On the night of 7 th November 2013, the opening night of Tehelka’s Think festival, I had discharged my duties for the day as the chaperone for Mr Robert De Niro. As it was Mr De Niro and his daughter’s first night in Goa and at the festival, my editor in chief Mr TarunTejpal accompanied Mr De Niro, Drena De Niro (his daughter) and I to Mr De Niro’s suite to wish him goodnight. (As his chaperone, my work was to be available all day to Mr De Niro and Drena, take them sightseeing, make sure they were well looked after in Goa and at the Hyatt—until they retired to their suite at night. )
As we left the suite, Mr Tejpal and I were in conversation — I have known him since I was a child, he had worked closely with my father who was also a journalist, and after my father’s accident Mr Tejpal had always been a paternal figure to me. He was responsible for offering me my first job, and was always just a phone call away whenever I needed his advice on a story or life. His daughter, TiyaTejpal and I are very close friends as well.
As we made our way out of the elevator of Block 7 at the Grand Hyatt, Mr Tejpal held my arm and pulled me back into the lift. He said—“Let’s go wake up Bob” (Mr De Niro) and I asked him why he wanted to do that. I then realized that Mr Tejpal was simply pressing buttons on the lift’s panel to make the elevator stay in circuit, preventing it from stopping anywhere, and for the doors to open.
At this point, he began to kiss me—from the first moment of his doing so, I asked him to stop, citing several reasons, including my friendship to Tiya, my closeness to his family, the fact that he had known me since I was a child, the fact that I worked for Tehelka and for Shoma Chaudhuri—who is my managing editor and mentor. It was like talking to a deaf person. Mr Tejpal lifted my dress up, went down on his knees and pulled my underwear down. He attempted to perform oral sex on me as I continued to struggle and hysterically asked him to stop. At that moment he began to try and penetrate me with his fingers, I became scared and pushed him hard and asked him to stop the lift. He would not listen. The lift stopped on the ground floor as Mr Tejpal’s hands were on me and could not press the button for yet another floor to keep it in circuit. As soon as the doors opened, I picked up my underwear and began walking out of the elevator rapidly—he was still following me, asking me what the matter was.
I said “It’s all wrong. I work for you and Shoma.” He said first, “It’s alright to be in love with more than one person,” and then he said, “Well, this is the easiest way for you to keep your job.” I was walking still faster, blinking back tears.
By this time, we had made our way from Block 7 to the main lawns of the Grand Hyatt, where I walked into the grassy dinner area full of people and Mr Tejpal walked off towards the performance area. Right as soon as he was out of sight, I took a taxi back to my hotel—the International Centre for Goa, where the Tehelka staff was staying, and went to the room where the Literary Editor Shougat Dasgupta and the Photo Editor Ishan Tankha were staying. I also called another friend and colleague—investigative reporter G Vishnu to the room and told them what had occurred. While the four of us were talking in the balcony, Mr Tejpal sent me a text message from his personal phone number at 1.17 am, which said “The fingertips”. This was the extent he had managed to penetrate me before I pushed him and ran out of the lift. I told the people with me on the balcony about this. Some of us considered resigning as soon as Think was over. I called my boyfriend Aman Sethi in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, from Ishan Tankha’s iPhone and told him what had happened.
I was confused, hurt and really, really scared. At that point I did not want to lose my job. And so the next morning, I went about my work determined not to give Mr Tejpal or Tehelka a reason to fire me, as I was sure they would do once this story got out. At a few points of the day, I discussed the events of the previous night with Shougat Dasgupta, G Vishnu and IshanTankha, who were concerned about me after the state they had seen me in the previous night. In the afternoon, I accompanied Mr De Niro, his daughter, Sir VS Naipaul, Lady Naipaul and Mr Tejpal’s wife to the Governor’s bungalow for lunch.
Given the company we were in, I did not make any mention of what had occurred to Ms Geetan Batra, Mr Tejpal’s wife. Once I had escorted Mr De Niro back to his room post lunch, he expressed a desire to attend one of the sessions at the Main Hall. I brought him down to the Green Room, where Mr Tejpal found us, and asked me to bring Mr De Niro back down for Mr Amitabh Bachchan’s session as he wanted the two to meet. I took Mr De Niro and his daughter shopping to Panjim, and brought them back in time for Mr Bachchan’s session as instructed. Once the session was done, Mr Tejpal, Mr De Niro, Mr Bachchan and a few other members of the film industry, lawyers, politicians etc were supposed to meet at the Block 7 Grand Club for drinks.
I escorted Mr De Niro and Drena to this bar, told them I would return to my hotel, change, and be right back. While I was getting dressed at my hotel, Mr Tejpal called me from Thakurji’s phone (Thakurji is the caretaker and manager of Tehelka’s Bombay office premises) and asked me where I was. I informed him I was just about to leave for the Grand Hyatt.
