BELATED LESSONS FROM LITERATURE
I read all of Franz Kafka when I was nineteen and twenty, but
I only understand him now. For twenty years I cited him in private
conversations as a favourite writer because I could see he had configured
elusive truths. One-and-a-half year after Tehelka broke Operation
West-End - Aniruddha Bahal and Samuel Mathew’s stunning investigation
- I have become fully seized of Kafka’s brilliance. The man
knew what he was talking about.
In the simplest of prose and the most bewildering of narratives, The
Trial and The Castle tell us all we need to know about the nature
of power, particularly political power. In those first decades of
the twentieth century when democracy and despotisms fought for purchase
around the world, the tortured Czech writer accurately intuited that
all power is essentially implacable and malign.
Give a man control over another man, and his mind begins to camber.
(An intransigent government clerk can make the wisest of men weep.)
Give a man control over many men and the speed of warp accelerates.
Give a few men control over vast multitudes and the mind goes into
cartwheels of giddy pomp and perversion. It happens even to good men.
With ill-luck, if the few men are inferior, the cartwheels acquire
a truly destructive dangerousness. It is a rare person, who given
power, can keep his mind anchored and upright. Of course such men
exist, and it is they who keep the world from spinning totally out
of control. But the odds are stacked against them. It is not the fault
of our instruction - our books are always full of pious homilies.
It is in the very nature of the beast.
And the beast, as Kafka’s everyman character, K, discovers, page after
page, is also essentially unknowable, especially when it arrays itself
into the vast, opaque machinery of power. Who ordered the income tax
to go after us? Who ordered the enforcement directorate to fabricate
cases against us? Who ordered the shameless and unconscionable destruction
of First Global? Who said tap all their phones? Who ordered all those
false affidavits against us in the commission of inquiry, those lies,
lies, lies? Who said arrest Shankar Sharma? Who said arrest Kumar
Badal? Who said arrest Aniruddha Bahal? Who ordered the CBI to get
on our ass around the clock? Who told the Malviya Nagar police station
to take in our chowkidar and junior accountant and interrogate them
for two hours? These questions are asked of me by all kinds of people,
all hours of the day.
I do not know the answers, and will never know; and at a level it
doesn’t matter. Knowing the cogs in the machine gives you neither
knowledge nor control of the machine. Even the hands on the levers
often do not know its workings. It requires an act of great and benign
will to bend the machine into any kind of benevolence. It is an unusual
phenomenon, and one must look out for it like Halley’s comet.
By leading a Kafkaesque life I have in the last one year repaid my
debt to Kafka, but there have also been other lessons, from other
writers, about ourselves. George Orwell and Graham Greene today speak
to me tellingly about the perils of innocence. Armed with the mantra
that if he could kill just one of the enemy there would be one fascist
less in the world, Orwell went to Spain in 1936 and enlisted in the
militia as an ordinary soldier. The account of his privations in Homage
to Catalonia, about hunkering down in trenches amid hunger and dirt
and excreta and injury makes for horrifying and inspiring reading.
More chilling still is his account of how his idealism and that of
thousands of young men like him was betrayed by men playing cynical
politics in other places. At the end of the book, Orwell barely escapes
Barcelona with his life, as his militia’s own allies try and hunt
them down as traitors.
In The Quiet American, set in Saigon during the Vietnam war, Greene
gives us through the character of a typically earnest young American
soldier Pyle, an even darker portrait of innocence at large, and the
damage it can do. Over the months we have been told about all those
who have leveraged and exploited the Tehelka tapes for their own ends.
Not just the opposition - which did a pretty sorry job of it - but
also the various factions and lobbies within the BJP and the NDA.
And some canny businessmen and media companies. We may have done a
purely journalistic story, but other vested interests have used it
as they will, and perhaps continue to do so. As Orwell tells us, even
when everything is what it seems, there may be more that has nothing
to do with you.
If great writing warns us of the pitfalls of facing up to power, it
also gives us the weaponry to deal with it. No book has been mentioned
more in the perennially dwindling offices of Tehelka over the last
year than Catch-22, followed by Raag Darbari. The weapon bequeathed
by these books is humour. IB spooks, their family and such other animals,
prowling around the Tehelka office are most likely to encounter peals
of laughter as Tehelka’s reducing staffers let off steam about cringing
lawyers, phoney cases,
half-assed government theories, Delhi’s mad rumour-mills, media plants,
and the utter utter lack of money and resources.
Yes there is a touch of hysteria to the laughter. How can there not
be? From a family of 115 we are less than 15 (our sweeper, Rajesh,
has risen today to be our receptionist and switchboard operator);
the last salary is a vanished mirage; and we are saddled with a fame,
a burden of expectations, and a reputation for such remarkable conspiracies
as would have concussed a true giant. Each time a new wild theory
about our motives, our origins, our deeds is flung out, we look at
each other and laugh. Did we do that too? Yossarian had it pat. To
do a story like this you have to be insane; but if you can recognize
you may be insane, you must be sane. Catch-22.
So we laugh. Laughter, like love, is redemptive. It makes those who
would scare us, with their many menacing arms and many menacing faces,
look funny and harmless. You read Catch-22 and Raag Darbari and only
wonder at the follies of men. You do not feel fear.
There is another gem of a book whose title springs to my mind all
the time, as we and the government careen off another mad round of
charges and counter-charges. It is written by a young man, John Kennedy
Toole, who committed suicide at thirty. It is called A Confederacy
of Dunces, and I feel as much part of this confederacy as the many
faceless men arrayed against us.
Great writing can be a useful guide at all times. Simply because,
whether you are Atal Behari Vajpayee, Lal Krishna Advani, or an ordinary
journalist, it has a way of taking you back to first things. Why are
you here? Where did you come from? What path did you take? And are
you doing what you came here for? At Tehelka we try to hold on to
first things and get by. But there is another book I must mention
that speaks to all of us more than all the above. It is called The
Bhagvad Gita, and is full of concepts like karma and dharma and such
like things. I have only read it in bits and pieces, but I am sure
Vajpayee and Advani must know its every line.
TARUN J TEJPAL