“Durbar” by Tavleen Singh

I have always liked books by Tavleen Singh and this one was no exception.  The aptly named, “Durbar” is a breezy read about Lutyens Delhi as it now is popularly called, where the high and mighty of India meet in exclusive social circles of which at one time she was a prominent member. The book is about the period from 1975 when she first became a journalist to around 1991 when Rajiv Gandhi, the then Prime Minister of India was assassinated.

In those days, far more than now, the school you went to, the university you attended and the way you spoke English mattered more and often determined whether you could become part of exclusive social circles. Tavleen happened to be one of those who was a part of, what we would now term a social network, which included prominent politicians like Naveen Patnaik ( who later became, and indeed still is, the Chief Minister of Orissa), and Dr Farooq Abdullah, (later Chief Minister of Jammu & Kashmir). They were amongst her close friends. She thus came to be part of a social circle which included the then Prime Minster Indira Gandhi’s son Rajiv, and his Italian wife, Sonia. This book, in some measure, is a story of the Gandhis of Delhi.

We see life in upper crust Delhi over the decades through Tavleen’s eyes. She writes of the Emergency declared by Prime Minster Indira Gandhi in 1975 and the turmoil that followed mainly because the PM could not control her younger son, Sanjay. He was her political heir apparent even though he was the younger son. His elder brother Rajiv, in those days, was flying commercial aircraft for the State owned Indian Airlines. Two events changed the lives of the Gandhis forever. The death of Sanjay Gandhi  in 1980 when he doing aerobatics over Delhi on his own and later the assassination of Indira Gandhi after Operation Blue Star in 1984. These two events saw Rajiv Gandhi, who was initially a reluctant politician, being pitchforked into the position of Prime Minister of India. Sonia, consequently became the First Lady, so to speak, as in India the PM’s wife is more influential than the President’s.

At one time, Tavleen seemed to know Rajiv and Sonia well enough for them to visit her at her relatively humble “barsati” in Delhi’s Golf Links.  Later her relations with Sonia became strained. I suspect the anti-Sikh Riots  of 1984 (which is really a misnomer as it should rightly be called the Sikh Massacre) changed Tavleen’s relations with the Gandhis forever and she became their biggest critic. It must also be said that Sonia who came to India as a shy bride in 1968 also changed with time to become her husband’s greatest political confidant. This stood her in good stead n the years after he too (like his mother) was assassinated. This time the assassination was done by LTTE supporters who were against his policy towards Tamils in Sri Lanka.

The book brings out nothing which is totally new but all the old stories are told and re-told with Tavleen’s customary elan. It was a very different world compared to now. She and her colleague were able to travel unauthorizedly all through strife stricken Punjab when journalists were banned from entering the state only on the strength of a letter written by her father (a retired Army officer) addressed to Major General Brar,  and her pushy behavior with the lower ranks who must have seen the “Memsaheb” in her come to the fore.

She traces how sycophancy became the flavour of the day and then reached new heights  during Indira Gandhi’s times. She wanted only her “trusted courtiers” around her. This was perpetuated by Rajiv who, when he became Prime Minister, relied on his old school chums to rally round him. They were for the most part corporate executives, and most had no background of Government. None of them had any exposure to the rough and tumble of politics as was played out in the streets and “gullies” of India. Yet they formed a coterie around their leader and closed ranks admitting only people like them to the coveted Inner Circle. Since then, unfortunately for India, “who you know” became more important than “what you know”. Sonia who had seen how well this worked propagated the same philosophy when her turn came decades later to become the Congress President.

Tavleen has had a colourful career as a journalist. This story is as much about her life as it is about the Gandhis. Interesting, if you like anecdotal evidence of how the powerful cling on to power, and how those close to the “All Powerful” will do anything to stay on in those hallowed circles!!




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