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


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

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