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Tales from Delhi Durbar

Tavleen Singh's new book combines chilling reportage with rare insights into political personalities. Manjula Narayan writes.

books Updated: Dec 01, 2012 11:41 IST
Manjula Narayan
Manjula Narayan
Hindustan Times

Tavleen Singh
Hachette India
Rs. 599 pp 312

You might not agree with everything Tavleen Singh writes but that doesn't stop you from admiring her willingness to present the unvarnished truth and her healthy disregard for the toes of the powerful. She often steps on them in her columns in The Indian Express and on Twitter, where she has 42,520 followers, and she has fairly stomped up and down on them in her political memoir, Durbar, that encompasses the years between 1975 and 1991. "I realised I had lived through a period of history about which very few books had been written; almost nothing has been written about the Emergency and even the beginning of the Punjab and Kashmir problems," Singh says when you meet her in the drawing room of her son Aatish Taseer's apartment in central Delhi with its antique furniture and framed photographs of VS and Nadira Naipaul and Vasundhara Raje.

"It's a complicated story and although I wanted to tell it soon after Rajiv (Gandhi) was killed, I never got around to finishing it," she says. She returned to the project when she realised, from television discussions that few knew about the genesis of the Kashmir issue. For her material, Singh delved mostly into the journals she has been maintaining since the 1980s and reports she wrote for The Telegraph, the Sunday Times of London, and the now-defunct Sunday magazine.

While the book has "titillated" many for the insights it presents into Sonia Gandhi's character - the president of the Congress, then just the Prime Minister's wife, was a friend until Singh was spectacularly dropped after she co-wrote a profile that was deemed unsympathetic in India Today - it's the chapters on the Orissa famine and the anti-Sikh violence in Delhi that stand out for their chilling reportage. "You haven't seen anything like it before or since," she says of the three days following the assassination of Indira Gandhi on 31st October, 1984. "Rajat Sharma was with me when we went to Trilokpuri and he remembers a child's arm being eaten by a dog; I remember a hand with a ring on it sticking out of a pyre," she says adding that the proliferation of news channels means a similar pogrom can never recur.

"Modi was copying what happened in Delhi but he didn't realise there'd be Barkha Dutt and Rajdeep Sardesai wandering around with cameras talking to victims," says Singh who believes that while journalism has improved in some ways, it has deteriorated in others because of the absence of in-depth investigative reporting. The memory of one of Singh's columns basting Tehelka prevents you from bringing up that magazine's investigative successes. You aren't about to end up like Abhinandan Sekhri whose reckless digs provoked Singh to skewer him in great style on Newslaundry.

"He was with the Anna Hazare movement and I'd been writing against it so he thought he could do a hatchet job… but I'm really good at hatchet jobs myself," Singh laughs and briefly, very briefly, you want to scuttle away to a safer place.

But to return to Durbar, while the disappointments of the Rajiv years form the warp of the book, its weft is Singh's belief that dynastic politics will be the ruin of Indian democracy. "Durbar is relevant today because now again you've got that disconnect between Delhi and India, and a ruling establishment in which the media, the bureaucracy and the politicians are a club," she says. Indeed, Singh who shares Arvind Kejriwal's rage against the ruling class even if she doesn't share his ideas, believes things are much worse now than they were during the 1980s. "Something like 50 percent of your MPs under the age of 30 are heirs so you've got an even smaller club," she says revealing that she only realised a dynasty had been created immediately after Rajiv Gandhi's death when "the Congress Party, the party of our freedom movement, handed itself over to Sonia and said she was the tallest leader."

The opposition doesn't fare well in Singh's view either. "That Sonia's become the most important political leader in India is a comment on other political leaders," she says admitting that one of her motivations in writing the book was to chip away at the Gandhi mystique.

You could go on pumping Tavleen Singh for political gossip and for accounts about reporting in war zones - "In Sri Lanka, when I realised the road I was on was mined, I thought, 'My son is 12 years old; do I want to get killed?' I lost my nerve and I've never covered a war after that. I was 44. Reporting stops after a point for all journalists, I think, because they get scared" - but it's Taseer's 32nd birthday and Singh is impatient to be done with the jaw-jaw and take him out to lunch. Clearly, even the toughest women will make a special effort for their sons.