The Man With The Hyena Laugh

Madhu Trehan’s chapter on Anirudhha Bahal from her book, Prism Me a Lie, Tell Me a Truth -Tehelka as Metaphor.

ByMadhu Trehan
The Man With The Hyena Laugh
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The Death of a Salesman

The Birth of a Journalist

Reluctant interviewee: Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck. Can you use that?

Aaron Altman [Albert Brooks]: Depends on how slow a news day it is.

– James Brooks’ film Broadcast News (1987)

As written on the Tehelka website: Starting his career with India Today in 1992, Aniruddha Bahal moved to the science and environment magazine Down to Earth, followed by The Financial Express. He was part of the original team that launched Outlook magazine in 1995 and has reported on a range of subjects from environment to travel, sports and defence. He is best known, though, for his groundbreaking investigation on match-fixing which rocked international cricket. Rumoured to seduce his sources with his hyena laugh.

Samuel: “Subeh Aniruddha ah gaya [Aniruddha came in the morning]. I said to Aniruddha, Sasi is asking three lakh then his bawss Brigaydeer will talk.

Aniruddha said, ‘Phhaah! Chutiya! Hum kehan deh sakta hai [Phhah! (Hindi expletive as in fucker!) How can we give that much]?’

Then I said, ‘Aniruddha, we can give 20,000?’ He said, ‘Kyon? Ismey kya chaleyga [Why? What will work in this?]’ I remember that. I said, ‘Suppose we get one meaty Brigaydeer, he’s selling me Brigaydeer, he’s dealing with almost all those action items’.”

Aniruddha began to sniff a good story. He told Samuel to start with Rs 20,000 for Sehgal. Samuel crafted out a plan to throw off Sasi.

Samuel: “Daylibrutly, vaat I did, Sasi bloody know I’m vurrrking with Tehelka. Unfortunately, I told him that, fussst meeting. Then I told Sasi that vaatever money you get, you have to give me 10 per cent commission, because I vant to prove my credibility, that I am doing it for the money and not for a story. That money we can spare for Malviya’s stay. Esspenses you have to meet, nah, so bloody I’m saying here stay.”

Samuel then moved to fix up the meeting:

Samuel: “Sasi said Kernel Sehgal will come dyerrrect to there. Myself and Malviya will go, to Kernel Sehgal…opposite Dhaula Kuan. So Malviya said we should buy some frrruts, mithai, kithai, humarey haath mey subh kutch hona hai [sweets, we should have everything in our hands]. So itna samaan pakadh kar hum uppar gayey [so carrying all this stuff in our hands we went up]. He also surprised. Kya leykar aah raheh hai. Usmey phhool bhi hai. Phhool rakhney ki jaganh nahin, aisa rakh kar gayey [What have you brought? There are also flowers. There was no room for the flowers, we were carrying so much]. Ha, ha, [Samuel laughs his belly-holding laugh]. ‘Pappa aiyey, badda pappa aiyey.’ [Father has come, big father has come.] He’s very fun man. Theek hai [okay].’

So Sasi was intarduced both of us. Sasi said don’t tell my bawss that you are a journalist. You tell with Malviya you are doing vurrk. Otherwise he’ll scared. He will not tell you anything. After that, we given Rs 20,000 [the money was given in stages at every meeting]. Everything Sasi pre-arranged. We got all this on camera.

Then he started talks. The percentage basis. How Sehgal can help us. How he can gayde us. How he can reach into materialize our supply. Bloody we don’t know vaaat kind of product we have to. Sehgal is asking hundred times, ‘Vaat kind of product you have? Vaat product you have?’ Vaat we know vaat product we have? Ha, ha, heh. [Really enjoying himself.] Then he given lawt of stuff. Then he instructed to Sasi. He gave the drinks also. I also had one.

Sasi nahin piya [Sasi didn’t drink]. In front of his bawss how can he take? He instructed to Sasi, ‘Ja keh almara khol keh, dawkumunts padda hai, usko deh doh [go and open the cabinet, there are documents there, give those to them]’.”

Madhu: “What documents were these?”

