Tejpal the editor is dead; Tejpal the human may be reborn

Last Updated: Sat, Nov 23, 2013 04:56 hrs

You don't have much of a shot if the only voice you hear is yours and the only thoughts you know are yours. Many humans have felled themselves thus. Tarun J Tejpal, singed by the limelight a second time, is only the most recent.

It matters not if he and the younger woman he was with were flirting. It is of no consequence if the CCTV footage from Goa shows him and her in a friendly sexual encounter. All the footage can do, if Tejpal's version of what happened is accurate, is keep him physically out of prison. He will find it far more difficult to exit the confines of the moral dungeon he has locked himself in.

Tejpal is a wordsmith. He has sharp journalism instincts. He is a good judge of talent. He is articulate. He hates rules. He is comfortable with chaos. He doesn't give a damn. I have worked with him a few years. We have had our moments; we've had our differences. We are not friends. We are not foes.

The younger woman in this powerful human moment is sharp. She has chutzpah. She is articulate. I have worked in the newsroom of the Tehelka magazine with her briefly. She didn't report to me. I knew her father as a colleague. She and I are not friends. We are not foes. That is where I'm coming from when I write this.

The spiritual bankruptcy

Truth is simple. Truth has legs. Truth is difficult to cap. The truth here is that this is the moment of spiritual bankruptcy for Tejpal. The dispute over the mutual consensus of the man and the woman involved in this case is a legal issue. Being an editor is not about seeking legal sanction of character.

A newsroom is the most sacred space on the planet. Not because gods populate it. Not because the people in a newsroom are without flaws. It is most sacred because it is the place you go to when all else fails. In a civilised society the courts dispense justice. When the judges fail you, you go to an editor.

An editor is a repository of wisdom, courage, skill and clarity. There is no mismatch between their words and their deeds. Above all, an editor is an appropriate adult. Tejpal will know he probably is not. He will know that you are what you do when no one is looking. If the internal compass is dysfunctional, the rest doesn't matter much.

It is important to get a sense of a man like Tejpal. He was the biggest journalist in independent India's history after Operation West End, a sting operation that established deep corruption in India's defence establishment. It was Indian journalism's biggest story – a sort of desi equivalent of the reportage on the Watergate Scandal. It was done when Tejpal helmed Tehelka in its early days.

Former Lok Sabha Speaker Somnath Chatterjee said that Tejpal ought to be conferred with the Bharat Ratna after Operation West End. Chatterjee is probably thankful now that no one took him seriously. But such was Tejpal. Everyone knew about him and his deeds. He was a hero.

Unscrambling a human being is a task that knows no perfection. There's always something to prove you wrong. There are a few universal yardsticks though. How a man behaves with women, how he conducts himself with those in his employ, how he deals with the younger generation, how he generally comes across as.

The change in stance

The choice of Tejpal's words to describe his encounter with a younger colleague is our best barometer here. Let's take a look at what is in public domain and has not been contested thus far. First, from Tejpal's email to Shoma Chaudhury, who reported to Tejpal as managing editor and who is now acting editor of Tehelka.

Tejpal's email to Chaudhury has two sentences of import.

"A bad lapse of judgment, an awful misreading of the situation, an unfortunate incident that rails against all we believe in and fight for."

"It is tragic that in a lapse of judgment I have hurt our own high principles."

Then there is the woman's account of what happened, which attributes the following sentences to Tejpal.

"It's alright to be in love with more than one person."

"Well, this is the easiest way for you to keep your job."

"The universe is telling us something."

"I don't give a f**k about Bob. How could you tell xxxx what happened?"

"She's my daughter. Do you even understand what the word means?"

"I hope you told xxxx that it was just drunken banter, and nothing else."

"I can't believe u went and mentioned even the smallest thing to her. What an absence of any understanding of a parent child relationship."

"Oh is that so? I cherished you like one of my best kids always, all these years; and because of one drunken banter you so easily say these awful things."

"Don't think I've been more saddened in the longest time"

And then his emailed replies to questions from The Indian Express.

"It is a totally mendacious account of what happened, in its details, in its tonalities, in its very suggestion of non-consensus."

"In cold light of day, much of it will sound unsavoury, but now the inquiry will reveal it all."

"This is one of the half-truths she's voiced (about it being the easiest way to hold a job). Nothing of this, as she states, was said or intended."

"My lawyers know I am being framed, and are also aware of the political forces driving much of it now."

"I had no reason to do that (recuse himself from the editor's post). I did so because Shoma Chaudhury felt I needed to make a clear gesture of atonement to appease the journalist's sense of being aggrieved. She felt we needed to honour the journalist's complaint, right or wrong, with some gestures."

"I want that examined and brought out. That's empirical. It should hopefully clear the air."

"I am getting rock solid support from family, friends and most of my colleagues. They know the details and know how much is being dangerously falsified".

"It's been rough and debilitating and we'll claw our way back as the facts become clear."

The self-worth

There is remorse in his message to Chaudhury, which Chaudhury later said she wrung out of Tejpal by refusing to accept his version of what happened. Remorse under duress is ephemeral and often fake. It usually leads a person to self-pity or anger and resentment. Or both.

