After it stirred up a storm in 2002, Tehelka’s story has been told many times over. Still, over the past six years, Madhu Trehan has explored the many worlds inhabited by Tehelka characters — journalists, army officers and politicians included — to tell the story as it has never been told before, in her latest book, Tehelka as Metaphor. “When Harinder Baweja and I discussed the idea of a book on Tehelka, I thought I would finish it in six months,” she says.
As an entrepreneur-journalist, Trehan has been ahead of her times and always experimented with her craft. She co-founded the country’s first news magazine, India Today (1975), the first TV news magazine, Newstrack (1986), and one of the first news portals, wahindia (2000).
What Tehelka did and what was done to it were unprecedented — and Trehan thought she had a stake in that story. “Tehelka was only a trigger. The book is on contemporary India.”
The portal changed the paradigm of journalism in India, by releasing secretly recorded conversations with politicians and army officers who were allegedly willing to unduly favour a fictitious firm in exchange of gratification — hospitality, money and sex.
As the government in power went after the journalists and investors of tehelka, the storytellers became the story. There were villains and heroes, good and evil in all these stories. There were debates about corruption and the ethics of sting journalism. But Trehan’s narrative takes it beyond all these. “It is not a simple story of good guys against bad guys. There are shades of grey in everyone.”
That’s what makes the book interesting reading, despite its intimidating size of over 600 pages. But you could be thankful too — the original draft was more than three times this. “I gave it to the publisher and thought my job was ove, but it had only begun. The book has gone through at least four versions since then — changing its structure and style completely each time,” recalls Trehan. As a result, she brings out the complex human encounters on Tehelka’s secret tapes.
For instance, this is how Trehan narrates an army officer’s encounter with a call girl arranged by Tehelka’s principal investigator, Mathew Samuel: ‘He got up, straightened himself, and sat on the chair facing the bed. He asked the woman to give her number so he could call her directly and not through Samuel. She refused and asked for his number instead. So Singh never got her number. Never got laid. But got royally screwed all the same. When Samuel returned, he sensed there had been no action. He offered Singh a much better girl and boasted he could procure models for him. Singh told him it wasn’t that, it was just that he was not mentally prepared for this. Samuel then offered to wait in the lobby if he wanted to have a go. Singh refused.’ Tell, if you can, the hero from the villain.
Trehan says working on the book phenomenally enhanced her understanding of the way government worked and how people behaved. “In TV, you moved from one byte to the next. In print, you were restricted by word limits. Here there were no limits, and the deeper I got into the research, the more truth I discovered.”
Trehan empathised with the characters she came across and admits to having faced a sort of ‘Stockholm syndrome’. But that did not restrict her from unveiling each character’s complexity. “I used tools of psychology, films, literature,” she says.
Trehan has reached a cynical conclusion after six years of doing nothing but this book. She quotes Devina Mehra, who along with husband Shankar Sharma funded tehelka and consequently paid heavily for it. “Now you realise that anybody out there is only there because nobody wants you inside. Any time somebody wants you inside (jail), you can be inside.”