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Tehelka sexual assault case: The one and many Tarun Tejpals

A talented,ambitious journalist,a flamboyant editor - Tejpal kept pushing the envelope till 2 days in Goa.

Written by Devyani Onial | Published: December 1, 2013 1:16:17 am

Corpulence and colour ignored,in any gathering,there are three ways of identifying a Punjabi.” One of them was “he who is at the epicentre of ringing conversation”.

That was Tarun Tejpal,20 years ago,in an essay about Punjabis and Punjab. That characteristic defined him as well. Always at the epicentre of ringing conversation,Tejpal now finds himself at the centre of a national conversation on sexual harassment and relationship between employer and employee. Coming just before the anniversary of the Delhi gangrape and in a week when the Supreme Court-appointed panel named a former judge accused of harassing a law intern,Tejpal stands accused of raping a young colleague.

The Sunday Express spoke to the friends and colleagues of the Tehelka editor-in-chief,many of whom didn’t want to be named,to get a glimpse of the many Tejpals.

***

Friends from his early days in Chandigarh remember him as outgoing,fond of the good things in life and hugely ambitious. Colleagues at India Today,where he worked first at the desk and later took care of the books and essays section in the ’90s,say he was talented,smooth-talking and in the habit of using fancy words. The flourish with words transferred easily from his pages to his conversations. “He was very ambitious and,behind that smooth and slick exterior and approach,could also be manipulative. And he spoke a lot in innuendos,” says a former colleague.

That ambition took wing when he left India Today to join Vinod Mehta at Outlook as managing editor. With his abiding literary aspirations,Tejpal’s star shone bright after India Ink,the publishing house he founded with photographer Sanjeev Saith,published Arundhati Roy’s Booker-winning The God of Small Things,in 1997. “We came together knowing of each other but not knowing each other,” says Saith. “We didn’t have office space,and worked out of each other’s homes. His was an open house. He was a generous man,affable,gregarious,witty. He has this quality to just pick up the phone and somehow arrange these magic releases,” says Saith.

Tejpal later launched Tehelka with Aniruddha Bahal and left India Ink in 2001. Saith and Tejpal drifted apart. But for a chance meeting,the two haven’t met in 10 years. Saith leads a quiet life in Delhi while Tejpal has led much of his life in the spotlight,spearheading Tehelka,writing books,fashioning himself as a man of ideas,and being quite simply,as a former colleague puts it,the toast of Delhi.

Tehelka,that began as a dotcom and later morphed into a tabloid and then a magazine,first made headlines with a sting operation that blew the cover off match-fixing in cricket. But it was its 2001 sting operation — West End — that was the real deal. Riding on the then novelty of new media,using a spycam the way it had rarely been used,the Tehelka team trapped then BJP president Bangaru Laxman accepting money from journalists posing as arms dealers. The sting led to the resignation of then defence minister George Fernandes and Laxman.

The methods were questionable,given the use of hidden cameras and even prostitutes to trap Army officers,but this was the first attack against the NDA government,and critics cheered. The questions were brushed under the carpet,the sting operation seen as one where the end justified the means. The way this story played out — the NDA government began investigating the website and its finances — helped Tejpal begin building his image of a crusader,a man who could take on the powerful even if that meant pushing the envelope.

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In the years that followed,nothing matched Operation West End in impact,but Tejpal’s reputation grew. His original team broke away,but that didn’t dent his image and all the credit kept accruing to him. For his supporters and friends,his crusader’s halo shone brighter — and his ambitions kept pace.

Once the NDA lost and the UPA came to power in 2004,Tejpal and Tehelka’s ostensible Left credentials found many fellow travellers in the new establishment. None other than Sonia Gandhi intervened on his behalf with the prime minister,and advertisers started coming to the magazine.

Then emerged another Tejpal,this time a feted author. V S Naipaul,who Tejpal cultivated and who isn’t known to be exactly generous with his praise,exclaimed on the cover of Tejpal’s Alchemy of Desire,that was published in 2005,“At last — a new and brilliantly original novel from India.”

In 2007,The Guardian named him among the 20 people who made up India’s new elite and he was featured in Businessweek’s ‘India’s 50 Most Powerful People’ in 2009.

Sankarshan Thakur,who has worked with The Indian Express and who was Tehelka’s executive editor in 2003,says in the initial years,the atmosphere at Tehelka was vibrant and energetic. “There was a lot of good work being done.”

Even as salaries came late in the first two years,what kept the staff going was a “shared purpose”,he adds. “That is what is so heartbreaking. The staff today is dispirited. All the time that they thought Tehelka was in such a bad financial state,there was money being made. But it’s a moment to introspect. If you are shining the lamp on others,light will also shine on you and show you up.”

***

Friends too talk of Tejpal always complaining about not having money. “Every time you met him,he would complain,but at the same time it seems he was building a fancy villa in Goa and a property near Nainital,” says one. Tejpal has a house that he runs as a hotel in Gethia in the Kumaon hills and a six-bedroom villa in Moira in Goa.

Suddenly,there was a lot of sceptism about how he was operating,and allegations that he was using Tehelka to intimidate others into giving favours started doing the rounds. This was a different side of him,a side not many had seen previously.

