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Lunch with BS: Vir Sanghvi

Vir Sanghvi talks about his career as an 'accidental journalist, life after the Radia tapes and other controversies, and why he's moving away from conventional journalism

Kanika Datta 

Vir Sanghvi

You choose the place, says. I demonstrate my ignorance by offering him three options, only one of which opens for lunch: Megu, the Japanese restaurant at the Leela. There’s a dress code for gentlemen, I am informed when I call to make a reservation: smart casuals, no open footwear. “Oh good,” was Sanghvi’s response, “I shall come in shorts! Casual and smart!”

He tests the limit of the dress code in jeans and blue button-down shirt, but judging from the obsequies being heaped on him by Megu’s staff, it didn’t matter what he wore. Leading food and wine columnist is one label by which readers know him. Travel writer, cinema critic and one of the most acute political commentators around, Sanghvi’s versatile talents don’t fit the conventional profile of Indian journalists with their narrow specialisations.

He demonstrates his expertise by ordering a sashimi platter and stipulates exactly what he wants on it. Then we settle down to talk about his latest book, 'Mandate' — a history of Indian politics from Indira Gandhi’s ascent to the latest Lok Sabha elections. It is vintage Sanghvi, written with a light touch but no less substantial. He deprecatingly insists it’s “not a serious big book, does not claim to say anything original but gives you a slightly insider’s perspective of how Indian politics developed in the seventies, eighties and nineties”.

'Mandate' grew out of a TV series for NewsX, a show that took him beyond the format of “eight people talking in a studio with the anchor playing ring master”. That kind of TV may be popular and cheap to produce, he says, but “I was bored with it and longing to do something that allowed me to report and tell stories – like The Story of India by Michael Wood or The Story of the Jews by Simon Schama.” When owner Kartikeya Sharma approached him last year, Sanghvi said he would come if he were allowed to do those kinds of shows. To his surprise, Sharma gave him a carte blanche.

The original plans were elaborate until his wife Seema Goswami suggested a series on Indian politics aimed at people under 35 (the “Chetan Bhagat generation”). For them, she pointed out, Amritsar and the Delhi riots were the same thing and Indira Gandhi was a great leader who gave Pakistan a bloody nose but they didn’t remember the Emergency.

Vir Sanghvi
Sanghvi’s celeb status yields a complimentary entrée — Japanese eggplant and cucumber, one pickled, one sauted. “Vegetarian,” he murmurs discontentedly, but it isn’t half bad. As a sub-editor in Business Standard, then owned by the ABP group, I remember Sanghvi’s arrival to edit Sunday, a national weekly. He brought an unapologetic glamour and flair to the staid ABP offices in Calcutta, sustaining the corridor gossip for years, but he turned a dour political magazine into a stimulating read. So, I am surprised when he says he’s an accidental journalist.

He lucked into it while waiting to start at Oxford University. He briefly taught English in one of his two alma maters, Mayo College, “to small children”, Siddharth Varadarajan and Ruchir Joshi among them. Then someone asked if he would like to write for India Today. “It was the Emergency and nobody knew these guys so I was drafted in and I had great fun because I did anything I wanted — a story on prohibition, one on Raj Kapoor, an interview with George Harrison.”

Later, after starting and (briefly) editing Bombay magazine and enjoying an Inlaks Scholarship “to travel the world and see how the foreign media looked at India”, he decided he wanted to join the management side of the media business — “mad, I was”. Family friend R V Pandit appointed him editorial director to revamp Imprint but he “ended up being editor because they couldn’t find one”. This was a period of heavy political reporting including, he recalls, his first interview with Zail Singh at which the President of India groused about being mistreated by Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.

“The Delhi press wouldn’t touch the story with a 10-foot pole but I was from Bombay and didn’t know anybody so I did it,” he says. The account of the meeting is appropriately eccentric. “He had this PR man called Tirlochan Singh who invited me to tea with the President but said we would meet in the President’s private quarters because Rajiv had bugged the public quarters — I don’t even know if this was true.”

When they met, the President of India was sitting on a bed in a banian and pyjamas, his topknot in a little handkerchief. As we discuss Zail Singh’s problems, which were linked to Punjab’s troubled politics and the desire for a second term, the sashimi arrives and is scrutinised. “Is that the hated flying fish,” he asks suspiciously, then realises it’s salmon caviar. I use chopsticks but Sanghvi uses his fingers. I enviously think he has the chutzpah to do what he likes but after observing my clumsy efforts, he suggests I follow his example because that is, in fact, how the Japanese eat sashimi.

