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Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Lucknow Boy, an encyclopedia

On life, on journalism.

I first came to know Vinod Mehta as the most hated media figure in India. At least the letters section of 'Outlook' magazine gave that impression. I am not sure if the writers of those letters demanded exactly the public stoning of Mehta to death, but the connotation of those letters used to be something like that. Particularly after the 'heretic' mega-essays of Arundhati Roy appeared in Outlook (that they still do periodically), the letters section of the magazine would be deluged with such letters.

While most other Indian weeklies looked visibly elated by how India was rising and shining over the first decade of the new century, I used to be more fascinated by the supposedly 'leftist' fortnightly 'Frontline' whose portrayal of Indian society looked to me more realistic and scholarly. Yet there was this third magazine, the weekly Outlook that treaded a path somewhere in between: portraying India sometimes with alacrity, sometimes with caution; sometimes with elation and sometimes with gloom.

So, who was this man behind a kind of journalism in India that didn't fit into either ideological framework (of socialism and untamed capitalism)? How could this man publish nauseating letters that viciously attacked himself in pages of his magazine; those too in dozens?

These were few among many questions that awaited answers before reading 'Lucknow Boy: A Memoir' the autobiography of Vinod Mehta who is currently the chief editor of Outlook group of publications in India. After reading the last pages, it turns out, I have learned more than I expected at the beginning.

If I am not sufficiently fooled, Mehta is starkly honest with himself while writing these words. Second, the book gives rare insight into the workings of apparently magnificent but really perilous media industry in India. What touched me more than that was, however, the insight he gives on how he dealt with ups and downs in life. The omnipresent wit and humor of the author makes the book all the more pleasant and readable.

First thing the book makes you do is to laugh. And sometimes violently so. Secondly, there are many lessons to young people, particularly those who aspire to join the field of journalism (or pretend to do so!). More than the lessons many of which Mehta summarizes near the end of the book, a different and implicit opportunity of learning comes in the way in which he lays bare the not-exactly-scrupulous dimensions of media industry in India. Moreover, there is plenty of scope to read between the lines as Mehta has maintained a measured amount of brevity in every event or attitude he describes in the book.

Who exactly does the media serve in a democracy? Is it as free as perceived? Given that the overt objective of informing and lending voice to people and the covert objective of promoting the commercial interests of the owners at any cost run opposite to one another pretty frequently, how is an editor to strike a balance? These are few among many questions that Mehta attempts to answer through a very personalized account of his highly eventful career in journalism.

At one point of time, after having been serially sacked by (or having resigned at) many publications, Mehta wonders if his tombstone would carry these words: 'Most sacked editor of India'. With his stubborn attitude not to compromise on some basic rules he set for himself at the beginning (that are termed 'values' by mildly educated people like myself), he ends up jobless unexpectedly earlier in his any new job. At a particularly poignant and perilous moment, he says some people 'kept him from putting some bullets' into his head. Yet he marches with remarkable pride, from one publication to another to finally settle at Outlook.

The bitter experience of setting up a 'really' independent media house but failing to give it life also teaches many things to Mehta, and now us. To me, the lesson of this fiasco is that money and big money (that is enough to establish a media house that won't succumb to the rivals) are radically different things and people like us who see only money in our lifetimes can only speculate about big money and that is all. And in the world of big money, it matters little whether the money comes from a perfectly fair and legal business or not. Subsequently, any billionaire crook is better positioned to launch a successful newspaper (by hiring best of the journalists) than a highly reputed and capable journalist with small money; at least, that is my impression regardless of exact inference of Mehta from his failed deal.

Finally, the personal aspect. I found the description of his years at London highly revealing. One thing that particularly struck me is that Mehta had one thing that many of us lack. Not intellect, not charisma; not vision and not even a sound understanding of his surroundings. If there were one thing that catalyzed metamorphosis of Vinod Mehta from a wild and girl-chasing boy to a serious man committed to something in life, that was the singular possession of insight. (In fact, sometimes I feel suffocated by presence of so many people devoid of this indispensable human character). When he knew next to nothing about the world around him and its workings, he exactly knew that he knew next to nothing. The absence of pretension of knowledge (that impedes learning in case of many of us) was a boon for him and he had no barriers to learning henceforth. That brought in him a sense of urgency to learn things, not in textbooks but in real life. There was not a bit of doubt in him that continuing to remain ignorant of the world was sure to drive him to a life full of misery and worthlessness.

In retrospect, it was that singular drive to learn and to do something  in life that has brought Mehta to today's position (whatever position he has and however large is the cohort of people regularly hurling abuse at him). Clarity and humor remain his biggest strengths. When in Kathmandu for a literary festival, he gently ridiculed the 'cream' middle class of India who are beholden to the west: after hearing many admonitions of Indian PM Manmohan Singh for having flown to Tehran to attend the NAM summit this year, he asked them just why should they worry about the PM's visit there. Their obvious answer to him was: 'The US doesn't like that!'. And when somebody uttered the name of Arundhati Roy (who has got the privilege of publishing essays as long as 21000 words in Outlook, according to Mehta himself, in India where there is not a single taboo that she has not touched), Mehta's straight answer was: 'No one else writes like her'.

And probably, any other book that combines so many insights on life and the profession of journalism will take long to come by. If indeed Mehta had elaborated everything that he has implied in the book, that would have formed a sort of encyclopedia. Hence the name of this review: Lucknow Boy, an Encyclopedia.

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जीवनमा अफ्ठ्यारा घुम्तीहरुमा हिंडिरहँदा मैले कुनै क्षणमा पलायनलाई एउटा विकल्पको रुपमा कल्पना गरेको थिएँ, त्यसलाई यथार्थमा बदल्ने आँट गरिनँ, त्यो बेग्लै कुरा हो त्यसबेला लाग्थ्योः मेरा समग्र दुखहरुको कारण मेरो वरपरको वातावरण हो, यसबाट साहसपूर्वक बाहिरिएँ भने नयाँ दुख आउलान् तर तत्क्षणका दुरुह दुखहरु गायब भएर जानेछन् कति गलत थिएँ !

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