Book Review: Lucknow Boy is a fluent, easy & juicy read

15 Nov,2011

By Ranjona Banerji

 

If you want a fluent, easy and juicy read there’s nothing quite like hunkering down over a weekend with Vinod Mehta’s Lucknow Boy – especially of course for a media person. Yet, thanks to the letters page on Outlook, where so many readers seem to know him so well, one suspects that anyone interested in the news or the way the media runs will want to pick this one up.

The story starts at the beginning with a solidly middle class upbringing in quieter, gentler times in charming and civilised Lucknow, which Mehta describes movingly but not in a maudlin manner. All those Outlook readers who fume at Mehta’s secularism can blame his childhood and this rather inclusive town in which he lived – as he himself does. Not quite sure what he was going to do with his life – apart from being a table tennis champion – a young Mehta landed up in England looking for opportunities and it must be said, girls. The swinging sixties provided the latter in plentiful apparently and also a variety of odd jobs. Mehta returned to India still with little clue about what he wanted to do and then headed for Bombay and advertising.

From here it was a few skips and jumps to becoming the editor of Debonair which some might remember as India’s first “girlie” magazine. Mehta is one of a small but significant breed which started a career in journalism as an editor, without doing the slog. Those who are old enough (waaaaah!) will remember that in spite of the uncomfortable semi-nudes, Debonair had some good reading matter, using the Playboy model.

The next episode in Mehta’s life led to his becoming a legend – starting and editing two classy newspapers from scratch (Sunday Observer and Independent) and recasting one (Indian Post) and resurrecting another (Pioneer). All four were well-planned, classy, stylish and paid attention to good writing. There are and must be a variety of views on them and not all of them positive but there is no doubt that they shook the establishment and frightened the fuddy-duddies.

Not all were successes and Mehta himself suffered for decisions taken or managements changing tack. It is here that he is at his most acerbic about his fellow journalists and editors. The debacle at Indian Post where owner Vijaypat Singhania could not withstand political pressure was followed by another at The Independent. Mehta quit this paper a month after it launched when a huge scandal broke out over a story which said that YB Chavan was an American mole.

Mehta describes all these quite candidly. The animosity he mentions shown by Times of India staffers to The Independent was quite amusing for those of us who were outside both: where the nose-in-the-air ‘we are Times journos and no one can touch us’ battled against the ‘we are the intellectually and stylishly superior’ Independent brigade. To be honest, both sides were a bit full of themselves!

Mehta doesn’t hold his punches when it comes to Dileep Padgaonkar, who was editor of Times at the time and later with Lalit Mohan Thapar, owner of Pioneer. The end of his one month at the Independent also led to his shifting to Delhi and then to The Pioneer. The creation of Outlook follows a low period in his life and from here on, the way is up which is where the story pretty much ends.

Lucknow Boy is a good nostalgia trip for those who are familiar with the place and time and will remember names and incidents. It is also a good lesson for those starting in the profession.

Mehta also adds his views on people he has known and who have influenced him (yes, Sonia Gandhi is in one section and Editor the dog in the other) as well as tips to budding journalists. Expectedly, there is both humour and insight here.

I have to thank Mehta for the huge space he has given to my old friend, the late designer MG Moinuddin whom he met at Debonair. Moin was indeed a massive talent and we were colleagues for many of the years that he moonlighted for Mehta’s various papers.

In this very compelling read, there are some negatives, primarily when we reach the Outlook story. It gets a bit tedious and self-congratulatory – perhaps acceptable but still mildly annoying: all publications after all can come up with lists of some good story or the other it has done. However the sections on the letters to the editor, full of communal rants, as well as the fights between Ramchandra Guha and William Dalrymple are amusing.

Although Mehta writes about the Radia tapes, where Outlook played a sterling role, I would have expected also some more stringent comment on the fallout as far as journalism is concerned. Mehta discusses Vir Sanghvi’s decision to step back from journalism but lets Barkha Dutt off the hook.

There is one error which I have to point out because I take it personally. Mehta mentions that Bombay magazine wrote an item after the launch of Outlook. As one of the last employees of that wonderful magazine I can very confidently state that since it closed down in early 1991, there was no possibility of it having commented on Outlook’s launch in 1995!

Also I must admit that I do not know Mr Mehta – I have met him fleetingly a couple of times so it is unlikely that he will remember. But this was undoubtedly one of the most enjoyable books I have read in recent times. Personal anecdotes and revelations are sparse but they are illuminating and even endearing. Every autobiography is entitled to its one-sided-ness and its quirks and that of course is why we read them

 

Lucknow Boy by Vinod Mehta, Penguin Viking, hard cover, 325 pages, printed price Rs 499.

Flipkart price: Rs 349.

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