of an artificial lake could possibly be a boys' school and not an 18th century palace of an eccentric ruler who had travelled West and returned with woolly architectural ideas.

Call it serendipity, but at La Martiniere I made a wonderful chance finding. I located three chums—two Muslim, one Hindu. That made us two Muslim and two Hindu. This politically correct, equal opportunity co-mingling of faiths had a profound social, cultural and intellectual impact on me besides providing space for copious and sustained laughter. It converted me to the life-long belief that laughter was the answer for all the ills and evils our planet is heir to. To laugh one's way through life became my lofty mission.

We four were not rich or landed gentry, nevertheless we set out in the pursuit of happiness which in the Lucknow of the 1950s meant pursuing girls, mostly unsuccessfully. It was all entirely innocent and harmless, but it kept us hugely busy and out of other kinds of mischief. The theatre of operations revolved around Hazrat Gunj on which street were housed two iconic restaurants, Kwality and Royal Cafe; the latter had a live band curated by a proprietor recently returned from the UK. The institution we were targeting was the famous Isabella Thoburn College, which attracted the rich, the pretty, the modern and, occasionally, the radical. All women, needless to add. They would arrive in cars and rickshaws wearing tight, extremely tight, salwars and kurtas on Thursday for a coffee between the hours of six and eight in the evening and the best and the brightest of male Lucknow would follow. A fortunate few actually knew one or two of the girls and one of my friends achieved the impossible: he managed to get a steady girlfriend.

I do not wish to over-emphasise this girl-chasing business and suggest that my life in Lucknow had no other purpose. While I gained no academic distinction at school or later at university, I did not actually fail. My progress was steady if not spectacular.

Lucknow in the 1950s had the most extraordinary mix of characters. For your edification I shall just present two. The late C.P.N. Singh, the prince of Padrauna state who reminded us that big money is not always accumulated through hard toil. We hated him. He wore imported black jeans, he was royal, he was handsome, he had a convertible car which he called Dreamboat. Though he was not very bright, the girls were crazy about him. He had spent six months in America, and one evening he told us a story that had us salivating. It seems in advanced New York a boy could ask a girl for a "date" (a word completely alien to Lucknowwallahs) which the girl's parents encouraged their daughter to accept. It was considered "normal". Then came the killer info: after you had been on the aforementioned date, you escorted the girl to her front door and even if she detested you, she allowed you to kiss her once. That was the peculiar custom of that very peculiar country. I can tell you among my friends, I did not know of even one who was not desperately planning a trip to the US.

The other character I propose to showcase couldn't be more different. He was a down-and-out Shia, he was uneducated, he was jobless (actually, all his life he had never worked), he was ageless (no one knew how old he was), he had no fixed abode and it was a mystery where he slept at night, he had no known source of income.

Despite these crippling handicaps, he was a Lucknow legend. His name was Safdar. Just Safdar. If he had a surname, no one knew it. Safdar survived on his wits. He appeared to know the family history of every person worth knowing in the city, he seemed intimately familiar with the geography of the entire town, he was a self-styled poet and patron of the arts, he carried both delicate and indelicate romantic messages efficiently, frequently adding his own masala. He could fix an appointment with any minister, he had a solution to every problem. Above all, he was fantastic company. In his presence, you could pass hours and hours and never feel bored. He was so furiously sought after—"Safdarbhai, please come and sit at our table" was the constant refrain—that you needed to book him well in advance. People fed him, clothed him, gave him regular pocket money, took him on trips out of town all because he was superbly entertaining.

If you did not know Safdar in the 1950s you were a nobody in Lucknow. It was considered a privilege and an honour to boast acquaintance with this penniless gent. He died tragically but appropriately on the street in Hazrat Gunj of a heart attack. No one knew how old he was when he passed away, no one knew to whom the body should be handed over. His friends buried him. 

The refugees came to Lucknow in hordes. They were mainly Punjabis, Sindhis and Sikhs. They set up small and medium-sized businesses, sometimes literally on the pavement. They sold readymade garments, watches, dry fruit, sarees, shoes, dry-cleaning, cycles, books, sports goods.... And they brought with them the passion of refugees. In other words, they were fiercely competitive, determined to succeed. They introduced a revolutionary concept to the existing Lucknow trade: customer satisfaction. This was unheard of in a city where going to a shop or going shopping was an exercise in manners. Instead of the easy indolence, studied procrastination, fixed price (bargaining was considered vulgar), things-take-time-what-is-your-hurry approach, these crazed businessmen were energetic, prompt, price-elastic (haggling was encouraged) and eager, sometimes too eager, to find a customer. 

