He’s one of India’s best-known journalists — a muckraker bent on exposing corruption in government and society, even in the face of death threats. And his novels, including “The Alchemy of Desire” and “The Story of My Assassins,” make him an acclaimed storyteller in India and the West. Tarun Tejpal joins Kojo to talk about the complexities of life in India and the challenges facing the world’s largest democracy.
- Tarun Tejpal Journalist; Founder of Tehelka (India's leading news magazine); Author, "The Story of My Assassins" (Melville House)
MR. KOJO NNAMDIHe could be called, I guess, the Bob Woodward of India, a journalist whose name and whose work are known across that country. His Watergate story, the one that almost got him assassinated, exposed corruption in India's defense industry and led to the resignation of the defense minister. Tarun Tejpal is a journalist and novelist known in India and in the West both for his unflinching investigative reporting and his steamy novels that probe the complexities of everyday life in India.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIHis novels include "The Alchemy of Desire" and "The Story of My Assassins." The latter, a tale inspired by his own near miss after police foiled an assassination attempt against him, as founder of the Indian news magazine Tehelka, he is still engaged in raising money to keep the presses rolling and exposing wrongdoing at the highest levels of Indian government and society. Tarun Tejpal joins us in studio. He is a journalist and founder of the Indian news magazine Tehelka, author of the book, the novel, "The Story of My Assassins." Tarun Tejpal, thank you so much for joining us.
MR. TARUN TEJPALPleasure to be here.
NNAMDIYou've written a book that grew out of real life events in which you were the target of the assassination attempt. How did your expose in Tehelka in 2001 on corruption in India's defense industry lead to threats against your life and nine years of police protection?
TEJPALWell, it's a bit of a serial story like most things in India are. What I was told by the police how it happened was I was sitting one morning in the office. I think it was a Sunday in May of 2001 and I had a call. I was just sending some emails and I had a call from a friend of mine in Mumbai. And I picked the phone up and he said, you're alive. There was a question mark at the end of it. And I said, what are you talking about? He said, turn on the television set. And I did and there was the breaking news ticker on the television set, there's been a murder bit on Tarun Tejpal that's been foiled.
TEJPALIt didn't say that the bit had actually taken place. And within the next one I received sort of hundreds of phone calls from across the country making the same inquiry, you're alive. And what had really happened was the Delhi police had picked up five hit men on the morning of that Sunday. And information that was eventually given to us was that these were hit men who had taken a contract out -- had taken a contract on my life which had been given out by the ISI of Pakistan in Kathmandu and Nepal...
NNAMDIISI being the Intelligence Service of Pakistan, yes.
TEJPALThat's right. So the story I was given was that ISI of Pakistan had taken out a contract on me, given to these five hit men from India. But the contract had been given in Nepal -- in Kathmandu. And the idea of being that if there was a hit on me, the government of the day would either fall or be badly dented. Because at that point in time, we were locked in a really grim battle with the government of day after a big expose on defense corruption that we had done.
TEJPALAnd so this was the kind of garbled story we got. I have to say that I gave up trying to pursue the truth of that story very quickly because one of the things I've discovered very -- especially in countries like India is that there is a great opacity at the heart of power. There's a kind of unknowability, a greatly implacable unknowability at the heart of power. And the other point didn't matter. So the consequence of this whole episode was five men were arrested and they stood trial. And I came under a huge security cover which lasted many, many years.
NNAMDIWell, the security cover started with one policeman walking up to your door and then it ended up with 24 policemen there. So that people can understand exactly the relationship between the government which you were exposing on the one hand and the police who were protecting you on the other hand, maybe you should describe what happens to you and your colleagues at Tehelka after the defense corruption story broke. The government shut down the magazine and launched an intensive investigation into all of you.
TEJPALThat's right. You know, the answer to the first question is it's the kind of contradictory thing that you should expect in India ever day of your life. The fact that the government that was attacking us day in and day out in an extra constitutional way was also mandated to protect us. And so this kind of contradiction prevailed for many years.
