The making of a paper

After its sting investigation on defence corruption, a massive government witch-hunt shut Tehelka down. No one believed it could rise from the ashes. But it did. This is our story

January 4, 2004 in Columns, Culture
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The Tehelka launch has been very long in the waiting. We have had two false starts, and many hiccups 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 certainty. 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.

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.

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 tent.

Slowly, incrementally, 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.

By the time the rout had played itself out, we were at the end of September. Everybody was stunned. It is the one phase in the life of Tehelka when we could not muster any irreverent laughter to soften the blow. The campaign had not just failed; it had never taken off. We knew we did not have another chance. We were losing our shirt everyday; there was little we could do to dam the anger. It was a peculiar situation. There was no one we could really knock. Erehwon, our interface, and in a sense, the architect of the campaign, had acted with good intention. They had aligned with us at a time when no other marketing company dared to. They had devoted themselves to the task for the better part of a year and taken no money for it. They had acted with honour. But that counted for nothing in the field. We were in battle. And there were no arms. Around the beginning of October, we moved into our own office in Greater Kailash II. We were in too deep. We had to keep moving forward. We had promises to keep. A small but very fine clutch of journalists had joined us. There was a trickle of money coming in from Founder Subscribers. Much of it had gone in good faith towards the launch of the campaign, but mercifully, we had set some aside for the paper. On October 15, Tarun gathered us together and said, let’s go for the paper. November 15. We would not admit it then, but this was an act of desperation. We felt we had reached the endgame. But we owed ourselves – and everyone who had believed in us – at least one issue of the paper. We also clung to the hope that if we put the paper out, something would happen.

Optimism had become our way of life. Something did happen. Honorable to the end, Erehwon was valiantly trying to create Plan B. But we were all out of step. We had come to fear the white board calculations, the exponential mental math. We did not have the emotional reserves for more dream seeking. We hurtled towards November 15. Suddenly, Satya Sheel, another friend of Tarun’s, a rather inscrutable Delhi businessman, came on to the scene. At different points, he had helped Tarun tide over the bad times. He was shocked to know where things now stood. You were meant to launch a
historic paper, he told Tarun. Are you going to let three years of suffering just go up in smoke?

We called a meeting with all our partners. Satya presided. I had hoped he would prove to be a shaman. He could not be that. It was a crazy chaotic meeting. It sent us skittering for a few more days into fresh, fruitless directions. But it had at least one positive fallout. It put a brake on our panic. It reminded us of the larger picture.

Tehelka has been a transformative experience for everyone who has entered its energy field. There are many lessons it has taught, many riddles it has thrown up. It is difficult to really explain the dynamics of Tehelka 2. Both Erehwon and Tehelka were crippled by what we came to call “bandwidth issues.” To put it plainly, there were just not enough people to do what was needed. The idea of Tehelka had billowed over us all with a tantalising potency, but we could not peg it down. One of toughest lessons we all
had to learn was about the frailty of passion. To usher visions, you need nuts and bolts men. Tehelka 2 forced us to become that.

Around the end of October, we took back the reins to our lives. Erehwon pulled up its pegs and went back to theirs. We set a new launch date – January 30, 2004 – and worked ste-adily towards it, putting little pieces in place, one by one. Somehow the mad panic had settled. There was little to go on, but now, too many people’s fates were entwined with ours. Reaching deep into himself, Tarun created an illusion of invincibility in the office and we all soldiered on. New people were hired. Journalists, designers, production-printing-circulation-distribution experts, ads salesmen, marketing heads. It was a gamble. But if we were to have even a sliver of a chance to win the game, we had to keep playing.

The Founder Subscribers kept flowing in – a truly historic phenomenon. And ever so often, unexpected letters would come bearing faith in Tehelka. A retired colonel who sent us a lakh from his pension fund; a 20-year old girl, Chandni – one of the few Mumbai “crusaders” who stayed -who converted the commissions she earned from sales into a Founder Subscription for Tehelka; and many others, ordinary people sharing their stories, reposing faith. These worked like amulets of strength; reminded one of the larger covenant.

Then, around the beginning of the year, our cards began to change. We were being dealt better hands. On January 17, just twelve days before the launch, a young couple walked into our lives. They’d heard of Tehelka; they were willing to back their belief in it with money. There was talk of other investors. The virus seemed to have passed.

Tomorrow, the idea of Tehelka will finally pass into something concrete. Perhaps it will lose some of its potency. Or perhaps it will gather force, slowly, incrementally, story by story, issue by issue. It is not yet all that it promised to be. But that is as it should be. We are at the start of another road. The tunnel seems to be behind us. For the time being, to be out in the light is triumph enough.

Also Read: The Lagaan Team

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