A Wanted Man

Article excerpt

Byline: Dilip D'souza

Tarun Tejpal dives into the seamy, dark side of India.

In late August, a court returned a verdict in the infamous 2002 massacre of more than 90 Muslims in Gujarat, India. Thirty-two accused men and women were sentenced to many long years in prison. Among them was a man called Babu Bajrangi.

In 2007, Bajrangi was captured on a hidden camera saying this--among much else--about that blood-drenched time: "We hacked, we burned, we killed ... We drove Muslims into a [ditch] and killed them." The camera belonged to a reporter who had spent six months on a sting operation that got this artless, chilling confession out of Bajrangi. The reporter was from the newsmagazine Tehelka.

The Sept. 8 issue of the magazine ran with Bajrangi on the cover, in a still from that hidden camera. Inside was an essay by the magazine's editor, Tarun Tejpal. "Those who would, in the name of amity, have us forget Gujarat 2002 ... are plainly wrong," he wrote. "In India because we do not redress, we repeat. Because we repeat and repeat, we are never redeemed."

Stop for a few seconds to digest those words. In a way I can't fully articulate, this mention of redemption for great crimes--not punishment, not justice, but redemption--captures Tejpal and characterizes his journalism. Punishment is black and white; justice is one of those abstract ideals that sound nice but forever remain just ideals. But redemption? For a complex world, that's a complex idea. Hard to flesh out, sometimes hard to sell, but fired with promise all the same.

It is this complex, multifaceted India that comes through in Tarun Tejpal's new novel, The Story of My Assassins. And that's exactly what Tehelka has offered its readers for more than a decade. Its stories hit hard, but are given time and space nevertheless to be thorough: think The New Republic and Mother Jones married to The Atlantic. On the face of it, Tehelka is just another newsmagazine. Here's the difference though, one that even its detractors will concede: I have yet to see a Tehelka cover story about, let's say, the problems of Indian obesity. Or the changing sexual habits of Indian youth. Or the top colleges in the country. Tehelka is different. Its cover story is invariably an investigation of some kind, or an expose of unsavory dealings, or an examination of the costs of economic development.

After several years working with India's leading weekly magazines, India Today and Outlook, Tejpal started Tehelka.com in 2000. Only on the Web then, it soon got noticed with a sting operation that exposed match fixing in cricket. Just months later, another investigation exposed the dark miasma of defense purchases, forcing the resignation of the Indian defense minister and implicating other senior politicians. Then the heavy hand of an annoyed government nearly shut down the magazine. In 2004, building on small individual donations (to which I contributed), Tejpal resurrected it as Tehelka, a newsweekly. Tehelka is now a flourishing fixture on the Indian journalism scene--taking on corruption, indignity, and hypocrisy.

Every week it gives shape to that old adage about journalism, "comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable." Over coffee recently, Tejpal--lean, graying, and with a voice that seems to have been hoarse forever--spoke of journalism as necessarily "adversarial to power, as a polarity to power." This is so because the "fundamental impulse of power is malign," and being so, it almost automatically defines journalism for him, in terms of that polarity. …