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Memoirs of a journalist

Outlook editor-in-chief Vinod Mehta's autobiography reveals as much of him as it does of the warzone called print journalism

Why did you choose to call this a memoir, instead of an autobiography?
I was reluctant to call it a memoir, because memoirs are written by great men, and have social, political and historical value. One would assume that the person who writes a memoir has occupied centre stage in the affairs of the country, which I have not. As a journalist, I have only had the privilege of watching things in close range.


Vinod Mehta with Behram Contractor in Mumbai, 1998. Mehta met
Contractor (Busybee) at a party while he was editor of Debonair

In the book, you refer to yourself as 'the most sacked editor'. The other side of the coin is that you were also one, who launched a number of new publications known for their exclusive scoops and incisive reporting.
I have had a very volatile personal life. So this reputation that I earned of not staying for more than two years (as an editor of a paper), wasn't quite a congenital condition. I got new jobs only because I kept getting sacked from the old ones. Also, I was one of the few editors who had a talent for launching new publications from the drawing board. So no matter how difficult people thought I was to work with, they would approach me when they wanted to start something new.

At a recent literature festival in Mumbai, there was a debate on Indian biographies and autobiographies being too 'nice' to their subjects. When you reveal things, like the mole in Indira Gandhi's cabinet, or the person who gave you the manuscript of the 'secret sex novel' written by ex PM PV Narasimha Rao that you published in the first edition of Outlook, how did you negotiate the line between honesty and discretion?
You can straightaway say that my autobiography is not 'nice'. When you are writing an autobiography, you cannot succumb to the danger of embellishing facts to make yourself look good. When I came off badly in some situations, I have shown it. The question of cross-checking with people (about mentioning  them) does not arise. I'm not writing a news report. If someone wants to contest the facts, they have the right to. After all, I am taking a big risk by putting out this information.

Extract: Was Meena Kumari, as rumoured, a nymphomaniac?
Bombay in the '70s was a dream city. It belonged to nobody and everybody. The Shiv Sena had just been formed and not yet spread its poison. On Warden Road, we had Bombellis with a band, where the movers and shakers and IS Johar and Shashi Kapoor met for coffee. Gordon and Co. in Churchgate served delicious Roast Lamb in an eatery where space was ample, Kitchenette in the Fort kept the Goans happy and Rice Plate is Ready, costing one rupee, kept the aam admi's stomach full. Including mine. No one ever thought that this fabulous melting pot of communities and tongues could fall prey to local fascists. In the '70s, one was fortunate to be alive in Bombay, but to be young was bliss!

Working in an advertising agency had one distinct advantage. It was a ten-to-five job with weekends free. I had plenty of time on my hands, and an East Indian secretary, Sylvie, who was more than willing to do my private typing. Drinking Hercules rum (Rs 16 a bottle) and relishing home-cooked Goan food provided by my friend Roland Rocha, I explored Bombay on foot, bus, train and occasionally taxi. After I managed to acquaint myself with the Parsis and their pigeon-stained statues, I followed my natural bent, surveying Bombay's low life.

Soon, I considered myself an expert on everything from buying liquor without a permit to the red light districts of Foras Road to haggling with black market touts selling cinema tickets to the best places to pick up single foreign women (The pick up line 'Are you lost?' may seem fatuous but it occasionally worked). Moreover, I had by now collected a ragbag of halfcooked impressions, prejudices and preferences about the city. What was I to do with them?

In my modest flat, most evenings I would write. Sylvie would type. I had no idea what my purposeless and rambling outpourings would amount to. I wrote to get things off my chest -- a kind of catharsis. In less than eight months, I possessed 30,000 words on Bombay. Since no publisher would touch my manuscript, I decided to publish the book with my own money. The art department of Jaisons secretly designed the jacket, and a budding model I fancied agreed to put her face on the cover free.

Thacker & Co. were the only distributors prepared to circulate the book for a commission of 40 per cent on a cover price of Rs 5. When Bombay: A Private View appeared, my bank balance stood at zero and Thacker & Co. warned me not to expect too many of the 3,000 copies to find buyers. From the printing press to the distributor's office in Kala Ghoda, I personally carried bundles of copies in a taxi.

I dedicated the book to Dennis Hill, and admitted in the introduction, 'Like the Ancient Mariner I have box office problems. No one listens to me and this book is nothing else but a vehicle to sound off in all directions. I have invested my last kurta on this venture and this you will accept is a pretty desperate way to sound off. Many will find in this book much that is unoriginal, profane, outrageous and finally boring. For them I have goodies too: charts, statistics, figures and assorted details. If anything, Bombay -- A Private View errs in trying to please too many people all the time.'