Samuel: “Rrelated to arrrmy procorrrmunt. Second day, Sasi dawkuments deh diya; Sasi ko bhi paisa deh diya, baatth khathum [second day, Sasi gave the documents; Sasi was given the money, the matter was over]. That’s also recorded. One is HHTI. I don’t know even that time how to pronounce this [Samuel slowly and painfully enunciates] hand-held thermal binoculars. And II Tube. Intensive imager. So fitted for the tank. Maineh tho, yeh kya, tube kya hai? [I asked, vaat is this tube?]. Uska sab [all the] details, these are the things we need. Then after one day Aniruddha look at some tapes. That time he said, ‘Okay, now we can go.’ Meanwhile Sasi this guaide inform us you have to meet some other people also. I am not like this a big chain. Minister and ministry also takes a percentage and everything. Then Aniruddha fussst drafted a letter, like Verghese George wrote a letter to Rajiv Sharma, Indian, that such and such vaatewer you given the information, we can follow the procedure that, I need more information on this. Computer mey draft kar key, Pranav Dutta ko deh diya [they drafted it on the computer and gave it to Pranav Dutta, graphic designer in Tehelka]. He decided the letter pad and Wust End, Aniruddha put the name.

Then again meeting Sasi and we again giving money. Happened every time we meeting Rs 2,000 he collecting. After that again we want to meet Kernal Sehgal to give money again to get some information. Meanwhile Sasi giving dawkumunts with procorrmunt information for arrrmy posts and capacity started. He given the instruction from Kernel Sehgal.”

Madhu: “That kind of information could fall into the wrong hands.”

Samuel: “Yeeesily! That is vaat I am saying. All the dawkumunts that is written, ‘Confidential’, ‘Most Confidential’. All that I got.”

Madhu: “But that has not come out in the Commission.”

Samuel: “No. That also Sasi’s lawyer, Union of India lawyer, rrrust of the lawyer, we want to supposed to deposit [the documents] with the Commission. They are saying requesting Commission do not allow them to submit to the Commission. Just imaaaaagine! How can Union of India lawyers? That, you know, if we are submitting, again voh hangama ho jayeyga [chaos will be created], how this leaked. We have submitted. The dawkumunts are in the Commission. I submitted. Arrrmy Court of Inquiry asked me to submit the dawkumunts. They say for them it is the ‘Most Confidential’ matter. And here also, tapes mey records hain. That is a Crrross almarah [Cross cabinet] there. You operate, inside three locker there, then you have to take dawkumunts. When you open the almarah [cabinet] there is one key there, uskey neechey dusra key hai, woh khole key [below that is another key, that will open it]. Sasi how? Sasi manage hai na. He will tell, go and take photostat and return it back. Just imaaaaagine! These people are talking vaat rubbish vaat we did and I am very much concerned about this matter, Maddumm. This is very serious.”

Madhu: “What kind of information was he dumping?”

Samuel: “He was asking vaat kind of supply you want to do to army, so he can give all the details, vaat are the other suppliers are doing, how they are achieving the supply order, through whom, percentage basis, how these people are dumbping these products in army depots that is not using because of the date, expired dates, that kind of information. Each and every tawpic he knows very well. I really surprised. Malviya also surprised. Every day Sasi is leaving at 4 o’clock and I am recording. This camera we had got for match-fixing story. In a briefcase. After three, four meetings with Sasi, I told Aniruddha this was happening.”

This was a dream coming true for Aniruddha Bahal. It was not by mere accident that he was in charge of the investigative cell in Tehelka. How did an individual selling brassware and office equipment from Moradabad end up as an incendiary investigative reporter? Aniruddha Bahal’s background scarcely destined him for the most sensational journalist sting operation in India. Aside from running away from home at 14 to find his fortune in Mumbai and, at the age of 24 writing a book, (A Crack in the Mirror) nothing would suggest the kind of focused zeal he demonstrated in Operation West End. Bahal’s father worked for the National Airports Authority of India. His somewhat mundane background after his birth in Meerut, included school in Calcutta until Class IV and then high school in Ahmedabad. He followed the predictable trajectory and got a BA degree from Allahabad University.

As mentioned earlier, on a visit to Delhi in 1991, he simply turned up at the India Today office and harassed Tarun Tejpal into giving him a job as a sub-editor. Bahal had a germ in his head that he had to get out of where he was. Moradabad was too small to contain his goals. Bahal took the first step in what the American scholar Joseph Campbell has brilliantly set forth in his treatise, The Hero of a Thousand Faces (1949) where the archetype of a hero at various stages is examined through the prism of mythology. ‘The hero, therefore, is the man or woman who has been able to battle past his personal and local historical limitations to the generally valid human forms.’ The ‘hero’ here is not necessarily Superman or a perfect human being who solely performs good deeds, but any man who reaches a threshold point he must cross in order to embark on an adventure that brings new meaning to his life. Of course, this prototype has been used in books and films all over the world.

