I vividly remember
the day Tarun gathered us together and said we were going to go for the
paper. It was an act of bravura. The money had long run out. By January
2002, there were no friends left from whom money could be borrowed to
pay salaries. By May, the office had disbanded. After that there had been
months of nothing but a bleak search for money and legal footwork for
the Commission of Enquiry. Only six of us remained. Tarun; his sister
Neena T Sharma; I, the literary editor, five months pregnant; Brij our
accountant; Prawal, our desktop operator, and Arun Nair, our stenographer.
Each with our own quixotic idea of duty and honour. In spirit, Tehelka
had become gigantic, almost mythic; in the body, there was only us.
We were still in the
old office then: D1, Soami Nagar. But we were reduced to two tiny rooms
in the basement. And we were steadily selling the last of our chairs to
pay for petrol. This was the end of November. We had stretched our landlord's
philanthropy. We had to find new office space urgently. None was forthcoming.
Still, we were typically gungho.
We had crossed an
important milestone. A week earlier, we had turned our backs on the Commission
of Enquiry. In a masterful performance, Ram Jethmalani had blown craters
through the government's case against First Global and Tehelka. And Justice
Venkatswami had finished writing his interim report on the 15 defence
deals being examined behind closed doors. The Establishment was running
scared. Consummate strategists, they replaced Justice Venkatswami with
Justice Phookan. There was talk of starting from scratch. We had had enough.
We had co-operated; we had fought, but the impasse with the government
was leaching us dry. We refused to be a part of our own witch-hunt any
longer. We bowed out of the new Commission. This was the end of Tehelka
1. Almost miraculously, it freed our heads. It released us from a death
embrace. The blueprint of our story began to change from reactive defence
to proactive hope. We were ready for Tehelka 2.
The idea was epiphanic.
After more than a year of searching for money, Tarun had just received
two investment offers of more than 10 crores each. He had turned them
down because they violated the spirit of Tehelka. Now he was ready to
be radical. Leave the shore. Let's go to the people, he said. Let's launch
a nationwide campaign. Let's ask ordinary people to fund the Tehelka paper.
I looked around the
tiny room. We were less than a Lag-aan team. And a single rod heater glowed
red in the corner.
This was a surreal
interlude. A couple of months earlier, Niranjan Tolia, a Gujarat based
businessman and political activist, had walked in blind into our lives.
(Tehelka's story is resplendent of this. Again and again, in the nick
of time, different people have walked in from nowhere and put their shoulders
to the yoke, creating at least an illusion of strength.) Toliaji now took
us in. He gave us two rooms in his office, P55, South Extension. We thought
Tehelka had finally found a canny ploughman. But a dreamer himself, Toliaji
could only give our dreams wing.
We began to gather
every day in the South Ex office to brainstorm, make plans. And fly kites.
We were sure of our goodwill. We were certain lakhs of people would give
us money to start a paper. But how were we to reach them? We spoke of
launching our campaign through schools and paan shops and STD booths and
SMS companies and human chains and concentric circles of friends. We came
up with an idea a day, some truly wild: we would create Tehelka chapters
in small towns, make smiley buttons, float gas balloons. We drew lists
and gathered data bases. The Mayo alumni, the Rotary directory. We planned
and we talked. Finally, one day, I leant over my breakfast table and pinning
two white charts together, I wrote our master plan down. We did not lack
for ambition. On the top of the chart, I wrote: Subscription Campaign
for New Delhi. Goal: 75,000.
We had talked ourselves
into a sense of movement. But we had no money; we had no people, we did
not even have a STD line. How were we to execute all this?
Tomorrow morning, when the paper hits the stands, an office 80-strong
would have sent it forth. An advance order of 1,50,000 copies will be
distributed out of 4 metros into almost the entire country. One of the
key things its birth can justly celebrate is the life of action. The sanctity
of just going ahead and doing things, no matter what; of taking one day
at a time and moving forward.
Looking back, for
a few people sunk in personal debt to think of creating a national newspaper
from those two rooms in South Extension was truly a leap of imagination.
But a strange euphoria filled us. At no point did it seem impossible.
Partly, this was to do with the sheer force of Tarun's conviction. Partly,
it was a sense of our larger covenant and the excitement of the paper
we wanted to create. Sitting in a line, one behind the other like in a
bus or a seater train, we often laughed hysterically at our gumption,
but we never acknowledged the preposterousness of it to each other. The
truth is, we were floating in a vacuum. Tarun had a mantra for those days:
It'll happen, it'll happen, he used to say. It'll happen, it'll happen,
it'll happen, as if the incantation would wreak miracles. Perhaps, it
did. He had discovered the art of positivism.