Tarun Tejpal: Secrets and sensations
Book: The Alchemy of Desire
Author: Tarun Tejpal
AS A FEARLESS ONLINE SLEUTH, HE SHOOK THE DELHI GOVERNMENT. NOW TARUN TEJPAL, INDIA'S JOURNALIST HERO, HAS TURNED FROM FACT TO FICTION. PRIYANKA GILL MEETS HIM.
"This is my greatest achievement," says Tarun Tejpal, gesturing towards a copy of The Alchemy of Desire, his first novel, that lies on his office table in New Delhi - "personally, that is." This is exactly what one expects from a debut author, but coming from Tejpal it is a bit of a surprise. Tall, long-haired and full of restless energy, the 42-year-old is, arguably, India’s best known journalist. As editor-in-chief of the online newsmagazine Tehelka.com, in 2001 he broke a story on national television exposing the high-level corruption that was the ugly, corrupt underbelly of defence purchases in the country. Hailed as the Indian equivalent of the Watergate scandal, the sting was India’s biggest news story since independence. As journalistic achievements go, not much comes close.
For Tejpal, words have always been a passion, but literature his touchstone. An economics student at college in small-town Chandigarh, he did not attend a single lecture. He remembers shutting himself in his room for months on end to read "the entire Western canon, the entire Indian canon, all the contemporary authors". Having done that, he chose to become a journalist. "In the 1980s there was a splendour attached to being a journalist," Tejpal recalls. "They were seen almost as public warriors, as people involved in public interest. They broke stories that directed public opinion. There was a kind of seduction to journalism."
From being a sub-editor at India Today, a news magazine, to setting up a rival publication, Outlook, he acquired a serious reputation as a top-notch editor. He also made a brief foray into publishing to set up India Ink. The first novel he published won the Booker Prize: Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things.
Then came the Indian internet boom in 2000. In a romantic bid to revive the hard journalism of the 1980s, Tejpal began Tehelka.com; in Hindi, "tehelka" means "sensation". And a year later, at a packed press conference in Delhi’s Imperial hotel, he aired video tapes of bribes being accepted at the house of the defence minister for an arms deal.
All hell broke loose. The minister was forced to resign. But it is not the story that turned Tejpal into a national icon. What did was the battle afterwards.
"Two paradoxical things happened after we broke the defence story," says Tejpal. "One, we faced the incredible might of the establishment and the government bent on retaliation - the hate, the legal attacks, every government agency on our backs, the arrest of three of my colleagues. But there was an incredible up side and that was the outpouring of goodwill and affection from people of all classes."
In an unprecedented attack on the media, the then-ruling BJP party forced the website to shut down. Its investors were jailed; so were some of its journalists. With a death contract out on him, Tejpal moved about shadowed by a security team. Expenses kept mounting; the debts spiraled. From an office of 117, Tehelka was down to four.
"Those were hard times," he recalls. "Friends would come over for dinner and leave a cheque behind." Yet he was determined that Tehelka had to make a comeback. "For me, the moral of the story had to be that good guys win at the end," he says. "We had done the right thing and we were being punished for it. That didn’t make sense to me." Slowly, over two years, he envisioned a revival of Tehelka as a weekly newspaper. But funding his vision was an uphill struggle. Tehelka had become a household name, Tejpal a middle-class hero. But no investor was willing to bankroll the newspaper, out of fear of government retaliation.
In an unprecedented move, Tejpal decided to go to the people. "We raised the money in the only way we could - through the people," Tejpal says. Thousands of supporters started sending cheques - big amounts, small amounts - just for an idea. It was a staggering show of support. More than 200 people paid up to 100,000 rupees to become founder subscribers. A year-and-a-bit later, the paper is still growing strong, with 100,000 copies sold weekly. "The most satisfying thing is that we brought out the paper when the BJP was in power, we rose out of the ashes in the face of a hostile government."
For Tehelka, the fact that the Congress is now the ruling party only means that active opposition by the government has ceased. The BJP’s propaganda continues unabated. These things matter little to Tejpal, except as a source of some aggravation, some amusement.
