As I read about the passing of Vinod Mehta – VM to many of us, who were privileged to work with him – it is hard to stop a series of images flood the mind or to stop the tears from flowing. I had two stints working with him at The Pioneer from 1992 to 1994-95 and at Outlook magazine from 2005 to 2007, learnt a great deal from, admired and will be grateful to him.
The only times I interacted with him at The Pioneer was when I was Deputy Sports Editor to V Krishnaswamy in 1994. I would have to attend the edit meetings in Swamy’s absence. But those opportunities to interact with VM were few and far between. It did not mean that the chance to learn from him was limited because of that.
To my mind, the Editorial page of The Pioneer in the 90s was the only one in which a signed article, complete with a caricature of the writer, would take up the eight columns above the Editorial itself. That was the space he reserved for extremely diverse opinion in all walks of life. You would find no political slant or pattern there. Just different voices.
He quit and moved on in 1995 but he had left a deep impression on my mind in my second decade as a journalist. He taught me, without ever making me sit down and lecture me, that it was possible to hear different views, necessary to acknowledge them even if it was not always possible to agree with them.
Ten years later, VM’s Man Friday, Shashi Nair called me. “Mr Mehta wants to meet you,” he said, not letting me know anything about what the meeting was going to be about. Who would turn down the chance of meeting the finest Editor of our times? Surely not me. It turned out that VM was to ask me if would work with him again. At Outlook.
“I can’t pay you like the websites have done,” he said. But he was not heartless. He knew I had a young family to provide for. “What I can do is let you make some money doing your radio and TV shows or writing for espnstar.com. I want you to do the best you can for Outlook.” Suffice to say, the Senior Special Correspondent’s post at the weekly helped me immensely.
He had come as a God-send at a time when the top positions in the leading dailies had been taken and there seemed to be no job for me in sight. I had left espnstar.com in July 2003 believing I could get a job of my choice but I was wrong. For resurrecting my career and faith in journalism, I owe VM much more than a few tears.
It was in 2007 that he let me do one of my strongest stories – one that established that Sunil Gavaskar, the finest opening batsman we had seen, had hardly served Indian cricket well in his post-retirement days. I cannot think of any Editor who would have encouraged one of his staffers to write a story like that, let alone have the courage to publish it.
He let me travel to South Africa to cover the inaugural ICC World Twenty20 for the ICC’s official website but when India unexpectedly swept to the title, he made me scrap my planned trip to Kruger National Park and come up with a series of pieces as part of Outlook’s Cover Story at really short notice.
Later that year, when I accepted an offer from Sahara Samay TV channel to join its Editorial team and shape its sports coverage, he warned me that I was making a mistake moving to the world of television. The lure of a fatter salary was too hard to resist and I left the last of my jobs in the print medium, grateful to the man for having been so good.
Both in Link House, Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg, from where The Pioneer was published and at AB10, Safdarjung Enclave, from where Outlook was published, he was renowned for his late afternoon walk to the editorial sections. His height was not the only reason he would stand out, despite his attempts to remain unobtrusive. His presence, his aura, preceded him.
Vinod Mehta to the world. Vinod to some. VM to others. Mr Mehta to those not privileged to know him well enough was a gentle giant who loved a good story. He will be missed by all those whose lives he has touched, directly or indirectly.