Meeting Sonny Mehta: Erudite, Affable, Dignified And Distinguished

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I am not writing this because he was well connected but because I felt connected to him. I had a brief but memorable meeting with him more than a decade and a half ago in New York. We were at a dinner hosted by an American tech entrepreneur interested in social investments across the globe, specifically India. It was a hip socialite, (read HNWI) evening at a Manhattan high rise, surrounded by a number of rattling economists, their rather cold partners and a few high octane social change makers trying to combat numbers with the emotions of life changing stories, mostly from developing geographies of South Asia. Frankly, it was quite another rigmarole for me.

Enters Mr Mehta and all eyes turn towards him. He was introduced then as one of the best-known Asians in the elite circles of the globe. Of course, his Knopf entity and the other accreditations followed. But for me, he stood out clearly as the “palpably most knowledgeable person” in the motley gathering of about 50. He shone brilliance. When in a sub-subgroup, we were together in a corner, I had a feeling that I knew him since long. Affable and yet distant, I found him very real. So rooted, that when we discussed Bollywood, poverty in South Asia, Nicaragua rebels and commercialisation of sports, he was unstoppable, though quiet. Nor did I attempt to. I was never from the fourth estate and never knew him then as the high priest of global publishing, but that beautiful NY evening gave me a super eclectic acquaintance. I wasn’t sure whether we would meet again, but I was sure that ‘this tete-a-tete’ was for keeps for life. A brilliant mind, he was absolutely non-judgemental and perhaps that is why he was one of the world’s most successful publishers. He could see stars when others lost out in ‘reading the pulse’. 

In the dinner meet, he was the celebrity. He spoke very little but spoke intensely. Smartly turned out, he was always in the ‘centre’ of the discussion revolving around tech enterprises, investment banking, social investment and new age philanthropists. If he was the senior most in age, he was the most erudite in his viewpoints. Admirably contemporary, genuinely cosmopolitan and magnet of the dinner party, Mr Mehta exuded a rare “cultured erudition”.

The next day, my family described more about him and his connections with Odisha. My respect for him goes up many notches because in our conversation, we spoke about Odisha, the economy and the social equity but never, even as a passing remark he mentioned anything about his family in Odisha, which could be even remotely construed as ‘flaunting”. 

He was the first family of the world of publishing and back home, his was the first family of Odisha – but for the evolved Mr Mehta, he was what he was. 

Mr Mehta supported our social initiative. The dinner party was a great meeting of great minds. Life moved on, but his presence and our skull session were indelible. I had met him in Delhi once, after NY and this time, we discussed books, authors and the changing trends.

There is something incredibly nostalgic and significant about meeting Mr Sonny Mehta. He was luminous and he was considered the best publisher in the world.

Sometimes, rarely, you meet someone like Mr Mehta. RIP

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