Sunday, December 9, 2012

Durbar, by Tavleen Singh

Durbar, by Tavleen Singh

"A Lucid First Draft of History"
5 stars   This is a notable book I read and reviewed. Click to see more such books.
(Amazon US, Amazon INKindle, Flipkart, Flipkart e-bookmy review on Amazon, Powell's)
This very readable book by Tavleen Singh provides a delectable mix of first-person accounts of some of the pivotal episodes in India's political and social history with just the right amount of seasoning and spice in the form of gossip and an insider's peek at the cloistered club that goes by the book's eponymous title, "Durbar".

The author's first-person account begins with the imposition of Emergency in India, and takes us through to 1991, when Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated. These seventeen odd years, from 1974 to 1991, saw India deprived of its Fundamental Rights, for the first time, a non-Congress government at the center, another first, dynastic succession firmly establish itself, the rise of the Hindu Right and the pandering to the Muslim bloc, two assassinations, multiple internal strifes - in Kashmir and Punjab most prominently, external problems, and more. The shadows cast by these events have been long and dark, and the author feels that the "possibility of an Indian renaissance ... recedes further and further away." (pg xii) This was not always the case. In the first couple of decades after Independence, "India was still a dilapidated, unsure sort of place but it had about it the innocence of a country that believed in its dream of democracy and freedom." [page 10]

In a book as short and as long as this one - some 300 pages long, there are bound to be omissions. I will leave those out, omissions on my part if you will, and focus on some of the highlights of this book. A "public school", or "convent" as it is often called in India, education did not turn the author into a "professional India". Rather, a chance encounter on a train with some young men trying to get fresh with some girls travelling with a young Tavleen Singh left a lifelong impression on her - " saddens me that I never learned Sanskrit. ..This language that is the key to India's civilization.. and her ancient texts was mocked in the little English world in which I grew up." It is a reflection of our unchanging attitudes that half a century of supposed independence has not dented these prejudices.

[Paragraph added Dec 9, 2012]
One of the more remarkable things about this book, and the fact that it will come as a surprise is in itself disappointing, is the author's travel experiences. Of traveling in stone-cold trains without a blanket, of having to sleep in mosquito and bat-infested rooms, of toilets that were too filthy to even sh*t in. Of editors who looked askance at reporters who wanted to travel out of Delhi - they were suspected of basically wanting to push off on a holiday. Of waiting for hours and hours on end, waiting for a story to break. Part of it was of course before the era of cell-phones, of the Internet, of 24x7 cable television, before the advent of social media, and before journalists who didn't like criticism could bludgeon critics into legal silence or get them banned using the might of the government. What is undeniable is that to build your cred as a journalist one had to get down and literally get one's feet dirty travelling the length and breadth of the country. If nothing else, what should come out in this book is the kind of work that needed to be put in to become a journalist who was taken seriously.

The book follows mostly a linear narrative, and the author's extensive first-person experiences form the backbone of the book - whether it was traveling to Kashmir before a rigged and thoroughly discredited election plunged the state into the darkness of insurgency and external-sponsored terrorism, or her fearlessness in Punjab during the 1980s. No, she did not parachute herself into the state, microphone in hand, videographer in tow, and a carefully selected phalanx of protesters to serve as a backdrop. No sir. She met Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, where she realized only later that "I had witnessed the Sant ordering an execution." - a Hindu police constable who had allegedly beaten up a Sikh was called out by name, and who turned up dead, shot, a few days later. After Operation Blue Star, the complete fustercluck of a military operation to clear the holy shrine of the Sikhs of terrorists barricaded there, the borders of the entire state of Punjab were ordered closed, and the city of Amritsar itself under curfew. She and Sandeep made it to Amritsar, carrying a letter from her father, Brigadier Amarjeet Singh, as the sabre to rattle soldiers into letting them pass through every road barricade they came across, and met up with General Brar (Lt Gen Kuldip Singh Brar, who commanded Operation Blue Star).
Some of the conversation she had went like this:
" "Is the temple badly damaged?"
"Yes. And what is sad is that it needn't have been if we had been allowed to spend a month using military intelligence to find out what was going on. We were forced to depend on those bastards in civilian intelligence and they couldn't even tells us how many entrances there were to the temple."
Had we known how many entrances there were we would never have gone in through the main entrance which was so heavily fortified. We lost more than a hundred men in the first few minutes."" [page 167-68]
Note that "more than a hundred men" were lost in the first few minutes. More than a thousand soldiers of the Indian Army were killed in that operation. That alone should have been cause for an inquiry and consequences, both bureaucratic and political. There were none. The reasons were all too clear.
"What I did find out soon enough was that the general view in Rajiv's circle of friends was that Operation Blue Star had been a resounding success and any criticism of it amounted to treason. It took me a while to discover that the reason for this hyper-sensitivity was that Rajiv and his friends had been personally involved in advising a military assault on the Golden Temple. Mrs Gandhis's 'south Indian advisors' had gone along with the plan, but from all accounts were not the ones who initiated it." [page 172]
There is considerable commentary, based on first-hand accounts, of the Emergency, of the riots at Turkman Gate, of the forced sterilization of the poor - in the name of population control, that allows us a glimpse into an India that was brutalized by an arrogant political dynasty and a pliant bureaucracy. More on that later, but after Emergency was lifted, elections announced, and political opponents freed (Rajmata Vijayraje Scindia for one had been imprisoned in a prison cell meant for prisoners on death row, and several other political prisoners lost their mental balance as a result of the solitary confinement they were subject to), a massive rally organized by the opposition political parties is worth recounting in some detail here.

