He was not born in Lucknow. It was in Rawalpindi in Pakistan. And if Khushwant Singh had to be believed, Mehta was born in the year 1941, a year earlier than his official date of birth. At the time of getting him admitted to the school, his father put the year 1942. So in that sense, he was 74 years old when he died in Delhi, on 8 March.
Reportedly he was in a very poor health since November last year which deteriorated over the months. The major problem being lung congestion which got complicated leading to keeping him on ventilator. He died of multiple organ failure at AIIMS. At Delhi’s Lodhi Road crematorium, his elder brother Major Gen (Retd.) Ashok Mehta light the funeral pyre. He left behind his wife Sumita , who was also a journalist. The couple do not have any children.
Undoubtedly, he lived a comparatively longer life….and it was such a long journey! For four decades he was in his editorial jobs, or if the barbs of Shobha De have to be mentioned— he was in perpetual job hopping. And never had to begin as a cub reporter.
Many lesser fortunate journos have envied him. He never got any Masscom degree, just a third class BA degree got him all the coveted posts. From Hercules xxx Rum to his elevation to daily evening doses of Scotch whisky was a kind of phenomenon. In the good old days of journalism, a hand written emotional letter to Mumbai industrialist, Susheel Somani, launched him into the editorship of “Playboy” clone, the first Indian girly magazine, “Debonair”!
At the ripe age of 33, with a third Class BA degree from Lucknow and some experience as a Copywriter in a nondescript advertising agency in Mumbai run by some Jains he began his journey as a journalist without considerable training or mentorship!
The Debonair Man
Regardless of launching several newspapers and a newsmagazine, Vinod Mehta is still remembered as the successful editor of Debonair . It was founded 1971 , as the Indian men’s magazine, modeled after Playboy. The magazine, best known for its topless female centrefolds, was launched by Ashok Row Kavi and Anthony Van Braband both were known homosexuals, who left shortly . After a Mumbai based advertising agency launched a series of racy advertisements to salvage its dwindling circulation, Mehta wrote an appealing letter to its proprietor Susheel Somani. Seeking for giving him six months’ time to improve its circulation!
He got the job and liberally did everything to salvage the magazine. He himself wrote several pieces under different pen names, borrowed and even fleeced ideas from similar foreign magazines and had no uncertainties in admitting that. Like ‘Playboy’, he introduced political interviews and later added literature to its contents.
But still Mehta recollected his hang-ups : “But there was always something sleazy associated with the magazine. I could put any amount of ‘intellectual’ or what I thought was good literary material but I could not change the image of the magazine. Mr Vajpayee gave us an interview and when I met him later to thank him, he told me, “I had to keep your magazine under my pillow.” That’s the day I decided to quit. In the seven years that I had been there I could not change the way the magazine was perceived. I conceded defeat.”
Nevertheless he got success with literary biggies like Ruskin Bond coming on board and became closer to Khuswant Singh.
Mehta wrote: “In 1974, when I was editing Debonair and Khushwant was flourishing at The Illustrated Weekly, we discovered a new bond: the nude centrespread in the magazine. As a personal favour to him, I would send him advance copies of Debonair so that he could savour the delights of that page first. Khushwant greatly appreciated the gesture and we became lifelong friends. He also became my guru, although we had a couple of disagreements”.
And there were tricks which managed the scene in those pre-offset days. Mehta was candid: “There is betrayal, too: all those centrefolds were hippie chicks holed up in Stiffles Hotel, because no one else in Bombay would take off their clothes for Rs 250”.
And Protima Bedi’s much hyped ‘nude spread’ which Mehta was too eager to publish as a scoop and had to withdraw at the last moment due to pressure from Kabir Bedi was actually a fake! Protima Bedi never streaked on Bombay’s Juhu beach, and for that matter anywhere else! The late Tyeb Badshah, a popular photographer with the filmstars, reportedly told to his colleagues that an old nude model shot of Protima Bedi taken earlier inside a professional studio was sandwiched on to the street scene of Bombay or then the Juhu Beach, to create the sensation!
Bombai Ka Babu
Mehta came to Mumbai in the late sixties, to pursue a career of his own and landed into a job as a copywriter with a smalltime advertising agency, somewhere around the Flora Fountain!
