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Press Freedom

Q&A: “Indian Reality Is Infinitely Complex”

Becky Bergdahl interviews TARUN TEJPAL, journalist and author

NEW YORK, Oct 8 2012 (IPS) - One morning, Tarun Tejpal awoke to learn that five hitmen had been arrested for having a contract to kill him. Suddenly, the life of the prominent Indian journalist and editor was turned upside down.

Tarun Tejpal. Credit: Shailendra Pandey

For the next nine years, he had to live with constant police protection.

What to do with all this time when he was not able to go outside without planning every step ahead, and having bodyguards breathing over his shoulder? Write a book, of course.

“The Story of My Assassins”, now being released in the United States, is loosely based on the murder attempt that Tejpal survived. The protagonist of the novel is an Indian news reporter who discovers that there is a price on his head. When he tries to find out who wants him dead, he unveils the ugly truth of India – the corrupt elite and the impoverished masses.

Tejpal spoke to IPS correspondent Becky Bergdahl about his portrayal of his home country and obstacles to press freedom in the world’s largest democracy.

Excerpts from the interview follow.

Q: “The Story of My Assassins” came out in India in 2009, and now it is being released in North America. What do you wish Western readers will take away from the novel?

A: I hope that they get a deeper idea of the immense complexity of India. For too long, Western narratives of India have been dominated by black and white visions. Once upon a time it used to be a land of snakes, gurus and poverty. And then 15 years ago it became the new superpower, a nuclear power, the next big dominating software nation. None of these accounts is really accurate. I hope that people read the story and discover that Indian reality is infinitely more complex.

Q: The book includes vulgar language and there is a plethora of sex scenes and violence. How has the story been received in India?

A: Critically, it got a fantastic reception. It was applauded especially for portraying the truth of the underclass of India. The thing is that if a writer tries to capture reality, then he has to strive to be true to the actual language. And I am sorry, but people on the wrong side of the street do not speak in Harvard English… The job of literature is not to instruct schoolchildren.

Q: In the book there is a line saying that more than 50 years of democracy has changed nothing in India. Is that also your personal opinion?

A: It is not how I see it, it is how the narrative sees it. I think India is going through immense change. When it comes to the status of dalits, the status of women, the status of tribals, great changes have come. But it is certainly not enough. For a lot of people in India, life is still dark. There is crime, four-year-old children begging, sub-Saharan (Africa) levels of poverty… But software success, nuclear power, wealth, it is also a part of India.

Q: The conflict between Hindus and Muslims in India serves as a backdrop of your novel. And Muslim Pakistan is called “the enemy of India” in the book. Is there an end to the hatred?

A: These are street perceptions. In India, the normal man tends to see Pakistan as the enemy. In Pakistan, the normal man tends to see India as the enemy. This is a kind of bad political rhetoric that has taken root in both countries. I think people with motives keep exploiting the sentiment.

Q: According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, India is now the eighth deadliest country in the world for journalists, and the threats often come from Hindu and Muslim fundamentalists. Can you tell me about the threats that you have received?

A: There was the incident, on which the novel is based, with five hitmen being arrested for having a contract to kill me. It was very strange, I could make no sense of it. Initially it meant much discomfort, I had to live with huge police protection for nine years. But after some time, you go on living your life even if you are always surrounded by policemen.

Directly, this is the only time I felt threatened. According to the Delhi police, the ISI (the intelligence services of Pakistan) had paid these five hitmen to kill me. I was in a big battle with the government of India over an exposé of corruption at the time, so the rationale was that if something happened to me then the government would have to take the blame and it would fall.

Q: Is there real freedom of press in India?

A: I think freedom of press exists in India, and journalists continue to do a lot of uncomfortable work. Can we do more? Of course. But then there is the concern of financial well-being, as much as physical well-being. There is very little support, commercially, for this kind of work. And that often becomes a bigger challenge than the physical threat.

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