Book review of Durbar by Tavleen Singh

A durbar is a court. This is not something like the High Court or the Supreme Court, this court normally constitutes of a king, a priest or a very high official presiding over a group of courtiers. Such a court is called a durbar in Hindi.

Durbar

Durbar by Tavleen Singh throws some light on the inner dynamics of a select group of people who frequent the power corridors of New Delhi and who control the strings of the destiny of the whole country like puppeteers. Although the book gives you a brief glimpse of the turbulent history of the country stretching from 1975 to the early 1990s, much of the focus is on the coterie surrounding the Gandhi family (right from Indira Gandhi to Sonia Gandhi).

Durbar begins with the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi and how even when in extreme mourning Sonia Gandhi gives a cold shoulder to people she doesn’t approve of. As the book evolves, so does Sonia Gandhi transition from a demure and unsure socialite into a mystical godmother who controls every fabric of the Indian polity despite loathing the politics of the country – somewhere she tells Tavleen Singh that she would rather have her children begging on the streets than initiate them into Indian politics. The book is called “Durbar” because the entire narrative revolves around the exalted social and political circle of Rajeev and Sonia Gandhi and how it wreaks havoc with the country’s socio-economical infrastructure. The book also tries to explain how dynastic politics is ruining the country because people who often inherit the power have no clue on how to use it productively.

Tavleen Singh herself was once a courtier of this coveted Durbar. She moved among and dined with the who’s-who of royalty, business, journalism and of course, politics. She comes from a family of rich Sikh businessmen who helped build the Lutyen’s Delhi and consequently came to own numerous prime properties in the heart of the capital where sometimes even the maharajas cannot afford to live. So she always had direct access to people the hoi polloi either see from a distance or on television. These people party everyday, drink finest wines and alcoholic beverages, meet up almost every evening, have their abodes in the poshest localities of the capital, and they have no clue of what is happening in the country. They don’t read much and they don’t even have much to talk about except for who is attending what party and what he or she is wearing. Despite being a part of this group, Tavleen Singh is able to remark on it as an outsider. Despite arriving at and leaving parties with future chief ministers and cabinet ministers and being friends with royal babes and babas, she begins her career as a beat reporter and has to cater to the whims and fancies of egotistical editors like MJ Akbar. She visits Taj and Oberoi just to have a cup of coffee. These are the groups and parties whose lights are people like Sanjay Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi. The dynastic princes and princesses hold the courts and the courtiers sit around them listening to their inanities like fawning puppies.

In such durbars Sonia Gandhi is revered simply because she is from Italy and is of white skin. She’s not articulate, she is not smart, she isn’t even well-read. In her own Italian surroundings, she might even be considered as “downmarket”. But not in Delhi durbars where she can be the center of attraction mainly because of her skin and partly because she is the wife of one of the “princes” of India. People with white skin are considered gods and goddesses by Indians. When Tavleen Singh goes to South India to cover an election campaign, she is repulsed by the servility shown by people there to Sonia Gandhi; they create songs like “you have such white skin, you are a goddess.”

Every socialite worth his or her salt wants to belong to that inner circle, according to Tavleen Singh, and Sonia Gandhi randomly decides who belongs to this inner circle, and who is kicked out, and this is the basic discontent the writer seems to nurture. Suddenly when you realize this, you begin to feel, is this book about power and politics, or is it about the writer complaining about being snubbed by one of the most sought-after power couples of North India?

Of course the book isn’t just about Sonia Gandhi and her Durbar. It also touches upon the contemporary politics and mismanagement of that time. She gives a detailed account of what mess Indira Gandhi and her son Sanjay Gandhi created during the emergency. Almost every opposition leader was locked up. Houses were razed that resulted in slums of mega proportions. People were picked up in the dead of the night and vasectomies were conducted upon them in order to control the overwhelming population growth rate. Lower grade public servants wouldn’t get their monthly salaries unless they could arrange at least five people every month for vasectomies. The freedom of the press was totally curtailed. The integrity of judges was totally compromised. People were randomly rounded up by the police and thrown in jails for unspecified number of days and months. Major politicians were kept under solitary confinement for months, many among them losing their minds in the process.

She constantly laments the fact how beautiful Indian cities were totally destroyed because of the socialist mentality of the politicians after freedom. This is something I can relate to because I repeatedly comment on my blog as well as in Twitter and Facebook updates about why Indian cities and buildings in them look so drab and ugly. Now I know the reason: this was done purposely because attributes like architectural aesthetics, interior design and quality of life were looked down upon and even frowned upon. You could earn a visit from internal revenue officials for having more than two ACs in your house.

She expresses surprise at how it’s been the constant effort of the Gandhi family to keep the country as poor and desperate as possible. Even Indira Gandhi’s own constituency, Rae Bareli, is one of the poorest and most backward regions in the country. Politicians normally take good care of their own constituencies, but not in the case of the Gandhis.