NNAMDIWell, that certainly gives credibility to the story that the ISI was doing it because as it turns out because of your expose of the government, if the government was seen after investigating you to be the one that was assassinating you that would've caused -- or could've caused the government to fall.
TEJPALWell, that is a reasonable line of thinking and I think that's what the government also bet on that it was a plausible story. But as I said, what had really happened was after we broke the story in March of 2001 of course there was a resignation of the defense minister then and also the resignation of the president of the ruling party who is at the moment in jail after he was finally convicted by the courts six months ago.
TEJPALBut what also happened was that the government hit back in a most extra constitutional way. There were lots of -- dozens of dummy cases that were leveled against us, many of which are still going on. I go to courts all the time even now. Three of my colleagues were arrested on trumped up charges. Our investors were hounded, you know, in a very, very kind of brutal way. And the work that we were doing -- the journalism that we were doing was shut down for almost three years. It took us three years of fighting a public battle with the state to then come back and resume our...
NNAMDIHow did you manage to restart the magazine? Your investors were attacked and so you lost your investors. How'd you -- what was the process by which you were able to restart the magazine?
TEJPALIt was difficult. What really happened was we became national heroes of a kind for some time and everybody loved us but nobody wanted to be formally associated with us. In a typical sort of Indian twist people were terrified of the state. So while they hailed us they didn't want to be formally associated with us. I eventually -- in the year 2003 I traveled up and down the length of the country for nine months talking up groups of people -- groups of Indian citizens with a very simple message. And these groups would go from ten people to five-hundred people.
TEJPALI mean, and some of the venues are truly bizarre. I remember one venue that a friend of mine set up in Mumbai was in a nightclub and there were 12 people there. So -- and here I was trying to talk to them about the constitution of India, about the democratic imperatives of India. And...
NNAMDIAnd they're ready to pump the music, but go ahead.
TEJPALAnd you'd be surprised. These nine months of traveling up and down, addressing groups yielded almost four -- and my message was very simple. I said, you've seen what we did and you've seen what happened to us because it was a very public battle. All I'm asking for is be a good citizen and take an advanced subscription to the news magazine which I'm going to launch so that we can come back and do more of what we were doing.
TEJPALAnd probably what an unprecedented move in the history of the world media almost 14,000 Indians wrote up checks to advance subscribed at the Tehelka, actually to a publication that may never have come.
NNAMDIAnd that's what got you on the road again. We're taking with Tarun Tejpal. He is a journalist and founder of the Indian news magazine Tehelka. He is author of the novel "The Story of My Assassins." He joins us in studio. If you have questions or comments for Tarun Tejpal you can call us at 800-433-8850. You can send email to email@example.com. Do you have family in India? What are their biggest concerns about their government and the quality of life. How well do you think the American media explains what's going on politically and socially in India? 800-433-8850. You can also go to our website kojoshow.org and join the conversation there.
NNAMDIIn the end, Tarun, it was the would-be assassins who intrigued you most and you decided to explore their stories in the novel. How does the book delve into the cacophony of life in India?
TEJPALWell, you know, the idea for the book came to me soon after this whole incident. And actually it got really triggered when I had to appear in court one day in a lower court and make an identification of these five assassins. And they were lined up for me and of course I didn't know any of them. But there are only two or three sequences in the book that are absolutely true to life, that are seed sequences.
TEJPALOne of the seed sequences is the analogy of getting the first call of his murder. Then the other one is the courtroom scene. It's after the courtroom scene when I looked at these men that I began to wonder about who these men were and what is it that brings a man to a point where he's willing to take a little bit of money and murder someone he doesn't even know. So I became fascinated in a literary way -- the literary side of me in examining the story of my assassins.
TEJPALSo it was a great conceit. And as I thought about it more and more I thought this was a conceit through which I could enter a very complex set of material, which is very difficult to access in India. And India's easily the most complex country in the world. You know, it's divided across dozens of different fort lines, caste, religion, language, class. It's a billion and 200 million people, which is -- you know, which is the size of two continents. So it's a really challenging place to write about.
