'I'm not really a rude man': Vir Sanghvi on his memoir A Rude Life
In an exclusive interview with wknd., the famous journalist and TV presenter takes us through the journey of penning down his upcoming memoir
I guess it would be acceptable, albeit clichéd, to call Vir Sanghvi a man who wears many hats. Journalist, editor, author, television host, someone who finessed the lifestyle sector in a (then) newly-liberalised India (both in print and on the telly), an epicurean, an entrepreneur (with part of his business interests right here in Dubai) and so on.
And yes, also a Khaleej Times’ guest columnist (he used to do Pursuits for wknd.).
But for those who worked with him — myself included — and went on to become storytellers across the globe, there was a single takeaway: we all wanted to write like Vir.
It’s almost fitting, then, that his memoir, A Rude Life, is finally out — after a series of other ‘non-personal’ books. From the 70s’ old-school mould — when he was editor of (the New York magazine-style) Bombay at 22 — he now, at 65, admits to pandering to clickbait. “I’m not a rude man really,” he says, “but the marketing guys [of the publishing house] thought the title would have a connect [plus, he does a hugely popular food column ‘Rude Food’]… and yes, the tone of the book is irreverent.”
A Rude Life is quintessentially Vir. Chatty, engaging, anecdotal. There’s his hallmark lucidity. Maybe “controversial”: there will be, I suspect, a few knickers in a twist given how the book is, at one level, a tell-all account of the political history of a new India as it evolved through his career.
Away from the intrigue that may be stirred up, here are a few of my favourite bits:
How Sir William Gilliatt, the ‘royal’ doctor who “delivered” Prince Charles, delivered Vir — and how (and why) it came to such a pass.
When Raj Kapoor told Vir (during the course of an interview), “You hear a beautiful voice but only later do you discover that it comes from an ugly girl”, and then asked him to take it out because “Lata (Mangeshkar) will get upset”.
How he got an interview with George Harrison after The Beatles split.
How when he, as a kid, met Yuri Gagarin, he thought the name was Urine Gagarin.
The time when (gangster) Haji Mastan told him his life had been more Godfather II rather than Deewar.
How Rajiv Gandhi — then the Indian Prime Minister — put a 31-year-old Vir at ease by doing a “photography talk” as an ice-breaker.
How he was asked by an Oxford panel, when he was a teenager, “Would you say you were Keynesian or a monetarist, Mr Sanghvi?”
And how Hugh Grant called him “common” when he failed to show up for a dinner.
I’ve worked with Vir in two professional stints. Both times, he was unapologetic about not being able to “type” to save his life.
And unwavering about putting pen on paper (lined notepads, large ones) whenever he wrote. He says he did the same with A Rude Life. The longhand was the long and the short of it.
Excerpts from an interview with him:
So finally, your memoir! How did it come about?
I had never thought I would write it, but I just got so [expletive deleted] bored sitting at home during the lockdown, I thought I should do something. This was easy enough: I just had to sit down, think back and put it down on paper. Also, I am conscious that I’m 65 now, a time will come when I may start forgetting.
The book wrote itself, there wasn’t any great thought given to it. It’s a series of adventures and anecdotes strung together, with no particular agenda.
From teaching at Mayo College at 19 [over a gap year] to editing a niche magazine at 22 to reinventing a newsmagazine (Sunday) at 30, you almost grew up in a hurry… and yet, you’ve kept yourself relevant…
I don’t think 30 is that young... Now you see 24-year-old billionaires owning startups — I realise we lived in a very structured world where there was a sense of seniority… The world has gotten younger now, so there are many young people doing things now that would have been impossible earlier. New professions, new technologies…
So, the age factor was only significant in 1986 when I became editor of Sunday, or in 1978 when I became editor of Bombay… now it doesn’t matter so much.
I don’t think I’ve made a conscious effort to remain relevant: just happened to be at the right place at the right time. I was at the right place when news TV took off, there weren’t that many television professionals in India, so they just picked up people from journalism. From there, [being editor of] Hindustan Times was pretty much a natural progression, so I did that. After that, it was basically doing enough to keep body and soul together, and make a living, and doing things I enjoyed — rather than trying to be relevant.
I often wonder if any of us oldies — anyone above 40 — are ‘relevant’ any longer!
Are you anticipating a backlash on the book? Trolling?
If I did a book on Noddy and Big Ears and what they did in Toyland, I would be trolled. That’s the nature of trolling these days: you will be trolled regardless of what you write about. So, I’m not worried how people are going to respond, I didn’t have to make this up. This is my life. I just wrote what happened. It will annoy people, I’m pretty sure, and it will irritate certain others… it will make some envious, contemptuous… But this is who I am. This is my life, take it or leave it.
You talk about the past and the present, but not about the future. Why?
Because, honestly, I don’t know. As John Lennon sang, ‘life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans’, so I’ve really not thought about what the future will be. All I know is that I don’t want to manage, run teams of people, take responsibility for others.
As a journalist/writer, have you reinvented yourself?
