Once upon a time in India, hysteria was considered bad taste. The elite—accomplished academics, politicians forged in the fire of the Independence struggle, industrialists like JRD Tata, literati like Prem Chand and R K Narayan and scholarly impartial journalists—abjured public delirium. As the Midnight’s Children grew up, their voices challenged this order, seeking to create a new elite. Both rural and urban trash revelled in this aspirational voice. Hungry for recognition, the talented and skilled challenged the established senate of minds. Pedigree no longer mattered, the TNT of ambition did—India became a land of opportunity for anyone who arrived with a bang, whether business, political, intellectual or literary. The elite of the rabble had arrived, travelling along the highway of ambition, the traffic rules be damned.
Tarun Tejpal is a product of this class struggle.
Naked ambition doesn’t recognise old moral codes. But it, too, strives for divinity, to be worshipped by the elite—the outsider’s ultimate revenge. Herbert Marcuse’s definition of the difference between the mass and the elite is canonical: the former is a body that agrees or disagrees on a subject for the same reasons while the latter agrees or disagrees on a topic, but with different reasons. Today is the age of the hybrid. Like Tejpal, these are talented men and women who aspire to become celebrities by any means—millionaire editors who accept political funds to fight proxy battles; journalists who use their clout to broker cabinet seats; authors who shrilly espouse tribal issues but violate land laws and lawyer activists who take up the secular torch but get caught bribing witnesses to bring down a hated chief minister. In India, even notoriety is celebrity. There is no introspection or deliberation, only the hysteria of the mob storming a hated social citadel.
The mascot of Tehelka, the crow, has been cawing the loudest. Tejpal has much to crow about—immense talent, gregarious charm that earned him the admiration and loyalty of friends and colleagues, an elegance of wit that dominated admiring drawing rooms and the achievement of a burning ambition to be rich and powerful. He travelled far as the crow flies, but lost his way as the golden eagle of morality. He became a character in his own tragic novel, a martyr of lust and a groveller afraid of prison. In The Alchemy of Desire, he wrote about sex, and not love, being the greatest glue between two people. Tejpal’s destiny came unstuck when he thought that lust and celebrity is the greatest glue. He has scripted a bestseller of blunders—a ponytailed Coriolanus who fights the evil BJP for the Congress party and mocks his enemies—“crows to peck the eagles”. The crows have deserted the masthead and are cawing for his blood, but in Tejpal’s mind, perhaps, he is a warrior exiled by tribunes but insisting that it is he who is banishing Rome from his presence. Tejpal, by trivialising his action, has invited the outraged moral lynch mobs. The new middle class mercilessly turns on its heroes when they fall, and is discovering a conscience of its own. It defines its own concept of justice. And that in turn defines the law.
Is Tejpal trapped in his own “struggle with taxonomy”, by the legal definition of rape, or rape? Is he the victim of feministic politics that amplifies the prime time octaves of gender conflict or an arrogant, unrepentant satyr? Women are raped and murdered, burned for dowry and widows deprived of their holdings in rural India, which is a frightening continent of terrified silence. In cities, misuse of the dowry act and rape laws have come under intense criticism. India is in a state of moral confusion, over gender, justice and liberty. The debate over justice is not decided by the judge, prosecutor or defender but by trial by rabble. Tejpal’s guilt notwithstanding, not the histrionic media, the morally outraged public or the frothing feminists should be allowed to hijack the law. Or else, voices of sanity will no longer modulate the national discourse.