While people today can listen to and watch practiced orators like Sushma Swaraj and Arun Jaitley, it is easy to forget, especially for people who have become politically conscious only in the last ten of fifteen years or so, that perhaps India's best orator was none other than Atal Behari Vajpayee. He may have become the butt of jokes on account of his prolonged pauses towards the end of his career, but I, for one, who has watched him on television in the 1990s cannot forget the mesmerizing spell he could cast over listeners. So the following excerpt should come as no surprise. It was the second week of January, 1977. Emergency had been lifted a few weeks back by Indira Gandhi and elections announced. Political leaders imprisoned by the Congress government had been freed, and a massive rally had been announced at the Ram Lila grounds in New Delhi. If you have not been to Delhi in the winters, the evenings and nights can get bitterly cold. Add to it rain, and yet, that night in 1977, the crowds waited. The last speaker was to be Atal Behari Vajpayee.
""It was past 9 p.m. and the night had got colder although the rain had stopped." ... [A colleague from the Hindustan Times remarked,] "nobody will leave until Atalji speaks."...
"Because he is the best orator in India. Have you never heard him speak?"
"No. I've only been in journalism since he went to jail."
"Well, you're in for a treat. And to hear him for the first time today will really be something." [pg 60]
He acknowledged the slogans with hands joined in a namaste and a faint smile. Then, raising both arms to silence the crowd and closing his eyes in the manner of a practiced orator, he said, "baad muddat ke mile hain deewane." (बाद मुददत के मिले हैं दीवाने )... He paused. The crowd went wild.
When the applause died he closed his eyes again and allowed himself another long pause before saying, "Kehne sunne ko bahut hain afsane."(कहने सुनने को बहुत हैं अफ़साने ) ... The cheering was more prolonged, and when it stopped he paused again with his eyes closed before delivering the last line of a verse that he told me later he had composed on the spur of the moment. "Khuli hawa mein zara saans to le lain, kab tak rahegi aazadi kaun jaane." (ख़ुली हवा में सांस तो ले लें, कब तक रहेगी आज़ादी कौन जाने )
The crowd was now hysterical." [page 60]
He then went on to deliver a speech decrying the excesses of emergency, especially the bundling of the poor like cattle into trucks, taken away to be forcibly sterilized.
"The clapping this remark evoked went on and on and on and it would be only on election day that I would understand why." [pg 61]
The author drops a tantalizing hint that Atal Behari Vajpayee could have become prime minister instead of the rather spartan and strict Morarji Desai. Perhaps India's destiny would have been different, perhaps for the better. As we know, things turned out different. Incidentally, it was Atal Bihari Vajpayee who had admonished Rajiv Gandhi on his incredibly insensitive and appalling statement on the earth shaking when a tree falls, who said that "it is when the earth shakes that trees fall."

And incidentally, when people launch into a harangue on the Yamuna River and its filth, remember that massive numbers of people living in slums in Delhi - lakhs - were forcibly evicted from their homes and forced to live in even more squalid conditions by the Yamuna. Lakhs of these people added to the pollution of the Yamuna. Sanjay Gandhi truly believed in removing the poor and signs of poverty, not really removing poverty. Nameless, faceless, clueless bureaucrats took over the design and planning of Indian cities.