There is shortened attention span these days, no one wants in-depth any more... all over the world. So I have had to adapt to the needs of the medium. I do 2,000-word pieces and put out two or three tweets simultaneously. It’s like the difference between interviewing someone and writing it out as a profile for a newspaper — and interviewing someone for a television show. You adapt.
The newspaper business is on a new trip: addressing millennials and post-millennials. What do you think about that?
This urge to attract readers who are 18, 19, 20, 21 doesn’t come from people in the same group — it comes from people who are 40 and above. And it is born out of a certain desperation, a certain desire to seem relevant, and to reach out to the new ‘happening’ generation. For better or for worse, this new happening generation does not read newspapers, it does not read magazines. So, I always say it’s a somewhat doomed effort for the print media to try and reach out to millennials. Millennials have their own media, which are produced increasingly by other millennials. And they are happy with it. Nor are advertisers necessarily happy with you trying to reach out to millennials, because the spending power in most societies is still with the 30-plus category.
One of the big mistakes people in media make is to think that the age of readers matters, and we must seem younger. There is nothing more pathetic than a middle-aged publication trying to be hip and young.
On the other hand, yes, we certainly live in a less ageist era where more possibilities open up every day, there are things you can do now that you couldn’t do earlier. The trick is not to see yourself doing one thing, not to think whether you are old or young but to realise that this a world of infinite possibilities. And to take advantage of those possibilities in this ever-changing world.
You are often referred to as being a lifestyle journalist, not a ‘serious’ political one…
Okay, so when I started writing Rude Food [column in HT Brunch], and appearing on Matter of Taste [a food show] and Custom Made for Vir Sanghvi [a luxury show], I was a kind of a pioneer. You see, while there are many, many political journalists — and I am one of them — there was nobody doing the kind of food, travel, lifestyle stuff that I did, so this part got much more noticed than any of the other stuff. When it came to my political writing, you may like it or you may not like it, but even if you like it, I am still one of many. When it came to lifestyle, I was pretty much the first.
When I started writing Rude Food for HT, there was a certain amount of shock that the editor of HT was doing a food column… it was considered beneath me….
In India Today, I did everything from covering the convention that set up the BJP to writing about Raj Kapoor and Zeenat Aman. I do not belong to a school of thought that says only political journalism is important and everything else is worthless, I think it’s all journalism, it’s all worthwhile. If people want to call me a food journalist, a lifestyle journalist, it’s fine with me, I don’t give a monkey’s. I’ve always lived my life doing things I enjoyed. I enjoy writing about food, I enjoy doing my political columns as well.
Just do what you enjoy doing has been my policy.
Which were the high points in your career that you enjoyed writing about in the book?
So much happened during the Rajiv Gandhi period, it was a great time for journalists… Then, so much happened in the years of instability that followed with Chandra Shekhar and V.P. Singh… the Narasimha Rao period when he spiced it up by taking money from Harshad Mehta… each period had its highs and lows… the current period is a low in terms of political journalism because no one has access: the current regime has no interest in engaging with the media, so I’m very glad I’m not an editor during this period.
Personally, while I was doing Star Talk [a mellower version of Hard Talk], it was great. I remember interviewing Sonia Gandhi — it was memorable because she’d never given a television chat show interview before that. But we never stuck to a ‘type’. One week it would be Sonia Gandhi, the next week it would be Moon Moon Sen.
My time as editor of HT would be another important phase. The thrill of taking a great newspaper and turning it around, that’s a challenge, but we did it.
In India, do you agree there’s been a downgrading of public perception of how politicians are viewed?
Not sure if that’s true. Maybe you or me do not, but the average Modi voter, for instance, believes he’s wonderful, that, thanks to him, the quality of politicians has gone up. All surveys reveal that one reason why Mr Modi wins elections — despite lapses in performance — is because people believe he is a great leader, a ‘spiritual figure’, a man above petty temptations… majority of Indians would probably disagree with us when we say people have a low opinion of politicians. They say Manmohan Singh was a terrible politician; the Gandhis were corrupt.. like the Marcoses… so the overall perception in India is no longer that of a tiny minority of journalists.
Your restaurant service app EazyDiner has a strong Dubai presence…
Dubai has stabilised for us — despite the odd blip, it’s been better off than most other cities when it comes to dining out. When we launched EazyDiner operations in Dubai, it was always a happening place, but I don’t think any of us realised it would be a restaurant centre. Today, Dubai is in the same league as cities like New York, London, Paris, Singapore. In fact, between Paris and Singapore, there’s absolutely nothing except Dubai — its location is, therefore, strategic.
Every chef I know wants to open something in Dubai, Massimo has opened something in Dubai, the best London restaurants have branches in Dubai…
What are your personal impressions about Dubai?
It took me a while to get to like Dubai. When I first visited the city, I found it strangely impersonal, it reminded me of a transit lounge at an international airport. Very nice, very plush, but everyone was passing through. But since then, I’ve rethought my views. In many ways, it’s the perfect city: things work, the Emiratis are very hospitable, people are honest on the whole — if you leave something in a taxi, the cabbie will come back and return it to you — and where there’s very little crime.
It’s also a city where it doesn’t matter where in the world you come from, you can still make it. They used to say that about New York in the old days.