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Truly sorry, Madhu

Madhu suggested [the book] would be a bomb. From what I can tell — and I must admit I can’t bring myself to read all or even most of it — it’s more like a dud, writes Karan Thapar.

india Updated: Feb 14, 2009 21:45 IST

I wish I hadn’t agreed to do ‘something’ with her book. And, more than that, I wish I hadn’t got carried away and reminded Madhu Trehan. I thought it would be explosive. Unfortunately, I was wrong. Yet I still need to honour my commitment. That’s my excuse and apology. But will Madhu forgive me?

Madhu’s book is about the Tehelka episode which caused a political earthquake in 2001. Any work that revisits the subject, with access to all the tapes and transcripts, including many we never saw or read, and interviews with the key players, should at least have caused tremors. Madhu suggested it would be a bomb. From what I can tell — and I must admit I can’t bring myself to read all or even most of it — it’s more like a dud.

On reflection, the name should have aroused suspicion. Prism Me A Lie Tell Me A Truth: TehelkaAs Metaphor sounds long-winded, pretentious and difficult to understand. The book is very similar. Madhu sent me a copy with 11 chapters flagged for attention. She said they were the best.

What they contain is reams of unedited interviews which meander unstructuredly, often losing sight of purpose and frequently dissolving into pointless chatter in disconcerting slang. The detail is overwhelming but it doesn’t lead anywhere or, if it does, I got lost.

Often the ‘voice’ of the author is absent. But when you can detect it, it appears to snigger or pontificate. Madhu seems to fancy herself as a psychoanalyst. But I doubt if her efforts will win accolades. Even when there is the odd ray of sunshine, finding it is damnably difficult.

Chapter 19, on the hounding of Shankar Sharma and Devina Mehra, is a perfect example. It is eye-opening, yet it also illustrates Madhu at her best and worst — exhaustive research but a confusingly detailed account. Instead of wanting to read on you’re tempted not to continue. Confronted with the howling cries of your weary mind and tired hands, it requires dogged persistence not to give up. By the way, this is a heavyweight book — but purely in terms of its bulk.

My efforts unearthed the following nugget. In a long excerpt from an Arun Jaitley interview, unhelpfully printed without paragraphs, I discovered that Tehelka had testimony exonerating George Fernandes but did not reveal it. Whether that’s tantamount to hiding is for you to judge, but this is what Jaitley says: “...in the absence of any evidence against George and the tape containing a statement that George is a very honest man, editing that out was an act of dishonesty.”

On page 353 Madhu offers a comment. Read carefully and ask if she’s fair or mealy-mouthed? Does she accept George Fernandes was innocent and wrongly targeted and, therefore, unjustly treated? Or does she, instead, seek to excuse Tehelka and gloss over the case against them?

“The slanted editing in removing all reference to George Fernandes’s honesty did no service to Tehelka’s credibility. In my assessment, poor journalistic judgement, rather than any dark political conspiracy. A common habit amongst us journalists: often the angle of the story becomes so powerful, it subconsciously turns into a motive.”

When I ribbed Madhu about this ‘conclusion’ she sent an sms asking me to see pages 483-484. If she had not, I would have skipped them altogether.

And what did I discover?

“Tehelka cut out an encounter” with an honest bureaucrat. A certain Mr Doodani not only refused a bribe but also got extremely angry. Again, Tehelka hid this. They behaved as if it hadn’t happened. And Madhu’s conclusion: “Journalists habitually fall in love with the angle of the story on which they are focusing and any point raised that moves it away from that angle, is dropped... it made their report appear biased.”

Reflect on the word ‘appear’. Does it suggest balance and careful consideration or an attempt to blur criticism and paper-over Tehelka’s faults?

Madhu’s publisher, Pramod Kapoor, tells me her original manuscript was three times longer. Roli Books reduced 1,800 pages to 587. I began by apologising to Madhu. Perhaps I should end by thanking Pramod?