TEJPALAnd to access that material, this concept -- the idea of entering a book by trying to examine the story of these killers of (word?), I mean, that got me going. But it took me many, many years to find the tone, to find the voice with which I could tell the story.
NNAMDIAs it turns out the story is written in the first person and the voice you found is the voice of a dyspeptic highly dislikable narrator. Why?
TEJPALWell, you know, I needed that voice. In fact, it's when I found that voice of the very acidic dyspeptic dislikable narrator that the material opened itself up. This is not material. What I was trying to do was trying to cut the -- to the Indian story as close to the bone as possible. I mean, that was my personal challenge for me. I was trying to tell the story of an India which is never told, which is the story of the underclass, the story of the oppressed, the story of the suffering along with the grand sort of narratives of India, the rich, the spirituality, all of it. The polyphony of it -- the complexity and polyphony.
TEJPALAnd there was no way you could tell a story like that in a sincere voice. What would have resulted is a mountain of banalities. I needed a kind of angular voice. It's like when you dig into the ground. You don't dig straight there, you always dig at an angle because that allows you traction, it allows you to go deep. It allows you to turn up the soil. And I think that voice -- the moment I heard that voice, the more I got that really nasty narrative's voice the more it began to open itself up. And after four years of waiting for that voice it actually took me nearly two years of ceaseless writing to have the book done.
NNAMDIAnd the book, as you pointed out, talks about the cacophony, the polyphony and somehow or the other it's still nevertheless a murder mystery with a lot of sex.
TEJPALWell, actually the sex is pretty minimal, if you ask me. Wait 'til I write a book with some serious sex. It's not really. I mean, it's -- as I said, the challenge for any writer really is to capture all the tonalities of life, you know. All the colors, the tonalities, and as I said, the polyphony of life. When you live in a country like India, the polyphony is staggering. The din is staggering. To try and wrestle it down into a single book is a huge challenge, you know.
TEJPALSo for me, as I said, it's really the conceit of the assassins that allowed me to enter this very, very complex material, and try and tell the story of India as close to the bone as one could.
NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue this conversation with Tarun Tejpal. His latest novel is called "The Story of My Assassins." He joins us in studio. He's also founder of the Indian news magazine Tehelka. We take your calls at 800-433-8850. If you've been to India recently, what was your experience there? 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking with Tarun Tejpal. He is a journalist and founder of the Indian news magazine Tehelka, and author of "The Story of My Assassins." He joins us in studio. Tarun, your approach to journalism has always been to probe corruption. After you started Tehelka in 2000, you published an expose about match fixing in cricket, a topic you had also written out at Outlook, the first news magazine you started. What was the story, and how did it lead to a global cleanup in cricket?
TEJPALWell, you know, for a very long time it had quite clear that there was something rotten in the heart of cricket, and everyone was whispering about it. Off the record everyone would talk about it, but nobody would come on record. We did a big report on it when I was editing Outlook and it led to a commission of inquiry in India, which was called the Justice (word?) Commission of Inquiry. It was not a commission. It was an inquiry, and it ran something like this. So Justice (unintelligible) took a room at the Oberoi Hotel, and (word?) came to him and (unintelligible), will you give me an autograph for my grandson or some such thing.
TEJPALAnd so it was a kind of inquiry that white-washed the whole thing, and it said everything's fine with cricket, and we knew actually it wasn't, because we were meeting cricket players, cricket managers, cricket bookies all the time, and they were telling us a different story -- telling all my reporters a different story. And so in 2000 when we started Tehelka, for the -- what was to become the first sting, exposing India, was conducted by Tehelka where two reporters went underground with the help of a former distributor, and they tipped players, managers, bookies, umpires, all of them talking about match fixing in cricket.
