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 exposé 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. His fellow traveler for years now, Shoma Chaudhury, Tehelka’s managing editor, put it this way: Tejpal has “fought his corrosive battles, always, in high moral language.”
Yet Tehelka doesn’t fight it in ways that leave you without a connection to the realities of India. i’s reporters, Tejpal says, quickly understand this conjunction of themes—malign power, ranged often corrosively against journalism with a moral core—as fundamental to the stories Tehelka wants them to produce, to search for. This is why Tejpal prides Tehelka for having “feet on the ground” in the major stories of our times: whether the Maoists, or the acquisition of land for various development projects, or the 2002 violence in Gujarat.
Like its subjects, Tehelka is an often depressing magazine. Yet that’s what makes India so endlessly fascinating. It’s not that the country is, or is not, or might be, shining. It’s that India is complex, intricate, uplifting, befuddling, maddening, depressing—and being all that, it is crammed to overflowing with stories that are waiting for journalists and writers to tell.
And for Tejpal, fiction is also a vehicle for these stories, in his three novels since 2006. The Story of My Assassins is a dark, brutal, and yet often funny narration by a journalist of an attempt on his life, by no less than five men. His bemused reaction is a nice counterpoint to the stories of the five, of how they came to be doing what they do. The result is a meditation, a commentary, on the convoluted venality of modern India. Much like Tejpal’s journalism. And in fact, the novel grew out of events his journalism might even have tracked: an actual contract on Tejpal’s own life, to be carried out by five men. One was later killed, Tejpal heard informally; the rest melted away, like so many others have, in India.
Yet as a morality tale, the canvas of Assassins is broader than just India. Remember Jimmy Hoffa, Jill Dando, Aldo Moro, Anna Politkovskaya: really, which corner of the world is free of venality, of implacably vengeful politics?
Not India, for sure.
“Everything in this f--king country is insider trading!” shouts one of the minor characters in the novel, articulating what so many Indians feel viscerally. “What do you think politics in this damn city is? What do you think your f--king journalism is? There is no truth in this f--king country except for the poor bastard on the street who has to carry the load of all of it, and of you and me!”
Possible prudishness over language aside: reading his novels, or his editorials, you get the feeling Tejpal’s sensibilities emerge from such soil. Acknowledge the great Indian dilemmas, their place in our lives, shine light on the corruption, gear up for the next challenge. Each one carries its lessons, but perhaps the really valuable lesson comes in the long term. It took 10 years, after all, to nail Babu Bajrangi.
And then maybe the really valuable lesson, the long-term one, is about redemption. Even if it is that we are never redeemed.
“I don’t want readers to go home and sleep well,” Tejpal said to me. “That’s the fundamental vocation that I pursue.”
The secret of journalism: maybe we are never redeemed.
Dilip D’Souza, the winner of the Newsweek & The Daily Beast–Open Hands Prize, is the author most recently of The Curious Case of Binayak Sen.