Being a very filmy person (but you already knew that I suppose), my ideal of a reporter was the character played by Sekhar Suman in “Tridev” whose murder, while doing investigative journalism piece on the dangerous Bhujang, let loose a sequence of spectacular events, that included but was not limited to Sunny Deol looking at the camera and saying, in a deadpan voice, “Ek aur sipahi desh ke liye shaheed ho gaye”.
In real life, the only people who came close to that khadi-clad, jhola-carrying ideal were the guys at Tehelka. Or that’s the way I saw things when they did the match-fixing sting, blowing the lid off the conspiracy of silence in a most spectacular way. And if that was not enough, then went up against the might of the NDA government and in the process was almost finished off by them.
This was brave stuff. They wrote their pieces well. True they came across as a bit too sensational and full of themselves at times, but then again with that name what else could you do.
Then, over the years, I began to see a pattern.
That Tehelka chose its targets selectively. While the facade of fairness was sought to be kept, it was obvious which side of the political spectrum Tehelka was. Their editorial tone, over the years, became increasingly fundamentalist, which I define as those who split the world into “us” and “them”, with different standards for “us” (people who are ideologically aligned with our idea of the world) and different standards for “them” (those that are not). In their defense, they couldn’t even lay claim left-wing counterculture street-cred any more, with what their big-ticket, big-business-sponsored “thinkfests” and the perception of them being aligned in pushing the agenda of the ruling party. Tehelka was big media now, and the edgy-independent paper posturing had worn thin.
And now the Tejpal story has broken, as grave charges of sexual assault have been levelled against Tarun Tejpal by a Tehelka staffer.
I was shocked.
Not so much by Mr. Tejpal, though definitely disgusted. This is not the first time that powerful men have been accused of considering themselves above the standards of behavior that apply to mere mortals (after all, who would “sting” the “stinger-in-chief”) and it won’t be the last.
I was shocked by Shoma Chaudhury. While I have always found Tarun Tejpal’s prose, both in articles as well in fiction, to be overwrought (somewhat like Nana Patekar’s Krantiveer speech) and the acclaim that he has received largely a function of being a valued member of the expensive-shawl-on-shoulder, rural-handicrafts-bag-carrying, champagne-stem-holding literary closed social network of New Delhi (and yes please feel free to call me a philistine for not being able to appreciate his style), Shoma was different. She wrote well, with emotion but with clarity, especially on women’s issues. And while one could call into question her neutrality in politics, her commitment to feminism was beyond doubt.
When I read Shoma Chaudhury’s mail and Tarun Tejpal’s mail appended below, once I got beyond big words like “atonement” and “laceration” and other Tejpalisms, that are nothing but the literary equivalent of bashing ones finger with a rock and screaming “yeh Hindu ka khoon yeh Musalman ka khoon”, out of the way I was shocked by the gall of both Shoma and Tejpal in that they wanted to make us believe that a six month paid vacation is “atonement” for an act of what I thought then, was of sexual harassment. And even this agreeing to wear the sackcloth of penance, like kings of yore, was not warranted but was being undertaken because Tejpal such a noble and ethical man.
The way the mail trivialized what had happened (“untoward incident”) one would have thought that Tejpal had farted in polite company and was now making the point “See I could have stayed silent or looked accusingly at someone else. But I have come forward.” Reading between the lines of course, I had thought that this must have been a proposition to a female staffer gone bad, and now the married Mr. Tejpal was quickly “recusing” himself from work to mollify the said female and prevent civil action.
As the details came out with the mail sent by the victim to Shoma becoming public, it became evident that was being accused was full-fledged sexual assault, not once but twice, one that would no longer qualify as a “lapse of judgement” or “aweful misreading of the situation”. And that since the victim’s mail had been addressed to Shoma, she was well aware of the full set of accusations before she forwarded the “atonement” mail from Tejpal, and that her claim that the victim had been satisfied by the action taken, and the issue closed was patently false. [Exchange of mails between Tejpal and victim clearly shows this.]
Things only get worse. She snaps at a journalist for asking questions, and asked the media “Are you the aggrieved party?” presumably meaning that since they are not, they have no right to investigate or question her. I won’t even spell out the irony, except to say that all of Chattisgarh would fall short on the iron content. She mentions the lady not wanting to seek vengeance, which is how she now refers to “justice”. She says that there are alternate versions of the story (which there well may be), which of course weakens her case because it means an investigation was necessary, one which she said there was not. After much outrage after her “it’s all closed” first stance, she backs down, constitutes a sexual harassment investigation body, (which she is legally required to do), and in it is is someone from Tejpal’s circle of associates. (pictured with him) and even then, her attitude is “We have done more than we should have.” And to add, some of their circle-friends have remained muted on social media (they are usually voluble on any perceived crime against women), instead choosing to concentrate on the schadenfreude of “Sanghi trolls”, as if that was the most important issue, or on drawing parallels with Amit Shah “Saheb” case, though there really is none.
Which brings me to my point. This kind of behavior, regrettable though it is, is to be expected. This is what happens when we fall prey to fundamentalism (the irony is that these people call themselves “liberal”), when the world is split into convenient “us” and “them” compartments with us=good, them=conspiring against the good.
If Shoma could see herself as a third person, she would see that her sequence of actions and her public pronouncements are identical to a Khap head or a matriarch heads trying to hush up “that incident” involving pervy uncle.
It has been settled. This is all internal to us. It’s none of your business. There are alternate versions. We will deal with it. She does not want revenge.
Exactly the same playbook. Except this time, the accent is impeccable and titles of Ian McEwan books are being used.
I would like to believe that Shoma does not even realize how outrageous her own behavior has been. That’s the thing about fundamentalism. It blinds. Even the best and sharpest of people. And in the end, they controvert everything they have worked their lives for.
In a way it’s as sad as it is infuriating.
What will happen? The cynic in me kind of knows the answer. Nothing much. Tejpal has already accused “political forces” which, we all know, given that this is Tehelka, who they are alluding to. Which means he will get away free. And with an internal committee being made by the circle and of the circle and for the circle, I won’t hold my breath waiting them for them to give a verdict against Tejpal.
At the very very worst, Tejpal will lose his job. He will take that vacation. He will return as a head of a publishing house or the head of some other media. The circle-people either staying silent or being critical of him will fly back like an extended elastic band. Somber panels at litfests and thinkfests, with cameras and flashes and somber faux-serious faces, will discuss threadbare the evils of Indian patriarchy and the conspiracies of silence.
The ripples will die down, the leaves will once again cover the water, and everything will go on just as it happens.
And the ideal of the upright journalist pursuing truth fairly and without bias.
Well, we always have Hindi movies for that.