Book Review: Durbar is good for gossip on the Gandhis, little else

Last Updated: Wed, Jan 23, 2013 23:03 hrs


Author: Tavleen Singh

Pages: 311

Price: Rs 599

Publisher: Hachette India

Durbar starts out with a dictionary definition of the word, as books written about exotic lands by foreigners are wont to. The book has, in some senses, been written by a foreigner, as the author confesses in her preface to the book. She "became aware of being a foreigner in [her] own country" when she was a sixteen-year-old, being harassed by "Hindi-speaking types" on a train.

Her description of the incident is reflective of the perspective in the book - where we tend to sympathise with the group of young women being 'eve-teased', the group of which Tavleen Singh was a part, she finds food for thought in the retort from one of the harassers, to a girl who was gutsy enough to stand up and chide them for their behaviour. She'd reprimanded them in English, and the 'eve-teaser' said, apparently, "in refined Hindustani", 'Angrez chale gaye, apni aulaad chhod gaye.'

The comment, the author says, made her reflect on her lack of knowledge of Hindi and Urdu. I find this deeply troubling. There is nothing poetic about a barb, least of all from the sort of man who would "make cheeky remarks and sing romantic songs from Hindi films" to a group of schoolgirls. To me, it smacks of aspirational envy at best, and grossly perverted sexism at worst.

Throughout the book, Tavleen Singh is critical of the Gandhi family's inability to understand the crux of an issue, thanks to their skewed outlook. She explains this with an example, describing a skit called Pani ki Samasya by Hindi satirist Sharad Joshi:

"In the satire he had Rajiv arriving in a village and asking where the villagers got their water from. They explain that it comes from a river and he asks if they walk to the river or take public transport, unaware that in the eighties there were no taxis in rural India. When they tell him they have to walk to the river he points out that the water they bring back must be quite hot then. When they admit it is he orders an official to check if the World Bank can be persuaded to build a shed over the river." 

What follows is her surmise that if only Rajiv had listened to her advice on making Doordarshan more interesting and filling it with programmes, the national channel wouldn't have been forced to follow him on tours of the countryside, during which his disconnect with 'the real India' was exposed. Thus, if Rajiv had listened to her, the country would never have learnt of his vacuity, and he would have been spared the humiliation of being parodied.

In other words, the author's outlook is about as skewed as the Gandhi family's. She mentions at one point that the Gandhis, being of common stock and not regal pedigree, had pretensions of royalty. This seems to be her main grouse with them - that they dared to create a dynasty of rulers, despite being commoners.

However, she appears to have no such issues with the clans that must have started off as warlords, aeons ago. Throughout the book, there is a sense of admiration for the antiquated customs of the royalty, and tacit disapproval of the fact that they were deprived of privy purses, and that raids were conducted on them, and that 800 kilograms of gold was seized from one ex-royal after being "accidentally" found by an angry income tax inspector who stomped his foot on the floor in a rage, having found no other possession that would incriminate them.

Right at the end of the book, Tavleen Singh clarifies that she has written so much about Sanjay, Rajiv and Sonia Gandhi's reign to bring out how Indira Gandhi initiated the idea of dynastic rule, which has now taken root in so many parties across India. This is a crucial issue, one that deserves far more focus than it gets in the book.

Sadly, there is far more space devoted to descriptions of Delhi's drawing room circles and the impression their members made on the author, to the "socialist" interior decor of government buildings (down to curtains of the wrong colour), to the exquisite liqueurs and sumptuous meals at the exclusive parties the author was invited to, and to the banter among the women at these parties, of whom Sonia Gandhi was one. While Tavleen Singh is rightfully snarky about socialist politicians taking over luxurious colonial houses, she seems to take issue not so much with their act of occupying these houses as the rustic socialists' failure to maintain them as well as they could have.

More disturbing is the fact that the author doesn't appear to be as troubled by Rajiv Gandhi's inheritance of the Prime Ministership of India than by the prospect of Sanjay 'The Dictator' Gandhi and Sonia 'The Foreigner' Gandhi inheriting it. While she often mentions her good friend and party partner Naveen Patnaik, she doesn't appear to have problems with his inheritance of the BJD and Orissa from his father. Or, for that matter, with Farooq Abdullah's inheritance of Kashmir from Sheikh Abdullah. Or with the Raje and Scindia clans' political legacy. There is no mention of Omar Abdullah, or the Badals, or Karunanidhi's several offspring, though the book does spill over to the era when the spawn of these clans had begun to play prominent roles in politics.

The book is disappointing in many ways because Tavleen Singh has been a crucial voice in the Eighties and Nineties, writing fearlessly about the rise of militancy in Punjab, no doubt at considerable risk to herself. I expected as keen a perspective, and as severe criticism, of the fallibility of the princes and princesses of politics in India.

