Not an open letter to Tarun Tejpal: Hartman de Souza
Guest post by HARTMAN DE SOUZA
When I hit out at him, Tejpal stood there with a swagger and a go-fuck-yourself smile on his face. Butter doesn’t melt easily in this guy’s mouth; he was smug when he said he hadn’t run Raman Kirpal’s story on the mining scam in Goa (that he himself had commissioned mind you) because it was not good enough for Tehelka.
“There were no hard facts, man,” he said, his voice exiting his quasi-American accent in a nasal peeve, “just a lot of conjecture”.
He actually asked me whether I had read his magazine. Probably never even saw the eulogy I wrote for Tehelka, on that magnificent footballer from Kerala, VP Sathyan, who threw himself in front of a train at the age of 41 just plain bloody tired of being broke and ignored.
On July 18, 2006, when Sathyan, stupidly, stopped believing in the beauty of football, Tejpal’s star was in its ascendancy. That was the day – nearly a year and a half after Tehelka shed blood, sweat and tears, that the CBI also charge-sheeted former BJP President Bangaru Lakshman for ‘allegedly’ pocketing money from a fictitious armament firm and influencing a weapon deal.
That’s the ‘scoop’ that put Tejpal on the ladder – and just so that we all know what is what, people still don’t give a shit about VP Sathyan who in 1992 captained what is arguably Kerala’s best ever football team.
By November 2011 Tejpal was cocksure that nothing would happen to him. He never had to admit that he killed Raman’s story so that his sister Neena, Tehelka’s publisher and his chief operating officer, could wheedle money for herself and for his and Shoma’s Stinkworks from the equally smelly Congress government of ‘Dig-under’ Kamat, chief operating officer of the mining mafia operating in Goa at that time.
No one sought to tell the Goa police at that time that they could, suo moto, go and nab the whole bunch of them for misuse of public machinery and funds. Goa’s current CM, Manohar Parrikar’s falsetto tones of indignation have many in Goa snorting in disgust and hooting in derision, given that when he was leader of the opposition, not a dulcet squeak broke his lips about his friend ‘Dig-under’s’ involvement with STiNKFEST 2011.
While Parrikar now beams before the cameras mouthing platitudes against Tejpal, nobody should forget this is the same man, with the BJP’s backing, who – much like applying for anticipatory bail before the highest court of the land – shamelessly set up a compromised investigative team to slow dance filing FIRs against the Goan mining mafia who looted the exchequer.
As a lawyer friend of mine from Goa puts it: “They use the law to throw all of us into the long grass…”
In a Goan context of course – far away from the debilitating stereotypes other Indians have of this state, but by no means any less disheartening – one must bear in mind that both Parrikar and Kamat, and indeed, Goa’s powerful mining families, follow an omerta that goes back to the bloodied axe of Parasuram.
How would Tejpal and his friends, and indeed the so-called national parties, know that regardless of whether they came to Goa one way and went out through another, Parrikar, Kamat and their mining crony clan would still be there piously squatting before a sacred flame, ready to break a coconut, clink the cymbals and get the mining underway…
A few of the Goan elites and bystanders that attended Tejpal’s shady jamboree in 2011 gleefully rationalizing its many merits to their intellectual growth, salved their conscience by later sending him polite emails asking him to please not hold his next ‘event’ in The Hyatt, a hotel that had flagrantly violated CRZ norms. Their letter did not of course mention that two of its owners were at that time cooling their heels in jail because of their ‘alleged’ involvement in the 2G scam. We just felt like we wanted to puke.
Tejpal, of course, busy as he was – as all of them were – had no idea of all this and neither did his friends. He was more intent on telling the media in 2011 that “people have consumed their Levi’s and Adidas and now a certain class are trying to go to the next level”…that we “need a core of ideas and intellect, and that (emphasis mine) was the idea behind creating Think”. His friends applauded.
In case they were not sure how gargantuan a task this was, he reminded them that “the appetite for discussion about big ideas in post-liberalization India is unquenchable” and they bought this because it was opportune to do so and because what he aspired towards perfectly matched their own tastes. This time around, even with evidence to the contrary, devotees of the New Indian Dream Nation went as usual in droves, even forgetting The Hyatt’s hanky-panky with its permissions to build - the spotlight on Robert De Niro, who let it be said, in true poetic justice may have to show us his sorry face.
