We had reached the
heart of the tunnel. On January 26th, 2003, Arun Nair, our stenographer,
died in a casual motorcycle accident. Barely 27, delightfully bright,
nobly loyal, he had become a crucial member of our team. We had only just
embarked on the paper. His loss hit us in the plexus. It was the one time
I think we lost some nerve. We felt truly jinxed.
The Tehelka story
is full of milestones. The entry of Erehwon, a Bangalore based marketing
innovations company, into our lives in January is a crucial one - at once
exhilarating and perplexing. Rajiv Narang, one of the partners in Erehwon,
was a college friend of Tarun. He met Tarun over dinner. Fired by the
Tehelka vision, moved by Tarun's self belief, he offered his company's
services. We did not hear from him again for a month. Then in early February,
he suddenly came to Delhi again. We met him in the South Ex office. It
was late in the evening. We entered after him. He had been studying my
chart. As we came in, he said with feeling, "You can't do it like
this. I just don't see scale in this boss." I can still hear the
ring in his tone. The room looked dispirited and dull. He urged Tarun
to go to Bangalore to convince his partners to undertake the Tehelka campaign.
This was a hopeful
time. We had been rescued from our plaintive cottage industry. The professionals
had moved in. Erehwon infused new energy into the dream when we needed
it the most. They had spit and polish, and often, their passion overshadowed
ours. Laptops out, shoulders hunched, dazzling numbers began to be tossed
about. The plan was to launch a massive mass subscription drive across
the country. A variety of seasoned marketing men estimated Tehelka could
draw in at least three lakh advance subscribers. The value projections
ran into crores. But to launch the campaign, we needed a corpus. Alyque
Padamsee, a friend and well-wisher, came up with the inspired idea. He
suggested the Founder Subscriber - citizens who would put in a lakh each
to create the paper.
Tarun began to criss-cross
the country again, sometimes traveling 25 days a month - speaking at night-clubs,
private homes, auditoriums, offices, colony clubs, anywhere that a group
of privileged citizens had been gathered. Oddball dip surveys have revealed
that the quality people associate Tehelka with the most, is guts. Guts
for having taken on the
Establishment. But the real guts I think lay in speaking a language of
idealism. And believing in it. Indians have ceased to expect public morality.
The Tehelka pitch could have passed for a unicorn, but it stirred something
in people and started to swing the wind.
Fear is only a line
in the head. The government's virus was still in the air. It was mid-April
before the first Fou-nder Subscriber, Vikram Nair, signed on. The next
one took almost three weeks. Then, slowly they began to roll. It must
have been a lonely time for Tarun. I had fallen off the map to have my
baby. Neena was busy shuttling between her parents' school in Hisar and
shifting office yet again-this time on sufferance to Toliaji's new premises
in Panchsheel. Geetan, Tarun's wife, was doing all she could to keep a
semblance of normalcy in their home. Brij and Prawal were of course at
their post. But other than that, there was only Erehwon to hold up the
blue printed by them, brick by brick, a cathedral had started to come
up. By the time I re-entered the fray around end of May, a grand arc of
14-odd companies had been cobbled together to run the Tehelka campaign.
O&M, Bill Junction, Encompass
the list was long. Adv-ertising
companies, call centers, sms services, training companies, software companies-all
apparently on board for nothing except a success fee. Given where we'd
been, it wasn't just a glimmer, it seemed Diwali was ahead. I subsi-ded
in a corner with gratitude. We'd handed our fates over to passionate,
idealistic professionals. We were out of the tunnel.
The campaign launch
date was fixed for August 15, 2003. Feverish months followed. The plan
was to create armies of "crusaders"-4000 strong across the country-citizens
who had been inspired and trained to spread the Tehelka word and get subscriptions.
They would operate at no fixed cost, only commissions. It was to be an
8-city roll out. There was a hum in the air. People flew about the country
like summer gnats making ready for history. Vast pillars of literature
came up-'crusader kits', 'training manuals', 'vision statements', 'product
brochures', 'leave behinds'-musical jargon to our ears. The Founder Subscriber
drive was going well. We were hitting 50. News came from Delhi and Pune
and Bombay and Bangalore-hundreds of crusaders had been enlisted.
T-shirts and caps were being ordered. Everything was configured for success.
The dates slipped
a little. August 22 was fixed for kick off; October 30 would launch the
paper. On August 21, a few hoardings came up in Delhi. Round 2, they said,
Tehelka is back as a newspaper. We drove around the city that night, checking
the hoarding sites, cheering like children with elation. The next day,
after the press conference, we gathered in a hot school auditorium. Rousing
speeches were made. 1200 crusaders cheered. Over the next two days we
waited for the subscriptions to flow.
It was a rout. A disgrace.
1200 crusaders enlisted over six months vanished in smoke. And not one,
not one company performed. In the weeks that followed, as we were herded
from launch to launch-Chandigarh, Mumbai, Pune, Banga-lore, Chennai-it
seemed the disasters would not stop. The same sordid story repeated itself
again and again. The entire cathedral came crumbling down. Not one brick
had been cemented in place. There has not been a more bleak or confus-ed
time. Everybody demanded their pound of flesh and disb-anded. To give
them their due, Erehwon stood honourably by their post. Terrible mistakes
had been made. Hurtful deals had been cut. We'd been ridden out to a mirage.Mirages
have their uses. Erehwon had brought us very far. But in many ways, the
debris of Tehelka 2 was harder to overcome than the debris of Tehelka
1. The waste lay heavy on our conscience. A year had gone by. It almost
broke our confidence. This was the real heart of the tunnel. It was much
darker, much longer than we had imagined.
Tehelka 3 - the final
making of the paper - is only three months old. In every aspect, it has
been a daring game of poker. No one can ever entirely know how close we
came to losing.