TEJPALThis was done obviously secretively, and the idea was to expose the great hypocrisy that had come to dominate cricket where everyone in private would talk about match fixing, but in public deny it, and we -- we broke that story. We ran it on national television, and all hell broke loose, and it led to two commissions of inquiry, one in India, and one with the ICC, and it eventually led to a global cleanup. That's actually a sweet story, you know.
TEJPALAs a professional journalist, you do so many stories that go nowhere. You do scores of stories every year that go nowhere, and many of them are heartbreaking because of the work that goes into them, and because of the urgent redemptions they demand, but they never come. This is one of the stories that in this sense was redeemed because there was action on it.
NNAMDIAnd that's in a way been the purpose of your entire journalistic career. Here in this country we're looking at the difficulty that what some people would think of as old media are having, and that is newspapers because they can't get enough subscribers. The profit motive is what enables a lot of media to stay alive in this country, but the role you want your magazine to play, you've said you want to be a muck-raking publication with great writing that influences politicians at the highest level in India. You are not looking to rack up as many sales as possible, you're looking to have a result.
TEJPALWell, what we are looking to do, and anybody in Tehelka, any editor of Tehelka will tell you same, because I repeat it I think roughly two times a month to them. What we are looking to do, our primary job, is to inflect policy making. You know, when you live in a country the size of India, even if I were to sell half a million copies of my news magazine, or even a million, it would be a drop in the ocean. But if I can get one minister to make a right call on a policy matter, that right call will affect tens of millions of people.
TEJPALSo the greatest challenge for us Tehelka becomes how do we impact policy making? Every editor knows that, and whatever the weapon in our arsenal is, whether we expose them, shame them, persuade them, argue with them, moralize with them, it doesn't matter. At the end of the day, that is the only task we set ourselves. Can we impact policy making on key issues, and the good news really is that, I mean, because of our first few big exposes and the noise around them, there's this sense of Tehelka as an exposing machine.
TEJPALIt's not true. What actually Tehelka has done over the last six years is embed itself very deeply in the major narratives of India. The Muslim question, the (word?) issue, inequality, injustice. I mean, these are areas in which Tehelka's body of work is larger than probably the rest of western media, though we're probably the smallest publication on the landscape, and that's because we are very clearly focused on framework issues.
TEJPALI mean, there are -- you have to understand India is going through an incredibly complex and difficult time in its life. There are a million mutinies, to use Naipaul's phrase, going on. There is a clamor of claimants, all of whom are looking for their -- their piece of the pie. All this is happing in a Democratic free set up. India has 600 million abjectly poor people, which is the same size as the population of Europe or Africa, and at the other end, it has several million of whom I believe to be the richest people in the world today.
TEJPALSo you have this kind of country of staggering inequalities. In fact, at Tehelka, I don't even think the anti-corruption work is the primary work we do. The primary challenges I think we try and deal with are inequality and injustice. I think those are the two big issues that India needs to get its head around, and that's a full-time job, and that's what I think Tehelka works at most of the time.
NNAMDIIf you have questions about politics in India or the future, than Tarun Tejpal is the guest for you. Call us at 800-433-8850. Do you ever think about going into politics yourself?
TEJPALYou know, it's a question, Kojo that's asked of me all the time, and I think if I lived in another country, if I lived in your country or in another country, I may have gone in. But, you know, in India, politics is so -- so complex. I keep coming back to that word -- there is no other word for it, I mean, it's about identity, it's about cost, it's about religion, it's about dynasty. It's about a lot of qualifiers that I may not possess. At the other hand, the reason to go into politics in a country like India would be to actually impact policy making. So if I can do it in a surrogate way, at an arm's length, at least the best I can do, I'm happy to do it.
TEJPALIf I had an option to go directly into politics to do the same work, I would do it, because unlike most people in India, I have infinite respect for Indian politicians. I believe that on any given day an Indian politician handles more complexity, and accommodates more imbalances than most people do in 10 years.
