Stories Tehelka forgot to cover

(The following fictionalised account was published in Tehelka's recent five year anniversary issue.)

Of the several occupational hazards that come from working at Tehelka, the most prevalent are the grinning people you meet across the country, who are thrilled by their inventiveness when they ask, “Aap Tehelka machane ke liye aaye hai?” There is also the danger that when you go to the doctor, burning up with fever, that your salwar kameez and handbag will be looked askance for wiring, followed by a hushed enquiry, "Sting operation?"

But the greatest danger is that if you work for Tehelka you turn into a liability in social gatherings. Those Biblical bores, Jeremiah and his ilk, have nothing on the Tehelka reporter raining on the upbeat mood of a party, picking desultorily at a modest snack and railing about her week in Chhattisgarh. At the third instance of her announcing, “There's no hope, I tell you, there’s no hope,” she finds herself alone and unsurprised that she is alone.

The magazine sometimes seems like the healthy vegetable that you ought to eat, but don’t want to, when all around are bowls of mango and chocolate ice-cream.

Every now and then the editors and the reporters look at each other and say, "Perhaps we should write about other things. Life is not without pleasures and extravagances, especially the unexamined pleasure and extravagance.” Some of these attempts, such as the Pubs and Clubs page, are stillborn, always vaguely planned and pushed aside by deaths, debts and surreal injustice. If and when they happen, the serious attempt to understand pleasure (“in the Tehelka way,” as all reporters are told) is not without its attendant risks.

Observe the Tehelka reporter in a store selling luxury bathrooms. She has walked past the store everyday without noticing it exists. But now here is a story which is trying to understand India Shining through its fancy hygiene fix. This morning she walks into the showroom, and the salesman's eyes sweep down from her shorn head to ragged footwear. With a great show of reluctance he shows her taps, showers, pink tubs, silver tubs, sinks made of gold, showers which imitate the rain. The merest trinket among them costs nearly a lakh. The reporter takes notes fervently as if she was studying the ground realities of NREGA in Rajasthan. She points to a glittering cubicle.

"What is this?"

"There are five different faucets in five different angles, ma'am. When you switch on the shower all the taps open simultaneously so that no inch of skin is left unsoothed. It is a complete purifying experience."

The reporter imagines being hit from head to thigh by gushing sprays of water and is reminded of every jail/mental asylum movie she has ever seen, in which the hero is hosed down sadistically.

Half a day spent trudging from showroom to showroom, and the reporter loses her mind. The salesman at the eighth showroom looks first alarmed, and then pitying, when she finally burst into outraged speech. "What bathroom cleaner would you use for a tub with Swarovski crystals?"

For a week the reporter could not stop glaring at her innocent, now pathetic and barely adequate, shower. Only her editor sending her to write about the water crisis caused by the golf course next to the Nangla settlement would soothe her back to equanimity.

To pursue pleasure, even to examine it, one must hug it wholeheartedly. The average Tehelka reporter, who joins the magazine in pursuit of monkish rigour and physical mortification in the search of truth, is not just disinclined to examine bathroom fittings as a weathervane of extravagance, she is spectacularly ill-equipped to.

With every passing month of the economic boom, the reporter's social inadequacy seemed heightened. So many new things in this world that need to be written about and she knows so little. Conventions and protocols are ossifying around her in (what to her seems) freshly created social situations. Driving holidays in Tuscany, gambling in Laos, diving in Lakshadweep, art shows in Shanghai, glass-dome covered private islands in the UAE, the world is the Indian oyster and the Indian journalist will open it with silver tongs. If other journalists are uncomfortable or unsure they are not letting on. Reams of paper are being expended in describing these pursuits. Beautiful girls and boys are writing confident prose about the best martini in town, any town, the off-beat retro charm of absinthe, the finest dacha in Petersburg, Harry Winston’s departure from classic styling in favour of rapper bling.

The uncrowned leader of these bewildering new subjects of journalism is wine-drinking. The reporter is sent to a wine-tasting evening. All around her are people spitting, swallowing, swirling — in no particular order. She is a mere observer fobbed off with tepid red wine and violent-looking warm salmon. To participate in that evening's instruction she will have to pay Rs 35,000.

