something went click in
Tarun’s head. As far he was concerned, he had said and done
everything he could. Now he wanted to bring Tehelka back. But
how? No one thought he could do it. After two false starts, on
People’s Paper, hit the stands-funded by The People
for whom it was meant. "We started without a rupee of
investment," says Tarun. "When have you last heard
of that happening in a media organization?"
Padamsee, it appears, thought of the idea of founder-subscribers.
there they were, the nation’s conscience keepers, who
gave one lakh rupees each for their belief in Tarun’s
vision-Alyque Padamsee himself, Mahesh Bhatt, Mira Nair, Shah
Rukh Khan, Pritish Nandy, Shabana Azmi, Sunil Khilnani, Mark
Tully, Shyam Benegal, Naseeruddin Shah...
Mahesh Bhatt too discovered him, "like the world",
after the sensational sting operation. "He showed on
a mammoth scale what we all felt about events in the country.
Amongst a media that largely toadies in overt and covert ways
to the establishment, a voice like Tarun’s kindled something
that had died in us." Bhatt made a special effort to
meet Tarun at a film awards function. "I found him a
simpler person than he was made out to be," Bhatt says,
"a native at heart, who says things simply and does not
hide his vulnerability." Bhatt took early morning flights,
paying for his own tickets to join Tarun at various public
meetings to promote Tehelka the paper. In the end, Tehelka
launched with 172 founder-subscribers.
Besides, of course, the 14,000 subscriptions. The emotion
ofidentification found reflection a thousand times over within
the country, and without. In a packed auditorium at Standford
University in California, just one of the stops on Tarun's
tour through the US in the fall of 2003, Girish Agrawal, engineer
turned law student, saw the larger picture. "As he talked
about building a People's Paper, I joined the ranks of the
dream perhaps had started to take hazy shape when Tarun left
India Today in August 1994. Aroon Purie, Tarun’s boss
at India Today who believes that Tarun has done an amazing
job of investigative journalism, recalls, "He did a great
job as a copy editor in India Today, ensuring it maintained
a high standard of writing. Tarun had good editorial judgment
about stories. After a while, I sensed he was getting bored
with everyday journalism and was drawn to the literary world."
Sumir Lal, Tarun’s roommate from his days at DAV College,
Chandigarh, recalls the pair spending hours debating the meaning
of life in their PG digs at Sector 9. It was a time when cooking
and eating was an adventure and cheques acquired from winning
quiz after quiz never lasted long. "We left college with
two guiding principles," says Lal, "that we would
live up to our fullest potential unmarred by norms and what
people tell us to do, and we would leave the world a better
place. Tarun has lived up to both."
Tarun’s wife Geetan, whom he met while they were both
in college, says. it’s amazing how his creativity peaks
in a crisis and finds an anchor within himself. You see, Tarun
wrote a novel, his first, while Tehelka collapsed around him
and all he himself read was legal affidavits. Believe it.
The Alchemy of Desire, has been bought by Picador, with a
six-figure advance. No, V.S. Naipaul, whose close affiliation
with Tarun is well-known, has not read it yet, but has promised
to write a blurb for the book, making the publisher very happy.
Andrew Kidd, Picador’s publisher, had this to say: "It
is a novel quite unlike any other, with a power and a weight
of feeling one almost never encounters in contemporary literature."
The story? Tarun is dismissive (or secretive?): "Love,
desire, loss, colonialism, India, separation, pain, you know,
the usual…" He wrote the book in hotel lobbies,
on flights, in lounges, in hotel rooms-and sent it off without
re-reading to Gillon Aitken, the literary agent. You would
believe him now when he says he is a "lunatic".
Integrity and lunacy are not mutually exclusive, after all.
"It is the madness that makes the other side possible,"
says Tarun, "to be able to apply one’s own yardstick,
and when called to a higher order of conduct, to not sell
out, run away, cut a deal or ask for mercy. The reproduction
of information is the simplest thing to do; you have to take
sides, the side of the right, the side of the truth. If you
are too cynical, if you don't care and if you are too tired
to do it, what are you doing here?"
The Tehelka that Tarun built-again-is the kind of workspace
he dreamed of: "A quality media organization that would
allow irreverence, iconoclasm and risk-taking" and a
'lunatic' editor is a very desirable thing.
A few weeks ago, the Bureau of Forensic Science, London, cleared
the suspect Operation Westend tape as the camera original.
A relieved and vindicated Tarun is delighted, and has written
to the Prime Minister of the new government demanding compensation
for years of harassment and
victimisation. There's no reply yet.
Jaya Jaitley, one of the worst affected by the sting operation,
who resigned as the president of the Samata Party at that
time, is still deeply wounded by the allegation that she would
sell her country for "two lakh of rupees". "Every
word that comes out of Tehelka is a lie," she declares.
"It was a fraudulent exercise; they created a story and
stage-managed it to fit people into it."
Meanwhile, at the crowded, cramped Tehelka office, determination
obviates the need for decor. The low ceiling, just a few inches
above Tarun’s head, cannot keep down the palpable buzz—tomorrow
they break another investigative story, another sting operation.
"At Tehelka, we have intellectual concerns, we are serious,
and we are not afraid to get out hands dirty."
I walk out and look again at Tehelka’s symbol on the
stark white signboard outside. A bright red chilli, curled
in puzzled amusement at those who do not dream, dare or dissent.