To cut through the bullshit, Tejpal spiking Raman Kirpal’s detailed story was his FIRST lapse of judgement – regardless of how nuanced the utilitarian spin everyone conveniently gave to it. It should not be forgotten that every single one of his high-flying friends in the media, now reluctantly forced to sharpen their knives, covered it up and consciously chose to believe and trust him.
Stentorian drill-inspired voice, haw-haw accent, slap on the back: “No need for an enquiry here old chap, he’s one of ours…he’d never do something like this…”
If we lose sight of this machination, not only will all the chickens not come home to roost, it is likely we could end up echoing the narrator in The Story of My Assassins, existentially whining:
“There was no big picture, there were no grand connections. There were only endless small pieces, and all you could do was to somehow manage your own ….”
His colleague, Shoma Choudhary – for all that one may admire her for sticking her neck out on issues that needed one’s neck to be stuck out – was also practiced at defending the magazine’s more contentious negotiations. She spun sentences around that first lapse in Goa too, telling the world that Tehelka did not kill the story for gain and she went to New York and back peddling this faff, and all her friends and colleagues also chose to believe her.
If one thought in this day and age, that Tehelka and its STiNK would be ostracised for what any journalist worth his or her salt in another era would have considered a heinous crime against a fellow journalist only doing what he was asked to as part of his job or mission or whatever – in this new age of carefully structured moderation with its fake terms of engagement, that could only be perceived as being less ‘nuanced’.
Around the same time he killed Raman’s story, it was ‘alleged’ that some fifty or so young journalists in a business publication Tejpal planned were laid off before it began and the funds, apparently diverted. The ‘allegation’ is that the cash may have gone either to his exclusive villa in Moira, Goa – ‘Birdsong’ – which, before its website and all advertised links to it were taken down on the 26th, could be rented for a minimum two nights at a cool 55,000 rupees a night with bed and breakfast – or, as another rumour held it, gone into acquiring a second property in Goa. That doesn’t seem to be a matter that will now be ignored.
If all us fossils thought at that time, that six journalists working for Tehelka would leak out some vital documents and emails and then resign one after the other, we were being stupidly naive. The key word was ‘nuanced’ – once a word used to refine a methodological tool to better comprehend the layered voices of those learning to speak after being forced into silence – now a neo-utilitarian buzz word of the anti-ideology gang that grows in India’s cocooned sector.
It was wrongly alleged that they killed Kirpal’s story is what Tehelka told the world. Beating its Fab India chest in bravado, it actually chose to sue the Deccan Herald for suggesting Tejpal’s politically correct publisher diddled ‘Dig-under’ Kamat. Coincidentally, this defamation case came up for its first hearing in New Delhi a week or so before Tejpal’s final, and some would say, definitive error. A few do-gooders in Delhi even made some noises about filing a complaint with the Press Council, the status of which only God may know.
Even worse was that two years or so before this recent lapse of judgement, his important friends also chose to ignore the ‘alleged’ plight of two young women journalists at Tehelka also doing their job – and indeed, reporting from areas one does not expect women journalists to have an easy time – particularly when the abiding theme of their stories are the right-wing alternatives hocked to us by either State or home-grown ‘Brown Shirts’.
It will take any competent journalist three phone calls and half an hour on Google to get the details of both women and their stories, but strongly desist, because both, as the TV channels will tell you are on ‘Ground Zero’. They’re not embedded at a cocktail party; they could still get it in the neck. One still faces a case filed against her.
One had to depose as a witness before several commissions. “It was simply horrible,” she said to me over the phone, “I didn’t know what was happening…I was young, frightened, I really feared for my life…”
When she asked the magazine for assistance, none was forthcoming. That did not stop Tejpal from collecting the international award and prize money her story brought this iconic magazine or, indeed, inform the young woman who wrote it about the same. “I resigned before that,” she told me, “when they didn’t want you working for them, they had the means to make you feel unwanted.”
