To the manner born: Tavleen Singh on her new book, and Sonia Gandhi
We are at Tavleen Singh’s parents’ ground floor apartment in the hallowed heart of Lutyens Delhi. The living room walls are a deep carmine to match Singh’s perfectly pedicured toes. A great dane lounges in the garden outside, while a mastiff named Brumby and her desi companion amble over to check your credentials. “The world is divided into dog people and non-dog people,” Singh pronounces as the canines anoint you with their approving drool.
It’s probably one of those things she feels strongly about. She feels strongly about a lot of things: about ‘democratic feudalism’, about ‘Indian officialdom’ that has “changed the Indian state into an enemy of the Indian people”, about Parliament turning “into a Delhi drawing room” with 35 percent of young MPs belonging to political families, about the abject poverty still prevalent in India nearly seven decades after independence and about Sonia Gandhi. Indeed, her strong feelings for Sonia Gandhi have so far powered two rather entertaining books – Durbar and her latest, India’s Broken Tryst.
Read: Tales from Delhi Durbar
“Some people would say you are obsessed with Sonia Gandhi,” you venture timidly, well into the interview, after you’ve set Singh at ease asking her mundane questions about why she’s written this book, why now (parivartan, Modi, the promise of Election 2014), the difficulties she encountered writing it (the false start when she began writing “that kind of typical” 2014 general election book, her realization that she needed to use “narrative rather than analysis”), and after you’ve thrown in that perfect sweetener – the suggestion that Narendra Modi’s humble origins are in tune with the zeitgeist, that his success owes much to the yearning for a leader who understands the praja’s aspirations to be middle class.
“I’ve answered that question many times but I’m always happy to answer it,” Singh says. “The reason why it seems like I’m obsessed with Sonia Gandhi is because I believe I would be failing in my duty as a political journalist to not point out that for the past 10 years she was prime minister of India without accountability. Now, if that is Sonia-baiting, well, I’m going to continue to do that.”
You want to ask if the gossip about her being embittered after being cast out of the Gandhis’ circle back in the 1980s is true, whether her objections to Sonia’s skin colour, her lack of educational qualifications and to that political master stroke of listening to her “inner voice” is the result of a long-ago spat in some other gracious Lutyens living room. You desist. Singh reminds you of a formidable aunt who might, any moment now, bite your head off for some minor infraction. So you put on your best respectful-younger-journalist disguise and steer talk to less incendiary subjects. Like, how come the bazaar gossip about the funding that powered Tehelka magazine -- a subject to which she devotes some space in the book -- was news to her.
“I had to keep out information. I know how much Tarun Tejpal was funded. I have it virtually from the horse’s mouth,” she says. The identity of that loquacious horse was not revealed and before your mind could wander to some Swiftian island full of neigh-saying Houyhnhnms, Singh launches into a fulmination on fixers in journalism.
“All political journalists everywhere in the world are a little bit in danger of getting seduced into the system. It’s very easy. I have very strong views on this. I really believe that journalists should never take Rajya Sabha seats. I really believe that journalists should not take Padma awards,” she says. Singh’s friend Swapan Dasgupta hadn’t yet been nominated on the day of the interview so you couldn’t poke her with that particular stick. Incidentally, according to Singh’s book, Christmas at Chez Dasgupta is celebrated with turkey, Christmas pudding and punch exactly like it was back in Victorian England.
It is this sort of detail that makes India’s Broken Tryst an enjoyable read even if it isn’t as gripping as Durbar. The reader is treated to anecdotes about Vasundhara Raje’s extreme religiosity, Vajpayee’s granddaughter attending Sanskriti School “in a part of Delhi where not even a whiff of ugly poverty floats in the polluted air”, Sonia Gandhi approaching Singh for a ticket to Yves St Laurent’s fashion show in 1980s Delhi, and about “Sonia Gandhi’s courtiers” currying favour with BJP leaders. But the most touching stories in the book are found in its parallel track, the one that deals with Singh’s poorer friends, the people who live on the street. They are her neighbours, really, though Singh herself lives in NCPA Apartments, among the most expensive blocks in Mumbai. The two sets of people – the apartment residents and those on the street – breathe the same air but could be living in different countries. To Singh’s credit she not only writes with feeling about the drug addicts and alcoholics, the vendors who fight municipal authorities to make a living, and the runaway children who are trafficked and abused, she even uses her privileges to make a difference by feeding kids, getting them out of remand homes, and helping set up small businesses. It’s more than what most do and you feel a grudging admiration for Singh’s persistence.
Despite Tavleen Singh’s very memsahib demeanour, the ranting columns, her liberal-Right leanings, her sneering disdain for the newly wealthy and their gauche wives, and her unflagging enthusiasm for Prime Minister Narendra Modi, she is that rare creature – a political journalist who isn’t interested in being politically correct. If she calls Medha Patkar “a professional agitator” she also states that the RSS stands for “provincial, small-minded religiosity”. All this could be the result of being to the Lutyens manner born – her maternal grandfather was one of the five Sikh contractors who helped build New Delhi. Still, whatever the origins of her attitude, it has made her an always-readable chronicler of our times.
