Look back in anger

Illustration: Uzma Mohsin

ON A BALMY evening at the end of September 2001 I was in the hall of a luxurious hotel in south Mumbai attending a media awards ceremony. The company I represented — a tiny website with a working life of less than a year — was creating ripples in the packed room. By the time the evening was over, of the fourteen awards up for the having, the website would have pulled in six. These would include the Media Brand of the Year (ahead of MTV and Star Plus, which would grab second place); Content Head of the Year; Investigative Story of the Year (for unearthing the goof-ups of Kargil); and Entertainment Story of the Year. The story for which the website was now universally famous was not even in the reckoning. These were awards for the year 2000; the big story belonged to March, 2001.

While we were being feted with a string of media awards, a sinister drama connected to us was being played out in the international airport at Chennai. A superbly successful young couple, schooled and bred in small-town India, entirely selfmade, was suddenly made to feel the iron grip of the Indian state closing around its throat. While I collected the accolades and proceeded to drink and eat, the young couple were surrounded by a swarm of hostile officials and kept from boarding their flight. While I slept, under police protection, the couple was interrogated deep into the night. Their stated, and understated, crime: to have invested in an internet company with a website called tehelka.com.

The people who paid the heaviest price for Operation West End, the expose on corruption in arms procurements, were not the politicians, bureaucrats, army officers, and middlemen who were indicted, nor was it the journalists who had done and run with the story. The two people whose lives were trashed on account of the expose, with which they had absolutely nothing to do, were Shankar Sharma and Devina Mehra, husband and wife, owners of a premier brokerage company called First Global. Their story is a chilling illustration of how easily the India that we imagine is a benign liberal democracy can segue into an Orwellian nightmare of government apparatchiks operating outside all rules of law and propriety.

My first memory of Shankar is of a college cricket field. Of a tall, well-built boy in all-white, pounding in repeatedly from a long run-up to bowl left-arm outswingers, under the watchful eye of Yograj Singh, current sensation Yuvraj Singh’s father. He was a friend of my younger brother’s in college, one of hundreds of students from Bihar who’d come to Chandigarh to pick up a degree. The year probably was 1981. I remember him as low-key, but not inconspicuous. Apart from the cricket, the rumour that distinguished him was that he was already, as a teenager, trading in the stockmarket. It was not something most of us understood then, or do so now.

My next memory of Shankar has him holding a satchel as we run into each other late one evening in the wide commercial plaza of Sector 17 in Chandigarh. We are working men now. I am reporting the Punjab agitation for a daily newspaper, and he is marketing computers. We talk a bit, neither understanding the other. I am carrying The Onion Eaters by JP Donleavy, and he takes it from my hand and examines it. He asks, and I try and tell him what it’s about. He’s amused, I think: to be done with college and to be still stuck with novels. I ask about the satchel, and he says the sales job is temporary. He has other, bigger, plans for himself.

Through the next decade I only hear the occasional snatch about him from my brother. He’s joined Citibank, he’s left Citibank, he’s married, he lives in South Mumbai, he’s successful on the stockmarket. My brother, who knows less about the metabolism of money than most, thinks he’s wildly successful, but says there’s no evidence to proclaim it. Shankar still lives cheap, eats cheap, dresses cheap. His cigars are Indian, off the paanwallah; when he offers you food it comes off the street. But the embrace is warm; the laugh loud and full.

In February 2000, I quit as the managing editor of Outlook, and four of us decide to set up a journalistic website. It is the height of the dotcom boom, and there is venture funding being tossed around to anyone with some credentials and an idea. Suhel Seth, Aniruddha Bahal, Minty Tejpal and I travel to Mumbai to meet with Ashok Wadhwa of Ambit to make a pitch. In a swish conference room we wait for the money man. He arrives, full of bustle. On the white board Ashok and Suhel run through an argumentative routine. Soon the valuation of the proposed website is set at $8 million. The name agreed upon is tehelka.com (one of several already registered by Aniruddha). Wadhwa asks for a week to find the first tranche of investment, and asks for five percent of the company as his fee for doing so.

THE FOUR of us now repair to the Taj President (where Suhel is staying), and in its restaurant, on a paper napkin, the stakes of the proposed company are divvied up. The deed done, Suhel leaves and Minty suggests we visit Shankar, who lives next door, and bounce the entire deal off him. We know no one else we can readily consult. Shankar and Devina are cooking tasteless rajmachawal for lunch, which we eat too. The flat is modest, displaying no excess of taste or money. We talk cricket, cinema, and get an okay on what we cobbled together in the morning.

A week later, on a Sunday, Shankar calls me in Delhi and drops home for lunch. As I drive him to the airport in the evening, he makes an offer to fund our website on the same terms as offered by Wadhwa. I promise to get back to him. For the next week, treading water, waiting to start work on the website, I pursue Wadhwa. Finally I meet him at the Taj Mansingh in Delhi right after he’s delivered his budget analysis speech. He says he’ll get back in a day or so. Nothing happens. We consult among ourselves and decide to accept Shankar’s offer. They take a small 14.50 percent stake in our company.

Shankar and Devina prove exceptional in every way. Their investment comes in timely tranches; they never interfere; the website gets going; we break the cricket match-fixing story, and dozens of others; the best writers and columnists write for us; the hunt for the next round of investors takes Shankar and me through dozens of meetings. On February 16 we shake hands with Subhash Chandra of Zee for a 26 percent stake. On March 13 we break Operation West End. That morning I call Shankar to tell him we are breaking a big story that may rock the government. He pleads with me not to do it. He fears the investment deal may flounder. By then, as journalists, we are in a place beyond business calculations. The story is broken, and within days the assault on all our lives and work begins.

We are shamelessly targeted; but we are also feted. No such luck for Shankar and Devina. Their life of impeccable professionalism and continuous endeavour is battered in a way that can be barely imagined. From being the very best of their generation they are reduced to fugitives. In desperation, we see them grasp for lawyers and godmen. The lessons for them are cruel, unfair, and too many. They realise beneath the veneer of a just democracy we are still only a feudal-colonial apparatus. The beast of power rages without a conscience.

The violence of what is done to them is amplified by their utter innocence. They are not political animals looking for traction; not journalists doing their job; not idealists chasing a cause. And yet, once the onslaught comes they become splendid. They dig deep into their inner resources, and fight back as warriors of righteousness. Read every word of the following pages to understand the dangerous chameleon the Indian state is. Read every word to also understand courage as Ernest Hemingway described it: grace under pressure.

For all the havoc TEHELKA wreaked into their lives, Shankar and Devina did not once turn on us. It’s extraordinary. Not one harsh word. They ceased to be stakeholders in TEHELKA long ago, but even today, all the work we’ve done since, owes them a debt.

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In a 28-year career as a journalist, Tarun has been an editor with the India Today and The Indian Express groups, and the Managing Editor of Outlook. He is the founder of Tehelka—which has garnered international fame for its aggressive public interest journalism. In 2001, Asia Week listed Tarun as one of Asia’s 50 most powerful communicators, and Business Week declared him among 50 leaders at the forefront of change in Asia. Tarun’s debut novel, The Alchemy of Desire, was hailed by The Sunday Times as ‘an impressive and memorable debut’, and by Le Figaro as a ‘masterpiece’. In 2007, The Guardian, UK, named him among the 20 who constitute India’s new elite.

Tarun’s second novel, The Story of My Assassins was published in 2009 to rave reviews. Pankaj Mishra has said, ‘It sets new and dauntingly high standards for Indian writing in English’, while Altaf Tyrewala has called it ‘an instant classic’. The book’s website is www.taruntejpal.com.


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