His bohemian life in Mumbai was an envy for every aspirant writer. He was in a low profile nine to five job with weekend offs. Beginning with Salvation Army hostel, he then stayed in many seedy hotels in and around Colaba. Often took a bus to ponder around Mumbai, entertained au pair type girls since his London sojourn days, and started to explore the city with much passion and enthusiasm. The outcome was his first book on Mumbai: Bombay: A Private View, privately circulated. His mother simply abhorred it for candid confessions. It never paid him anything but helped him to get a foothold in the city by the sea. The book was in real sense, his passport into his desired territory.
With his book on Meena Kumari, his networking became wider and he became known to a certain circuit, which ultimately helped him to get into the hallowed circle of media and chance editorship.
Debonair was the threshold. But soon, he joined the league of Mumbai’s media celebrities. His short stints with two Mumbai newspapers were no doubt important and impressive. Reading “Indian Post” and “The Independent” in Mumbai parks in the leisurely afternoons was really different experience. Except ”The Telegraph” ,I have never seen such well-designed broadsheets in India.
If Vinod Mehta had to be believed, he was about to displace Dileep Padgaonkar as the editor of the Mumbai edition of the Times of India. So, according to him, Padgaonkar and Maharashtra Times editor Govind Talwalkar conspired against him, which ultimately banished him from Mumbai!
Despite staying in Delhi for almost quarter a century, he was a misfit in Delhi’s politically overcharged ,the insiders business known as journalism. I personally think, he was more comfortable and creative in Mumbai(Bombay) than in arid Delhi.
Mehta became nostalgic when mentioned about Mumbai: Bombay has changed. And a city’s charm is also your friends there. Some of my friends in Bombay are dead: Behram Contractor, Mario Miranda. Others are, like me, in the waiting room”. Anil Dharkar is another Mumbai friend whom he knew since his school days.
Shobha De narrated this period like this: The Mumbai Mehta was an amiable chap. He wasn’t boastful. And he could out-bitch anybody in the room. Most of the time, the bitching was about those absent. Everybody laughed—including his highly “intellectual” friends tiresome then, far worse now”.
De elaborates: What happened? Something obviously got in the way, and let’s blame it on Delhi. Had Mr Mehta continued to live and work in Mumbai, I am certain he would have written a far more readable book”.
There is a marked difference between his books written in Mumbai and those written in in Delhi.
His Delhi produces , the “Lucknow Boy” and “Editor Unplugged” are mentioned by some critics as …sepia-toned recollections, may be of some interest to his colleagues and assorted politicos!
Under senior Bollywood journalist Derek Bose as its Editor , Debonair was reformatted to remove nudity and target a younger demographic in 2005. But the days have changed…nudity and pornography has surfeited on internet these days. Vinod Mehta worked with Debonair during pre-internet days and he was lucky…it became his launching pad.
A journalist who worked with him in “The Pioneer”, in the nineties had recollected: “ He had that Debonair’s eye in picking glam pictures bordering on semi-nude to pin-up models for page 1 and on foreign pages, and frankly no patience and inclination in trying to understand economic stories in those days. His grasp over political stories was shaky during his Pioneer innings and was guided by other colleagues about the importance of it. He was equally foul-mouthed in his own “spirited outbursts” when mistakes occurred…”!
The Legend of Lucknow
After leaving Mumbai, Mehta came to Delhi to launch the newspaper: The Pioneer.
The Pioneer was founded in Allahabad in the year 1865 by George Allen, an Englishman and a successful tea businessman. It was brought out three times a week from 1865 to 1869 and daily thereafter. In 1872, Alfred Sinnett became the editor of the newspaper. Author Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936), in his early 20s, worked at the newspaper office in Allahabad as an assistant editor from November 1887 to March 1889. In July 1933, The Pioneer was sold and moved from Allahabad to Lucknow. The newspaper remained a primarily Lucknow-based paper until 1990, when it was purchased by the Thapar Group, under industrialist L. M. Thapar, to make it a national newspaper.
So the” Lucknow Boy” Vinod Mehta ultimately came to the Capital to relaunch the Lucknow newspaper from Delhi.
The same Mr Thapar showed him the door, in the most humiliating way, like Mehta’s previous Mumbai Masters, and Mehta later attributed the fault on someone or something, as usual.
