Sunday, March 25, 2012

Book review — Lucknow Boy

Vinod Mehta’s Lucknow Boy, A Memoir, I’m sorry to say, starts quite unexpectedly dull. The first two chapterswere incredibly boring (in fact, I put off reading them for a while) and was quite a task getting past them. 

You would expect Mehta’s professional life, which was nothing short of a roller coaster ride, to be written in an electrifying fashion, but it hardly promises to live up to that. The book, then takes an interesting ride when he takes up the editorship of Debonair (apparently, India’s own Playboy).

How Mehta became the editor of Debonair is another story altogether. Tired of working as a copywriter for an advertising agency (modeling was his other option) and left with no other means of money, (he wrote a book titled Bombay—A Private View, which actually sold more copies than he expected) he wrote a letter to the publisher of Debonair and pleaded with him to give him just six months with the magazine.

The rest as they say is history.

After former Prime Minister Vajpayee’s remark to Mehta about how the former had to hide Debonair under his pillow, Mehta thought it was time to leave; but he wasn’t finished yet.

He would bring out India’s first Sunday paper, Sunday Observer, become the editor of Indian Post at the request of his publisher, resign due to a controversy (a word which always exists in Mehta’s dictionary) and later become the editor for yet another newspaper: Independent (and resign subsequently). In between Independent and Outlook, Mehta worked for yet another newspaper, which the skeptics dismissed at first, but Mehta’s arrival, reversed the fortunes of the paper,Pioneer.

His biggest project, the magnum opus,Outlook,would be the turning point of his life and would pose as the biggest competition for India Today (as Mehta puts it, “India Today stood like the Taj Mahal). 

With Outlook, Mehta looked like he would stay put in one magazine for quite a long time and he did. His career in the magazine spanned 17 long years (he resigned recently and Krishna Prasad has taken over as editor-in-chief).

The book also tracks Mehta locking horns with Arun Shourie, Salman Rushdie, Sharad Pawar, Shobhaa De etc., and his cordial relationships with A. B. Vajpayee, Sonia Gandhi and quite a few others.

The autobiography has two quotes before the introduction, one by George Orwell, and another by W.B. Yeats. The Orwell quotereads, “An autobiography is only to be trusted when it reveals something disgraceful.” The book agrees on that note: Mehta fathered an illegitimate child, something that he regrets. This, to me, is the single most scandalous fact in the book.

Lucknow Boy reads like a storybook, the flow is smooth, interesting, and honest and one gets a good glimpse into Mehta’s professional life (his personal life, however, does not get much of a mention). Lucknow Boy is one of those books you would want to keep on your bedside table and flip through it to understand journalism in India from 1980 until today.

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