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Why I did not quit

Calcutta, Aug. 20: Forty-eight hours after a six-hour session at the office of the Enforcement Directorate in Salt Lake, Aparna Sen spoke to The Telegraph about her association with Saradha chief Sudipta Sen. Excerpts

How do you look back on your session with the ED on Monday?

You know, many of our friends are calling me up. Shabana Azmi called me this morning and asked, ‘Are you okay?’ They all think that I was harassed. But I was not harassed at all! We were taken to the special officer’s office, where they were very pleasant and respectful. They thanked me for coming forward to help. We talked for a while. Basically, they wanted to know if I was one of the directors in Saradha or whether I had any shares in the company and whether any money transactions were made through me. I said ‘no’ to all three queries. They also wanted to know when and how I had met Sudipta Sen.

After I answered all their questions, all of it had to be written down as a statement, and it was this process that took time.

We broke for lunch during which we chatted about many things, including my films, and then resumed after lunch. It was really quite pleasant (smiles). And I really wanted to help with the investigation. That is why I had gone.

If we were to go over the three basic queries of the ED, starting with how you met Sudipta Sen…

A former colleague had asked me if I would write a column in Chaturanga, a section in Sakalbela (the Bengali daily published by the Saradha Group). I agreed, and started writing a weekly column, which became quite popular.

After some months, Sudipta Sen sent word through the same former colleague saying that he wanted to do something with me, and what would I like to do? Now, it has been my long-cherished dream to open a media school. So I asked if he would do that. He said he would, but also wanted me to start a newspaper with them. I told him I didn’t have the time or inclination for that, but I could start a Bengali periodical. That’s how Paroma was started. Sudipta Sen asked me to start preparing for the media school alongside editing Paroma and assured me that he would start looking for space to set up the media school. However, that never materialised.

Did you know about his core business?

When Sudipta Sen sent word to me, all I knew was that he had a publishing house. I didn’t know anything further about him. And when I did come to know that it was a chit fund (cash-collection) business, even then I did not think that it would not have the requisite RBI sanctions. There were other chit fund companies that were operating at the same time. Say Rose Valley. They had asked me to make films with them. I didn’t get around to making any film for them, but many well-known directors did.

In the same way, we were under the impression that Saradha had the necessary sanctions. Besides, we had no reason to know. We were focusing on the magazine. Many of my old colleagues had joined us, and we put our hearts and souls into bringing out a really A-class magazine. Besides, I also had to make my films. That’s my main interest in life.

In any case, the people of West Bengal know my integrity by now. I have been in public life since I was 14 years old and my life has been an open book. I don’t think I have to prove myself anew.

Were you the CEO of the magazine and did you make any money transactions?

My designation in Paroma was CEO and editor because I was head of all three departments — editorial, marketing and circulation. I also chose the people I wanted to recruit and signed their appointment letters. However, my contract mentioned that no money transaction would be made through me. So I would read the CVs, and approve of the persons I wished to recruit and then this was sent to Mr Sudipta Sen. All payments to everyone in our set-up were made by one single entity — Mr Sudipta Sen. He would sign every single cheque himself.

Were you asked by the ED about the payment you received, whether in cheque or cash?

Sections of the media have written that I was asked how much money I got in cash and how much in cheque. Nobody asked me that question. Because all my payments had been made through cheque. Many of which have bounced, incidentally! (Laughs) In fact we even lodged a police complaint when all Saradha publications were shut down all of a sudden. We ourselves were victims!

What did you do when the cheques started bouncing?

I told Mr Sen that I wouldn’t work here anymore if this happened. They (ED) also asked the same thing… why didn’t you do anything? But what could I do? Once a cheque bounced, they would pay up after a few reminders and then the whole process would start all over again! See, when you are bringing out a periodical, if there is a problem with the management, you continue to negotiate and try to resolve it, but you don’t quit. Because, if you do, you can’t bring out the next issue that your readers are waiting for! Also, if I quit, the magazine would be stopped and my team members would be out of job. Because, as a celebrity editor, I was the peg.

Why was Paroma shut down all of a sudden?

They (Saradha) sent out a declaration of closure of all publications on April 13, 2013, through an email. Till then we had heard from various sources — though not from Sudipta Sen directly — that Paroma was doing well and it would not be shut down even if the other publications were. Anyway, when Paroma was shut down with effect from April 14, on Bengali New Year, can you imagine what happened to all the people who were without a job all of a sudden?

How did Prathama happen?

I was deeply, deeply upset when Paroma shut down. That’s when we decided that we couldn’t let this magazine die. We had got so much acclaim in such a short span of time, we thought that with this team, we should be able to find another investor. So we started approaching people, and sometimes people started approaching us. The offer that we finally liked was from Future Education and Research Trust. Since it was an educational trust, we thought we could trust it; it wouldn’t be into that kind of money.

(Future Education and Research Trust directors Silajit Ghosh and Mousumi Ghosh were questioned by the ED at their Salt Lake office for over four hours on Tuesday.)

But there is a feeling that it was just a change of name, from Paroma to Prathama

That was because of a billboard advertising our new product Prathama Ekhon. We knew we couldn’t keep the name Paroma, but in order to let our readers know that it was the same editorial team that was bringing out Prathama Ekhon, we resorted to an advertising gimmick — Amra Paroma chhilam, Prathama holam. Now this has apparently created some confusion. Because it could be read to mean that the same establishment is now producing Prathama with the same money etc, and that only the name of the magazine has changed. But that was most certainly not the case. It’s just that the readers of Paroma were looking for further issues of Paroma. So when we named our second magazine Prathama, we tried to tell them that we were the same people that had created Paroma! That is the whole Paroma-Prathama mystery that is being talked about!

But Prathama was not registered…

The ED asked me about this RNI (Registrar of Newspapers for India) issue. I said that the best person to answer this would be the chief operations officer of Prathama who was handling the RNI issue. I was told that we had been given a grace period for the changeover by the I&B ministry. But before the changeover could be completed, the magazine shut down.

Why did Prathama shut down all of a sudden?

They (Future Education and Research Trust) said that they were not being able to meet the expenses of running the magazine. We had told them at the very outset that it would take at least three years to break even. But if they maintain that they can’t afford it, what can I say? It was very upsetting because once again the Prathama team was jobless overnight!

What is the link between Swapna Press, Paroma and Prathama?

Swapna Press used to print Paroma and they printed Prathama too. We were happy with their work. Swapna Press is a separate entity, which has nothing to do with Sudipta Sen. They are completely independent.

What was your designation in Prathama?

CEO and editor… because there was nobody else, you see. It wasn’t as though there was a basket of magazines with a general manager or a CEO at the helm. I would be speaking to the advertising people and the circulation people and the editorial team. But I never handled money. I am not good at it! Amar nijeri taka poysha hariye jaay koto baar (I often lose track of my own money).