November 18: The Victim’s Letter to Shoma Chaudhury
In the taxi I noticed he had laready sent me two text messages on my phone which said “Where r u?” at 8.29 and then “??”at 8.42 from his personal number.
I replied with the following messages: “On my way to the lounge” 8.42 pm, “Had to sort out a lost package for Drena and get a bit presentable. See you in 10” at 8.44 pm and “Call Tee she needs you”at 8.47 pm as Tiya had messaged me asking to help her find Tarun. At this point I was trying to be as normal and professional as possible and somehow get through my duties.
Five minutes later, as I was walking into the Grand Club at Block 7, Mr Tejpal was coming out of the lounge. He pointed at me asking me to stop. I was already worried that I was late and that Mr De Niro had asked for me. Mr Tejpal came to me and said “Come up with me, we have to get something from Bob’s room”. I was frightened that this would lead to a repeat of the previous night and so I said, “What does he need? I’ll go get it.” I was scared of getting into the lift with him again, and more terrified that he was going to try and take me into a room this time. By this time he was holding me by the wrist and had taken me into the lift (which is barely a few steps away from the lobby of Block 7 where he had asked me to wait). When the doors closed, he started to try and kiss me again. I said “Tarun, please, no, just stop,” he pulled away, smiled, patted my cheek and said “Why? Ok. I’ll stop.” I said again “This just isn’t right. Tiya is my best friend. I had lunch with Geetan today.”
He smiled again and just for a moment I thought I had appealed to his better sense. I turned away from him, desperately waiting for the door to open (there are only three floors in Block 7 (G, 1 and 2), we were between floors). Within seconds of my turning around, he started to lift up my dress. He lifted it all the way up and said “You’re unbelievable”. The door opened on the second floor, on Mr De Niro’s floor—and he said again –“The universe is telling us something” to which I said “I’m taking the stairs” and started to walk out. He pulled me back in, sensing that I was on the verge of hysteria—by this point, he was totally comfortable physically manhandling me, but sensing my sheer panic, he did not touch me until the lift reached the ground floor. Right as the doors were about to open, he patted my behind once more.
I walked out of the lift, went to the Grand Club and immediately informed Ishan Tankha that Mr Tejpal had tried to molest me again. Ishan said, “Again? What the fuck is wrong with him?” He was completely disgusted and said once more that we should just resign immediately. As I was to accompany Mr De Niro to the dining area, I somehow composed myself. Mr De Niro was mobbed by fans–and I had to take him away from the main garden to the Capiz Bar. I was sitting at the Capiz Bar with Mr De Niro and his daughter when Tiya Tejpal came there to join us.
This was the first time the two of us had really met since the incident of the previous night. Since I had moved to Mumbai about a year and a half ago, Tiya had grown to become one of my closest friends. She lives across the road from my house in Mumbai and barely a day had passed when the two of us did not meet or talk to each other constantly. She was sitting beside me, and Mr De Niro was absorbed in conversation with his daughter. I could not keep something of this magnitude from her. I told her she would hate me for what I was telling her–but that Mr Tejpal had tried to molest me on these two separate occasions. I said, “He tried to shove his tongue down my throat and then took my panties off”, when Tiya replied saying, “I saw him do this to a woman when I was thirteen, so it doesn’t surprise me anymore,” but she was clearly disgusted.
Tiya left the Capiz Bar right after this. In half an hour, Mr De Niro and Drena asked to be dropped back to their room. They were extremely upset at the day’s events because Mr De Niro had all but been assaulted by fans at the dinner table, and they asked me to convey this to Mr Tejpal. When I came down from Block 7, I found Mr Tejpal sitting at a table with several people and called him away from the table, but still in full view of everyone, so I could relay Mr De Niro’s message privately.
I said “Bob is really upset abouttonight, he got mobbed really badly..” to which MrTejpal replied “I don’t give a fuck about Bob. How could you tell Tiya what happened?” I said “Tarun, I told you Tiya and I are close and what you did wasn’t okay, I had to tell her,” to which he said “She’s my daughter. Do you even understand what the word means? Just get away from me, I’m so fucking pissed off with you right now.”
I left from the spot crying, found Tiya outside her room in the main performance area and asked her what she had said to her father. She said “There was no other way. As soon as you told me I wished you hadn’t, but you can’t tell me what to say to him—I told him to keep it in his pants.” I said “I’m probably going to lose my job over this”, she agreed, but also said “It’ll be a bad phase but it’ll pass.” On this night as well, I left the Grand Hyatt and went to my hotel, found Shougat Dasgupta, Ishan Tankha and G Vishnu and told them what had happened. I also called my boyfriend and told him that Mr Tejpal was aware of the fact that I wasn’t staying quiet, and that he was extremely angry that I had told his daughter. The next morning, I called my mother and told her everything that had happened. Everyone was most worried for my safety and advised me to leave Think as soon as possible—however since my day’s work involved me staying away from the Grand Hyatt and staying at a completely different part of Goa for the day with Mr De Niro and his daughter, I felt temporarily safe. At this time Mr Tejpal sent me the following texts from his personal number.