In a while, just as the reporter struggles with her yawns, a fight breaks out between the winewaiter (who, the reporter has just learnt from Wikipedia, is called a sommelier) and a comfortably padded gentleman. "The cork is tainted. I want to return this bottle," said the gentleman. The sommelier makes soothing noises, but the gentleman is adamant. "I have read George Taber's To Cork or Not to Cork! You fellows can't cheat me anymore," he yells. The sommelier and then his silver-haired manager, object sharply to his accusations. The crowd around watches with interest. Whose social cachet, whose aukat will win the day?

The reporter asks someone near her, who had been introduced as an assistant editor at a wine magazine, for his opinion. The wine editor bursts into a detailed explanation about cork forests, screwcaps and bottlenecks.

"So is there an objective way of telling whether the wine in that bottle is bad?" asks the reporter.

The wine editor looks gloomy and then confides, "If he was drinking an imported wine, then it probably is bad. It was probably spoilt before it got here from the port. By the time it reaches the restaurant, it probably has been lying in the docks for days without being in a chilled container. Who knows? It’s not like the restaurant is going to tell you that they stored the wine wrong after they got it."

The reporter giggles at the thought of Rs 15,000-a-pop crates of wine lying at Cochin docks while fights break out. The Malayali dockyard workers' union insists that their workers are not being paid enough to handle fragile cargo and, by God, non-union workers will be murdered if they try to handle the cargo. The customs officers look disinterested since they have not been incentivised enough by the importers to finish the paperwork. So, the shiny wine world has problems too. How wonderful, thought the TEHELKA reporter, ever Job's comforter.

In a while the wine editor brightens up, "There is a Facebook group that now discusses closure issues in India. You should join it. We need a movement towards DIAM corks."

Closure? The reporter thinks vaguely of trauma and repressed wine memories (The Wrath of Grapes, she imagines her headline) but gathers from the continued conversation that closure merely refers to the method of closing a wine bottle.

“So, is there an objective way of telling the cork is tainted?” she asks again. The wine editor looks pityingly (in a strange overlay of the bathtub salesman’s face) and wanders away.

Like every other Delhi journalist, she owned a dozen books about the New Yorker. It was not a stretch to say that she owned more books about the New Yorker than copies of the New Yorker itself. What is worse than the reporter's inadequacy in some realms, is her desire to describe other realms intelligently. Her Holy Grail is the exposure of the fashion industry for the sham that it is.

In preparation for Fashion Week, the reporter began reading with the great dedication she usually brought to the parsing of closely typed Public Interest Litigation petitions. After two weeks of close study, she convinced herself she was able to recognise major catwalk looks and key pieces. She was able to recognise the doodle print and sparkling deer leather of the Prada Fairy bag from the pearlised lambskin and signature rings of the Ferragamo Mediterraneo, or the blue leather and distinctive silver hardware of the Dior tote.

The night before a luxury conference, the reporter had read an American fashion magazine that mocked anti-fur fashion editors. “They don’t understand fur because they can’t afford it. They are merely well-heeled as opposed to being rich,” the feature writer had said, before segueing smugly into an anecdote about the Balenciaga gown he had inherited from his grandmother. He used it as an ironic conversation piece in his Aspen house. The reporter, ever a victim of irony deficiency was incensed. She was going to make fun of the vagaries of the rich but she was damned if she looked ignorant. At least, she comforted herself, she understood the It-bag.

She arrived at the conclave in an upbeat mood that dissolved instantly under the barrage of disbelieving looks from her fraternity. The fashion crowd did not notice her, their gaze sliding over her. Here, at least, there was no danger of being asked whether she had come to do a sting operation because no one had heard of Tehelka. Someone assumed she was from an obscure Hindi television channel, and for sure no one was going to touch her handbag with ungloved hands.

At the beginning of the conference, a stunningly beautiful woman who was anywhere between 25 and 50 made the grave announcement that the main topic of discussion at the handbags conclave was being changed because of the arrival of the anti-It bag. For a minute the reporter wondered whether they were talking about her. But the high cheek-boned announcer went on, “We have changed this overnight because as we all know, we really need to discuss the Rise of the Stealth bag.”

