Real India: Tarun Tejpal’s heart-ache for "the idea of India"

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NEW DELHI — Tarun Tejpal — muckraker, editor and novelist — is speaking with professional zeal and a certain generational remorse about his remarkable ten-year-old magazine Tehelka.

In the slick commercial media of New Delhi, Tehelka is the strong-minded reformist alternative. It could remind you of The New Yorker and The Nation back home. Tehelka is fearless and critical if not exactly radical in its politics; it is passionate and informed but not forbiddingly high-brow on literature, movies and the arts. Tehelka’s greatest coup was a sting back in 2001 that made bribery look routine and easy in military arms procurement. It cost the Defense Minister his job but brought a vengeful bureaucracy down on the magazine, which has barely survived financially.

Tarun Tejpal’s father was a military officer who wore English suits and used a knife and fork. He was what Indians call with some embarrassment now, a “Brown Sahib,” wishing his way into the ruling class. Tarun Tejpal’s daughters, on the contrary, have chosen colleges and careers in the United States — in a modern Indian spirit that admires America despite everything, as in “Yankee go home, and take me with you.” Tarun Tejpal himself, as a young scholar and athlete, dropped out of the Rhodes Scholarship race that would have sent him to Oxford because he couldn’t miss a day of the historic action unfolding in India as he came of age in the Eighties. He finds himself now, age 47, appalled at the opportunities missed, the visions that lost traction, the generation and social class that abandoned “the idea of India” for an orgy of acquisition and consumption.

… Were you to ask me what I feel about India today, I would say: great distress. Were you to ask me: are you optimistic about India? I would say: no. Were you to ask me whether you think we will come through, I would say: maybe. But what we certainly are not is what the world imagines us to be: this great rising, shining superpower, this juggernaut spreading its head. It’s much more complex than that. There are some millions of us who are there, and among whom I count myself, who have wealth, education, privilege, mobility, power. We have all that. Is it remotely true of the majority of this country? It’s not. Seven hundred, 800 million people in this country do not have a story to their lives…

There was a big difference when we became independent. We were 300 million then. The incredible triumph of the leaders of the time was to wed 330 million people in one master narrative. Everybody was part of the same master narrative. Today, the master narrative has shrapnelled completely. The only narrative is the Shining India narrative, which fundamentally concerns maybe 200 million people…

But you’re still talking about another 900 million to a billion people who are not part of this narrative… who have no story. For now and for the next 50 years, any prime minister for this country has only one constituency to look out for. It’s mandated by the founding of this country, it’s mandated by our history that there’s only one class of people the prime minister has to watch out for, and that’s the wretched of this land. The rest of this country can look out for itself. This is a country where 50 percent of its people live in conditions worse than Sub-Saharan Africa. I don’t understand. There are more poor people in India than the entire population of Africa. How we manage the sleight of hand of totally creating this other story is bizarre.

Tarun Tejpal in conversation with Chris Lydon in New Delhi. July, 2010

  • Neeraja

    Brialliant, moving and idealistic! Thank you for a wonderful interview.

  • Rob Crawford

    I listened to this and was utterly thunderstruck at the intelligence and bubbling of ideas and controversies. This is the Chris Lydon that I remember so fondly from my days in Boston, which I left in 1998. Lydon excels as an interviewer and man of ideas, so open, so excited, so ready to accept answers he had not anticipated.

    On my long bike rides, Lydon is like an intimate companion of inspiration and hope. Bravo!

  • http://www.themaanga.com Nilu

    It was fascinating to see the absolute inability of Mr. Tejpal to see the intellectual contradictions of his own arguments. Yes, almost anyone would agree with him that his class, to which I sadly belong as well, has been stunningly callous. No one in their right mind disagrees with the fact that there are large numbers of people who are desperately poor in India. Or that the State is inefficient at best and devious at others.

    But he follows that up with an astonishingly arrogant ‘it depends on my class to set all this right’. I do not know if Kamakshi and Reddy are listening to this. I hope they are not, for such patronizing attitude is worse than the indifference Mr. Tejpal accuses others of. The essence of liberty and liberal values that Mr Tejpal claims to defend are that he or anyone else isn’t responsible for another person’s life and liberty except in the limited ways that everyone follows the basic rules of law. To claim it depends on one class to mould another in some way is such a profound insult to all of humanity.

  • nother

    Nilu, i’m intrigued by your passion. I’m curious, with 46 % of kids in India malnourished, how do propose to set this crisis of immorality right? Those kids are not concerned with “liberty and liberal values,” they are concerned about their next meal. Whether they earn that food themselves liberty style, or someone gives it to them charity style, they gotta eat! Raise the taxes on your class, and put some food in the stomachs of those kids. You seem to question Mr. Tejpal’s intellectual honesty, but hungry kids are not an intellectual dilemma, they are a moral one.

