Vinod Mehta: Reporters’ Editor, RIP

My last meeting with him was at friend Ajith Pillai’s book launch. 

Ajith, perhaps Vinod Mehta’s longest serving journalistic companion (they worked together at Sunday Observer, Pioneer and Outlook across a quarter century), had got Vinod to write the introduction for his book Off the Record and true to form Vinod, his usual now-grumpy-now-cheerful self was the star attraction at the book launch. 

In the two or three minutes that we sat next to each other before the programme began, he asked: “So how’s TV doing? A lot of churning, uh?” and proceeded to reveal juicy gossip about a prominent TV journalist. Before I could recover, he had moved on to the stage. That was typical Vinod! He was always curious, always inquisitive and above all, he loved to exchange gossip in and about people in public glare. He was mischievous but never malicious.

A bold and an unconventional editor who went hell for leather if he found a story interesting, Vinod didn’t bother too much about the consequences, at least in the initial years of Outlook. I should know. 

In August 1998, a couple of years after joining Outlook, I got a tip off about Operation Leech conducted by the Indian military against Burmese rebels in the Andaman Seas and subsequent decision under then defence minister George Fernandes to stop it . Sitting in Guwahati, I proposed a story, which Vinod dismissed outright. ‘Who’s bothered about the north-east connection and some bloody operation in Andamans,” he quipped. Dejected, I had no option but to move on.

My first big story in Outlook

Then in December that year, Vinod called out of the blue and in his usual brusque drawl said: “You had mentioned something about George and some military operation? “Get me that story.” I started to protest: “But that was in August! I don’t know if I can do anything now and certainly not from here.” “Then fly down there (to Port Blair) or first come here to Delhi. I want that story, no matter what you have to do.” Apparently, someone in Delhi’s corridors of power had whispered into Vinod’s ears the goings on in Andamans and George Fernandes’ role in it. So he wanted to get to the bottom of the mystery. 

So just like that I flew to Delhi on a cold January morning in 1999. A week of leg work, some cross checking by Ajith and other colleagues and we had a cracker of a story (see cover). George Fernandes was not amused but to be fair, we waited till 11 pm on magazine closing day for the defence minister’s response. It never came. The story was published under my by-line– ‘By Nitin A. Gokhale’–in Guwahati.

I went back to Guwahati. Feranandes, livid with the story, raved and ranted and even enquired from Prafulla Kumar Mahanta the Chief Minister if indeed there was a reporter named Nitin Gokhale based in Guwahati or it was one of Vinod’s ways of protecting his source in Delhi! That was Vinod. He didn’t bother about reputation. If there was a story to be pursued, he lent full support to the reporter. That he was the ultimate ‘Reporter’s Editor,’ was known but for me the confirmation came in June 1999.

The Kargil skirmish had begun. Ajith (Pillai) was the first one to go the scene of battle but more hands were needed. Going there was far from my mind although I had suggested a story about travelling with troops on a special moving from the north-east to Kashmir as reinforcement. Then suddenly Ajith called and said “take the first flight to Delhi. You are going to Kargil.” Dazed, I landed in Delhi at 12 hours notice. There I learnt how Vinod instantly agreed to Ajith’s suggestion that I be sent to Kargil since both felt I would be able to deliver. He dismissed grumbling among some of my Delhi colleagues who were eager to report what was our generation’s first ‘war.’And just like that, I went on to spend 45 days in Kargil, Drass and Batalik and report the skirmish. 

What happened during and after Kargil, is well documented. I had certain inputs about what went wrong in Kargil but Vinod true to his style, said, we will do those stories after the crisis is over. And we did, much to the chagrin of the Vajpayee-led NDA government. Through the crisis, Vinod stood behind me and Ajith like a rock although many friends and well-wishers advised him against annoying the government. “I trust my reporters. If they have a story, and I am convinced about it, I will go with it, no matter what the consequences are,” he would say.  Outlook weathered this mini-storm and many bigger ones later, thanks to Vinod’s courage of conviction.

Vinod of course was a man of strong likes and dislikes. That he avoided  the capital’s elite cocktail circuit is well known. He had his idiosyncrasies too. Often, he would forget faces and names. many a times, in the small Outlook office, he would walk past people like me without acknowledging out presence. Then, suddenly, he would turn back. The conversation would go some thing like this:
“Yes sir!!” 
“What are you doing here.”
“You called me to follow that story…” I would say defensively.
“Oh yes. So what’s the news?”
“Still trying to get details…”
“Get them fast. Otherwise some one else would do it,” he would say gently and move on.

The border killing

Throughout my stint with Outlook, I was based in Guwahati but would often travel outside the region. Apart from Kargil, Vinod’s unusual editorial leadership allowed me to cover the Orissa super-cyclone, the Kargil Review Committee’s proceedings and stories from Bengal. Initially, like other editors he would not be interested in anything but stories of violence and natural disasters from the north-east. But as I pushed harder, Vinod started giving much more space to non-traditional stories from the region. So we did stories about drought in the region and of a ritual where frogs are ‘married off’ to propitiate the rain gods, about ‘roving’ theatre groups in Assam, profiled achievers from the north-east and many more to try and give an all-round coverage of the region. Not many editors would have put this gory picture on the cover of a national magazine when 18 BSF personnel were killed on the Bangladesh border (see cover). But Vinod did.

At Outlook’s 5th anniversary party

His eye for detail and insistence on writing simple English rubbed on to many of us who had the privilege to work with him (never ‘under’ him!). He also insited on good pictures to accompany stories so the photographers were also an essential part of the team and not adjunct to the reporter. In fact, I learnt to visualise a print story much better under Vinod’s tutelage. Never a great paymaster, Vinod however spared no expenses in news gathering. When I moved on to TV, he asked me in passing how it felt to work for a medium that wants instant judgement. I told him it is tough and not as fulfilling as print. He smiled and said, “it makes you famous and recognisable. So enjoy it till it lasts.” Which is exactly what I did for nine years but have now returned to a saner and less hectic world of writing. Was hoping to catch up with Vinod during the launch of his Editor Unplugged but that was not to be! 

They don’t make Vinod Mehtas anymore.