Strolling around Connaught Place, Aniruddha saw India Today’s board and walked in. Tarun Tejpal saw his CV, told him he would get back to him and presumed that was the end of it. Aniruddha had other ideas. He sat in the India Today reception from early morning until Tarun left at night, for a week, waiting. “I couldn’t go out or come in, without this guy being there”, Tarun recalled. “The moment I would cross he would stand up, waiting for an answer. One week it went on. I went bananas. I couldn’t get in and out of the bloody office, yaar. I finally hired him as a trainee just to get him out of the reception.”

Aniruddha joined India Today in December 1991 and surprised everyone when he quit India Today in January 1994 for the Centre for Science and Environment’s magazine Down to Earth. He was there for just seven months, but the stint gave him the opportunity to travel to all corners of India which turned out to be a great learning experience. When Tarun joined Financial Express, he called Aniruddha to join him there. When Tarun quit Financial Express to join Outlook, Aniruddha followed him there too. Tarun said, “The great thing about Ani is he is a do-er. He’s not a nuance guy. He’s not a finesse guy. What he wants to do, what he has to do, he’ll get the job done. He won’t do more than that, because he always had a big play for himself and he always had big ambition. If he was told, send him somewhere ‘Yeh rahee ek story, laana hai [here’s the story, so get it]’. He’d get it for you, whichever way he did it. He is a single child and I don’t think he has an articulate relationship with too many people in the world. I won’t be surprised if I am the only person he has a relationship like that in the whole world. I don’t think he has it even with his wife or parents.”

This is clearly Tarun’s Rashomon, and I can just hear Aniruddha groaning and laughing his hyena laugh!

Tarun continued, “He is in that sense a fairly lonely kind of guy and lot of him is lived in his head. In Class IX he had devised this whole plot on how one can assassinate the American president without being caught. He was full of these fantastical potboiler imaginings. Somewhere with me he has a connection that goes way beyond the professional. There is a bond, and the bond I think has to do with the fact that I’m probably the one person in the world he can talk to, and with whom he feels okay. Because he is socially gauche, he’s the kind of guy who’ll say or do the wrong thing. But there is also the kind of hammer to go ahead and break down the wall and do what he has to do.”

Socially gauche? Yes, Aniruddha definitely doesn’t seek to fit in the social whirl. There is this story that did the rounds. It was Holi (in 2001 Holi was on March 9, four days before Operation West End was to be shown at Imperial Hotel) and Tehelka had decided they would close their offices for the morning on the holiday, but open up at 4.00 p.m. When Aniruddha, totally focused on working on Operation West End showed up at the office, he found it locked. He was tense about completing the story. He arrived at Tarun’s house to pick up the key at around 5.00 p.m. and found about a hundred people there still in a Holi mood. As he waited for Tarun to give him the key, one of Tarun’s friends decided to rub colour all over Aniruddha, despite Aniruddha explaining to him that Holi was over and he was on his way to work. Tarun’s friend ignored his protests and continued to apply colour on Aniruddha, who of course lost it and proceeded to give the fellow a solid thrashing.

Vinod Mehta, editor-in-chief of Outlook, said, “Aniruddha always believed we were wasting our time in journalism by ringing up people and asking for on-the-record interviews and doing journalism in the conventional way”. Whenever he went on an assignment abroad he bugged Mehta to give him money to buy hidden cameras. Mehta gave the money once and Aniruddha did buy two hidden cameras. Mehta said he allowed him to buy the cameras to keep him happy but kept asking him how he was going to use them, “given the business we are in”. Aniruddha gave Outlook two good stories using those cameras. He smuggled himself into the West Indies cricket team’s dressing room and recorded a famous cricket star making racist comments about the white Zimbabwe team. The cricketer called up Vinod and told him he would never had made those statements had he known he was being recorded. Vinod said, “There was a big stink.” He also sat with a Pakistani cricketer in a car in London and recorded him talking about other cricketers who were suspected of match-fixing. Outlook did not use that tape but Mehta said: “The Pakistani cricketer got so scared he gave him a lot of other information on-the-record.”

…to be continued.

Part 2 of the chapter will be uploaded on Monday, May 7, 2012.

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