Tarun Tejpal on surviving his assassins

TarunTejpalIndia’s most renowned investigative journalist and novelist Tarun Tejpal meets us at a coffee shop in Knightsbridge flanked only by his literary publicist, rather than the 24 armed policemen he’s grown used to following his every move over the last decade. After his investigate news organisation Tehelka  published an investigation into government corruption in 2001, a foiled assassination attempt on Tejpal’s life led to a security detail following his every move. While battling to keep Tehelka alive in the face of political interference, Tejpal somehow also found the time and space to write his first novel, The Alchemy Of Desire in 2006.For his second book, The Story Of My Assassins, he used the assassination attempt as the fictional starting point for a novel which explores the many faces and stories of contemporary India. Dressed in black with long hair slicked back, he cuts a swashbuckling and eloquent figure. Here, GQ India’s 2011 Writer Of The Year sets forth about empathising with his would-be killers, the challenges facing journalism and what the future holds for his endlessly complicated country.

GQ: How did you learn that a contract had been taken out to assassinate you?
Tarun Tejpal: In May 2001 I received a call to tell me that five killers had been arrested by the Delhi police. The police told me, and I have no reason to doubt it despite the fact that it sounds so outlandish, that they had picked up five boys who had been given a contract in Nepal by the ISI of Pakistan. The perverse reckoning was that if there was a hit on me, the Indian government of the day, which was then assaulting me, would have to take the rap. The ISI of Pakistan was trying to hit me so that the Indian government would fall. In other words, even as it was assaulting me the Indian government had a great interest in protecting me. I came under heavy security cover which lasted nine years. For about six years there were 24 armed policemen guarding me around the clock. Anywhere I travelled in India I would be met at the airport by armedcops. I would be escorted day and night. My house was sandbagged. My office was sandbagged. It was a bit hysterical. That became the conceit for the novel.

Why had the Indian government been assaulting you?
I started Tehelka in 2000 as India’s first serious online journalistic platform. We broke some really big stories, including match-fixing in cricket. Then in 2001 we broke this huge story which is known as the “Watergate of Indian journalism”. We called it “Operation West End” and it was an exposé into corruption in arms procurements. It almost led to the downfall of the Indian government of the time. It led to the resignation of the defence minister of India and the president of the ruling party. It also led to a huge extra-constitutional assault on all our lives. Tehelka was shut down for close to four years. We were fighting a completely out of control state.

Why did you choose to write a novel rather than writing a memoir about your experiences?
What interested me was using this conceit to open up the lives of the killers. I was fascinated by the thought that five guys who didn’t know me at all had taken a contract to kill me. How does one arrive at such a place? One scene which is true to life is the scene in the courtroom. That was a very difficult scene for me to write because I wanted to capture the peculiar mix of Kafka and Chaplin in that tableau. I really was summoned to a lower court where these five guys were paraded out in chains and I was asked to identify them if I knew them. Of course I didn’t know them! It was just five guys. I remember one of them looked tough and unconcerned, so he became themodel for [one particular character] the hammer killer. The rest were nondescript guys. I saw them once and then I forgot about them and imagined the stories of five likely killers. When I finished the book I realised that the five killers subliminally represented five of the biggest fault lines of India: caste, religion, class, language and feudalism. I didn’t set out to do that, but I found I could pull in all the things I wanted to say about an unbelievably complex country.

How close is the narrator’s voice to your own?
The trouble with trying to wrestle down the material was trying to find the tone. Until I found the tone of the highly dislikeable narrator, who is acidic, acerbic and dyspeptic, I couldn’t enter the material. This is not material you can enter with an earnest, sincere voice. You would just heap up the banalities. When I found the voice and wrote the first line I was on a roll. Most of the book is obviously imagined, but there are some seed incidents which are true to life.

What did you learn about your assassins from writing the novel?
That business of telling the story of every assassin from the start of his life helped to establish the fact that in the beginning there is a kind of innocence to all things. Then the world happens to us and we become other things. I wanted to make a far more complex moral judgement of the assassins than we would normally make. I almost wanted to say that fundamentally the killers and the man they wanted to kill may have very little to choose between them morally. Neither is morally superior or inferior.

