The Alchemy of Shame

Posted by Yashika Totlani Khanna on 10:37 AM

I had decided I wouldn’t write about this. It seemed like a simple case on the onset and I thought I wouldn’t give it more importance than it deserved. But thanks to a voyeuristic nation that doesn’t let go of even slightly salacious cases like the Aarushi Talwar murder case – the Tarun Tejpal sex scandal has refused to leave the headlines. In the process, it has brought out the worst in the decorated writer/journalist.

Sexual overtures in the media aren’t as rare as one would like to believe. Bosses making advancement towards their juniors just because they are higher up in the hierarchy, the ‘sab chalta hai’ attitude that dominates the industry and the people who aren’t scared to push the limits to see what all they can get away with. Talks laden with sexual innuendo, passing remarks about the ‘quickest way to get promoted’ and the usual sight of girls having to work extra hard to make a mark are common occurrences within these circles. Nobody dares say a word (who would they report it to, right? Their bosses themselves are the news makers) and the constant exploitation of womenfolk continues in this unorganized and largely informal industry. The safest way is to walk away with your head bent down and ignore the overtures at the risk of a doomed career. And nobody dares make any noise about this injustice that is brushed under the carpet on a daily basis. All this until one day when someone leaked Tarun Tejpal’s internal correspondence to the media – BAM!

Tarun Tejpal, one of my favourite writers as a teenager (I devoured ‘Story of my Assassins’ and ‘The Alchemy of Desire’), and the editor-in-chief of Tehelka magazine. The same magazine that was until recently seen as pioneer and champion of stories that nobody else dared venture around. That Tarun Tejpal finds himself in a sex controversy. A junior reporter at Tehelka accuses him of ‘gross sexual misconduct’ at a conference in Goa. She says he penetrated her with his finger, not once but twice on two separate occasions, in a resort elevator. Despite her reluctance and despite it being a clear violation of the employer-employee relationship that they shared. Not to mention that the girl was the same age as Tarun’s daughter and also happened to be his daughter’s best friend! He offered to recuse himself from Tehelka for 6-months (that’s unheard of) and admitted to his guilt in the letter that he wrote to managing editor Shoma Chaudhary. Later when that letter got leaked to the media (his own industry), he went back on his words and did what all men do when accused of sexual misconduct – called the act ‘consensual’ between him and the girl. And because of that u-turn, I was prompted to write this post.

So what do I think of Shoma Chaudhary and Tehelka after the expose? Tehelka’s credibility might just as well be finished after this scandal. A magazine that took pride in imparting justice to the slighted failed to assemble a cell to probe the sexual assault allegations for over a week. They scrambled and scrambled some more for some wriggle-room even as the media went berserk asking them to take stricter action against Tarun, over and above his self-determined and self-inflicted hiatus of just six months. Shoma Chaudhary’s response was a surprise too. A lesser known fact about her is that she is also a visiting faculty at the Indian Institute of Mass Communication (IIMC) and gives lectures on journalistic ethics and morality (I was a student in a few of those classes too). And yet, when her own friend confessed to a crime of sexual violation and ‘misreading of signals’ (whatever that means), she merely came forward to call it an ‘internal matter’ of Tehelka and failed to take adequate redressal measures to assuage the violated journalist. Last I heard, she quit from her position as managing editor for good.

Over to what I think about Tarun Tejpal and what the future holds for him. Well the man is known for his sexcapades and sexual adventures. I witnessed his fondness for the carnal first hand when I saw him a few years ago at the Jaipur Literary Festival’s Writers Ball, happily surrounded by a bunch of pretty girls with a malt whiskey in his hand, completely oblivious to the going-ons around him and exhibiting zero interest in starting a conversation with anybody outside his beautiful circle of companions. The lurid text in some of his books also indicates a fascination with exploring one’s sexuality and living life in a (depressing) daze. While I wouldn’t hold his text against him, there is no denying the fact that the reputation precedes Tarun Tejpal’s arrival everywhere. To think that he could get away with sexually assaulting a colleague in a lift and then whispering in her ear that that was the easiest way for her to keep her job, on two separate occasions, is a reflection of his mentality that women employees can be suppressed into submission with the threat of keeping their jobs. The complete disregard for the fact that the victim was also his daughter’s friend shows how he isn’t just a bad boss, but also a terrible father. He comes out as a person who can’t even accord due consideration to his family, let alone treat his colleagues right. His credibility has taken a severe hit and it would be sad to see him get away with a light sentence and resuming work in a couple of years (a.k.a. Prabhu Chawla after the radia tapes) and the nation forgetting about his misdemeanors.

What stands out throughout the case is the consistency of the victim’s statements, despite the duress and added pressure of media spotlight. Even after her complaints of receiving threats from several people asking her to withdraw the case, she has managed to hold her ground and not embellished her accounts of what happened on that fateful conference in Goa. Quite unlike Tarun Tejpal, who has oscillated wildly from calling the incident a ‘gross miscalculation on his part’ earlier, to terming it ‘consensual’ later when the case gained prominence. For that crime alone, and the patriarchal mindset that it reveals where he thinks he can blame it on the girl and get away with it, his should be made a model case and Tarun Tejpal be doled out the harshest punishment to dissuade such incidents from happening in the future. Maybe then the dark veil of secrecy shielding the industry will get its tiny hole in the fabric for the aggrieved to peep out from and move towards resurrection. 


Hard hitting and deservedly so. The media can be an opaque industry and one where the informal rules trump written ones. The case only demonstrates that bad sexual attitudes are not just the preserve of 'lower economic classes' as we often tend to believe and that many in a position of power often think they can get away easily as well. Tarun Tejpal has irredeemably damaged Tehelka and Shoma Chaudhary has now ruined her credibility trying to defend him. Tarun can be quite crafty with his prose and is a critically acclaimed novelist. Surely, remorse for a sexual act cannot be expressed merely through a recusal from an editorial position. He should have handed himself for police enquiry as soon as the victim complained. It speaks to his brazenness that he thought he could ride it out. Many other media outlets have fanned the anger against him and helped keep the story alive. One only wishes it would be true with other instances as well where employers exercise dominance over female employees and curry sexual favours in return of promotions. That such a thing happened in a place like Tehelka which has claimed to speak for the disempowered for so long only means that the rot is widespread and no place is safe. Everything about this case, save the brave stand of the victim, points to depressing insights.

@ the lazer: Whats also interesting to see is how the media is the media's biggest enemy! One newspaper decided to keep running this story and other followed suit, all trying to bring Tehelka down to have one less competitor in the market. Nobody however is giving a second thought to how much dirt entails the running of their own organisations. Thanks for the quick read husband and the quicker comment :) Much appreciated.

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