The lack of insight in the book must be rather shocking to regular readers of her columns. I've found myself agreeing with her more often than not, from what I've read of her writing, which is why I find the book so hard to grasp. It is careless in its commentary, often thinking for other people - this is most apparent in the case of M J Akbar, who, in one instance she concludes was uncomfortable making his visit to the room where the rich kids came and went, talking of M F Husain. In another anecdote that is unintentionally more damning of her judgment than Akbar's, she says she "wrote good things about [Rajiv Gandhi's] padayatra because [she] knew that was what Akbar wanted."

Often, she appears to defend Rajiv Gandhi, transferring the blame to bureaucrats, whom she subtly assigns with parochial prejudice, and whom she thinks for too. In speaking of the death of more than 1500 soldiers of the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka, she says:

"For this I blame Rajiv less than the bureaucrats, mostly Tamil, who advised him on his doomed policy in Sri Lanka. They must have realized that they were dealing with a prime minister who was a novice when it came to matters of foreign policy and with a mixture of flattery and chicanery they persuaded him to go down a road at the end of which there could never have been victory."

Does the fact that the bureaucrats were Tamil automatically imply that they had designs in Sri Lanka? And is their purported sycophancy more problematic than the gullibility, inexperience, and insecurity of a prime minister with so little knowledge of foreign policy - and so little claim to intelligence - that he would trade prudence for an ego boost?

To her credit, Tavleen Singh is candid about how she benefited from access journalism, and recasts several of her journalistic indiscretions in a self-deprecatory tone.

From how she wangled an interview with Amitabh Bachchan by calling up Sonia Gandhi, to how she got a mutual friend to arrange for her to run into Rajiv Gandhi accidentally-on-purpose, to how she got into Punjab by using her father's army credentials to get past military check posts, she holds nothing back from the reader.

She is equally open about her failings as a journalist - confessing that she sent an important diary, full of off-the-record conversations, in her luggage, on a plane that was eventually hijacked, that she developed a girly crush on Amitabh Bachchan when she was supposed to be questioning him and recording what he said, that she lost her notes on some of the most important events she witnessed, including Atal Bihari Vajpayee's speech at the Ramlila Maidan in the 1977 rally held by the Opposition, ahead of elections.

The best section in the book is the one that pertains to Punjab and Bhindranwale. There is very little self-indulgence in this part, save for the thriller-like telling of the story - illustrated in the description of her conversation with the owner of a teashop frequented by Khalistan militants, where Tavleen Singh extracts high drama out of the avoiding of eye contact during a furtive exchange of information.

But her narration of the Khalistan movement and its aftermath is mostly gripping, and she brings out the fear and paranoia that existed on both sides of the divide quite beautifully. In a telling instance, she describes how her turbaned cousin was stopped by police in Lutyens' Delhi as he was returning from a party, and tortured for hours, despite his aristocratic connections and affluent background.

One wishes she had exercised the same restraint of prose and sharpness of assessment throughout the book. From reading several of her columns, I was looking forward to reading the book, and really wanted to like it. But though it's well-written in terms of language, I'm at a loss to understand why such mundane events as the Godrejs' fanciful dinner parties are recounted in such detail, while such important events and issues are skipped over.

A particularly baffling omission is seen when she mentions that she met now-slain LTTE chief, Velupillai Prabhakaran. She says the first thing that struck her was that his eyes were those of a dead man - something that must occur to all those who have seen his photographs and videos. And then, nothing. There is no description of what he said, whether he spoke to her, what the impression of Tamil journalists at the meeting was, and what sort of impression he made. In contrast, there is a lengthy analysis of Indira Gandhi's use - wait, mispronounced use - of the word "fissiparous".

Perhaps the book needed an editor who was less in awe of its contents, and the foreign-educated socialites it crawls with. Perhaps journalists and columnists, who are usually pressed to say what they have to say in 300-800 words, find it hard to decide what to put in and what to leave out when they're given as many pages. A good editor would have been handy in pointing out that there are way too many commas missing. While the book is deliciously gossipy, especially for readers who want to know who gets along with whom, and who fell out with whom, in the crowd that flutters in and out of rooms with silver furniture, it disappoints those of us with plainer taste.

I find it strange that at the end of the book, I know that Sonia Gandhi had a darzi in Khan Market, whose work Naveen Patnaik mistook for a Valentino creation, but have no clue how anyone of political importance reacted to the demolition of the Babri Masjid, in the presence of close friends and trusted aides who are prone to ratting them out to Tavleen Singh. I also know that Sonia Gandhi brought back a sable coat from Russia, and that she considers Fendi a superior designer house to anything Russia could produce, and that she wore makeup for Rajiv Gandhi's funeral, and that she and Maneka Gandhi fought over dog biscuits. But I don't know how much anyone knew of the manner in which Warren Anderson was smuggled out of India in the wake of the Bhopal gas tragedy.

In the absence of such crucial moments, such turning points in a family's rule of this country, one wonders why the book was written. Couldn't accounts of the idle conversations of manicured ladies, and whispered confidences of Doon School old boys, make fitter content for a column on Delhi's drawing rooms, with a titillating title like 'Insider's View' or 'From the Persian Rug' - or 'Durbar'?

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