For old Lucknow, the refugees arrived at a time when the local aristocracy, particularly the Muslim aristocracy, was taking its first tentative steps towards difficult pastures in an effort to earn much-needed money. The psychological blow of Partition coupled with the loss of land holdings and talk of socialism prompted the realisation that they could no longer live off the fat of the land. Perhaps, they could engage in some business activity. Sadly, they retreated speedily when confronted with the foreign competition. They were wise. They did not stand a chance.

One of the most poignant and instructive sights in post-Partition Lucknow was to watch an entire class on the run. They had nowhere to go. As a result, they withdrew further and further inwards, locking themselves up in their crumbling mansions, fearful of the outside world. To survive they did the only thing they could: they sold their heritage. Cars, land, chandeliers, paintings, old books, havelis and furniture. Some asked possible buyers to come after dark because it was too shaming to sell during daylight hours.

I remember one of my friends telling me: "Vinod, I have sold a lot of things, but I don't regret it. That's my luck. But yesterday I had my most humiliating moment." I asked him what he had sold. "I sold my bandook(gun)." I promise you I noticed a couple of tears in his eyes. He had been forced to part with the essential symbol of his claim to Awadh eminence. In these days of globalisation, meritocracy, market forces, survival of the fittest, such stories may seem ridiculous, the comeuppance well deserved. In the Lucknow of the 1950s, they heralded the passing of an era, nostalgia for which lingers in limited quarters. 

Nothing exemplifies the clash of civilisations better than what happened to Kazim & Co. This was arguably the most famous watch shop in the city. It was managed by a young lad called Nasir Abid whose family had migrated to Pakistan. They left him to look after the profitable business. Kazim & Co was situated in the heart of Hazrat Gunj and it was more than just a showroom. It was a venue where you met for some gup-shup and espresso coffee. The idle and the interesting were instantly drawn to it and it soon became a meeting point for the most colourful people in town. Nasir himself was only vaguely attentive to the business side, spending most of his time at the British Council library. (Returning from Karachi, where he had gone to visit his relatives, and asked how he liked the country, Nasir replied, "It's fine. The only problem is there are too many Muslims in Pakistan.")

Kazim & Co had a sole, bearded, ancient, stooped, sherwani-clad mechanic who appeared to have come straight out of central casting. He marked his arrival and departure with elaborate and exquisite ritual salutations, the sort that would have done Bollywood proud. He never spoke out of turn and always seemed excessively preoccupied, hunched over a timepiece or a wristwatch. Nasir claimed he was the best mechanic West of Suez.

One day, while I was at the shop, a Muslim gentleman, who evidently knew the proprietor well, arrived with a defective wristwatch. He gave it to Nasir and asked whether it could be mended. Nasir handed it over to his prized mechanic and enquired: "Do you think you can repair it?" The watch was duly examined. "Yes, I can repair it," came the reply. The owner was visibly pleased. He exchanged a few pleasantries with Nasir and left. Curiously, he didn't ask what was wrong with the watch, or how much it would cost to repair, or when the watch would be ready, or when he should come to collect it. These mundane details were unimportant; they were never spoken about. It will come as no surprise that Kazim & Co soon closed down as customers began drifting away to the neon-lit establishments of the Sikhs and the Sindhis. However, Nasir went down honourably: he did not put up a fight. 

Lucknow bestowed on me one invaluable gift. It taught me to look at the human being rather than his religion or his caste or the colour of his skin. My so-called pseudo-secularism, which I wear as a badge of honour, comes directly from the experiences and the environment of my early years—years which shaped my personality and character. Of course, I knew there were Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Anglo-Indians, Parsis, even Jews, in Lucknow, and I was dimly aware there was occasionally some tension among these groups. However, for me Muslims meant Id sweets, Christians meant Christmas cake, Sikhs meant hot halwa....

Similarly, I was aware that Banias and Brahmins and Thakurs existed as did Bengalis and Gujaratis and Malayalis, but it never occurred to me that these differences could be cause for rift and division, even bloodshed. In the Lucknow of the 1950s, we asked some basic questions from an individual. Was he a bore or was he engaging? Could he spin a decent yarn? Could he pull some pretty girls? Could we get a good meal at his house? Did he know any jokes besides the ones he had mugged up from the Reader's Digest? A person's worth was measured by his ability to make others laugh. A talent to amuse was considered priceless. The pompous and the self-important we shunned like the plague.

True, ours was a naive, innocent world where casteism, communalism and regionalism did not rear their heads. People generally speak of secularism or composite culture in historical, ideological or intellectual terms. I lived the composite culture, it still flows in my blood. I didn't pick it up from books or at university. And because I lived it, it has been a permanent implant. In the formative years of my life in Lucknow I became what I am today. I've had doubts about some of my beliefs, and along the way I've chopped and changed them, but faith in secularism has required no post-modern adjustment. I am a secularist for all seasons.

