Tribute to Sonny Mehta
Sonny Mehta, a world class editor and head of internationally renowned publishing house Alfred Knopf, passed away on December 30, 2019 in the US. Born on November 9, 1942 in India, he was the son of Amrik Mehta, one of independent India’s first four diplomats who served under Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru.
Being the son-in-law of late Biju Patnaik on account of his matrimonial alliance with his daughter Gita Mehta -- a globally acclaimed writer of fiction and non-fiction -- Sonny Mehta had an identity associated with the quest and celebration of literary excellence. It is a matter of immense pride that son-in-law of Biju Patnaik and brother-in-law of Odisha Chief Minister Shri Naveen Patnaik, commanded the respect and recognition worldwide on the strength of his genius.
It was best reflected in the brilliant obituary on him published in the New York Times which hailed him as a “literary savant” and “classiest publisher”. Heading Alfred Knopf publishing house for more than three decades and publishing, among others, books of nine Nobel literature laureates, works of 29 booker prize winners, memoirs of US President George Bush, Bill Clinton, Prime Minister of Britain late Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair and Pope John Paul II -- testified to his matchless stature and standing in the realm of literature and publishing industry.
The lines from the New York Times obituary that “he could spot great books” and “delivered literary quality and runway sales backed by clever promotion” testified to the legendary worth of the man whose incessant search for higher literary accomplishments and his substantive excellence in that domain earned him rare name and fame.
He was the third editor in the century old Knopf publishing house and his tenure spanning more than three decades made him an enviable figure across the world. His extraordinary journey as a paperback publisher began when he commissioned Germaine Greer’s “Female Eunuch”, described as the “best selling manifesto of the women’s movement”. That book itself represented a consciousness of gender equality which is now the global trend shaping the destiny of humanity by recognising worth of women in every field .
He registered remarkable success in his long and eventful journey as a globally renowned editor and publisher; and his rich experience began when he joined the reputed publishing company Random House and culminated in Alfred Knopf’s. The conferment of Maxwell Perkins Award for life time achievement by the Centre for Fiction on Sonny Mehta brought out the splendid success he achieved during his long career defined by his gifted literary bent of mind.
Sonny Mehta, with his Indian origin, established the credentials of Indian talent at the global level because of his glorious track record in the field of editing and publishing. His modesty in face of his overwhelming success was indeed extraordinary. People working in Naveen Nivas recalled his visits to Naveen Patnaik and fondly remembered him as a very civilized human who spoke little but was a living embodiment of abundant grace and dignity. They knew that he was a giant in the domain of literature and in the field of publishing. But what touched them the most was his common touch and feeling. Such simplicity remained integral to his personality and added value to his stature as a literary genius.
While receiving the Life Achievement Award In 2018 he famously said: “Reading has been a constant in my life. I have always found comfort in the confines of a book or manuscript. Reading is how I spend most of my time, it is still the most important aspect of my day. I want to be remembered not as an editor or publisher, but as a reader”.
Remarkable indeed. He was an inspiring and moving figure in the world. Some of the outstanding books published by Random House, other publishing houses including Alfred Knopf bear his imprint. Countless readers across the world read the books published under his guidance. His unfortunate passing away caused bereavement to the readers across the world. An iconic figure he had no hesitation in identifying himself with the common readers and celebrating his modest and humble status as a reader. It underlined the point that reading is essential for cultivation of mind. Sonny Mehta indeed represented the excellence of a cultivated mind.
I recall Dr. Ambedkar who once said that the purpose of life is cultivation of mind. Sonny Mehta affirming his identity as a reader has conveyed a powerful message to the generations in the digital age for pursuing the habit of reading. The real tribute to such an outstanding literary personality of the world would mean to “find comfort in the confines of book and manuscript”. Indeed the cultivation of habit of reading which many fear is declining in the age of fourth industrial revolution would indeed constitute real tribute to an extraordinary reader like Sonny Mehta. While mourning his sad demise and conveying heartfelt condolences to the members of the bereaved family one yearns for the triumph of the culture of reading in twenty first century world.
The author served as Press Secretary to President of India late Shri K R Narayanan