1. “I hope you told Tiya that it was just drunken banter, and nothing else”
To which I replied—“I told her we were both drunk”—because it was true that everyone had had a few drinks on the first night. But not the second, when he assaulted me minutes after I had reached the Grand Hyatt. However, this was the first time Mr Tejpal had said anything to me after lashing out at me the previous night, and I was still very afraid of him.
He then sent me a second message:
2. “And just banter, nothing else”—to which I did not reply, because there was no way what he had done to me could have been described as “banter”.
Sensing that I had clammed up at his attempt to sugar-coat what really happened, he sent me a third message:
3. “Why?? What’s happened??”
I did not reply to this message. Within minutes, he sent me a fourth message, one that convinced me he saw absolutely nothing wrong with what he had done, and was in fact now trying to shame me for talking to Tiya:
4. “I can’t believe u went and mentioned even the smallest thing to her. What an absence of any understanding of a parent child relationship.”
After this message, I made sure to stay away from Mr Tejpal except when we were in extremely public situations only—such as the Speakers Green Room at the Hyatt, or the lobby of the hotel. That evening as well, I steered completely clear of him. He made no mention of anything that had occurred the next day, and the only thought on my mind was to get Mr De Niro on his plane and leave Think. I had to speak to Mr Tejpal several times on Sunday the 9th of November to coordinate Mr De Niro’s travel plans, but in these calls he made no mention of anything that had occurred. Once I dropped Mr De Niro to the Goa Airportat 4.30 pm, I had no further contact with Mr Tejpal.
However, on 16.11.2013, Mr Tejpal messaged me a number of times
1. “Have you spoken to Tee? Is she Ok?”
To which I replied: “Why would she be ok about the fact that you sexually assaulted her best friend, that is me?”
2. “What’s with saying this awful stuff??”
To which I replied: Do not send me any messages. You are lying and you know that.
3. “Oh is that so? I cherished you like one of my best kids always, all these years; and because of one drunken banter you so easily say these awful things.”
To which I replied: “It was twice Tarun, not once and it was no banter. You did the most horrible things to me and I certainly was not drunk. I asked you to stop repeatedly.
4.“Oh so that’s what you told Tee. No wonder she’s so madly upset. It’s ok. Am not going to contest anything with her. Will let time and my love heal what it can.”
5.“Don’t think I’ve been more saddened in the longest time”
I have no doubt that Mr Tejpal was trying to establish his innocence in a devious manner. If he needed to get in touch with his daughter, he could have done so anytime he desired, through his wife or daughter or nephew or anyone from his family without messaging me about her, or falsely claiming that all that happened was ‘a drunken banter’. This was no banter, it was most clearly sexual assault. As a reporter for Tehelka who writes on violence against women, I suddenly find myself in the horrific situation of discovering what it is like to be on the receiving end of this violence from a powerful man I once deeply admired and respected. I truly hope that the idea of Tehelka is still intact—and that you will conduct an inquiry into this matter at the earliest.
November 19: The email sent by Tarun Tejpal to the young journalist as apology
This is the hardest thing I will ever do in my life. You are a young woman I have been very proud of, as a colleague’s daughter, and then as a colleague in my own office. I have watched you grow and mature professionally into a journalist of great integrity and promise.
It wrenches me beyond describing, therefore, to accept that I have violated that long-standing relationship of trust and respect between us and I apologise unconditionally for the shameful lapse of judgement that led me to attempt a sexual liaison with you on two occasions on 7 November and 8 November 2013, despite your clear reluctance that you did not want such attention from me.
I understand the extreme distress you have been feeling and if regret could turn time back, the force of mine would surely place us all back in a space and time before this terrible lapse.
I know you feel I used my position as Editor, Tehelka to force my attention on you, and I acknowledge that I did at one point say to your contention that I was your boss, “That makes it simpler,” but I do want to put on record that the moment those words escaped my lips, I retracted them saying “I withdraw that straight away – no relationship of mine has anything at all, ever, to do with that”. I want to reiterate that again today: despite my colossal lapse, working and succeeding in Tehelka will never be predicated on anyone acquiescing to anything untoward. It never has and never will. Having said that though, I acknowledge that there is an inherent disbalance of power in my position as editor-in-chief and you as an employee of Tehelka and there is absolutely no ground or circumstance in which I should have violated the propriety and trust embedded in that relationship.