Curiously, it was when the Tehelka witch-hunt was at its peak that Tejpal returned to "first things": he started to write. He talks about his struggle for 20 years to find the tone to tell the kind of story he wanted. "For an Indian author it is not always easy to write in English. The English language represents the character of the people it was born out of; it is a language of understatement, reserve, and coolness. But the Indian reality is anything but that - it is noisy, emotional, overheated, anarchic, swinging pell-mell between rationality and irrationality."
Tejpal wanted to write a book that would capture India’s street voices and folksy wisdom without caricature, to write an intimate, emotionally taut story and not cede the space for larger ideas. He found the elusive tone as he frantically traversed India, trying to raise money for the newspaper. "It came to me in what was easily the most difficult time of my life. And this is how I suppose these things happen. The ordeal of the last three years freed me; it created the space for me to write. For 16 months I wrote every day. I never had a bad day of writing. I wrote on flights, in lounges, in hotel rooms. Writing became my centre as things spiraled out of control."
The inspiration for The Alchemy of Desire (Picador, £12.99) came from Tejpal’s house in the lower Himalayas. "My house was owned by a white woman, but no one knew why she lived there. I began to wonder what would make a person live in the isolation of the foothills." She became Catherine in the novel, the mysterious, seductive American adventuress, the story within the story, the arc of whose life is resonant of the protagonist’s concerns much later: the consuming passions, the seeking of a larger life.
Like his protagonist, Tejpal destroyed two of the manuscripts he wrote before Alchemy. When asked about the autobiographical element, he counters: "People who know me have remarked about the parallels, but then any writing that rings true emerges from what is deeply felt, deeply experienced. It is wrenched out of the author’s gut." The Alchemy of Desire carries a single blurb. It is from VS Naipaul: "At last, a new and brilliantly original novel from India". Naipaul’s praise is famously difficult to come by.
For Tejpal, the approval is even more precious because of his association with the Nobel laureate. "I have held a kind of piety for him. I had always wanted to meet him and I just picked up the phone and called him. I was in London at the time. He invited me over for a drink. The evening went wonderfully well." Since that first evening, Naipaul has at times flown across continents to show his support for Tejpal. Once, at the height of the Tehelka battle, he called an unprecedented press conference, signaling the government to back off.
There is something about Tejpal that inspires deep friendship and loyalty, from the likes of Naipaul to the poor farmers who stood by him when Tehelka collapsed. Few people can take what is merely a concept in their head and convince hundreds to invest their hard-earned cash in it. Yet this is what Tejpal did, with his ability to weave verbal dreams, to wax eloquent about the bigger picture, the greater good.
Journalism might be Tejpal’s way of engaging in the world, but writing is his way of experiencing it. "What excites me is still the original mandate of literature - the pushing of boundaries, the fostering of new ways of seeing, the opening up of new windows. A lot of writing of the last 20 years is largely descriptive, one culture describing itself to another culture. That kind of writing doesn’t interest me. Safe novels bore me."
The Alchemy of Desire is anything but safe. One of its most soaring notes is its exploration of passion; according to one reviewer, "sex is not the masala to spice up a story, but is the main dish". The novel details intimate relationships with few missteps, without reducing them to voyeuristic fodder. Tejpal considers it to be one of the breakthroughs in the novel: "The Alchemy addresses emotion and love and sexuality in an adult, even-eyed way, something very few Indian novels do - which is strange considering these things form the very basis of our lives."
The passion in the novel is deeply organic to the characters and the narrative. As an attempt to compel readers to look at desire without the crippling impulse of shame and hypocrisy, it works beautifully. In many ways, the novel is like the man himself: gritty, unrestrained yet bound by a personal code of honour.
Tarun J Tejpal, 42, was brought up all over India, as his father was an army officer. He studied economics in Chandigarh and became a journalist in the 1980s, working for India Today magazine and helping to found the rival Outlook. As the creator of India Ink, he became the first publisher of Arundhati Roy. In 2000, he created Tehelka.com, the online magazine that in 2001 broke a story about bribery in defence contracts that led to the resignation of the Indian minister of defence. He then raised the money to establish Tehelka as a weekly newspaper, and is now its editor-in-chief. In 2002, he was named by Business Week as a leader of change in Asia. Tejpal’s debut novel, The Alchemy of Desire, is published this week by Picador. He lives in New Delhi with his wife and two daughters.
Friday May 13th, 2005