Young reporters often saw Tejpal as a flamboyant editor who would fight for them. A reporter who worked with Tejpal many years ago at The Financial Express says,“He would fight for salary raises (not just his but yours too). And then stride in with your contract and fling it casually on the table with: ‘It’s done. Go work now’… He was the kind of journalist every young aspiring journalist dreams of becoming.”

Thakur admits this quality of Tejpal to “inspire people”,even if,he adds,“it was a delusion”. He attributes it to Tejpal’s ability to market himself. “Tarun was very good at talking himself and his pet projects up.”

To another acquaintance,somewhere along the way,he started believing the hype himself. “He liked living well,he lived on the edge and he had delusions about how important he was to society,” he says.

“It was sheer hubris,this pompous grandstanding,as if all purity of journalistic work is located in one office and in one idea,” says Thakur,who was with Tehelka till 2008.

***

Another acquaintance says while Tejpal did the kind of work that no one had done before,he did display sexism and hypocrisy at times. “One thing has rankled me for long. I once asked him what he thought of Margaret Atwood,and he said he didn’t read women authors and that the only reason he read The God of Small Things was because he had to consider it for publication,” she says.

Once affable,this arrogance gradually became his other attribute. “His ego has become so big,he probably can’t read the signals around him anymore,” says a friend. As his former India Today colleague Binoo K John wrote in a Facebook post,“His is a case of life imitating his own fiction. He has become one of the characters he created.”

Vijay Simha,journalist,counsellor and sobriety campaigner who worked with Tejpal in three separate stints,says somewhere along the way,Tejpal changed. Simha (a former staffer with The Indian Express) met Tejpal in 2004 when,after a long battle with drugs and time in rehab,he was scouting for a job. “He hired me when no one in journalism was ready to touch me. It shows what he had. He trusts his instincts,” says Simha.

In those years,he adds,Tejpal took interest in stories,sat in on meetings,gave ideas. As his interests diversified into various ventures,he had less time for journalism,and while Tehelka became a great place for youngsters to work,it gradually became,what Simha calls,a “seniors’ graveyard”.

***

The absence of seniors,says Simha,meant that there was little dissent in the newsroom. “Tarun got used to hearing only praises. A day that went without listening to any praise was for Mr Tejpal a wasted day.” There was no mentoring system,which is why Tehelka’s fortunes seem so inextricably tied with Tejpal.

It became,as a former colleague says,a vehicle for Tejpal. “In the last few years,you will see he keeps repeating himself. That’s because he has done nothing new,” says Simha,who in his last stint with Tejpal worked as executive editor of tehelka.com and of The Financial World that Tejpal launched and which ran for a year before he shut it.

There were other unsavoury incidents. “A reader once complained about a story on an educational institution that wouldn’t show up on our site. We found out that the administrative head had given instructions to the systems manager to take the story off the server. When I told them it was illegal,I was asked to speak with Tarun. Apparently,the educational institution was willing to advertise in Tehelka but they had concerns about a report from years ago. You are the people who take on the NDA government and then you take off a story against an institute?” says Simha.

This is echoed by Maheshwar Peri,the former Outlook publisher,who wrote last week about a time in 2009 when his publication got into trouble for writing against another educational institution,“with doubtful credentials”. Peri runs Pathfinder Media,the magazine company which publishes Careers 360.

When Tehelka decided to do a story on the subject,Peri says,“We were too happy. Who can espouse the cause of investigative journalism better? Only till we got the questions from the journalist. We realised that it was a story being done on behalf of the institution to throw insinuations at us… It was no coincidence that the dubious institution is Tehelka’s biggest advertiser,taking all its back covers.”

***

It was in Goa in 2011 where the murmurs of Tehelka spiking stories for own interests all came together. The most damaging allegation came when Hartman De Souza,a theatre director who divides his time between Goa and Pune,accused the magazine of holding back its then correspondent Raman Kirpal’s exhaustive story on illegal mining in Goa because they were in talks with the state government for holding an event — the THiNK Fest — there. Tejpal dismissed the allegation,and instead called the reporter incompetent.

The first THiNK Fest was held in Goa in 2011,attended by a host of activists,actors,and writers,including V S Naipaul. “His association with Naipaul gave him a lot of credibility and clout,” says a former colleague.

He used that and his other associations to turn ideas into investments and thoughts into events. He became,in a way,a thinking man’s events manager,his latest venture being Prufrock,a membership-by-invitation-only club in Delhi for the “intellectual elite”,for which he tied up with liquor baron Ponty Chadha,who was killed last year.

This year’s ThiNK Fest was attended by,among others,Hollywood legend Robert De Niro,former editor of The Newsweek,The New Yorker Tina Brown,historian David Priestland and Amitabh Bachchan. It was here,his young colleague has alleged,that the 50-year-old Tejpal sexually assaulted her,in a hotel elevator,on November 7 and 8.

Journalist,writer,businessman,ideas investor. Tarun Tejpal wrote many narratives for himself. But perhaps the one that will stick is the one he will be keen to erase. The one that will be forever trapped in an elevator in Goa and in an FIR at the Dona Paula police station.

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