The reporter’s eyes shot across the room where everyone was nodding in serious agreement. In the next half hour she realised that her serious study was shot to pieces. The Stealth bag did not give itself away with its logo, buckles and zips. The labeling would be subtle — only recognisable through a signature shape. “They whisper ‘exclusive’ to those in the know,” said one panelist, pointing at the blown-up image of a Rs 45,000 utterly plain black bag called the Shirley, which the reporter could imagine middle-aged Shirleys her mother knew carrying. Only it would cost Rs 450.

For a few weeks the reporter was depressed by her first adventure into this jungle. But under the bracing treatment of her journalistic Drona, The New Yorker, she cheered up again. Also, there was the matter of 600 people being blown up by a bomb in Guwahati, that she and the magazine were distracted by. At Fashion Week, a few months later, she set up interviews and tried to discuss trends with a major maven. The maven looked annoyed when she tried to discuss handbags. “What about the Birkin bag? Is it the new Stealth bag?” The maven snapped, “Not at all. The Birkin is totally over-blown by the media. If 20 Bollywood stars own three Birkins each, I can tell you the fashion has passed. And before you ask, Jimmy Choos are ugly.”

The reporter had survived the angry mobs in Bilaspur enraged by her attempt to interview their blank-eyed, violent leader. But now she felt like she had been stripped of her skin. That night, when she picked at a kebab and muttered, “There is no hope, I tell you, there is no hope,” there was less fervour in her voice than usual.

The reporter confined herself to doing normal stories for a while. Meanwhile, her name had gone into a few databases so she began to get calls to cover strange events. Girls named Silky called insisting that she arrive at the launches of watches that cost Rs 300,000 or cars which cost roughly the same.

A particular Silky called and offered, in a surly way, an interview with a former Ms Universe turned reality-show star. Her tone confused the reporter. Had she asked for an interview and forgotten about it? No, she hadn’t, she was sure. The Ms Universe was launching a range of sunglasses and was granting interviews. Curious about how this would turn out, and never having done a celebrity interview, the reporter made an appointment.

On the day she was immensely annoyed to find out that she was the 15th person interviewing the beauty queen. A couple of the interviewers were distinctly better dressed than the star, shaming her by turning down the sugary cookies in favour of black coffee and biscotti. Eventually, the Tehelka reporter’s turn came and the beauty queen gave her the head-to-foot assessment she was now used to. She then sat back at ease. “So, babes, Silky must have told you that I don’t want to talk about Abhilash. I just refuse. You people insist on getting into my personal life too much. Ask me about my work.” Who is Abhilash, thought the reporter in panic. She agreed to not ask her about Abhilash.

Her circular Japanese attempts to understand the lives of young women whose primary asset are their faces was derailed several times. A wandering character actor whom the reporter loved came across to chat with the star. Soon they were engaged in a mock-fight which (as far as she understood) was, about the beauty queen denying fiestily (unasked) that she was wearing makeup in that scene, and the actor dutifully and flirtatiously responding that it was impossible she had had no make-up. She was way too pretty to play an ordinary girl. He left eventually. Several lengthy phone calls followed, in which the beauty queen was asked questions about the mysterious Abhilash, which enraged her. Then, with a particularly short phone call, the beauty queen suddenly upped and stalked off.

Back in the office the reporter looked up the beauty queen and realised the afternoon papers and television news were full of the breakup of the beauty queen and her on-and off-screen lover Abhilash. And the beauty queen had talked. Extensively. Don’t ask had meant ask.

A week later she mentioned this to her friend, an entertainment reporter who laughed at her for half an hour. He explained that the beauty queen and Abhilash had staged an enormous break-up. And five days later appeared together grinning that it was a ‘stunt’ for a new soap. The entertainment press, usually willing participants in these adolescent love stories, balked at the shamelessness and raged in editorials about Page 3 people. “You are missing the plot,” her friend said. “Don’t you watch television?” “I don’t have one,” she replied. “You don’t have a television, of course,” the friend rolled his eyes.

Newly armed with rage at being manipulated by idiots, the reporter was not the best victim for an artsy socialite later that week. The artsy socialite was an annoying variety of person, the reporter concluded. He wanted to be in the press but did not go about it in the guileless manner of the beauty queen. Instead, there were convoluted attempts to interest with hooded eyes and abstruse references. The reporter, just returned from staring at dams in Punjab, was even less perceptive than usual. The socialite began talking about public spaces. The reporter was instantly wary, knowing that ‘space’ is a word that arty socialites use in ways different from the regular person. She eventually understood that the socialite was talking about sports facilities abroad, and how it compared unfavourably with India.

