This remarkably candid memoir, with its ringside view of many of the major events of our times, brims over with wit, wisdom, scandal and gossip. Well-known journalist Vinod Mehta recounts with zest how he was wooed and then summarily sacked by sundry media proprietors when their much-vaunted respect for editorial freedom broke down in the face of political pressures. There are riveting accounts of his encounters with personalities from the worlds of politics, business, films and the media.
There are masterly pen portraits of personalities ranging from Shobhaa De to VS Naipaul, Salman Rushdie and Sonia Gandhi. There are the stories behind the scoops Mehta has brought before a fascinated public, from the alleged mole in Indira Gandhi’s cabinet and the cricket match-fixing scandal to the Radia tapes... Embedded within these racy tales are thoughtful insights on Indian politics and society. There are valuable lessons, too, in Mehta’s inside stories, of his successful media launches, in his tips for aspiring journalists, and in his struggles for editorial independence through his nearly four-decade-long tryst with Indian journalism.
Around February 2010, when the 2G telecom spectrum scandal was still an infant, a small scam in a sea of scams, Ajith [Pillai] brought unverified news of an eight-page note marked ‘Internal Evaluation’ doing the rounds. It contained alleged conversations between a lobbyist called Niira Radia – then beginning to make a name as someone who controlled access to Ratan Tata and Mukesh Ambani – and Barkha Dutt of NDTV and Vir Sanghvi of Hindustan Times and, most importantly, Ratan Tata of the Tatas. The conversations revolved around the DMK telecom minister
A Raja, with whom I had lunched a few days earlier, when I couldn’t help but notice what sharp safari suits he preferred instead of the traditional mundu…
A couple of days later, Ajith produced the eight-page ‘sensation’. It had copies of some official correspondence between the CBI and the Central Board of Direct Taxes (CBDT). While the official correspondence appeared genuine, the annexed notes with the Tata-Barkha-Vir conversations seemed dodgy…
…The following week Ajith reported he was under pressure from the leakers of the eight-page note to urgently print the material. When we discovered the leakers were a corporate house deeply enmeshed in the telecom machinations themselves, our decision not to publish received a boost. A few small publications used the conversations in their ‘buzz’ columns, but none of the big boys touched it…
…Unsurprisingly, the 2G scam did not fade away. In fact, its scale and dimensions swelled alarmingly, roping in the office of the prime minister. The climax arrived on November 16, 2010 when the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) report on the matter was tabled in Parliament. Pardon my French, but the shit hit the fan. Mr Raja and his merry men, according to the CAG, had perpetrated the biggest fraud in the history of independent India. The CAG estimated a loss of R1.76 lakh crore to the exchequer.
A day before the CAG report was tabled in Parliament, Outlook’s friend, well-wisher and comrade-in-arms, Prashant Bhushan (we had fought several battles together), filed a PIL in the Supreme Court, asking the court to monitor the CBI investigations against ‘persons unknown’ in the telecom ministry for causing losses of thousands of crores to the country… Along with the massive documentation filed by Prashant Bhushan in the Supreme Court, he also attached a CD which contained 140 of the recordings of Niira Radia’s conversations. They were now part of the official record. Our correspondent Saikat Datta got hold of the CD.
CD procured, we began listening to the tapes. The first thing that struck all of us was the crystal-clear quality of the recordings. Whoever had undertaken the surveillance had to be a pro, he had used cutting-edge digital technology. This was not a backstreet job. As we heard the tapes we could not believe our ears. It was as if someone from Bollywood had written the script… Even a fleeting hearing led to the unavoidable conclusion that India is up for sale…
At our editorial conference, hectic ‘publish and be damned’ discussions went to and fro … did we have the spunk to take on some of the most powerful individuals, corporate houses, lobbyists, politicians, journalists in the land? I would be lying if I said commercial interests did not concern me.
…I hate getting up on a soapbox and pontificating about the role of the free press in a free society. I have been doing this job long enough to know that one editor’s ‘public interest’ is another editor’s ‘motivated leak’. Be that as it may, in my career as an editor I could think of no other story I had superintended which was of more compelling public interest. On November 19, 2010, under the heading ‘All Lines Are Busy’, with the caption, ‘There was not one pie Niira Radia didn’t have her hand in, nor any area-media, corporate or government-she didn’t have a contact in’, we published the contents of the tapes.
A king of good times
My relations with Vajpayee were good. Very good. I had known him since my Debonair days and when I moved to Delhi in 1991, I had several opportunities to meet him socially and officially…
…Vajpayee was no saint. He liked to drink moderately and eat non-vegetarian food less moderately. Being a bachelor and a political star (Henry Kissinger: power is the ultimate aphrodisiac), he was never short of female company.