The book is no endless commentary on the political intrigues and escapades of the political class. For instance, the author managed to get permission and time to do an interview of the then Hindi cinema superstar (heck, he is even today, thirty-five years later, the reigning superstar of Hindi cinema).
"By the time he dropped me home at 4 a.m. we had become friends. As for me, I had fallen in love." [pg 108]
Then there is her travel to the Kumbh Mela and the truly heartbreaking sight of seeing little girls at the lost-and-found camp, where she learns that these girls had been deliberately "lost" by parents who did not want girls. Or an even more heartbreaking travel to the drought-stricken district of Kalahandi in Orissa, where entire villages had been wiped out, with people dying a slow death, watching their children dying an even more painful death, distended bellies, vacant eyes, and the existence of a drought being denied by a heartless Chief Minister and a clueless Prime Minister.

But what about Sonia? After all, a disproportionate number of readers are going to pick the book up in the hopes of finding juicy tidbits of gossip on the Empress of India, Mrs. Sonia Gandhi. Even some of the book's excerpts published on news portals have tended to fixate on those pieces that talk about Sonia Gandhi. Well, the book does have its share of anecdotes about Sonia Gandhi, but Sonia Gandhi is not the object of this book, yet these glimpses provide us with sufficient material to form some sort of an opinion about the politician who would shape India's destiny for a decade, or more. There is also subtext that is there, and words not written that need to be read, between the lines. The author came to become friends with Sonia and Rajiv Gandhi, a friendship that did not last more than a decade. The words, or at least some of the words, used are deliberate, and will leave the reader in no doubt that Tavleen Singh is most certainly not a member of the "durbar". Tavleen Singh first noticed Sonia Gandhi, at Mapu's house. Mapu was Arun Singh's brother, and the party had Romi Chopra and Naveen Patnaik, among others. "She was small and slim, with a prominent, sulky mouth and thick brown hair that hung loose down to her waist." [page 20]

The friendship between the author and Sonia Gandhi, that lasted for about a decade, did see moments of closeness and tenderness, in which Sonia Gandhi went out of her way to arrange an interview with Rajiv Gandhi, to help a desperate Tavleen Singh keep her job. The interview made her boss, M.J. Akbar, even more irritated with the author, for reasons that become all too clear later. Sonia Gandhi would often provide the author with Rahul Gandhi's clothes, or clothes gifted to Rahul, for her son, Aatish Taseer - a close and personal friendship. The friendship frayed beyond repair after Tavleen Singh worked on a profile on Sonia Gandhi, after Rajiv Gandhi had become Prime Minister, that was published in India Today, and which though "balanced", did ask some questions about Sonia Gandhi's influence on Rajiv Gandhi and the fact that she controlled access to Rajiv Gandhi and his coterie. This relationship did not revive even after Rajiv Gandhi's assassination, an event that saw no other politician lose his or her life - much is said and still left unsaid by the author here.
"Sonia, her daughter and other ladies of the family sat in white saris on the floor. Sonia's dark brown hair was tied back and covered with her cotton sari and her face was carefully made up. Even the lower eyelashes she painted on to make her eyes look bigger were in place. I reached out and held her hand, but she pretended to greet someone else. When our eyes met, she looked at me as if I were a total stranger." [pg 7 - after Rajiv Gandhi's assassination]
And let us not forget that the author makes it clear just how the cozy and close the relationship was between Sonia Gandhi and the infamous Ottavio Quattrochi:
"Then there were the foreign friends with whom Sonia seemed most comfortable and relaxed. Ottavio and Maria Quattrochi were the ones who were nearly always invited where Rajiv and Sonia went. ... Sonia's parents stayed with them when they came to Delhi." [page 23]
The author does not explain, or attempt to explain, how Sonia Gandhi's absolute contempt for politics could be reconciled with her late decision to not only enter politics herself, but also push her son and her daughter into politics.
"I would rather my children begged in the streets than went into politics." - Sonia Gandhi. [page 102]
Perhaps the most scathing pieces in the book are reserved for those who form part of this incestuous clique of power-brokers, the power-wielders, and the plain power-hungry. This power circle resides in Delhi, and operates out of Delhi.
"It is my conviction that the dynasty's real power comes from the support they get from the bureaucracy in Delhi. High officials in India are famous for the disdain with which they treat the representatives of the people but put almost any of them in the presence of a member of the Gandhi family and they behave like humble employees. ... If they ever make it to the inner circles of the court around the family, their obsequiousness knows no bounds... ... but on the edge of their courts have always lurked senior bureaucrats dripping with servility they rarely show anyone else. The most sycophantic are those who went to Oxford and Cambridge and who appear to have developed from this British experience a genetic memory of serving colonial masters." [page 97]
Just how servile the Delhi bureaucracy could get is best described in the behavior of a senior bureaucrat that she leaves unnamed, and who "... lived in a particularly beautiful colonial bungalow on Aurangzeb Road" and who, at a party, came up to Akbar Ahmed (and Tavleen Singh) "with an obsequious smile on his face, and bowed deeply before Akbar, who looked embarrassed and unsure of how to react." [page 97]

Perhaps the only thing that has changed in the thirty intervening years, for the worse, is that the media has got itself entwined, comfortably and willingly so, with this durbar.

