A Taste for Trouble: Aniruddha Bahal, Tarun Tejpal, and two of Indian journalism’s most unforgettable moments
His name may not spark easy recognition, but a recounting of his work does. That alone makes Aniruddha Bahal an anomaly in today’s personality-saturated, Twitter-dominated media landscape, where your work is often conflated with the quality of your online presence and vice versa.
But Bahal — an investigative journalist who worked at India Today and Outlook and was, along with Tarun Tejpal, a founder of Tehelka in its original ‘dotcom’ era avatar as a news and investigations website, before later going on to found Cobrapost, among a host of other ventures — is that rare reporter who spent his whole career letting his work do the talking.
Till now. Bahal’s memoir, A Taste For Trouble, dives into the invisible bylanes of an investigative journalist’s life, in the process revealing more than just a personal story. Rather, it is a chronicle of the times he lived through as much as it is an essential reminder of what, at its heart, journalism is about: the pursuit of that which lies outside our vision. That pursuit may often be clumsy, is sometimes accidental, and if it is done truthfully — as Bahal’s account so vividly reminds us — frequently gets its pursuer into trouble.
Bahal, clearly, has a talent for it.
Two of India’s most seminal investigative stories of the past 25 years have one thing in common: him.
The first: the stunning expose of match fixing in Indian cricket, if possible more devastating to the country than any political scandal or corruption might be, because of the almost sacred space cricket holds for its followers. Starting with Pakistani cricketer Rashid Latif in 1997, Bahal and fellow journalist Krishna Prasad — both were then at Outlook, along with Tarun Tejpal, with whom Bahal would later go on to co-found Tehelka — had begun to insinuate their way into the cricketing establishment to get at the true story of betting, fixing and throwing of matches. But it was in 2000 when Bahal and Tejpal persuaded Manoj Prabhakar to to wear recording equipment and a pinhole camera and play whistleblower that all hell broke loose. The resulting Tehelka investigation, Fallen Heroes, zeroed in on three main episodes: the incident of a teammate offering Prabhakar Rs 25 lakh (his revelation of the name Kapil Dev reverberated through the country even long after the rest of the investigation was forgotten), a match in Sharjah where they were apparently told by management to play on even when it was clearly night, and a third incident in 1994 at Kanpur where Prabhakar and Nayan Mongia were penalised for playing slow.
Fallen Heroes went on to be a 90 minute documentary as well as a book, and the CBI went on to use over 40 hours of recordings for their own investigation, but the entire episode also marked Bahal’s life in other ways — it was the beginning of his realisation that an investigative reporter who uncovers an explosive story is fated to spend as much of his or her life in courtrooms as they are the field.
But even Bahal could not have imagined what was in store when Tarun J Tejpal and he began the investigation that went on to consume his life for the next many years, from being hunted, threatened, persecuted in court, needing police security for over 8 years, and losing absolutely everything they had worked for till then.
The story? Operation West End, which caught members of the defence establishment and the then ruling NDA, leading all the way up to the BJP party president Bangaru Laxman, caught on camera accepting bribes in order to facilitate defence contracts to a fictitious company set up by the journalists in order to expose the graft in India’s defence procurements.
It was a story that was to profoundly alter the course of all their lives — Bahal, Tejpal, Tehelka itself. Bahal’s book does a superb job of giving a sense of what that investigation took and how he went on to be dogged by it for many years. He estimates that he has spent over 650 days in court as a result of his journalism, and this does not account for over a decade of legal conferences, reading of judgements, preparing arguments and testimony, nightly readings of legal precedent, and more, nor does it account for the financial consequences of the same.
This is no depressing, deadening ride though. The book is peopled with fascinating characters and anecdotes, from Outlook founder Vinod Mehta’s haunting of the editorial floor to Tehelka’s only-ever board meeting that had its three external directors all show up to the office in person. The three directors? Amitabh Bachchan, Khushwant Singh, and Sir V S Naipaul. Bahal is generous to the bosses who gave him room to flourish, and seems to make the case that it is freedom and courage and the enabling of other people’s excellence that makes breakthrough journalism possible.
For instance, he writes of Tarun Tejpal, “Tarun is the best editor I have worked with. His understanding of a media product is superb and his writing incredible. He is also one of the few people I really enjoy sharing a laugh with, simply because of our keen sense of the absurd in daily life.” Elsewhere in the book he writes of Tarun J Tejpal, “he never micromanaged a story, preferring to give you guidance in broad strokes. His USP as a journalist, apart from being a good one himself, was to manage interpersonal relationships, leading reporters to chase their own stuff.”
He notes a similar quality in Uday Shankar, who was his boss at Down to Earth. “Shankar was another boss who left you alone to do whatever you were up to.” Yet, despite having, according to Bahal, the smarts and knowledge to take a public editorial role, “when Shankar left print and went to television, he decided early on never to become an anchor — a decision that contributed to his success at both India Today and Star News.”
Bahal was involved in a host of other noteworthy stories during the course of an eventful, meandering career — his story on MSG levels in the food of certain fast food chains for instance led to a massive outcry and investigation against KFC — and yet this book is not about particular stories, particular media outlets or even himself the journalist.
It is, rather, a front row seat to the making of shape-shifting journalism itself; the moral ambiguities, ethical challenges and unwavering conviction involved in chasing truth hidden under dense layers of corruption and an absence of transparency; the crucial role an uncompromised judiciary does in enabling journalism to do its job, and the incredible personal and professional strains investigative journalists encounter when chasing the concealed.
Continue Reading on The India Saga