    I have to say that I was put off somewhat by Mr. Teipal’s dismissal of Indian writers who “are not part of Indian society.” A great writer can be political, but one mustn’t be political to be a great writer. At it’s heart, art is apolitical. In his innocently cynical at best, enviously bitter at worst, response to the subject of Indian writers, Mr. Teipal comes off as the “simple” man he paints me (as an American) as.

  • http://www.alero-olympio.comhttp://www.aleroolympiotrust.org Aba Cecile McHardy

    Chris big thanks for illuminating India – exquisite series in its scope – am following

    you on your journeys with interest and delight. Confess am a junkie for alternative

    narratives, with open mind willing to listen and ‘hear’ authentic voices, no matter

    how disparate, mediated without bias. Wonder whether you would attempt similar

    challenge for example – Korea: both North and South? Daunting!

  • http://www.themaanga.com Nilu

    nother, I do not claim to have the answer. You just asked me to solve the question of life and death for some 600 million people and I have no delusion of even beginning to understand the problem; let alone solve it.

    And, though Mr Tejpal did sound bitter on Indian writers and betrayed his politics in the process, I guess Mr Lydon was guilty of bringing up Rushdie and Naipaul. The two are not Indians (even by their own admission, I’d think). I have been a fan of Naipaul since my teens — never liked Rushdie — and never thought of him or his writing as Indian. The Indian fiction scene is currently a distant second to the Pakistani firmament. To cite just one example, there is simply no answer from India to the brilliance of Daniyal Mueenuddin. And yes, I agree, it’s not a contest, and there need be none.

  • Zak

    Chris,

    You’ve been just hitting it out of the park with this ongoing exploration of India. My wife and I were there, volunteering at an orphanage in Rajasthan, and doing more touristy things around the north, almost five years ago. It made such a profound impression on me that I think about it all the time, and your series is so wonderful in its ability to plug me back into all that I found fascinating about India.

    As for Tarun Tejpal, to whom I’m listening via podcast at this very moment, I found something he said early in your interview to be a real epiphany. I realized, listening to Tejpal, why I internally wrestle so much with my life as an American: We have this vibrant culture, and while troubled, still a democratic politics of a kind, all laid out before us. People of all creeds and ethnic backgrounds still want to make their lives here, and we are all richer for it. But what distresses me so is America’s foreign policy, which has for so long been highly militarized and if not destabilizing, then very often the major promoter of undemocratic values, regardless of what Tom Friedman writes or George W. Bush says. I guess it took an observer from far away to help me see this clearly. I’ll go back to struggling with my American-ness, and thank you again for shedding so much light on Indian-ness.

  • rk

    Nilu hits it on the head. Look at Obama, he is being kicked out of the office because of this “for such patronizing attitude”. You see the problem with Tejpal, Congress and left liberal people is that they do not understand the essence of liberty.

    And I am so unlike Nilu and Tejpal, not born neither brought up in privilege but fully capable and confident of fighting my own little wars. Confident to win (and winning) my little wars. There are millions like us who are rising from within and without India. And we absolutely detest this “you need us” useless gang. We had you for 45 odd years before the Soviets Collapse.

    We need Tejpal, Congress or Arundhati (all born to privilege) like hole in the head.

    PLEASE LEAVE US ALONE. We will be fine.

    This left liberal …these guys….just leave us alone. We are absolutely fine without your help. Thank You.

  • Potter

    I could not have picked a better interview on my India podcast catch-up program especially since Obama is headed there now.

    I thought this Tejpal interview was brilliant; it went deep and wide. I love the way he uses words to describe what is running through his sharp mind. Ideas flew by sprinkled with all the “fucking” this’s and “fucking” that’s that only men seem to be able to indulge in in public conversation. But he did have a wonderful ( and true) something to say about women, about the quality of their courage, their generosity and their moral vision. I suppose too broad a statement ( as perhaps other statements) but I loved it. The women in this series have been extraordinary.

    from my notes (which had to be taken)-

    - the need to “patch a thousand fault lines” in the “crucible” that is India

    - the world is going to be a melting pot- there is no getting away from that

    -how unbelievably poor most of India is- the wretched 7-800 million do not have a “story” in “shining India”;they are ground down by the process, left out, a “shrapneled” part of “our fragmented narrative” There are more poor in India than i the entire continenent of Africa- a stunning fact to contemplate.

    - freedom brings “great torque” to a society- and will sooner or later to China ( I love his use of “torque” in this way- torque the turning force)

    -India’s founding fathers having recognized the “obscenities of violence”

    - great writers help their societies shape themselves- they give them a self-image

    I hope I have my quotes right.

    Regarding comparisons with America-the affinities and differences he says that Americans are simple( minded? ) and have an innocence and that this is dangerous. I totally agree.

    I disagree about hope for Obama from an internal perspective. I have lost mine. Obama does speak a more refined language and that is surely welcomed by many,including myself, but it is by now clear that he is submerged beneath and behind the walls of a presidency that appears ( for many) to lack expression of the vision ( that Tejpal says India also lacks but for Sonja Gandhi) and the audacity to fight for it.