In these days of eat and grab more, is it that different with any of them I wanted to ask her?
I listened to tears in her voice as she went through the heartbreak of facing a cruel paradox – detesting what Tejpal and Shoma had done to her, empathising with the outrage the young journalist felt in the lift, and yet, credit to her, grieving for the way Tejpal was now being pilloried.
“The magazine must survive,” she told me, “we need a magazine like this!” I respect her for saying this. In case we forget, this is also what the young journalist in the lift also said in her very first communication on the matter – that she respected the magazine.
So what I do want to say, unequivocally, is that I hit Tejpal when he stood there with an arrogant smile on his face. I was not forced to hit him when he was down.
That’s a crucial difference; one that may be appreciated given that his recent slipup has assumed cannibalistic proportions in the media and world-wide web – on the first morning itself, before noon, outrage reaching all the way down to Jamaica courtesy a Malayalee blogger living there 22 years…
Ironically, when the sordid news broke, I fought my 8.30 to 9.30 fix with TV with a new crime novel. I mean how much can you take of Meenakshi Lekhi and the rest of them frothing at the mouth before you throw your glass at the fucking screen?
In any case, ageing radicals knew when the 90s were ending, that were it not for the print media and the independent net, those figuring out where exactly this country is headed – and dependent on this information solely on our home-grown news channels in English – would run the risk of having their judgements severely impaired.
By morning after the night that the story broke, I got five calls and sixteen SMSes and it got crazier right through the day. Then, over the days the vultures started coming for me too when I was neither fallen predator nor aggrieved victim and I got the shotgun out. Unfortunately for everyone concerned, I had a very senior moment.
Why were so many of them gloating and happy and victorious and thumping each other’s backs in glee, when two years back to a day – thanks to the now multi-gender ‘old boys club’ in New Delhi that enveloped Tejpal in a loving scrum – we lost the bloody battle?
Let’s not forget that as they figure out which part of Tejpal’s neck to take a bite from…
Not surprisingly, given its recent tilts and its need for a stick to whack the ruling dispensation with and shore up its own ratings, the Indian Express was the only paper that morning that carried the start of this saga on the front page – in fact that carried it at all in print that first morning.
So one can just imagine the urgent meetings called by all of Tejpal’s pals in the TV channels and media (and government and some industries and public relations outfits and brand consultants and advertising agencies), and all the telephone calls and frantic text messages and encrypted emails and the backstabbing and deals made to hide themselves just in case the shit really hit the fan.
Did we need the exigencies of fact finding to know, well before his latest indiscretion, that the people that gave mantle to this man – whom we’ve all seen on TV now – reads like a who’s who; a nuanced mix if you wish, of those in the media, those in law, those in politics, and those placed like artefacts for viewing?
He milked this.
He let them down only because this was a crime that went too far – even for them. He was, after all, one of their own, a modernist dream not unlike themselves, their enfant terrible turned businessman ready to take India into the 21st century riding in a red Pajero; negotiating the rough terrain between crony capitalism and meaningful and equitable social change with nuanced refrain – but now, lo and behold, caught with his balls in the wringer.
By noon matters went viral. I turned off in disgust opening an email from Goa of all places, appending the entire text of the young journalist’s aggrieved letter to Tehelka, with some ignorant jerks with smart phones in the loop from whom the mail came, asking whether the CCTV footage had been put up on YouTube.
Not that propriety ever mattered, or that such massive invasions into an individual’s privacy are of a recent invention in this re-jigged media. It took barely a night for print, TV and web to get it terribly, terribly wrong, and almost lasciviously provide bits and pieces of this young woman for public consumption. It took a strongly worded letter of protest and outrage from aggrieved individuals nation-wide circulating on the net for them to sit back and say “Oh”.
Like in “Oh, we didn’t know…”
As of November 25, only one paper/website that openly transgressed limits, Goa’s Herald, carried an apology from its editor to the young journalist on its front page. Given that she may be deposing in Goa and the vultures are already there in full force, more than ready to blur her face as they catch footage of her, that lone apology may count for very little.
