At the core of Kalarippayattu, the Kerala martial/therapeutic form, is the belief that your ‘enemy’ is never outside of you. At the highest levels of theory and practice in the discipline, your opponent is nothing but an aspect of yourself and the best battles are those where you successfully engage your own self.
This can be a useful precept for certain forms of adversarial journalism, which set out to bring correctives to a world out there that is flawed and cannot necessarily be restored by advice, critique, exposure or shaming. As TEHELKA set out to do, but soon forgot that it would also entail a very rigorous, unsparing form of self-critique that alone could lend credibility to its intentions.
Divested of that, TEHELKA could only be an act of adventurism by a petit-bourgeoisie that preferred itself over all else. In a reductionist sense, TEHELKA was a Camelot — an exotic (even quixotic) idea that cannot last. But as long as it does, it emits an aroma of strength and fragility.
TEHELKA, after all, is a commotion. Just like there cannot be a ‘permanent revolution’, there also cannot be a ‘permanent commotion’. That is the gap in the concept. The periodical should probably have called itself ‘Once-in-a-while-TEHELKA’. It might have reduced its self-conscious burden to be ostensibly pushy or outspoken or radical all the time.
And the constant question mark right since its inception — can a comfortable petit-bourgeois really make a revolution? None of the movers and shakers at TEHELKA had any radical credentials as they set out. It was a costume they came to assume as the magazine swiftly became invested with the mantle of the only ‘alternate’ space in the English mainstream media. It was a mantle by default.
Actually it was a positioning that needed no jostling or strategising. It was for the taking. The mainstream media, which had so clearly deteriorated as an agent of corporate capitalism, was not going to touch at least 80 percent of the stories or ideas that TEHELKA would be interested in, or would twist it around to their own agendas. The issue that the founders of TEHELKA needed to be concerned with was being able to financially sustain the venture. And their initial exercise of an early version of crowdfunding met with enormous goodwill and response, simultaneously indicating the space that existed for such a mission.
The post-liberalisation distortion of the media into a pulp-cosmetic exercise, more interested in beauty queens, fashion shows, cricket gladiators and non-stop entertainment as the only raison d’être for life, was wearing thin as we hit the new millennium. The media, insatiably fattening itself now on the glamour funding that flowed in from advertisements by cosmetic multinationals and global corporates, had turned into a muscular ideological tool for right wing interests and corporate conspiracies to pilfer land, water, forests and mountains in shockingly blatant ways. In the process, dumbing down the readers and converting them into passive cronies was a conscious agenda they would practice.
In this scenario, it was clear that even a marginally more honest and committed voice would make a massive difference. Announcing oneself as irreverent or iconoclastic would have its own chic. You needed no specific political provenance or pedigree, no student-day rebellion, no campus radicalism, no street-side activism, no mass mobilisational skills. All that was needed was a sense of adventure, some spunk and a felicity with words. One can actually imagine this as an early version of Arvind Kejriwal and his Aam Aadmi Party, training its guns at corruption in high places and tripping up the unsuspecting using upmarket electronic devices, newly introduced to Indian journalism. It got further sexed up with the idea of a ‘sting’. But at bottom it remained a kind of brattish sleaze. It was a bunch within the upper crust enjoying their own clout, fairly confident of a general immunity they would enjoy.
It was an attitude that could also make them lax with respect to any rigorous self-examination. When we are the prosecutors, we need not worry too much about our own attitudes, and subliminal prejudices and flaws. Michel Foucault says hegemonic attitudes of the State have seeped into us in a capillary way and have nested so deep that now it has become important that every day, after waking up, we need to sit still and imagine “which terror, tyranny or infamy am I going to support today” and then consciously work the whole day against it, against oneself as it were.
Obviously, the pitfalls in all this are many and even the strongest can succumb to notions of infallibility or to momentary testosterone surges. But the fact remains that we need our occasional ‘commotion’, the shout from the rooftop. We need it not merely for pumping up adrenalin in the system or for just being able to scream into the wind. We need it because it is important to express our indignation at our soulless condition.
And now that the platform called TEHELKA exists, it is important to put heads together to ensure that it does not become a drowning Titanic but emerges from the recent buffets in its midriff with a more pragmatic approach, which simultaneously practices what it preaches. While the idea of consistently critical content is crucial, it is as crucial to have transparency in finances and a more collegial work atmosphere. Once these issues are sorted out, the magazine can still vie to be a primary space for ‘alternate’ media. It is also, of course, about the creative and inventive manner in which this battle would be fought, showing up the dry, cynical, listless or consumerist manner in which the rest of mainstream media deals with ‘news’.
What a TEHELKA kind of venture will need to keep uppermost in its mind is that its own integrity can make a life-or-death difference to a large number of people. There will be no popular demand for it to be ‘radical’. But there certainly will be hopes pinned on it valorising ‘integrity’. For this, like a Kalarippayattu artist, it will have to gaze at the mirror of society and see there its own visage.