The last time I did an India at 9 debate on CNN IBN on June 2, 2014, Vinod Mehta was on the panel. As the debate was ending, Vinod insisted on having the last word. ‘What is this I am hearing about you quitting or going on a sabbatical? Don’t stay away from the screen for long, you must return soon!’ As it turned out, that was my last appearance on CNN IBN: I did not return. Little did I know then, that neither would Vinod. He left us permanently this Sunday, leaving behind a great void.
I never had the privilege of working under Vinod, although my wife Sagarika did and she told me wonderful stories of an editor who was passionate and committed to journalism. My interactions with Vinod were largely on the television screen though he did get me to write the occasional column for Outlook. I found him the person I had always imagined him to me: honest, straightforward, and above all, irreverent. Most editors take themselves very seriously and believe their one article or programme can change the world. Many will tell you how proximate they are to the corridors of power. Not Vinod. His almost self-deprecating attitude to being an editor was perhaps his greatest strength (he had even named his dog ‘Editor’). That coupled with a nose for news and the big, bold headline made him the ideal reporters’ editor, someone who nurtured and embraced many fine young talents. For Vinod, the story mattered, not the pomposity of the byline or the celebrityhood of being editor.
In a sense, Vinod belonged to what I would call the grand ‘Bombay school of editors’, reared in the more genteel 1960s and 70s. Leading the pack was my first editor when I was in college: Behram Contractor or Busybee, someone also blessed with the craft of using simple language to bring a story alive. Vinod and Behram were in many ways two of a kind: they didn’t flaunt their connections or get intimate with their sources, but enjoyed the idea of bringing out a cracking good newspaper or magazine.
Sadly, we live in an age where the editor is an endangered species, combating marketing, corporate and political pressures. Vinod is perhaps one of the last of the editors who would not compromise on journalistic independence. As he once told a colleague: ‘let someone serve a legal notice, the story must go!”. His views were his own, he did not wish to follow the herd or be intimidated by the cacophony of cheerleaders and naysayers. That both LK Advani and Sonia Gandhi were present at his funeral exemplified his ability to cut across the political divide. He wrote a fine book on Sanjay Gandhi and an equally well written biography of Meena Kumari: in both books, there was just enough gossip and anecdote to make them real page turners. Editor, author, journalist: we shall all miss his affable, always energetic presence. RIP.
Post- script: Vinod made the effortless transition to being a pundit on television. ‘I don’t really like it, but it does pay well,’ he told me with a smile. That was quintessential Vinod: he liked expressing his thoughts candidly, but not without a glass of whiskey in the hand!