When he became India’s first bachelor prime minister, he juggled a strange domestic life. A Mrs Kaul, whose husband was a college professor and had passed away, moved into 7 Race Course Road, along with her daughter Namita and the daughter’s husband, Ranjan. Namita’s official designation was foster daughter and Ranjan Bhattacharya became foster son-in-law.
Vajpayee, to his credit, made no effort to hide the ménage ŕ quatre…
…AB Vajpayee’s PMO fell into the hands of three individuals. Brajesh Mishra, who had been India’s permanent representative at the United Nations between 1979 and 1981 and on deputation with the UN till 1987, was his closest aide… When things got hot for the ‘moderate face’ of the BJP inside the party, he would pop off to New York to spend time with Brajesh, doing, rumour had it, some naughty things…
…The husband and wife team of Ranjan and Namita were the other power centres in 7 Race Course Road. Vajpayee may have had some reservations about his son-in-law. However, the foster daughter could do no wrong in his eyes. Namita and Ranjan began assiduously cultivating the Delhi media. They had unconcealed contempt for what they called knickerwala journalists; they mingled with Vir Sanghvi, Barkha Dutt, Shekhar Gupta – even me.
The way of all flesh
Easily, my gravest folly in the eight years I lived in Britain was my conduct towards Inge (name changed), an agreeable and striking girl from Switzerland. She was among the one or two steady girlfriends I had. Inge was middle class, Catholic, her father owned a small speciality restaurant and her English was pretty good even before she landed in England. She genuinely cared for me and in different circumstances, I might have considered settling down with her. Contraception was a hit and-miss precaution in those days. The inevitable happened. Inge got pregnant.
We had a long conversation in which we agreed on a course of action. It would have to be a backstreet abortion (the half a bottle of gin and hot bath treatment had not worked) since the official kind was illegal. I located an address in Soho where the job could be done. It was going to cost fifty quid, a huge amount for me. I rustled up the money. And then Inge threw a bombshell: she had strong religious objections reinforced by her parents and her priest.
I explained I was 21 years old with no prospects, and hardly able to fend for myself. How was I going to support a wife and child? There was a suggestion that I could go to Switzerland and work in her father’s restaurant. Me, a cook? Or a waiter? Eventually, I succeeded in convincing Inge that any long-term future with me had disaster written all over it… But first she wanted to go home for a week to see her parents. I saw her off at Victoria Station.
A week passed, two weeks passed, a month passed, no Inge. Finally, I got a letter saying she had discussed the matter with her parents and her priest. She would have the baby; being Catholics the idea of abortion was anathema to her people. Letters went to and fro but she appeared resolute. In the end, I had to tell her if she was insistent, she would be on her own.
That is the last I heard from her.
The priest took over. After a Christian appeal to my conscience failed, matters turned unpleasant. I was threatened with a paternity suit. A summons was served. One of Inge’s friends was still an au pair in Surrey. I begged her to talk to Inge. There was no way, given my situation, that I could marry her. Inge didn’t write to me directly but through her friend she sent a message: she understood my position. But she was going to have the baby.
Some months later, the same friend told me that I had become the father of a girl. She was absolutely gorgeous. I received a picture. The gorgeous bit was true. Unfortunately, no one told me what name had been given to her, and I received no subsequent photograph or communication from Switzerland.
My daughter must be in her mid-40s now, probably a mother, which makes me a grandfather. I have no idea where she lives, what she does, what she thinks of me. I have often tried to imagine her and in this reverie I have prayed that perhaps through some happy accident our paths might cross. It hasn’t happened yet.
I have been married twice, but no children. The only child I have is a stranger to me and lives in a faraway land. I don’t have many regrets in life and generally I have not been a ‘bastard’ with women. On this occasion, I was. I don’t expect to be forgiven.
Dead if you are naked
As I was settling down as editor, the Emergency broke. I got a call from Raj Bhawan informing me that the information and broadcasting minister,
VC Shukla, required my presence. I was asked to bring along all visual and written material slated for the next issue. I felt both flattered and anxious. Flattered because my presence and Debonair’s existence had been noted by those strangling the free press, and anxious because this was the first time I was coming face to face with officialdom.
…Mr Shukla was amiable, suave and curious. Under no circumstances, he commanded, were we to drop an issue, as some others had done; but we must be careful. He wanted to see the centre spread scheduled for the next number. I produced half a dozen transparencies. His eye fell upon one which was 90% nude. He kept it to one side. I inquired if we should perhaps skip the centre spread. He was horrified. ‘No,’ he said, ‘just make it decent.’ Decent centre spread? I collected the photographs spread before him and prepared to leave. The nude transparency, the one he had kept on one side, Shukla pocketed without permission.
The next month’s centre spread was, if that is possible, even more revolting. The breasts were covered with an ugly, dense dupatta. The Emergency had taken its toll on our naked women!
These are edited extracts from Vinod Mehta’s Lucknow Boy: A Memoir.
The book will be available in bookstores from November 6.