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Most confounding is the way the Gandhi family handled the Punjab and Kashmir crisis. Punjab had no terrorism problem. The Sikh community was in a state of discontent because they felt cheated by the Hindu community for, during the language consensus, saying that their mother tongue was Hindi. In Punjabi they said: “saadi maatri bhasha Handi ae” — Hindi is our mother tongue. But this ice of disenchantment and distrust would have melted over the time. Akalis were the ruling party and Sanjay Gandhi and his cronies from Punjab were constantly devising ways to drill holes in the power structure of the border state. They weren’t worried about the circumstances and the price the country may have to pay. So they instigated this local preacher named Bhinderawale who traveled from village to village exhorting young men to give up alcohol and drugs, a problem that has reached exorbitant proportions in the state by now. Tavleen Singh writes that Bhinderawale was not even interested in politics and he wanted to concentrate on his own campaign. But Sanjay Gandhi’s cronies and friends constantly prodded him and eventually he gave in, creating one of the biggest terrorist problems in the continent. Just for petty political gains, they not only consigned the country to the flames of extremism, they also prepared for the assassination of Indira Gandhi followed by the bloodiest massacre of Sikhs since the Mogul rule – more than 3000 Sikhs were massacred right under the nose of the Congress rule while the state-run TV channel Doordarshan constantly broadcast “khoon ka badla khoon se lenge”: we will have blood for blood for revenge.

Similarly they goofed up with Kashmir. Everything was going fine and people were quite content the way things were. Then suddenly, out of the blues, they sacked the Farooq Abdulla government and reignited the Kashmir problem that has claimed so many lives till now.

With both Sanjay Gandhi and Indira Gandhi dead, and as it happens in dynasties, it fell upon Rajeev Gandhi to inherit the mantle of prime ministership. In which democratic country you become the prime minister or the president of a country for merely being the child of the previous prime minister or president? She attributes many of Rajeev’s failures to this inexperience and disinclination. Rajeev Gandhi had no intention of joining mainstream politics. His Italian wife abhorred Indian politics – she didn’t even become an Indian citizen after 15 years of being married to one of the sons of the Indian Prime Minister. And suddenly they were thrown into the political hotbed of one of the most culturally diverse countries of the world. As the couple grew politically, it began to distance itself from the old courtiers, including Tavleen Singh. Of course she being a journalist and her speaking up her mind also contributed towards the frost that came to settle between herself and Sonia Gandhi. The courtiers around the couple began to grow inexplicably rich, Tavleen Singh noticed, and she also noticed that Sonia Gandhi began to buy very expensive clothes and antiques while travelling abroad. She begins to say that something shady is going on but then stops just in the nick of time.

According to Durbar and many other books, every major problem in the post-independence India can be traced back to, one way or another, the Gandhi family. The way they imposed socialism upon the unsuspecting citizens, the way they nurtured poverty just to ensure the continuance of their political existence, the way they created regional, caste and communal problems to create various vote banks, everything coagulated into this grotesque mass of overwhelming misery filling up the country with illiteracy, backwardness, hatred and starvation. Every political, social and economic problem that we face today can be blamed on one single family. This may seem like an exaggeration, but scarily, this is a reality.

Surprisingly, Tavleen Singh cannot make out whether it was political naiveté and inexperience that prompted Rajeev Gandhi to lose the massive opportunity he got after the massive mandate he got in the sympathy wave of his mother’s assassination, or was it something else? Repeatedly she says that she isn’t sure whether the Gandhis are out and out corrupt and immoral or they are simply monkeys in possession of some powerful machinery handed down by the hands of Fate, that can be used both for development and destruction.

She constantly puts lots of blame on people around the Gandhi family for creating all this mess. Nowhere in the book she directly says that the Gandhi family criminalized the Indian polity by making it okay to hobnob with criminals for political ends. She isn’t sure whether the Bofors scandal was due to Rajeev Gandhi’s gullibility or if it was a straightforward criminal indulgence. Even when she talks about the capricious behavioral patterns of Sonia Gandhi Tavleen Singh seems to feel bad only because Sonia Gandhi had begun to snub her. In her own words, Sonia Gandhi could be an exceptional friend and would go out of her way to help her close friends, the way she helped Tavleen Singh on multiple occasions, even to the extent of sending clothes for her son when it became difficult for her as a single mother. Even for obvious questions, she throws lots of “Could he have done that instead? I don’t know.” I think as a clearheaded journalist she should know why people did things they did, especially people in the Gandhi family. At many occasions she seems to be blaming the advisers rather than the Gandhi family members and I think this is where sometimes she seems to lose track of the plot.

For a brief view of India’s history starting from 1975 this is a good book. It may leave you dissatisfied but it depends on what you are expecting. If you are expecting clear answers that this book may not satisfy you. If you want to read some gossip interspersed with serious political ups and downs, it can be an entertaining book. Not very good English, but the flow is good. If you want to start catching up on what’s been happening in India in its recent past, this book can be a good initiation.