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The making of a paper

by Shoma Chaudhury

The Tehelka launch has been very long in the waiting. We have had two false starts, and many hiccoughs along the way. For months on end, there seemed to be no light at the end of the tunnel we were in, not even the memory of light, but now January 30 suddenly looms before us with a halogen certainity. We are in a new office. There is a clatter of keys around me, once again a laburnum tree at my window, a reminder of the old office that was shut down. There is an air of anticipation everywhere, a tightness in the stomach. Tomorrow morning as the Tehelka paper hits the stands, it will be a triumph not just for us, or the few thousand Indians who have believed in us, it will be a triumph of something much more fundamental.

Perhaps the length of the tunnel we have walked has something to do with the nature of the triumph. Tehelka is no longer just the story of a paper. As the months and years and days have passed, events have turned Tehelka into something larger than itself. It has absorbed the anger and frustrations, the energies and dreams of thousands of different people. It is no longer just the story of us. It is a story about hope. Self-belief. And collective idealism. Most importantly, it is a story about the power of integrity and optimism. This is why when tomorrow the Tehelka paper hits the stands, it will not be an ordinary act. It will be powerfully symbolic of the fact that ordinary people can stand up for the right things and win. That the decencies of civil society - the right to question, the right to dissent, the right to live by one's conscience - are worth fighting for. And the fact that, as always, in the past and in the future, one man digging his boots in, is enough to change the shape of reality.

In our case, the reality is that over the last two years, Tehelka could have died a daily death. The story that made it famous - a sting investigation on corruption in defence procurement - also left such a debris in its wake, we could have been buried under it every day. The debris had different shapes: there was the malicious stand of the government and the Kafkaesque Commission of Enquiry - no one can ever entirely recount the horror of that. There was the threat of death and the mountains of debt. There were the arrests, the raids, the slander campaigns, and the disintegrating office. But most lethal of all perhaps, there was the cynicism and fearfulness of the Indian elite.

Interviewers have often asked the few of us who remained with Tehelka, what were your darkest moments? I would say it was it was the timorousness and disbelief with which thinking people greeted our story. There was congratulation and applause of course, but wherever we went, people asked us what was the story behind the story. What was Tehelka's motive? How much money had we made? Who was our big daddy? That plain journalism could be a motive seemed too far-fetched a truth.
And then, most disappointing of all, there was the fear. There are many ways to break a country's spine. In a democracy like ours, it is done through a sleight of hand. The government never went overtly after Tehelka; it only wrapped us in a deadly octopus of legality and left us to gasp for air. What it did do though, was go after Shankar Sharma, Tehelka's investor. The day they locked up Shankar and bust his business - even though he was innocent, and they knew he was innocent - I think this government broke something essential in the country's spirit. At least for a time.

We have often asked ourselves what makes Tehelka and its fate an important story? The answer is simple. For some reason - perhaps because of its sheer dare devilry, perhaps because attention doesn't get hotter, and proof of corruption doesn't get starker - for some reason, Tehelka has caught people's imagination. It has slipped into the country's bloodstream. A friend travelling to a remote village in Arunachal Pradesh once told us that she saw nylon saris in a little wayside shop, cheap and bright, in neon pinks and
yellows. Their label said 'Tehelka'. Another friend sent us an advertisement for desi bidis. It said 'Tehelka'. If people did not identify with us, they were at least watching us. Tehelka had assumed the garb of a morality tale. Its message would carry and spread like the beat of a tom-tom. If we failed, I think as a country we would turn a corner. Without voicing it, without actively thinking it, we would tell ourselves, there is never any point. Ordinary people cannot win. Keep your head down, go about your business.
If only for this reason, Tehelka had to make good.

Digging one's boots in was not easy. The government's conduct had left a virus in the air that still needs treating. For two long years, no one would touch us. There were individuals of course - a bank of lawyers who stood their ground, some friends; but for the most part, landlords, industrialists, movers of society, even banks extending loans for cars - everybody recoiled. There was nothing concrete; it was a miasma. Investors' pens would hover on the dotted line and dissolve. Landlords would offer us a cup of tea and show us the door. It was bewildering. The Tehelka name worked both as a talisman and a curse. Everyone agreed it was a monster brand. But no one would touch us.All this began to create a cocktail of outrage and righteousness. In me. In all of us. But in Tarun especially. He dug his boots in. He was determined to survive. Determined to make a comeback.

No one gave us a ghost of a chance.

In a sense, the making of the paper - and the length of the tunnel we eventually had to walk - changed all this. It changed us. Strangely, as things became increasingly more difficult, optimism began to replace outrage, humility nudged out the righteousness. With every hump we crossed, every ditch we clambered out of, we looked at ourselves with surprise and said, hey, we're still here. We can do it.

There was something else. Tarun had been travelling incessantly, invited to speak at different forums. Trivandrum, Ujjain, Nagpur, Bhopal, Guwahati, Kozhikode, Rajkot, Bhiwani, Mangalore, Indore. The more he talked, the more it gathered force. Tehelka became imbued with the energy of common people. A chemical equation took over. Every-where, there were people hungry for integrity. Their expectation refined our vision. Strengthened our resolve. This was not just a story about us. There was a larger covenant.

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