Tehelka has a proud legacy and body of work, to which you yourself and legions of other journalists have contributed. As the founder and editor-in-chief, I have helmed and nurtured this proud institution, and I cannot imagine what insanity drove me to compromise these long, proud years of trust and public work.
There are many, many reasons, therefore, why I am smothered with regret. But I want you to know that foremost among them is the fact that I have hurt you and broken your trust in me, and that of many others around me. I have often spoken for the absolute rights and freedoms of women, and it shames me beyond words, to find myself located in this awful context. I would say it was a moment of insanity, except that would mean evading responsibility for it, and that I will not do. I hold myself, first and last, accountable.
I know Shoma has urged you not to leave Tehelka, and even as I acknowledge that I have lost the right to say this to you, I would urge you not to leave either. At the very least, I would like to assure you that the space to do your work proudly and freely, without worrying about fear or favour, will always be available to you here.
For long years, you have known a different man, a man and editor you trusted and were proud to know. In extreme contrition, I would like you to know that but for this unconscionable lapse, that man still exists and holds you in highest regard.
If an apology can heal, please consider this an unconditional one.
November 20: Letter sent by founder-editor Tarun Tejpal to Tehelka Managing Editor Shoma Chaudhury
The subject line is: Atonement
My dear Shoma,
The last few days have been most testing, and I squarely take the blame for this. A bad lapse of judgment, an awful misreading of the situation, have led to an unfortunate incident that rails against all we believe in and fight for.
I have already unconditionally apologised for my misconduct to the concerned journalist, but I feel impelled to atone further. Tehelka has been born and built, day on day, with my blood, toil, tears and sweat, and that of many others, against near-insurmountable odds.
It has lived for and fought the big battles of our time, always on the side of the oppressed and the wronged, always on the side of equity and justice. Its voice has travelled the world and changed policy and perceptions. It has been a beacon for those who would do the right thing. Through bad, and worse, times I have protected Tehelka and its journalists from the inevitable demands of power and corporations. I have always allowed every journalist’s sense of the right to flower and express itself. No one has ever been asked to do what they don’t believe in.
I have always held that Tehelka the institution, and its work, have always been infinitely more important than any of us individuals. It is tragic, therefore, that in a lapse of judgment I have hurt our own high principles.
Because it involves Tehelka, and a sterling shared legacy, I feel atonement cannot be just words. I must do the penance that lacerates me. I am therefore offering to recuse myself from the editorship of Tehelka, and from the Tehelka office, for the next six months.
You have always been stellar, Shoma, and even as I apologise to you and all my other colleagues, for this unfortunate incident, I leave Tehelka in your more than capable and safe hands.
November 20: Email sent by Managing Editor Shoma Chaudhury to all Tehelka staffers. She appended Tejpal’s mail.
This may come as a rude surprise to many of you.
There is a letter from Tarun appended to this mail. There has been an untoward incident, and though he has extended an unconditional apology to the colleague involved, Tarun will be recusing himself as the editor of Tehelka for the next six months.
Tehelka is an institution he has built, and which many journalists both current and former, have contributed to in the most profound ways. Throughout our 13-year career, we have proudly articulated and tried to live by the highest standards.
We have also believed that when there is a mistake or lapse of any kind, one can only respond with right thought and action. In keeping with this stated principle, and the collective values we live by, Tarun will be stepping down for the period mentioned.
This is a hard time for all of us, and I hope all of you will stand by the institution.
The Journalist’s Response: November 21
The complainant responded on November 21, in an email to Tehelka Managing Editor Shoma Chaudhury that Tejpal’s account of what happened on November 7 and 8 differed from hers on the following counts:
1. The use of the words “sexual liaison” is a clear misrepresentation of facts, and an attempt to obfuscate the truth—that he sexually molested me, on two separate occasions and that he violated my bodily integrity and trust.
2. He did not even once, utter the words “I withdraw that straight away–no relationship of mine has anything at all, ever, to do with that”. I have written this in my response to his ‘private’ email to me as well, which is cc’d to you and my colleagues who have known about him sexually molesting me from November 7.
She went on to also point out:
“In conversations with my colleagues you have said that you do not contest the facts of my testimony, which is why you do not see it necessary to constitute an anti sexual harassment cell as per the Vishakha guidelines in this case. However, given that his apology presents an entirely different version from my testimony, i.e. attempts to establish that a “sexual liaison” took place as opposed to him sexually molesting me, I insist once again in the spirit of justice, to constitute an anti sexual harassment cell in accordance with the Vishakha guidelines to investigate this matter.”
She also asked Chaudhury to: “publicly withdraw your statement that I or other Tehelka journalists are “satisfied”, since my colleagues do not know the full extent of what was done to me, and I am deeply hurt that as my mentor, you could suggest in any way that this blatant misrepresentation of facts would be satisfactory to me.”