Ludicrous as it sounds, I have Karan Johar to thank for propelling me to quit Tehelka three-and-a-half years ago. When the ‘think’ piece on the film maker was done, Shoma Chaudhury thought it wasn’t ‘nuanced’. I gave the piece a hysterical-serious voice – the preferred style of feature writing at the magazine - and checked out of office at 1am on production day confident that this bit of exalted literature broke new ground in the deeply intellectual area of popular Hindi film journalism. The piece was pulled just before it went to print. Perhaps it was my sheepish appreciation of Johar’s talent for emotional manipulation that did it in.
So, no, unlike the unfortunate Raman Kirpal who found his huge story on illegal mining in Goa in 2011 killed, allegedly in exchange for approvals and sponsorships for ThinkFest, I didn’t walk away for admirable ideological reasons, or because Tarun Tejpal lunged at me. I just couldn’t handle the need to assign meaningful subtexts to Bollywood melodramas or the disorganized work schedules.
After news broke of the ongoing epistolatory drama that is at once shocking and faintly ridiculous - mainly for Tejpal’s vocabulary and his inability to grasp that he’s dealing with a furious and very determined adversary – the buzz on social networking was that many who knew him were not very surprised.
The Tejpal I encountered, however, was a charismatic editor always willing to let a reporter chase down a good story anywhere in the nation’s vast expanse. Supremely articulate, he held forth on the need to demolish religious and caste prejudice, to push liberal values. It was the sort of stuff that those who want desperately to believe that writing can change the world, bring water to remote villages, destroy khap panchayats, right gender imbalance, stamp out evil from the land, or at the very least destroy a pompous novelist’s ego, thrilled to. That Tehelka had broken some of the best stories of the noughties – Operation Westend (2001) and Naroda Patiya (2007) – added to Tejpal’s halo.
The belief that he is contributing to something larger than himself can make an individual endure haphazard timings and unhealthy internal politicking. But almost everyone – except Shoma Chaudhury - eventually leaves. Some are disillusioned by the disconnect between the stories featured and those who fund the magazine, others by the cultish aura of the place, still others by the lofty talk of saving the poor while courting the rich at events like the Thinkfest and the stillborn salon Prufrock. Afterwards, they turn bitter, their admiration for the magazine replaced by revulsion, their anger stoked with each new unhappy event – last year it was the death of photographer Tarun Sehrawat, this year it is the sexual assault. Unsurprisingly, much of the blowback on social networking and in the media has come from former employees.
The Tehelka experience didn’t leave me bitter. Instead, it confirmed my belief that nothing is what it seems. Maybe I am too cynical to last in a place like that. Or maybe Karan Johar really is my guardian angel in disguise.