Sunday, which he edited from 1986 to 1993, was his effort to break out of the “Bombay journalist” mould and he relates some amusing accounts of early encounters with Aveek Sarkar, ABP’s elegantly eccentric co-owner, with whom he developed a close relationship. He resigned, he says, because no money was being invested at a time when competitor <i> Outlook <p> was on its way and – “quote me on this! – every spare penny ABP had was being spent on Business Standard” (I cringe but it was true, the paper was in expansion mode).

Why was his parting with Sarkar so bitter? He initially denies this and then explains. He was already headed for when rumours of Sunday’s imminent closure started circulating. Many staffers approached him to find out, and when he asked, Sarkar said there was no question. “So when it did fold, staffers thought I was Aveek’s pal and I must have known and lied to them. So yes, for a time, I was angry with Aveek.”

In retrospect what must have happened, he muses, is that – “and I can say this on tape – Aveek is such a nice man and was very good to me but he does not like facing bad news. The other was that he was genuinely optimistic that he could revive Sunday. So the bitterness was about the fact that everyone thought I had lied to him. But we were soon back to having dinner and all those expensive wines in three months so all was forgiven!”

We’re chatting about his TV career and life at Hindustan Times (HT) when the chef comes up to ask if we want anything more. I recklessly choose beef (Sanghvi assures me he is a beef-eating Jain). Before that another complimentary dish arrives, of wafer-thin scalloped carpaccio topped with micro-greens soaked in sake, subtle but deceptively rich.

HT saw Sanghvi’s emergence as a food critic and that too happened by accident, the result of a revamp of the Sunday section. They couldn’t find someone to do a food column so he signed on initially under the pseudonym Grand Fromage (literally Big Cheese, an in-joke since he was editor). Luckily for him, this coincided with a restaurant boom with middle class India becoming richer and more sophisticated. Still, knowledge was limited and he remembers visiting upscale restaurants where chefs asked him what a truffle was.

Sanghvi’s recent career has been controversy-ridden; five years ago he was at the centre of the storm involving tapes of wiretapped phone-calls between lobbyist Niira Radia and journalists, politicians and businessmen. The transcripts suggested that Sanghvi had agreed to use his contacts in the Congress to push a Radia candidate (A Raja, now a disgraced former telecom minister) and slant a column in favour of a corporate house.

Sanghvi wrote a strong rebuttal in HT and stopped writing his popular Sunday column, Counterpoint, though he continued with Rude Food. He brings me up to date. His problem was with an Outlook cover story that suggested a link between him and 2G telecom spectrum allocation scandal. “I sent the tapes to three overseas labs for forensic tests. In two of the conversations in which I supposedly agree to meet Rahul they found at least five incidents of tampering. In another conversation in which I agree to slant a piece, they took a voice sample and said the voice had been altered so much it bore no resemblance to reality.”

When he took the results to (the now late) Vinod Mehta, then editor of Outlook, he ran Sanghvi’s version prominently. But “they did not do what I wanted, which is to apologise and say that even if the tapes were authentic they did not relate to the 2G scam. So, although I have enormous regard for Vinod, I sued him and Outlook and the matter is in court. It’ll probably take another five years,” he says, philosophically.

The Kobe beef arrives, sirloin exquisitely braised on hot stone and accompanied by garlic soy and ponzu (a Japanese citrus sauce). Had he recovered, I ask as we help ourselves. “I hope so over time but no matter how many clarifications I issue on my website, the allegations will never go,” he says, adding, “In a sense I am grateful because it gave me the opportunity to do other things, so it hurts less.”

He is currently an advisor with HT and writes the occasional piece in the paper but says Counterpoint is unlikely to return. More shows with are being planned. But he’s moving away from traditional media because “its days are numbered” and “now that I am older and more cynical I realise to what extent the media is a prisoner of advertising”. So he’s an investor along with a Singapore-based PE fund in a website/mobile app called easydiner, due out in a month. It will run reviews from both critics and users and allow people to book a restaurant on the site or use their concierge service to do so. “That’s on an unpaid basis in the hope that the valuation will be such that it makes money.” He’s also starting a YouTube channel with ad film maker Roopak Saluja.

The other charge against him: that his food and restaurant reviews are paid-for. “That’s a fair question,” he replies but answers carefully. “If it said I’m paid to give a good or bad review, I’m not. If the suggestion is that I am invited to a place and write about it, that’s true — everybody in the travel business does that and I always disclose it. In food I always pay my own bills and often have fights with restaurants who won’t accept payment.”

We wash down the meal with jasmine tea and Sanghvi good-naturedly itemises the controversies in case I’ve missed something. No, I say as I sign the bill. My hand shakes a little when I see the total, but at least there’s no controversy about the quality of the meal.

First Published: Fri, March 20 2015. 22:32 IST