Like an exotic cook in a staged kitchen, The Times of India’s Sunday edition at the height of capturing Tejpal for posterity, ran its right-hand columns with the usual news-reports/boxes etc, and his mug shot of an earlier era – and just below that, right across the page, the slash of a colour ad for a new condom replete with a young pouty woman telling viewers that it never felt like a condom (!).
Was this prior booking of advertising space regardless of just how bizarre an ad for a condom looks on the front page of a major national paper? Was it just jugaad at work, or was there a deeper semiotics of marketing at work in this bright new world we live in – one bright spark over a hundred and fifty rupees a cup coffee for instance, saying to the rest at the table:
“Hey, you know what? Okay, look…it sounds crazy like, but like this guy’s crime is sexually related right? Like it’s been everywhere two nights in a row man…everyone knows…it’s the power of fantasising guys, everybody’s fucking titillated man, everybody’s randy…I mean dude, see what they twittering about man…I mean, this is the time to launch that new account of ours…”
In all this mess too, it did not help to know that in ten pages of searching for Tarun Tejpal on the net, one got more than enough glimpse of what this man could have been had he not decided – like Macbeth, like his former well-wishers now assiduously cutting him to shreds to distance themselves – that his dil wanted far more…
In the fog of excessiveness that permeated the media too, not many may have noted the swift, timely, straightforward, no bullshit demand made by women working in the media for the simple implementation of a mechanism to prevent such lapses of judgement from happening.
And yet, expectedly, right through the first morning, afternoon and late evening, the general viewing public were force-fed an endless khichdi of looped images, repeated quotes and visual editing that would make even Grade 2 Bollywood intellectuals cringe, although again, – depending on how crassly the channels engineered it – also get their viewer ratings up.
Ergo, even more ads and less loops and repetitions…until that dramatic moment, accompanied by a fanfare of trumpets, an announcement following text-book aspiration, perfectly syncopated, it is time for India’s new harbingers of change to take their appointed space under the spotlights.
By nine that night, decked up, Tejpal’s once loyal cronies who once delicately nibbled cheese with him came to the party with their own axes to grind, the angst they felt compelled to air, and the anger and outrage they all seemed to think we needed to see.
In this blood bath that now ensues, ageing radicals did not lose sight of the fact that this was 21st Century India they were dealing with, and that the media as they once knew it, wore a different face, its hoary protocols long handed over to pragmatism and the flawed notion that what succeeds can even be truthful.
In the early 90s for instance, while our government of the time stealthily signed papers gifting the country to the imperatives of big industry, how many in New Delhi noted that the Patriot newspaper on Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg had quietly disappeared?
How many knew that Patriot, Delhi, and The Tribune, Chandigarh for 130 years – were both newspapers run by Public Trusts and not owned by a Lala down the road or some new age media mogul like Tejpal who sits in the posher part of town?
Or, that concurrently, that power-brokers would ensure that the Mumbai and Delhi editions of Vinod Mehta’s once scintillating and feisty brainchild The Sunday Observer would be sold, lock stock and barrel; only to morph after some time into the Business and Political Observer, the first media venture of the legendary Dhirubhai Ambani.
That was a test case some would say, of how a growing industrial infrastructure could eventually capture, influence and even direct public opinion.
Overnight, thanks to the BPO – as Mukesh and Anil’s dad’s paper was popularly known – salaries of journalists quadrupled. Backed by Samir Jain’s dictum that if you pay people peanuts you’ll only get monkeys, when the Times of India decided to come to the party too, the sky did not seem to be that much of a limit as far as journalists’ salaries went.
That phenomenon went on to sire even more perks to create an even more exalted status that left many in their sixties fondly pondering on the nature of the madness that allowed them to keep idealism centre stage.
And besides, always look at the bright side of things: that was just the beginning of the 90s, when everyone was still unsteady about dismantling licenses and norms and regulations to bring in the freedom of everyone being able to make money and buy whatever one wanted without unnecessarily high import duties.
This is now thirteen years into a new century and the stench of wealth, whether we choose to admit it or not, makes for a surrealistic nightmare: a pair of frames at an optician’s selling for a couple of lakh; a hand bag that costs 800,000 rupees; Gucci opening their fourth outlet in Mumbai; the list can go on and on and envelop every single facet of a life that can be lived from cradle to grave for those miniscule few in this country with a golden spoon in their mouths, and those who crave to be like them.
