Tarun Tejpal is the journalistic equivalent of a rock star. The ponytailed, charismatic Editor-in-Chief of the news magazine Tehelka, Tarun is today counted among the subcontinent’s intellectual elite and is one of India’s best known journalists. Since 2000, Tehelka has set the bar for investigative journalism with stories that have shaken the foundations of governments, ensuring that its indubitable editor has taken up residence in the very heart of a political maelstrom. Somewhat miraculously, he has still found the time to write and publish two novels. The first, The Alchemy of Desire (2005) had the famously hard to please Sir V.S. Naipaul exclaiming “at last – a new and brilliantly original novel from India”; while the second, The Story of My Assassins, just recently released, is already being hailed as the great Indian novel by critics.
Despite all the accolades, Tarun is still the kind of man who’s nice to stray animals and young journalists; which is how I find myself sitting down to breakfast with him and his lovely wife Geetan. Tucking into a platter of fruit, he admits frankly, “I came to journalism because there was no vocation at that time called ‘full time writing’ really possible on the subcontinent.” Describing himself as a “literary animal”, he explains that the tide has turned now. “There been so much success and involvement in journalism that this has become my life. Today, I see no dissonance in that… I straddle two worlds: that of the kind of journalism I wish to do and that of the fiction which I love to write.”
Both in his novels and in his journalism, Tarun has always seemed to have a finger firmly on the pulse of modern India. He has served as an editor with India Today, the Indian Express group, and as the managing editor of Outlook. A brief foray into publishing with India Ink, made him the first publisher of Arundhati Roy’s Booker Prize-winning God of Small Things. But his greatest achievement is still Tehelka (the word means “sensation” in Hindi). Founded during the internet boom of 2000, Tehelka.com first came into the public spotlight when on March 30, 2001 its reporters released video tapes that starred the Defence Minister of India in the act of accepting bribes for a fictitious arms deal.
Dubbed Operation West End, the expose forced Defence Minister George Fernandes and Bangaru Laxman, President of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to resign. But the story, earth shattering as it was, did not make Tarun’s reputation. It was what came afterwards. The government, guns blazing, had Tehelka.com shut down and they were soon embroiled in a legal nightmare. While debt accumulated, Tarun watched as his team dwindled from 135 people to four. In the middle of it all, an assassination attempt would translate into round the clock protection for him and his family.
With no turning back, Tarun discovered a trait that would serve him well in decades to come: fearlessness. “Those years at Tehelka changed me very deeply and fundamentally. They really cleaned me of looking for approval…I freed myself to write with the kind of abandon and confidence I hadn’t expected to have.” After a gestation period of nearly two decades, Tarun says he simply woke up one morning with his first book already formed in his head. “The novel just became the stable reality at the heart of my life, and everything that was happening around just became something to be dealt with; it allowed me to wage my battle with far greater courage and calmness than I would have been able to do otherwise.”
When his first novel, The Alchemy of Desire, was published it raised eyebrows with its frank and explicit exploration of how love and desire play themselves out; but for Tarun the real focus was on telling an intimate story without compromising on the bigger picture of India’s ongoing transition from colonial possession to global super power. “Always, I wanted to examine the individual and then fix him within the context of the larger things.”
Meanwhile, Tehelka continued to demand his attention. It’s revealing that the author sees himself as engaged in battle, nothing less than a soldier on the frontlines – “we’ve been close to shutting down at least 300 times,” he admits. At least finding funding would no longer be his nemesis. The magazine was re-launched in 2004 using advance subscriptions. Over 14,000 readers put their money and their faith in him, paying INR 300, upwards for yearly subscriptions. The category of “Founder Subscribers” made room for the likes of Shah Rukh Khan, Amitabh Bachchan and Amir Khan with their contributions of Rs. 100,000 or more.
The outpouring of support funded Tehelka’s biggest story in 2007 – the expose on the Gujarat riots of 2002. Tehelka has submitted proof, in video, that the violent riots which claimed thousands of Muslim lives were not the result of a spontaneous Hindu backlash in response to the Godhra train burning incident, but a state sanctioned pogrom under Gujarat CM Narendra Modi. Declaring it the story he is most proud of, Tarun explains “it is because of such stories that Tehelka has become so much larger than me, (larger than) any of us and even than Tehelka itself.”
Such journalism has always proved irreplaceable as raw material for the author, but it came with a downside. “In the great tamasha that was happening around Tehelka in those early years, I played out all these emotions: ecstasy, fury, outrage, stardom, everything was there…I had a taste of it and it was all much…It can cut you off from the real business of life and living.” Which is why he would always come back to his literary writing – “it is crucial to me, nothing resonates with me personally or satisfies me personally as much as that.”
His second novel would be even more ambitious than his first. The Story of My Assassins challenges what Tarun refers to as the “frothy, idiotic narrative of India Shining”. Instead the book takes its reader on a tour of “the vast hinterland of deprivation,” exploring the many facets of a densely populated, modern nation ruptured along fault lines of caste, class and creed. Throughout, his challenge has been to provoke his reader, to present contesting narratives that shame easy answers and political dogma.
Though the mood and themes of the two books are distinct, the books have one thing in common – Tarun’s love of strong female characters. From Fiza in Alchemy to Sarah in Assassins, Tarun’s women explore and inhabit their sexuality with confidence and verve. “I think women are far more interesting than men, I think they have far richer emotional lives,” he says, pointing out that his mother, sister, daughters and wife are all good examples. It is in the last that Tarun, famously restless by temperament, has found the one constant in his life. Having met his wife when he was 17 and she was 16, he says that “Geetan and I have pretty much spent every day of our lives together for the last 25 years…In some sense, the chaos and flux of my life finds a stable point of life with her.”
It is with this last admission that Tarun reveals himself to be a romantic. It is only one facet of a writer who combines a hopeful idealism with clear- eyed realism; a trait that has allowed him to recruit so many to his vision – an India free of injustice and inequality.
Published in The Sunday Times, Sri Lanka on February 8, 2009. Words by Smriti Daniel. Pix by Malinda Wijesinghe.