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Is an interview a game?

Tables are turned on Karan Thapar as the interviewer faces a volley of questions from a lady at a wedding.

india Updated: Dec 10, 2006 03:01 IST

"Excuse me Mr Thapar, but there's a question I'm dying to ask." I was at a wedding, standing on my own and feeling a little lost. So I welcomed the interruption. Turning around, I saw my interlocutor was a bubbly lady in her thirties in a striking strawberry pink and gold sari. She seemed quite excited.

"Of course," I replied encouragingly. "Go right ahead."

"How often do you find that after an interview your guests have stopped talking to you?"

I laughed nervously. To start with I wasn’t certain what she meant but decided it was intended as a compliment. However, I was also aware her comment appeared to suggest that I’m insufferably rude. I suppose it was her smile which made me overlook the innuendo.

"Why do you ask?" I hadn’t meant to sound defensive but I fear I did. Still, since I don’t think of myself as an ogre, it was a justified question.

It brought forth a loud cackle of laughter. I smiled sheepishly. It’s rather embarrassing when people find your innocent remarks hilarious. Are they laughing with you or at you? I didn’t know how to respond.

"I keep thinking of poor Mr Jethmalani. He was so angry with you." At this point the lady in the pink sari started to convulse all over again. Soon her face was the colour of her clothes. Meanwhile my smile, by now frozen on my face, was starting to hurt. Worse, I was no longer sure which way our conversation was heading. So on top of everything else, I was also a little apprehensive.

"He must have kicked you out of the house." Suddenly the laughter stopped and her face turned serious. In fact it seemed severe. "I don’t think I would have blamed him if he had!"

"Actually, he offered me a glass of whisky." It was my turn to smile. I managed a small one. After all I could feel my confidence crawling back. "He asked if I would join him for a drink."

"You mean the anger was put on?"

"No." That should have been sufficient but I foolishly added a fuller explanation. "First, I don’t think he was angry. Perhaps irritated but not more. Secondly, Ram Jethmalani is a passionate and excitable person and always responds in a dramatic sort of way. And then, more than anything else, he’s a gentleman. He never bears a grudge."

However, my effort did not appease the good lady. She was not to be put off so easily. Her next line of attack was ready and it was delivered with aplomb. I was caught off guard.

"And does everyone forgive you so readily? You can’t be that lucky every time."

This time I was speechless. If the conversation had started with a certain un-stated admiration of my style, there was now the clear suggestion that I overstep the limits of decency and rely on the large-heartedness of my interviewees to overlook this. I decided the time had come to explain why my interviews often become fractious.

"The point is this: if a question is worth asking, it’s worth ensuring it gets an answer. So when a guest doesn’t reply or actually evades I feel I have to persist. In turn that means a certain tension inevitably creeps in. Depending on how long it takes to break this impasse or how risible the guest, things can seem to get heated. But it’s only momentary and it’s only within the context of the interview."

"Okay, that’s your explanation. But do your guests see it the same way?" The lady had now crossed her hands in front of her chest. She was looking at me intently. I felt like a target.

"I think so." But it was a weak reply. I needed to do better. "You see they realise I’m doing a job. And when they are being evasive or less than fulsome they’re only protecting themselves. So I do think both sides understand the situation."

"Hmmm." A long pause followed as a slow smile started to crease her face. Behind it emerged a look of understanding, as if something important had suddenly dawned on her.

"So an interview is a game? Even an act? Is that what you mean?"

I was about to reply when I realised she wasn’t finished. I held my peace.

"I suppose journalists and politicians are like cops and robbers. But in this case, who’s the cop and who’s the robber?"