When, just a kilometre or so any which side from any one of these exclusive bubbles of excessiveness, you can also follow anywhere up to a thousand life stories that plot the scary bewilderment of men and women struggling to live – leave alone aspire and have dreams. What can they realistically hope for when they live in an age where even the end of their miseries and the cessation of their lives, is costlier that what they have the means for.
Like as if now it’s a world that is skilfully made up and pomaded, where men need to be seen in designer suits and ties and jackets as if they were born to it; where the women, much like in the ads, must be one colour in the studio, one outside, and carefully groomed and coiffed, and put together and ‘professional’; where most of the good news is centred around high growth rates and channel-related ‘events’ that gives you more shit of the same – this award, that award, this business meeting, that leadership summit – and where care is taken so that the channel itself and the people who display it for public gaze comes as close as possible to the staged life we see in the fifteen minutes of advertisements that come after ten minutes of ‘news’. And so on and so forth as they argue their case in court that they need even more advertising to give us even more of the same old shit…
The ‘news’? What news?
The news that is really bad is on for two days maybe three, and then analyzed and dropped – pushed to the backburner to be dealt with by those who do not really matter. Like horrible dreams that refuse to go away. Or if they’re feeling enlightened, they’ll do a pro bono and show this to you on Sunday afternoons, when there aren’t too many ads because the lovely professional middle classes will be watching a Bollywood film instead, or drinking, eating or sleeping.
And now – “at the end of the day” as every single anchor and newsperson intones ad nauseam, like a programmed response in an old-fashioned lift reminding you to close the grill – we are left to plough through the many recriminations and reflections, the Hamlet moments of what could have been and what could have transpired, as his cohorts rationalize the past, taking pains to separate Tejpal the Frail from Tejpal the Brand.
Those most vicious have been those so called ‘Brand’ and ‘Image’ consultants who missed out on the gravy train provided by the STiNKFEST, who are now in the job market to hock their own prescient skills of taking truth for a spin. Do not ever think there will be no buyers…
“The work of Tehelka was the collective effort and vision of its numerous reporters, writers and editors,” Ashish Khetan, a former staffer told the media. “Tarun’s indictment in the sexual assault case is indeed a serious blow for Tehelka, but the alleged act of criminality or misconduct of one individual should not be confused with what Tehelka as an institution came to represent over a period of time. There is a distinction between an institution and an individual even if he happens to be the founder or editor.”
A contributing editor to Tehelka resigned, but well after he had first written a column emphasising that he didn’t attend THiNKFEST. He too beat his breast appropriately then separated the many strands of Tejpal.
Mathew Samuel, another journalist said he had known Tejpal for 15 years and “and as an editor, he is one of the best, always encouraging reporters.” He said Tejpal’s “mistake” did not diminish Tejpal as a journalist because he never preached high standards of sexual morality. A corruption case, on the other hand Samuel said, would certainly have demolished the kind of moral ground he occupied as a journalist.
Where were these guys in November 2011?
What we are left with “at the end of the day”, is a peculiar dance precariously poised between casuistry such as the above on the one hand, and scatological analysis posing as grief on the other.
Much has been made of Tejpal’s literary turn of phrase harking us all back to the harsh days of ancient Judeo-Christian rite and the ritual of atonement. Cynics over a drink laugh and say he ought to have sought his way out with allusions to the more elastic sophistry our own home-grown mythologies provide, conveniently prioritizing power and caste and even tyranny over something as mundane and this-worldly as asceticism.
But regardless of its etymological origins, in a media controlled by upmarket journalists wearing the right clothes and saying the right things, who will venture that ‘atonement’ is not a much needed word to wish away lapses of judgement?
