Tavleen’s Testy Tales
Let’s get rid of the disclaimers first. I have read the entire book, cover to cover. Including the book flap. I have also understood the book. I am neither a friend, nor a colleague, nor an acquaintance of Tavleen Singh’s. And therefore have no vested interest in writing this review. Now unlike some other unfortunate reviewers, I can’t be hung up to dry because of these sins.
My reason for reading Tavleen Singh’s Durbar was because she’s one of the few women journalists of her time who came from no lineage or “dynasty” of journalists. She’s reported on India through its most volatile phase post-Independence, and had promised in many interviews to provide an insider’s view of what was being discussed in the drawing rooms of the powers-that-be in Delhi during this period. And to provide keen insights and information on the elusive and very private Gandhis. The question was, how objective would it be? Would it just be a hatchet job on Sonia?
Singh’s Author’s Note sets the tone for the book and the thought behind it. The book is “a memoir not just of the short life of Rajiv as a politician and how the seeds to dynastic democracy were sown, but of my own as a journalist”. The latter seems to have been forgotten till the last chapter of the book. But we’ll get to that later.
If ever there was a racy and less pedantic chronicling of the times, it is this. Her narration of her journey into journalism is most entertaining. She describes a way of life totally disconnected from India and Indian customs and narrates her shortcomings with sparkling candour – because she really doesn’t come out looking good. She sounds like a misdirected young adult, a prime example of the nouveau riche she pillories in the chapters which follow. She is a Naxal’s nightmare, and a shining example for anyone who feels that a college degree and knowledge of current affairs is necessary to make it in journalism. Tavleen’s tales prove that you just need to follow your heart and also sometimes just be at the right place at the right time.
The litany of events and incidents through history that she has witnessed and reported on is truly remarkable. By reading her Indian Express columns – which swing between singing the praises of Lavasa and decrying the tragedy that is the Congress – you would not be blamed for thinking that she’s simply an angry old woman who’s been given a column to write in Indian Express to vent her spleen. But it’s when you go through the book and realise what she witnessed and reported on first-hand, that you understand that there are some journalism chops which have been more than earned.
What marks her writing are the anecdotes that are thrown in. How accurate they are, I do not know. But they make for very interesting reading, converting historical incidents into drawing room chatter. “Durbar” chatter. From the 1977 Elections, during which Indira Gandhi showed Bobby on Doordarshan so that people didn’t attend the rally called by the Opposition, to Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s first speech after coming out from jail. From witnessing the birth of the Janata Party, to working with Raghu Rai.
The problem with Singh’s narration of events is that just when you’re caught up in her experiences and the incident, she throws in a gossipy barb which is utterly unnecessary. Which simply detracts from the moment, and makes the book seem like the Cine Blitz of journalism. While describing her sorrow at Rajiv Gandhi being assassinated and then going to see Sonia Gandhi, she says something which most society biddies do. Instead of being interested in giving her condolences to the family, she comments on how she noticed that Sonia’s face was totally made up and that she had even applied eyeliner. How this information is relevant, escapes me. Other than as a feeble attempt to show that Sonia was always putting on an act. It reeks of a conservative “aunty-mentality” which expects mourners to behave like rudaalis or jump onto their husband’s pyres.
It is these gossipy interludes which keep detracting from the book. In her chapter on the 1977 elections, she describes how she knew there were domestic problems at the Gandhi household, and narrates an inane story narrated to her by a third party on how Sonia-Rajiv fought with Maneka-Sanjay over dog biscuits. Does anyone care? Really?
There are of course amusing comments like the one on the Janata government and their obsession with beverages from urine to Coca Cola to replacement cola, Sanjay Gandhi’s arrest and the concept of The Statesman Page Three which is very different from what we know of Page Three today. There are charming anecdotes such as Indira Gandhi using the word “fissiparous”, Morarji Desai supposedly dousing himself with cologne to disguise the smell of urine, and political intrigue in the form of how Chandraswami brought down the Janata government.
Her most riveting chapters are the ones on Bhindranwale and the Sikh riots, with a chilling description of bodies piled in trucks. There is a point where it seems like she is almost lionising Bhidranwale when she describes how he sacrificed himself and allowed himself to be riddled with bullets. The drought in Orissa, Operation Black Thunder, her many meetings with Bhindranwale before he died are all intriguing reads.
But through it all there is an undertone of malice every time she mentions Sonia, Rajiv, Sanjay and even MJ Akbar. Frankly, the hatchet job on Akbar is far worse than the one on Sonia Gandhi. She talks about Akbar’s gauche meeting with Rajiv Gandhi for the first time, the newsroom politics that he indulged in, how he despised her and was always out to get her. Similarly, she speaks of how Sonia was one of the main people who used to gift clothes to Tavleen’s son, Aatish, since Tavleen was a single mother on a shoestring budget. And then goes on to criticise her with very personal comments on Sonia wearing a sable coat and Rajeev suddenly sporting a Rolex. Her defence of the India Today profile which she wrote on Sonia Gandhi, which is when the worm turned, is weak at best. She blames it on Dilip Bobb, who seems to be everyone’s fall guy at India Today, the poor chap. And says that she didn’t write anything nasty about Sonia and just can’t understand why Sonia would cut her off. Through all her fall-outs with various people, Singh is never at fault.
The swing between gossiping and bitching and chronicling the times is a little distracting to say the least. You suddenly feel like you’re sitting with a gossipy aunt who knows the who’s who and peppers every memory with more than a little dash of masala. Her comments on Sonia, especially in the Epilogue – as some attempt to show us how “dynasty” has become part and parcel of India – are weak, frivolous and based mainly on hearsay. She writes, “From tidbits of information I gleaned from these friends….when she refused to become Congress President on the night Rajiv died, it was probably because she knew that if she took the job, she would be quickly exposed”. Just a few of the other sentences which reek of bilious anger and a strong dislike for Sonia are – “The media behaved like it were perfectly normal for an Italian housewife to become the prime minister of India…” and “from someone ostensibly uninterested in politics, she seemed to be meeting politicians during her period of mourning”.
Why Singh’s criticism of “dynasty” is hollow is because she doesn’t seem to hold up the Rajmata of Gwalior who never started off as a politician or even her dear friend Naveen Patnaik who as we all know was best known for his love of the good life and his Hollywood and rock music friends like Jagger et al, to the same measure. How does dynasty not creep in here? How does a playboy becoming politician just because his father died, not deserve the same ire? But Rajiv becoming a politician after Indira’s death and Sonia after his, deserves brickbats and abuse.
The editor’s note on the book flap is what takes away even more from Singh’s book. This should have been positioned as a chronicle of India: Indira and After. Not as a book on “dynasty”. And if it must be a book on dynasty, then everyone, including Singh’s friends should be held up to the same benchmark as the Gandhis are.
The problem with the book is that the brilliant and utterly engrossing narration of the politics and mood of India in the Seventies and onwards, chokes on Tavleen’s broken heart and bile at being left out in the cold by Sonia.
Image By- Swarnabha Banerjee