NNAMDII'm glad you mentioned complexity, because when a lot of Americans think of India, the picture that we have is of people in cities like Bangalore working for technology companies and international corporations. But the reality for many Indians is a rural life of poverty. You just gave us the figure of 600 million. How does that vast inequality that you just described in India affect the countries politics and its culture?
TEJPALWell, you know, the trope about India really, the cliché about India really is that everything you say about India, the opposite is also true. So at one end you have these incredibly brilliant, cutting edge software engineers and scientists, and the other hand, you have huge illiteracy and huge deprivation. All of that is happening at the same time, and the miracle of India really is the founding region of India. The fact that it's the largest democracy in the world, and for the last 62 years has successfully and freely carried out electoral elections with universal (unintelligible) .
TEJPALI mean, that's an extraordinary thing, given the problems we have. People forget, and it's something I want to remind people all the time, that when we came out of colonialism in 1947 and 1950, we were ninety percent illiterate. We had no manufacturing. Our GDP was less than one percent, and we were 350 million people, and we were trying to make -- we were coming out of 200 years of colonialism and a thousand years of feudalism and the founding fathers were trying to cast us all night into modernity by declaring us a liberal democratic republic.
TEJPALI mean, it's an extraordinary feat. It's one of the great miracles of the last 200 years, the idea of India. To serve that idea of India is something we need to do constantly, and I think that challenge is really about literacy, about health, about reducing inequality, and I think not enough of -- actually great warriors fight for these things every day in India, but there's always room for more.
NNAMDIAnd of course...
TEJPALTehelka does a small little bit.
NNAMDI...it would take us a great deal more time than we currently have to go into all the complexities, but let's talk about the future for a second, because India, in addition to everything else, has one of the world's youngest populations, and despite the poverty that persists, polls show that young people are optimistic about their future. How will that large number of young people and young voters in your view affect Indian politics in the coming years given their hopes and aspirations.
TEJPALIt's going to be a huge challenge, because what's happening really is that aspirations are being stoked across the border. Across the country, and even the rural young today have great aspirations to the urban life, to a good urban life, and I don't think the systems in India today are really geared to deliver on all the aspirations. So this large, young demographic, which is often referred to by economists as India's demographic dividend, can easily end up becoming a demographic disaster if you don't get key pieces in place.
TEJPALAnd get those key pieces in place really is largely about rearranging the narrative of India. I mean, that is the kind of narrative that India needs to start retelling itself, and that narrative has a lot to do with social equity. It's a narrative that built us in the first place. If we get obsessed with the west's idea of who we should be, we'll be in trouble. I say this to people running there. I say this in every forum that I can get. We, at the end of the day have to not worry too much about Standard & Poor and Moody's and the junk ratings of our economy.
TEJPALI think what we really to worry about is how do we balance the boat in our own country for ourselves. I think the argument India has to have increasingly is with itself, not with the west. Our problems are unique. Our challenges are unique, and the worst thing we could do is really look at other people for either advice or succor because it's something we need to sort ourselves out.
NNAMDITwo powerful forces in that argument. One of them ethnic conflicts. How do ethnic conflicts play out in Indian life today? You did -- Tehelka really did a series of stories about bias against Muslims.
TEJPALWell, we have done a great deal of work on Muslims. You know, when we started doing this work, what, five-and-a-half, six years ago, we ourselves didn't understand that there was actually a great residual prejudice against Muslims in India. I mean, and as we did more and more stories, we discovered in the judiciary, in the bureaucracy, among the middle classes, in government, in the police, there was this residual bias against Muslims.
TEJPALAnd we nailed it by doing story after story of young Muslim boys who had been jailed on trumped up charges, who were then being let out after several years of being incarcerated, and I think the message did go home to a lot many people. I mean, there are many small stories, but I don't want to go into that. I just want to say that though the Indian -- the great Indian founding documents, and the great Indian framework absolutely allocates complete and equal rights to all Muslims in all communities, and actually bends over backwards in terms of mandating a more an equal treatment, in practice, prejudice can persist.