To my surprise -- no -- shock, the book started flying. On the sixth day after publication, Thacker & Co. informed me that a second print run may be needed. In those days there were no bestseller lists and the only way to find out how briskly a book was selling was to note how and where it was displayed in the shops. My biography occupied premier position.

I did not lose money; I may even have made a small profit. The downside was my family, especially my mother, who was appalled. She had not read the book but had heard about it. The portion about prostitutes upset her and so did Khushwant Singh's disclosure ('f*cking, cheese and wine') of how he spent his time in Britain. I decided there was going to be no second print run.

Today, when friends and enemies ask me about the book, I am defensive, even slightly ashamed. Put it down to the follies of an ignorant youth trying to announce his arrival, I say. Ramachandra Guha told me six months ago that he bought the book off the Bombay pavements. I didn't dare ask him his opinion but, being the generous person he is, he said he enjoyed reading it. The book gave me much-needed confidence: I may be a dreadful advertising copywriter but I had other possibilities.

A couple of months after the Bombay book, I got a call from Luis Vaz of Jaico Publishing, asking if I would be interested in writing a biography of Meena Kumari, who had recently passed away. Why not, I thought. And with the bravado of a thirty-year-old who knew next to nothing about Hindi cinema, I launched into the project. My ego was boosted when I was given an advance of Rs 500.

'We have never done this before,' said Vaz as he handed over the cash. In six months, I had the first draft ready. Guru Dutt's youngest brother, Devi Dutt, helped me get around the tortuous entry and exit protocol of the film industry. Eventually, I met most of the people connected with the actress's life. From Nargis to Kamaal Amrohi, to Ashok Kumar, to Rajinder Kumar, to KA Abbas, to her sisters, to Raaj Kumar. Dharmendra refused to meet me.

'He would be a brave, possibly foolish man who would write a book on Meena Kumari without the necessary escape clause,' I acknowledged in the introduction. 'For myself, at every stage of the writing I found that it was impossible to collect even one "undisputed" fact about this woman. Everything connected with her life had at least four different versions. So, I am sure lots of people will find enough material in this biography to complain, "No, no, he's got it all wrong. It's not apple juice she liked, but orange juice." I have no defence against such complaints.'

Besides the customary gossip-scandal-bitching-family feuding, I found three noteworthy items in Meena Kumari's life. In those days in the Bombay film industry, that is in the '40s and '50s, a lower-middle-class Muslim's meal ticket was one of his daughters. Ali Bux, a Sunni born in Pakistan, came to Bombay to try his luck as a musician. He failed miserably.

He was further disappointed when he produced three daughters, no son. The second he named Mahjabeen, and began hawking her to producers like Vijay Bhatt. He would say, 'Sir, this is a very talented child. You must be often needing child artists. Kindly do not forget this child, sir. It would be very kind of you.' Similar hawking was done by the fathers of Madhubala, Nimmi, Suraiya.. This gender reality was for me both poignant and revealing. It explains, at least in the case of Madhubala and Meena Kumari, their permanent paranoia and manic suspicion.

Second item. Was Meena Kumari, as rumoured, a nymphomaniac? The word denotes 'uncontrolled sexual desire in a woman'. I could come to no definite conclusion on the issue which the publishers were very keen for me to investigate. All I found was that she was widely believed to have slept around. Ashok Kumar, Rajendra Kumar, Raaj Kumar, Dharmendra, Sawan Kumar and several others allegedly received her favours after she had had a quarter bottle of her favourite brandy. I
 
was told about one admirer she fornicated with casually who thought he had a good thing going. After a night of satisfactory lovemaking, he knocked the next afternoon on the door of her make-up room, 'Kaun?' (who?), asked the lady. The admirer gave his name. She again asked, 'Kaun?' The admirer again gave his name, this time providing more details, reminding the actress of their union the previous night. 'Raat gayi, baat gayi' (The night has gone, so has the matter), she answered nonchalantly.

I do not know whether it is true today, but in the '70s there was a battery of hangers-on attached to a star. They could be distant relatives, secretaries, legal counsels, hairdressers, brothers-in-law, chauffeurs, etc. These people's fantasies of making it big courtesy the star were at once sad and gripping.

The fantasists were, happily, a valuable source of classified information, which helped me reconstruct Meena Kumari's life. To be sure, they would crazily exaggerate their importance, influence and proximity to the star. One hanger-on invited me to inspect a secret bedchamber, with lots of mirrors, tucked away in his office. This is where he claimed he serviced the actress. Excerpted with permission from Penguin Books India from Lucknow Boy A Memoir by Vinod Mehta


Lucknow Boy A Memoir by Vinod Mehta published by Penguin/Viking. Available in bookstores for Rs 499

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