“What sports do you play?” the reporter asked. “I play polo, and I am also a show-jumper,” said the socialite with his inscrutable face.

The reporter looked up at the socialite and asked, “Aren’t you too big for Indian horses?” expecting to be reprimanded for this open display of rudeness. But no, the socialite was pleased. He cleared his throat and said, “It’s true. Indian horses are too small for me. I only ride when I am abroad.”

This encounter finally persuaded the reporter to stay away from the wide, wonderful world of fine living. Around her and Tehelka blossomed new magazines and newer supplements, each dedicated to the beautiful people. The reporter steadfastly looked away.

Six months later, in the beginning of the summer, the idea of doing a Big Sex Story was tossed around in an editorial meeting. The reporter, to her shock, found herself saddled with doing the Big Sex Story. Having merrily suggested the story, now none of the reporters wanted to be seen doing it. The reporter took a deep breath and plunged in. At least three major magazines carried annual sex surveys which she studied with interest. “More and more Indians are kinky,” she was told. “More and more Indians prefer sex on the phone to sex in a car.” Gujaratis are the most sexually satisfied among Indian states, she read, imagining people in Port Blair and Itanagar being pursued by bespectacled surveyors.

The breast has replaced the shoulder as this season’s erogenous zone, one news magazine informed her through a three-page spread. The magazine’s favourite sociologist had a neat explanation, but the reporter sympathised with a ‘man on the street’ who was quoted as saying “What do you mean, new trend? Breasts were never out of fashion!”

For the next fortnight, the reporter tried to ask people about their sexual preferences, telling herself that the repressed Indian society needed to be helped. She spoke to psychologists, teenagers, middle-aged people, doctors, sex workers and writers.

At the end of these two weeks she knew nothing she wanted to put her byline against. She lay awake at night, wondering why three young women in Delhi had said they found George Fernandes sexually attractive. The story of the married Hindu woman from Bangalore who said that her Muslim college-going neighbour was actually the real father of her child terrified her secular heart enough to delete it from her notes. But with the best will in the world, she could find no news to tell. People had always had sex. They were going to continue having it. What was new here?

Her editor looked at her in irritation, “Get on with it already,” she was told. “You’ve spent two weeks on this and there are other stories waiting to be done.” In a fit of anxiety, she wondered whether to start pursuing quotes to support a thesis that the butt was the new breast. Or was it the new shoulder? On the verge of pulling a Stephen Glass, she was saved by an unforeseen event. The boom ended and the recession arrived. The recession, the reporter knew, would end her fruitless cool-hunting. She sat up in bed trying not to be gleeful at each newspaper feature advising belt-tightening. When she passed the newspaper stands the gaps showed where once the frightening new luxury magazines had rested.

Even the big mammas of the magazine world were offering what they called radical new ideas. “This weekend instead of buying a new outfit, why not shop your closet. Mix up your classic outfits from seasons past for fun.” They advised budget buys such as Rs 3,500 t-shirts as holiday gifts for lovers (as opposed to Rs 75,000 matched leather pop-art luggage). “Be a chic little recessionista” screeched another splashy cover.

Once again, conversations veered to the depressing staples of her childhood — death, debt and unemployment. Tehelka reporters were the joyless prophets of doom they always were. The reporter was once again seen at buffet tables muttering, “There is no hope, I tell you, there is no hope.”

9 comments:

Brilliant. Honestly.

March 25, 2009 at 3:22 AM  

"She lay awake at night, wondering why three young women in Delhi had said they found George Fernandes sexually attractive."

Brilliant!

March 25, 2009 at 10:19 AM  

it's stunning.
-nithin

March 25, 2009 at 12:12 PM  

Brilliant, absolutely!

March 25, 2009 at 1:11 PM  

Amazing!

March 25, 2009 at 8:31 PM  

A+ as the teachers here would say.

A work of unremitting genius I'd add.

x

March 26, 2009 at 1:54 PM  

This could be turned into a book. Loved it. Want more. Now I guess I should go read the serious stuff?

March 27, 2009 at 12:00 PM  

That was really very funny

March 31, 2009 at 3:22 PM  

I love you! More than loves Pranab Mukherjee even ;)

May 18, 2009 at 10:54 PM  

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