Vir Sanghvi, editor, writer, celebrity TV host of all things posh and bespoke, stares directly at us from the cover of his autobiography, A Rude Life. His eyebrows are hitched up and his gaze is steely. There’s just a hint of a smile. It’s a seductive invitation to step into his world, but also, simultaneously, a dare. It’s the sort of double messaging that charismatic and powerful men, including editors, seem to have patented. They know they hold the power, but they like to toy with us to feel it.
Unlike men, most women who put themselves on the covers of their autobiographies try to atone for taking that liberty. They are either beaming at us to express deep gratitude, or they are beg our indulgence with photographs of them looking lost, unsure, glassy-eyed. A few braver ones strike coquettish, cute or sexy poses.
Sanghvi’s sort of self-assured ankhon-hi-ankhon mein direct dialogue with the reader is rare for women, no matter how accomplished, bright or exciting, crazy lives they may have lived.
And therein lies the first lesson from Vir Sanghvi’s A Rude Life: If you’ve done it, own it. The good things, at least.
Sanghvi tells his story chronologically, beginning with his parents’ marriage, his birth, education, his father’s passing, his professional life. All of this winds through the potholed, devious landscape of Indian politics, with Sanghvi the reporter-editor often in conversation with politicians navigating this obstacle course.
A Gujarati Jain, Sanghvi was kissed by royal fate at birth. Delivered by the same doctor who brought Prince Charles into this world, Sanghvi had a leftist father with a progressive worldview and a London apartment. He often hung around his mother’s artist friends and has lived a life of fascinating, jealousy-inducing privilege, luck, good connections. That there was also talent, heartbreak, hard work and moxie keeps it from being a cringe-fest.
Sanghvi grew up in awe of his father who put him in Mayo College, Ajmer, but passed away too soon. So Sanghvi got himself admitted to a school in London, joined Oxford University and then travelled around the world before settling down in India to practice journalism. Sanghvi has been an editor most of his professional life and has covered politics throughout. He has worked with most of India’s media biggies in close proximity, including Aroon Puri (Bombay magazine), Aveek Sarkar (Sunday magazine), and at the Hindustan Times with K.K. Birla and Shobhana Bhartia, and all the while he had diligently worked at creating brand Vir Sanghvi through his food writing and TV shows. It's a lifetime of leveraging contacts and being where the action is.
Sanghvi breezes in and out of living rooms of VIP homes, agenda-setting newsroom and the best and most expensive restaurants. We get a snapshot of the times he lived in and meet people who mattered.
Unapologetic about the connections he inherited and forged, Sanghvi conjures up a world of powerful men and big stakes that he was privy to.
He’s met, interviewed and traveled with several Prime Ministers, witnessed first-hand the swarm of swamis, scandals and scams around them, suffered V.S. Naipaul’s bigotry and tried to figure out why Rajiv Gandhi and President Giani Zail Singh were miffed with each other. And yet he is hardly ever in awe of anyone. Or at least he doesn't show it. And since he is our chaperone in this cosy world, neither are we. But we are in awe of him — of his access, enterprise and chutzpah.
Despite all of Sanghvi's political writing and TV shows, he is often not considered a political pundit. That’s partly because he has a babalog attitude to dehati, desi politics and politicians, has little interest in discussing caste equations, the minutiae of voting patterns, and doesn’t write in the staid, aloof, quotes-and-officialese style.
The cardinal rule for him as a journalist, writer, TV host seems to be, thou shalt not bore.
Numbers bore him but people interest him and he likes to get personal.
A Rude Life is split into 61 chapters and each one narrates an encounter or an event that added a twist to Indian politics.
Sanghvi seems to have a nose for sniffing the general political mood, trends, and is a keen people watcher. He assesses situations through the motivation or defining characteristics of the personalities involved, and weaves stories with facts, friendly banter, and some gossip.
He doesn't just tell us what happened, but shares insight into why. Most of it is linked to personality traits — Sonia Gandhi the eternal pessimist, wily and stubborn V.P. Singh, L.K. Advani motivated by his frustrations, and political crisis were often precipitated by spiteful, two-faced men with fragile egos and hunger for power.
The best thing about autobiographies is that you can tell your story the way you want to and then sit back to watch as many rise to bicker, crib and pick bones with what you said and didn’t.
Sanghvi is mostly candid, a straight shooter, but he is also accomplished at skirting issues.
Sanghvi, who became a powerful editor at a very young age, added excitement and fun to journalism, encouraged, trained and nurtured reporters, wielded a lot of power in the world at large but also in the newsrooms he ran.
I have never worked with him, but a lot of gossip swirled around his expensive lifestyle and the women in his life. None of that finds any mention here. And as the book progresses, by about page 300 or so, Sanghvi’s interest in telling his story wanes. The narrative gets rushed and there isn’t much drama or mood. You get the feeling that he is tense and clamping up. This is also when it’s time for stuff that is at the very least complicated and not complimentary.
Sanghvi rushes through the Peter-Indrani Mukerjea and NewsX fiasco, and in the Niira Radia tapes episode he chooses to focus only on Outlook magazine.
I am a very slow reader and even for me finishing A Rude Life was a breeze because of Sanghvi’s elegant and chatty style of writing.
I learnt about the people he met, the places he worked at, where he was at several momentous moments in India’s political history, and which side of history he stood on.
I know that he’s sharp, that he never shied from seizing an opportunity or even creating one. And the way he talks about his employers and those who worked for him, I figure that loyalty is a priority.
I also know that he hates Noida, has little time for North Indian-Punjabi’s nostalgia for Pakistan, and that he loves to gossip.
But I have little understanding of who Vir Sanghvi really is.
It’s only in the last two-and-a-half pages of the book, when Sanghvi shares some of his own vulnerabilities, talks about his trouble with funerals, deaths, that we get some sense of a man who often feels a father-shaped vacuum by his side.
It’s usual for biographies and autobiographies to have photographs of the author with family members, VIPs. Mostly these sepia toned albums are sad but satisfying because they create some intimacy with the author and break the mystique.
There are no photographs in Vir Sanghvi’s autobiography except the one on the cover. And that’s rude.
A Rude Life
By Vir Sanghvi
pp. 416, Rs.699