Durbar by Tavleen Singh – Book Review
Durbar is a journalist’s memoirs that bring out what she saw during her reporting expeditions. And then juxtaposes it with what happened in Delhi’s elite drawing rooms where politicians, businessmen and journalist unwounded after their days work. Tavleen comes from a privileged background. Has lived all her life in and around Lutyen’s Delhi. And had an enviable access to people in higher offices. That gave her the advantage of witnessing both sides of the coin in a way.
Memoirs begin from the day Rajiv Gandhi was killed. And then go back to the days of emergency in India. That also coincided with the beginning of her career in journalism. And finally, close the loop at the same point as the Durbar book ends. In the evenings she would wine and dine with the likes of Rajiv and Sonia Gandhi. And in the day time, she would go to old Delhi where heritage structures were being torn apart by Sanjay Gandhi. And new slums were being created on the other side of Yamuna. She knew the inner circle of friends that the Gandhi’s trusted. And who would finally be the ones leading the country soon after? She also had the privilege to cover Kashmir and Punjab during their most turbulent times.
Her coverage of operation blue star brings out many things that may not be public knowledge. Like the rise of leaders like Bhindranwale, the psyche of rural youth after the operation and finally their training in Pakistan jails. Her adventure to reach Amritsar to see the Golden Temple right after the operation is thrilling. Though we would never know how much of it is fact and how much fiction.
You can see her pain at the fact that Rajiv Gandhi endorsed the killing of Sikhs that happened after Indira Gandhi’s death. Her capturing the mood in Kashmir at various points in time points to the public mood. And what they are looking for. And how for the rulers it may be just another power struggle. While for the masses it becomes a matter of life. Her coverage of various elections while traveling with some star politicians like Scindias, V P Singh etc are interesting. As we hardly get to see those campaigns. And even media does not cover them too much.
In a subtle way, she also talks about the rise of Sonia Gandhi through these years. She talks about her, as someone detested politics to the extent that she said she would rather have her children beg on the streets than join politics. She talks about her insensitivity to Indian reality even when she has seen things from close quarters. And the fact that she did not embrace India by taking Indian citizenship till it became a political necessity. She talks about how the austerity went out of the window in their house once Rajiv became PM and they moved to their new house. And how people who did not comply would get dropped from their inner circle that pretty much has Doon school alumni, far removed from so called real India. She talks about the fancy stuff that started making its way to her home.
Finally the Bofors scam and the fact that Q couple were as close to them as anyone can get. Somewhere hinting that it was she who was behind the money spinning mentality in the family. She subtly compares her residence during the times of Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi to highlight the difference. She points to carefully put makeup when she is sitting by the side of Rajiv’s body in Teen Murti Bhavan. And she says that Sonia did not take the leadership of Congress immediately as she wanted to prepare herself. She wanted to learn Hindi. And she wanted to be ready before she took charge. All through she does maintain though that she is an extremely warm person who would go out of the way to help a friend with references to instances where she helped fix interviews for her.
It would be interesting to read Tavleen from the point she closes this book on how she saw the journey of Sonia after she took charge of Congress and for the years she has been de-facto PM of India.
I enjoyed the fact she put so much of herself in the stories she was telling that brought the scenes alive in front of your eyes. She even brings in her own circumstances as a young journalist in 70s and 80s. And you actually wonder how much the world has changed for these professionals. The only thing that I found hard to digest is that she always knew the future. She was always bang-on while predicting election results and while predicting the impact of government policies and just about everything. I would be interesting to see her old columns and see if she actually predicted those results before the elections or not or did she write those policy analyses when it needed to be.
If you can ignore this small ego-trip it, Durbar is a wonderful book to read. I loved the way she narrates the history, the way she can put layers of information in her narration and the way she keeps the reader interested in knowing what happened next even then most of what she says is public knowledge.
Durbar is a recommended read for this generation to know the genesis of many problems that we are dealing with today.