This book is also a compilation of the ineptness, cluelessness, and painful missteps of Rajiv Gandhi. Whether it was Kashmir, or Punjab, or Sri Lanka, or Nepal, or the famine in Kalahandi, or the scandal of the Bofors deal, or even foisting on the nation remarkably irritable characters like Mani Shankar Aiyar - the gentleman who went to Pakistan and referred to Hafiz Saeed as "Hafiz saab" in a TV interview. "Hafiz Saab", of course, being the gentlemanly terrorist mastermind behind the Mumbai terrorists attack of November 26, 2010 - or the pandering to the Muslim fundamentalists in the Shah Bano case and then the banning of Salman Rushdie's book, "The Satanic Verses", or the equally disastrous attempt at balancing one bad act with another inexplicable act of idiocy - this time by allowing the gates of the locked temple at Ayodhya to be opened. If there are lamentations on the rise of the so-called "Hindutva" right, its path begins from these actions of Rajiv Gandhi.

And what about the conspiracies? The unsaid conspiracies? You won't find much by way of conspiracy theories being bandied around in this book. So, I took it upon myself to dig, and to read between the lines, and to see gossamer threads of conspiracies and spin from them an entire fabric of paranoia. When Sanjay Gandhi died in a plane crash in 1981, his friend Madhavrao Scindia survived. "The first thing I heard, from either Vasundhra or Madhavrao himself, was that the only reason the young Maharaja of Gwalior had not been on the plane with Sanjay was that he was late that morning." [page 126] Why was Madhavrao late? Who was he meeting that he got delayed? Was the delay arranged by someone? And it is a remarkable coincidence, or probability, or otherwise, that the titular Maharaja of Gwalior would die in a plane crash, some thirty years later. Another tidbit is no more than a passing mention that after Indira Gandhi had been shot, Sonia Gandhi took her mother-in-law in her own Ambassador car to the hospital. Not in the designated ambulance, because the driver had gone off for a cup of tea. After Indira Gandhi's assassination, the author was interviewed, no - questioned is the more appropriate word here - by some bureaucrat from the Intelligence Bureau(?) The author stepped outside her office, only to run into Sonia Gandhi, in her white ambassador.

This book is fast-paced, lucidly narrated, and well-organized chapters. It provides a fascinating glimpse into what was undoubtedly a pivotal period in Independent India's history. It is a most laudable first draft of history.

And a special mention of the publisher, Hachette (@HachetteIndia). Call it sloppiness, call it cost-cutting, call it anything for that matter - it doesn't really matter - but for some reason, they think non-fiction books without indexes are the way to go. They did this with Shishir Gupta's "Indian Mujahideen" - an email requesting an online or PDF version of an index from them has been unanswered for over a year now, and no - I am no longer holding my breath for either a response or an index, and they have done the same with this book.


So, for example, if I were to ask you if Bal Thackeray finds a mention in the book, would you know the answer? And if I were to tell you the answer is "yes", would you which page? And if I told you, it's on page 142, would you know in what context? It is in a statement made by Sant Bhindranwale. Or how many times? Once. Or if I were to ask you if Barkha Dutt (of the Nira Radia 2010 scandal, where she was caught on tape in conversation(s) with Nira Radia, a corporate lobbyist, to allegedly fix cabinet ministerial berths in the UPA government), finds a mention in the book, the answer would be yes. Of course, without an index, you have to take my word for it, or read the book. Producing an index takes time, effort, and therefore money, not to mention a commitment to certain publishing standards.

Kindle Excerpt:

Classification : Biography & Memoir
Pub Date : Nov 15, 2012
Imprint : Hachette India
Page Extent : 324
Binding : HB
ISBN : 9789350094440
Price : 599

Political and Incorrect

© 2012, Abhinav Agarwal (अभिनव अग्रवाल). All rights reserved.