The narrator’s mistress sides more with the assassins than with him.
I loved Sara! She came out of nowhere. I’m constantly being asked by my wife who this woman is! She was the perfect foil to open up thestories. You do meet people like her: the well-meaning, misguided do-gooders. She was gorgeous. She was driven to do the right thing but didn’t know what the f*** she was doing.

What motivates you to write?
For me, what’s exciting about literature and good writing is that fundamentally it should have the stomach to look evil in the eye. I understand the vocation of both literary writing and journalism as being fundamentally subversive. To subvert the status quo and received notions. Somebody once told me that after reading The Story Of My Assassins they couldn’t sleep all night. I said: “I love it!” That’s wonderful. I don’t want my readers to sleep after reading my books. My job is to provide you with discomfiture. I’m not here to provide you comfort. That’s the job of television, cinema and mass media. There’s way too much of it. We live in an age of amusement. I don’t think the job of a serious writer is to amuse you.

What’s your favourite James Bond moment?
I actually really like Daniel Craig. I’m from the Sean Connery generation, but I really think the way Craig redefined Bond from the beginning of Casino Royale is fantastic. I like the way he plays him with that peculiar, hard-nosed intensity rather than the fey, playboy charm.

Who’s your best-dressed British man?
Most Indians would probably say David Beckham, but I feel like I should say VS Naipaul. I like the way he dresses.

Do you worry that news agencies are losing the ability to fund in-depth investigative journalism?
It’s a huge challenge, and the problem is that India needs so much of it. There is so much bigotry, injustice, inequality and corruption to fight. You need the sort of hard journalism that we do at Tehelka, but nobody wants to pay for it. Sustaining it costs a lot of money. You have to be very smart and use a lot of sleight of hand. You have to be very seductive. You have to convince men of means that you’re a worthy cause and that they should back you. A lot of my work goes into that: ensuring that rich men fund the journalism which will finally hurt them! [Laughs] What we need to fear in free societies is monolithic media, like Murdoch. The more media you have the more insulated you are against control.

What keeps you awake at night?
Actually I sleep really well. It’s one of the things I do well. I think if there’s something I worry about all the time it’s India, which is crazy given that it’s gone on quite alright for 6000 years. There is a kind of racial commitment to the country I was born into and its complicated miseries. If there’s something that really bothers me and gets me exercised it’s the struggle for India. The incredible poverty and deprivations, the really unequal society, the state of justice, these are things that really bother me.

Are you optimistic for the future of India?
I think India is going through an historical curve right now. It was the dominant civilisation 1500 years ago. It’s been on a great decline but now it’s coming back. I think history is on our side but our challenges are huge. I’m a great believer in politics and its enabling potential. I’m not among those who knock it, I really believe in it but I think we need some great visionary politics to see us through our next 20 years. The idea of India was created out of absolutely visionary politics. Men like Gandhi and Nehru were extraordinary but to protect their idea we need a second generation of great leaders. I don’t see it right now, but I hope for it.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?
My father told me: “Don’t be afraid”. I’ve found that invaluable. Most people are crippled by fear. The potentiality of their lives and what they can be and do is all linked to fear. Fear of failure, fear ofcriticism, fear of society, fear of tradition, fear of the church, fear of the temple, fear of priest, fear of the teacher, fear of the parent: it’s crippling. My father was fantastic. He’s probably the wisest man I’ve known in my life. One of the earliest things he taught me was not to be afraid. When all hellbroke loose, there was a murder attempt on my life and the whole government was on our ass, everybody was running for cover around us. The television channels in India were full of it. Everyone was calling me and telling me to be careful, including my mother. The only person who called me and said, “It’s going to be alright, stop worrying,” was my father. No matter what happened, he was completely sanguine. I find that a source of great strength.

Originally published by British GQ.