In his interaction with the younger woman colleague, as reported by her, Tejpal comes from a different space. He knows he is dealing with a powerless woman and not, say, Robert De Niro. He is in control. He can be himself without having to wear a mask. There is loss of inhibition in such situations as it seems to have happened with Tejpal.

His concept of love (it's all right to love more than one at the same time) is justification of conduct. Such rationalisation doesn't come instantly; it is the result of consistent behaviour that convinces a person that he has nailed it. In this case, it is an attempt to dominate someone who is not an intellectual match.

Tejpal's admonition that sleeping with the boss is the easiest way to hold a job is the thought process of a man who has not known resistance in a long time. This is usually how people who get their way each time tend to think. They can't imagine anyone saying no.

This usually disqualifies a person from being the boss. At a more fundamental level it suggests deep self-centredness where a person is convinced that he is the centre of the universe he populates. We can see this from the ‘I don't give a fuck about Bob' remark as well.

Interestingly, Tejpal's tone changes by the time of The Indian Express conversation. He is coming from a different space when he accuses the woman of dishonesty. He now sees himself as a victim of half-truths and a political campaign to set him up.

The low self-esteem in his email to Chaudhury is now replaced by the high self-esteem of a man who has made the noblest of human gestures: sacrifice. It is the tone of a man who has given away his prestige and his honour to protect a woman's dignity.

The act of recusing himself from the editor's post is part of this sense of superiority. Where Tejpal is above the crowd. It's the sort of thing that BCCI president N Srinivasan did when he was accused of inappropriate conduct. Srinivasan returned after a while with a perceptible loss of respect.

The path to spiritual bankruptcy

The inescapable truth is that at times all people fail, transgress,cheat, criticise, get mad, get impatient, are selfish, are wrong, are right, and are a varied mixture of good and bad. This means that spiritual bankruptcy does not happen overnight.

Tejpal is usually the fittest in a gathering. In Tehelka he always looked in better health than peers and colleagues. Women tend to find him attractive. He has a natural air of authority. People paid attention when he spoke. His body of work as a journalist is outstanding. You can almost talk of Indian journalism in terms of pre-Tehelka and post-Tehelka.

At times all this meant he made a great impression on youngsters. Young female adults in their first job at times idolised him. In a young mind admiration of professional skills may be interpreted as romantic feelings. When so driven, a youngster may have difficulty separating the professional from the personal.

Tejpal's commanding presence requires strong peers who are not in awe of him. He needs people who can match him in skill, energy and presence. In the initial days of Tehelka, Tejpal had such colleagues.

He had Aniruddha Bahal who also helmed Operation West End in the dotcom days. He had Sankarshan Thakur (now with The Telegraph), Amit Sengupta (now with Hard News), Harinder Baweja (now with Hindustan Times) and Shobhan Saxena (now with The Hindu).

They were journalists who had done the miles before they worked with Tejpal. They were not blinded by Tejpal. They disagreed when they saw occasion to; they kept the ship stable. They roughed it out, at times staying nights in office to get the work done. Chaudhury helmed the features section.

But people began to leave Tehelka soon. Tejpal had difficulty finding senior journalists to work with Tehelka. Over the past decade Tehelka probably has among the highest turnover rates in the industry. This meant that juniors had more direct access to Tejpal.

It distorted newsroom hierarchy and lent a casual air to a professional media organisation. Tejpal's disdain for systems and rules meant that the HR department was mostly nonexistent. He was king. He had no peers to tell him where he was wrong. Chaudhury stayed loyal but there was no one else.

Editors are not monarchs. They are custodians. As things became tougher with the magazine, Tejpal began to write novels. It gave him more success and a greater sense of invincibility. He was ready for a fall.

The Goa fiasco

Success can shred inhibition. The 2013 Goa Thinkfest was apparently the most successful thus far. From all indications, Tejpal was in a space he wanted to be in. He was going mainstream finally.

The celebs came to him not for the cause alone, but for the glitz as well. The sponsors were making big financial commitments.

This was the emotional and recreational landscape in which Tejpal and his younger woman colleague got into a hotel lift. There is no alibi for an editor to have an inappropriate relationship with younger employees.

If anything, Tejpal's instincts should have told him to stay far away from female company.

Tejpal is not the first man to think it is fine to love (physically) more than one person at the same time. He isn't the first either to figure out it's not such a great idea. His argument that it was a fleeting consensual encounter suggests that he may be in a state of denial. He may be having difficulty processing the consequences of his actions.

Friendly or hostile is not the point. Tejpal simply shouldn't have been there. A legal victory, which he seems to think he will have, is a mere footnote. The only real authority a human being has is moral. All other forms of authority are fugacious. Tejpal has ceded moral authority.

Tejpal the editor is dead. Tejpal the human may be reborn, if he so wishes.

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Vijay Simha is an independent journalist and sobriety campaigner based out of New Delhi. His most recent journalism assignment was as executive editor with The Financial World, New Delhi, and tehelka.com.

He was a guest on Season 1 of the popular Indian TV show Satyamev Jayate, hosted by Aamir Khan.

Vijay blogs here and may be cont acted at vijsimha@gmail.com.