Book Review: Non-fiction/Memoir, Lucknow Boy by Vinod Mehta, Penguin/2011, 325 pp; Rs499 (Hardback)
The first generic view comes with reading Lucknow Boys is like passing through an unedited first draft. But the moment we realised, it’s written by India’s most charismatic editor, Vinod Mehta who always ran against the stream and set his own benchmark in journalism, the respect for author’s candidness grows manifold. A child born in the fateful decades of 1940’s, graduated from Lucknow University in third class and touched the land of UK, not for being the part of elitist Ox-Bridge but to sustain on menial industrial occupation. When the world was troubled in 1960’s, young Mehta was solemnly adjoining with cosmopolitanism…after difficult eight years in London (including break up with Swiss girlfriend), he came to India with added personal qualities but notwithstanding any big accomplishments.
After spending time with making Rogan josh at home and roving with dear friends, which were retrieval exercises of old routine, he moved to Bombay for editing a skin or nefarious magazine at that time, Debonair. In the dry and unhappening world of journalism, even this chance was a serious offer…here the life of an editor begun and rest we know today, how this man shaped the publications like Sunday Observer, The Indian Post, Independent, The Pioneer and lastly Outlook-all standard journalism. In the initial days, he filled the pages of Debonair with all sincerity before engaging the doyens in pseudo appearance as contributor. Today, it will shock many to know Kuldip Nayyar writing north Indian reports incognito in Debonair or Saeed Mirza’s intellectual tussle with the India’s all time best cinema director, Satyajit Ray. In the later days, his pastime for hosting rigorous intellectual confrontation remained hallmark…in Outlook; readers can easily recall the few among many rows, like between Ramchandra Guha-William Dalrymple, Pankaj Mishra-Premshankar Jha, Ramchandra Guha-Arundhati Roy. V.S.Naipual and Salman Rushdie too had mix time in Outlook despite their proximity with editor, he always let maximum chances of open debate instead of synchronizing it with narrow technicalities…and that’s the best quality with Mr.Mehta as an editor.
The early part of book opens Vinod Mehta’s fond memories of Lucknow as a child and teenager, which are lucid and frank. Portrayal of his family is equally honest and shows his own leaning for a good family life. But the characteristic sketches of his uncle-in-law Mohit Sen, his grandfather, renowned poet Raghubir Sahay “Firaq” and versatile actor Sanjeev Kumar are better if seen as an individual observation of author. He also presented the controversial stances as personal observation on Firaq and Sanjeev Kumar…so, here closes a quintessential drive of moralistic inquisition. Iconic journalist, Nikhil Chakravorty, about whom the author has high regards, has appeared in serendipity. That’s associated with the row over publication of excerpts of P.V.Narsimha Rao’s unpublished novel in Outlook…that created huge unease and surprisingly he sourced it through Nikhil Da over a lunch in Delhi’s Taj Man Singh hotel.
There are also many instances where the author has maintained love and hate relationship with the same person but mostly those ties were for journalistic compulsions rather for seeking any personal favour. Duality of his relations with NDA government and Atal Bihari Vajpayee rose to the level of income tax raid on Outlook office in Mumbai…but it took place only after the series of sting on the ministers which left maligning affects on Vajpayee government and lately pioneered the investigative journalism in India. In his career, he shattered many age old impressions about the people holding high offices and also inside the journalism; he stood high with spontaneous impulses. He made many journalists, founded and developed many institutions of repute and today naturally qualifies to stand as living legend in the Indian journalism. But all this came not without the rough patches in his career; it was not without reasons, why he still possesses the record of India’s most sacked editor of all time?
He is among those rare editors, who stood with principles while negotiating the shrewd terms-conditions of management. He left The Indian Post, Sunday Observer, Independent and lastly Pioneer for defending his rights as an editor. Those know his works are well acquainted with his zeal to produce unaltered story on any issue…he never let down himself before any political or management pressures. Ofcourse, he paid the price for it but at the evening of his career, today he has little to remorse about past. Sharad Pawar and Lalit Mohan Thapar’s combo could not lessen his flame for the right kind of journalism…still he is carrying daring stories in Outlook and his own impressions are far from being shifted as people’s editor. His autobiography is as much memorable as his time in journalism. Lucknow Boy will inspire aspiring journalists living in the nook and crannies of country, who really want to be change agents but will lend little hope for those tempting for a managerial kind of journalism. Personally, I strongly recommend this work and would count it among my best read in 2011.
Atul Kumar Thakur
December 28, 2011, Wednesday, New Delhi