TEJPALAnd this is something that happens all the time. For example, social prejudice. I mean, there has been this prejudice against Dullets who were once called untouchables. Every document that the founding fathers laid down in the founding years actually looked at uplifting the condition of the Dullets. In fact, to call a man an untouchable in India was a crime you could go to jail for it. Despite that, even today, 63 years later, atrocities against Dullets continue to take place.
TEJPALA terrible one has just played itself out in the last one where a 16-year-old girl was raped by 12 upper caste men, and her father committed suicide because the policeman wouldn't even take his complaint, her 42-year-old father. And so this is happening. So there is a gap between the mandating of what is right and societies ability to actually move as fast and start doing the right thing. And I think in many areas in India we struggle with that.
NNAMDIAnd you have made it your life's work to expose corruption, the other major issue and wrongdoing at the highest levels. In August, a well-known yoga leader with a popular TV program staged a six-day hunger strike to demand stronger anti-corruption laws. Corruption as I said has been a long-time concern of yours. To what extent do you think it can be rooted out?
TEJPALTo be honest, corruption -- I don't even corruption is India's primary challenge. I know again and again because of the anti-corruption stories Tehelka has done, we are often seen as this great anti-corruption crusading publication. I think it's -- I think corruption -- I was in Oxford just four days ago, and a professor of economics gave a very fine dissertation on how corruption is actually endemic to all developing societies. There's nothing that roots it out. He almost made it sound like it was an honorable thing, you know.
NNAMDIPart of the infrastructure.
TEJPALPart of the infrastructure. But my own sense of corruption is that it's a symptom of inequality and injustice. I think the real beasts that need to be slain are inequality and injustice. And if you can slay that, I think corruption will begin to take care of itself.
NNAMDIYour first novel, "The Alchemy of Desire," earned great reviews in the United States. You've got a new novel published in India last year called "The Valley of Masks." What is that about and when is it going to be published here?
TEJPALWell, "The Valley of Masks" will be out in England and America next year. This year is for "The Story of My Assassins." "The Valley of Masks" is really an examination of the pathologies of Puritanism of collectivism, and I think it's pretty germane to what's happening around the world with its Jihadi, the Christian right wingers, the Hindu right wingers. There is a kind of pathology that Puritanism breeds and it goes through, so it's written like an allegory, and it's not set in any clearly identifiable place. It's a sort of a parable, but it again is a distillate of my core concerns both as writer and as a journalist, which is an examination of power and how power plays itself out.
NNAMDIThe book we have been talking about today with Tarun Tejpal is called "The Story of My Assassins." It's based on real-life events in which he was involved. How disturbing is it to become the center of the story?
TEJPALWell, I have to say that in the beginning, there was a touch of vanity to it. It very soon became an irritation, and finally, I think it led to almost a kind of need to shuck it off, and I did shuck it off. I stopped doing all television in India six years ago because I didn't want to be the story anymore. So I don't come on television. For three years I lived on it while I battled the state. I think finally, both as a writer and a journalist, you're best off staying off it.
NNAMDITarun Tejpal is journalist and founder of the Indian news magazine Tehelka. He's author of "The Story of My Assassins." Thank you so much for joining us.
TEJPALPleasure to be here.
NNAMDITarun Tejpal will be speaking at Politics and Prose tonight. That's at 7:00 p.m. on Connecticut Avenue. "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," is produced Brendan Sweeney, Michael Martinez, Ingalisa Schrobsdorff, Tayla Burney, Kathy Goldgeier and Elizabeth Weinstein, with help from Stephannie Stokes, Jessica Guzman and Ryan Mixson. Our engineer is Timmy Olmstead. Natalie Yuravlivker is on the phones.
NNAMDIPodcasts of all shows, audio archives, CDs and free transcripts are available at our website, kojoshow.org. If you'd like to share questions or comments with us, you can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, join us on Facebook, or send a tweet @kojoshow. Thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.