Many, many moons ago, at a meeting of “English Theatre” practitioners that I would never have attended in the first place if it hadn’t been part of my job at that time, I was cornered by a person I detest and asked in a cultivated, disembodied, utterly fake post-modernist drawl not once, but several times, what I really thought of “English Theatre” in India – which in those pre-Chetan Bhagat days was a very exclusive, haw-haw club indeed if you weren’t working in an ad agency…or if you didn’t speak in an accent that you could cut with a knife…
I had been warned several times by my wife not to open my mouth, to just go there, listen to what they were saying and come back. I had been doing just that, but this pest persisted wanting some titbit she could use as a toy. My wife went out of the window: I had had more than my share of listening to mutually appreciative odes to-ing and fro-ing the full bloody day.
“…It’s like a bunch of elephants walking around in a circle,” I told her, “…and each one of the elephants has got his or her trunk up the bum of the elephant in front: such that whatever is inside the circle is not allowed to go out; and whatever’s outside the circle is not allowed to go in.
While a new breed of young, very vibrant theatre practitioners have smashed that circle to smithereens, the innate mechanism may have surfaced and Tejpal’s friends, notwithstanding their protestations to the contrary, may not quite finish coming to terms with the notion of ‘atonement’. They may need to dwell, among other issues, on how, perhaps even wittingly they may have joined forces with the global companies of this planet to subvert both idealism and dissent from building in those far younger – who, perversely, need this more than ever before in our ongoing and troubled history.
We live in times so troubled, we have now taken to selling cynicism to our young before they are even in their twenties and in college. We do this as effectively as we market cola; tying them down with a force-fed study-and-vomit routine every three months; systematically stripping them of their right to dissent well before they are turn seventeen and are ready to take on all-comers; tantalising them with the momentary pleasure of things and objects; neutering the simultaneity of ideology and idealism and putting in its place the imperative that they use their education to tamely acquiesce to any and all authority. Worse, as parents we are guilty of entreating them not to get involved, to look after themselves first and foremost. We never tell them, as our parents did, that when you are in doubt of whom to lend your support to, always give it to the underdog. As their parents are, so will their children become…
In that kind of a context, this young journalist is a role model. She is the daughter of a man whom I have shared as much rum with as I have shared dreams. I can’t let this go that easily. She may have been made the sacrificial lamb for slaughter against her being and will, but she smashed the circle of elephants and wrenched the trunks apart. She saved herself and gave everyone of Tejpal’s pals, even though they may not deserve it, the chance to breathe again.
As they may have out it, while ending a clip on one of their channels with that same catch-line, “will they choose air or more of the same, is the burning question?’
Around these charlatans whose intellectualism and commitment were tutored in an air-conditioned studio, yet another bunch of bigger elephants form a wider circle, like a rejuvenated Wankel rotary to drive us to higher growth rates and even more money for those who matter. Politicians cum businessman, businessmen cum politicians – what is and what isn’t doesn’t matter, because cutting across party lines and non-worldly matters such as ideology, they all sauntered in, swinging their trunks to join the party.
“At the end of the day” isn’t it sad that these are the karmic cycles we must perforce do battle with?
Sure, this is a bitter post. It’s a post-senior, post-sanyasin moment that would leave a wad of juicy neem leaves in my mouth taste sweet, a moment beyond anger and rage when all one wants is a nice big tree to lean one’s back on, a view that will mist one’s eyes with sadness, and a couple of cases of rum to systematically drink oneself to death.
I atone for the young journalist too, I never thought I would see this country, in my life time, sold down the fucking drain for just the opportunity to enact the ‘good life’ and enjoy the bling.
My wife was disturbed by Amit Sengupta’s piece in Kindle. But then she never accepted that Ginsberg’s Howl was a definitive gift to America’s arts, doing to poetry what Miles and Monk, almost around the same time were doing to jazz.
Like she did with Howl, she was reading it, not hearing it in the way a rough, growly, angry, tenor sax would string notes; the way Jackson Pollock would throw paint.
Amit gives us chords for us to seek our own closure in defiance of all the possible spins.
“This was a refreshing stream of consciousness which turned the entire media dialectic upside down,” he writes, “and rediscovered the rational kernel of pulsating idealism in journalism without compromising on high professional standards”.
That was then, and this is now, but Amit also adds, “Small is beautiful, but small can also change the world”.
I hope this young journalist never loses sight of that dictum and always knows which side of the knife cuts best.