I think of Gianibhai. A magnificent, wise, gentle Sikh who wore his pagdi with much pride and quoted Ghalib six times a day. In north Hazrat Gunj this native Sikh sold delectable open-air kebabs. One day looking at the crass commercialisation of Lucknow courtesy the refugees, he sighed: "Saale Sardaron ne Lucknow ko tabaah kar diya (The damn Sikhs have destroyed Lucknow.)"

My mentor was Gianibhai.


The VM School Of Journalism

A born editor. This is how one might describe Vinod Mehta. He was simply cut out for the high profile position. A genuine intellectual well-versed and well-read in numerous subjects, Mehta could have lived his entire life as a freelance writer. And lived equally comfortably. But he was destined to excel as an editor, of newspapers as well as magazines, and leave a lasting imprint in English language journalism.

Mehta was like a jauhari and had identified many talented journalists, nurtured them, shaped them and turned them into jewels of journalism. There is a whole bunch of new-age journalists who owe a sense of gratitude to Mehta for what and where they are today. But he never took credit for the rise of the alumni of the Vinod Mehta School of Journalism, as it were, and the professional heights they scaled.

He knew well how to get the best out of his journalists. He was a patient listener. At his editorial meetings even a rookie had as much a freedom to express her ideas as a seasoned one. If he liked a story idea or two, he would go all out and encourage the journalist concerned to pursue it by all means. He supported his journalists to the hilt; always stood by them if the stories triggered controversies (how he relished them) and led to legal battles.

At the same time, he could stand neither sycophants nor hypocrites, not just in the office. He was all for transparency and truthfulness. He had the courage of convictions. Though he had to publish them, the day-to-day run-of-the-mill stories seldom or never interested him. He feared none, but frightened many without actually intimidating them.

It was in big, bold and exclusive (how he hated this particular term) stories, which could shake the establishment, that he delighted as an editor. No editor could match Mehta's passion, obsession even, for exposing rackets and scandals and the people involved regardless of their reputations. He strongly believed it was the duty of the media to expose the villains masquerading as angles.

Even when it was still in its infancy, Outlook broke a major story of the heinous match-fixing scandal that jolted the cricket world like never before and raised serious questions about the image of the gentlemen's game. It was just the beginning and Mehta, always very proud of his brilliant and loyal journalists, went on to bare many cleverly-concealed uncomfortable truths about the mighty and powerful of the country in Outlook, which lent a new dimension to investigative journalism in India.

But for Mehta, the aam aadmi would not have come to know about the nexus between corporate, journalists and politicians and their worst kept secrets in the Niira Radia tapes. It was a tough decision for Mehta to take because not only did it involve some political heavyweights but also Ratan Tata and several other tycoons and a couple of big guns from the media. He was probably aware of the fallout, but he listened to his conscience and went ahead with the "bloody good" story.

Those interested in the genesis of the Niira Radia tapes expose in Outlook, and how its editorial board decided to publish it eventually after weighing up the pros and cons, must readEditor Unplugged, which takes forward the story of the Lucknow Boy, Mehta's earlier memoir. Many in the media knew about the Niira Radia tapes and the ammunition it contained. But they were not prepared to face the consequences, including the towering Tata's wrath, and decided against pursuing the story.

Mehta, as was his wont throughout his chequered career, was least bothered. It may have cost him his job as editor-in-chief of Outlook and also the support of giant advertisers like Tata, but Mehta was "very proud" of his expose of the Niira Radia tapes. "In my career as an editor I could think of no other story I had superintended which was of more compelling public interest," he stated.

In many ways, Mehta was sui generis among Indian editors. He was frank, friendly and forthright, one you could easily meet and discuss a point or two, even if you did not know him. He was highly intelligent, profoundly knowledgeable and well-informed. But he always walked lightly, literally and figuratively, unlike many other editors, and never carried the weight of his erudition and celebrity status on his well-maintained frame.

He relished his own criticism and as an editor preferred letters that were not complimentary. Both in Lucknow Boy and its sequel Editor Unplugged he has made many confessions, revealed closely-guarded secrets and, at the same time, called a spade a bloody shovel. All this, of course, was in keeping with his personality. Surely his memoirs would have pleased the likes of Mahatma Gandhi, Bertrand Russell and Michael Atherton, who also wrote candid, honest autobiographies.

"People have accused me of being economical with the truth," he once said. "This can't be further from the truth. I always thought I exposed myself too much."

It is futile to even imagine that someone like Mehta will again emerge on the firmament of Indian journalism. Considering the direction the print media in India is taking, there will be little or perhaps no scope for an editor like Mehta, howsoever learned and skilful.

With Mehta departs the last of the truly great Indian editors.