Myself is no Lucknow boy, but Lucknow is one of my favourite old joints. In fact, in the traditionally non-English circuit of Allahabad –Lucknow–Varanasi, I was trying to hone my English writing habit through occasional writings. Times of India was already there with its Lucknow edition, but entry for a fresher was not easy. The ‘North Central Zone Cultural Centre’ at Allahabad had started its monthly magazine, so writing on various socio-cultural aspects of Uttar Pradesh became easier. A known printer and publisher from Allahabad revived the legendary newspaper The Leader, though for a brief period. The same publishers even launched a clone of Debonair, and it instantly became a hit!
After reading Abdul Halim Sharar’s Guzishta Lucknow, I became an avid fan of Lucknow’s history and culture, and started writing on the city for the travel and inflight magazines. The Northern India Patrika was another local English newspaper published from Lucknow and Allahabad, and was a possible place to publish articles for fresher like me. Pioneer was published from Lucknow and Varanasi, but its looks and content were quite unimpressive!
Gomti Nagar has not been developed as an opulent locality then. Hazratgunj was the centre of our Lucknow universe.
Its a cosmopolitan shopping centre started by Awadh’s first Nawab in 1810. Mayawati, Government, specially her able lieutenant Satish Mishra, initiated a magic makeover of Hazratgunj, five years back. In 2010, to celebrate 200 years of Hazratgunj, the BSP Government, started a programme for the makeover of the area. The original makeover plan designed by noted architect Nasir Munjee worked as the base for the final plan that entailed an expense of Rs 30 crore!
Incidentally, after a chat with an old Lucknow accomplice at Delhi’s Urdu Academy, I came to know that Pioneer was to be launched from Delhi soon and Vinod Mehta would be the Editor. Entry inside a newspaper office was not restricted in those days .So, with a rudimentary bio data, in a fine morning arrived at their ITO office. Mr Mehta was coming out of his cabin, charming as usual. He took the CV and had a glimpse…I was also a graduate by then , fortified with an assortment of clippings of published articles randomly.
Good! He said briefly and handed it over to the person who was keeping the file for recruitments…unfortunately that person , an ex-TOI employee, never considered my case….and I also forgot the matter in the course of time. Years after, when Outlook shifted to Safderjung Enclave’s ‘Kamal Cinema’ premises, flanked by several meaty joints run by area’s famous ‘Rajinder Dhaba,’ Vinod Mehta was not that approachable any more.
Now, coming to Lucknow. Mehta calls himself a “Lucknow Boy”, but it seems just an assumption. Nowhere in his lifestyle or writings, Lucknow ever came in the forefront.
He never frequented the Indian Coffee House at Hazratgunj, which was the hub of Lucknow’s intellectuals, writers, journalists, students and teachers of the Lucknow University. Right from Dr Ram Manohar Lohia to Atal Bihari Vajaypee, former Prime Minister Chandrasekhar to writers Yashpal, Amrit Lal Nagar and poet Bhagwati Charan Verma had their fair share of Coffee House moments.
Had he ever mentioned about the legendary bookshop at Hazratgunj, in Mayfair Building run for generations by the Advani family? The patriarch, Ram Advani, the most knowledgeable bookseller who could start any instant conversation on the history and legends of Lucknow, sociology or anthropology!
And Mr. Chander Prakash, the suave owner of Universal Booksellers, Hazratganj’s another legendary bookstore, who is so keen and active to maintain the heritage status of the place! Prakash heads the ‘Lucknow Connect’, and guides the citizen’s group that took up the heritage of Hazratgunj as a mission.
Yes, La Martiniere College is still there in the vicinity, so is the Girls’ College from the same stem and Loreto Girls’ College which still attracts the young romantics….but the charm is fading. Caste and Politics are slowly taking the lead, not intellectual exclusiveness.
The Mayfair Cinema, which showed the best Hollywood movies all over the 20th Century, is now closed. The popular Filmistan Cinema is known as Sahu, now.
Kwality restaurant is still there with its old world charm, but a new genre of restaurant and chic shops have come out putting it at par with the metros.
Post 1857, Hazratganj was modelled after London’s Queen Street. The hotels, bars, theatres, cinemas and dancing room all came up. After independence, the Indians helped the area to thrive, culturally, intellectually and financially.
I always expected some inherited love, fascination and affection for Lucknow and its lives, from him, in his writings at least.
If ‘Calcutta Chromosome’ is a reality, so is the Lucknow Links….Mehta never inherited those, despite calling himself a Lucknow Boy, he was at best, a Punjabi by Heart!
By: Deep Basu