A shorter version of this piece appears in this week's BusinessWorld magazine.
(Madhu Trehan's image courtesy: Tehelka)By far, the most widely publicised scandal in Indian political history, Tehelka is a subject that refuses to die down. Reams of newsprint and countless hours of airtime have already exposed how a bunch of journalists - posing as middlemen – could bribe their way into India’s defence establishment. So when you receive a 587 page tome written by a journalist about the subject, you’d expect a preachy research paper trying to justify the scandal. But, its only when you start reading it do you realise that it’s anything but preachy. For its Rashomon narrative brilliantly illustrates the point that truth has many versions which don’t have to always tally.
Simply told, the plotline of Tehelka...is the characters’ narration of the roles they played in the scandal and their back stories. Tarun Tejpal, a maverick journalist with India Today, Outlook and Financial Express teams up with protégé Aniruddha Bahal to start a news portal dedicated to “kickass journalism”. Soon, Shankar Sharma and Devina Mehra, owners of a stock broking firm are roped in as investors. Bahal is entrusted with the task of heading Operation West End and soon, Matthew Samuel, another maverick from Karnataka with a penchant for hunting stories, is brought on board. Eventually, it was Samuel who would pose as a middleman and film the entire episode. And on March 13, 2001, the Tehelka scandal broke.
Although it runs into nearly 600 pages, Trehan throws in pace, bits of pungent humour and sarcasm which turn this tome into a page turner. Sample this: after RSS trustee R K Gupta boasts about his links with the radical Hindu organisation since 1939, a sarcastic statement follows ‘1939? When he was eight years old he was politically connected with his soul? Trehan also extensively peppers the book with quotes from Byron, Chomsky, Hemingway, Virginia Woolf and even the movie Pretty Woman as she attempts to unravel the method behind the Tehelka madness. Chapter titles such as “The Minister’s Last Sigh” and “A Greased Passage To India” are evidently humorous takes on movies and novels
But perhaps the most outstanding feature of the book is its narrative. Trehan’s own observations and analysis – although extensive - only anchor the interviewees’ replies without overbearing them.. Another brilliant aspect is the language which is lucid, straightforward and unpretentious. Big words are carefully avoided and cuss words are reproduced as they are. Most notable is the concluding chapter which – though rhetorical in parts – throws up serious questions about the modern India its citizens are so proud of. Trehan also suggests Yoani Sanchez, a Cuban who blogs about life under communist rule, as a possible role model for India’s youth. However, this doesn’t mean that the novel is bereft of flaws.
Tehelka’s biggest flaw is its digression into the psychological aspects of the scandal. For instance, Trehan questions the need for married army men to indulge in one night stands. Trehan mixes Gandhi and Greek mythology to deliberate on men’s sexual behaviour but ends up confusing the reader. In fact, beyond a point, this reviewer flipped a few pages to get to the real story as the digression had little relevance. The other major flaw is the editing of this book. Matthew Samuel’s interviews, in particular, were a tad lengthy and beyond a point, the humour got annoying. Yes, the book is a hard-hitting one and very comprehensive. But, the sheer length of its interviews, analysis, quotes and references to movies and books, can leave the reader confused; especially if you’re the sort who reads between long gaps.
Overall, Tehelka… stays true to its Rashomon narrative, factual accuracy and is blazingly blunt. Though out-of-focus, it provided a blow-by-blow account of how brutally a government can misuse State machinery to harass the vulnerable. A gripping tome which is a must-read for, not only budding and practicing journalists, but for anyone interested in the underbelly of politics in India.