Why this book? Why now?
When the 2014 general election was on and I was travelling, I was a bit taken aback at how much resonance the word parivartan had. Everybody had their own interpretation of what parivartan they wanted. Some people said they wanted better schools. In Banaras, they said, ‘Look at this city; look at the mess there is’. Going into Alwar, for the first time I realised that there was something going on that we hadn’t picked up in Delhi. So when I saw the parivartan thing have such an impact I began to think about it as a political journalist and realised that, actually, what the people have understood is something we haven’t, which is, when they say, ‘Governance is bad or corruption...’, what they mean is that we have a colonial form of governance and that has to change. You have bureaucrats trained to this day as if they were to serve the ruler, and that’s colonial.
The democratic feudalism you talk about.
Democratic feudalism is the other side. I have two things I’m passionate about that I believe are the reasons for India being a poor and pretty hopeless country 67 years after independence. One is this colonialism. You have a bureaucrat who is trained in a training system created by the British to serve the Empire. The British, at the height of their power, had 12,000 people in India. The guys who implemented their orders were these bureaucrats, who used to proudly call themselves ‘the ICS types’ (sotto voce). That hasn’t changed. They continue to serve the ruling master rather than the people. So, for instance, I mention in the book, there’s a collector, where children are dying of hunger…
Repeatedly, you meet these government types who…
Are awful to the people of India! They’ve turned the Indian state into the enemy of the people of India. So whether it’s a rich person trying to build a city or a poor child on a street in Bombay the nature of Indian officialdom is very ugly. It’s not true anywhere else in the world. There is always what they call official obstructionism, the dead hand of government etcetera but nowhere like you see in India. That was one of the things that needed to be explored in a book. The other was democratic feudalism. I really believe that when you turn every political party into a private company, which is inherited by the son… Look, you’ve turned parliament into a Delhi drawing room! That’s wrong! Something like 35 percent of younger MPs are from political families. They see parliament as a sort of club. When you don’t close the doors to somebody who really might be excellent at public service and who doesn’t want to come into politics for pelf and glory and power then you might have people who really want to do something for this wretched country. It was that word parivartan that started it in my head and so I decided to do the book.
What was the most difficult part of writing the book?
I had a false start. Because it was just after the election that I started to write it, I started to write that kind of typical book, there have been many on the 2014 general election.
I frankly got bored of them.
Exactly! I found them all dull. I got so tired of hearing the analysis of the 2014 election that I found that I was writing in the same way as those people. It took me three or four months to actually find my own voice. I have a very good agent. After writing something like 20,000 words I realised I was on the wrong track and I sent them to her and said, “Shruti, am I beginning to sound like a government clerk?” and she said “You haven’t found your voice”. That was the hardest part, finding a voice. Durbar (her earlier book) was written originally as a novel but then I changed it because it was falling between two stools. The characters were too recognizable. I had to rewrite it as non-fiction but it showed me how you can make the most boring subject readable by trying to write it as a storybook. So then I had to try and find that same resonance to get it to tell stories, to explore a serious theme but to use narrative rather than analysis.
I liked how you’ve got in the children, the street people.
I’m glad you liked it. I’ve been attacked for it. What I was trying to do was tell their stories to show how you’ve got this massive welfare state into which we’ve spent millions, and in Bombay, where I live, I could walk to a brothel where little kidnapped girls are sold. Delhi is the sort of place where you don’t really run into the poor. In Bombay, I had only to step out of my house to run into someone or the other who has nothing. I got to know these people very well and I realised that they have middle class aspirations; they don’t want to be poor. They want a house, and they want TV and they want their children to go to good schools and they voted for Modi. Surekha, whom I write about, came to Delhi with her mother – they have no money – because they heard that Sonia Gandhi was giving people houses. They’ve tried everything to survive. They said “Ache din jab hamne suna tha, socha hamara bhi acha hoga; hum pade hue hai yahaan chalees saal se!” I meant to tell their stories to show you’ve got the stories of power, the stories of the men who’ve ruled over India, and their praja, their people, and the disconnect.
In fact, the bits about the street people are really sad. I wondered about your neighbours at the NCPA Apartments. Are they that unevolved?
It’s the story of new money. Most of the people are very rich and have become rich very quickly. That basic humanity is missing. Some of them are very generous and are big philanthropists, but there are people there who have just made their money and they don’t have that connection. I really believe -- I think Kennedy said it – ‘Of those to whom much is given, much is required’. Having grown up in very privileged circumstances it worries me that a lot of the people that I have grown up with have no obligation to India. In other countries, the elite either because of the Christian ethic… and it could well be the Christian ethic…
It’s not fashionable to say that.
I’m never fashionable; I couldn’t bear to be fashionable! In other countries, if somebody wants to come into public life or become a politician, even if he has to sham it, he has to go and help out in a soup kitchen or do something that indicates that he is interested in public service. What is the point of politics? It’s public service. Most of our young MPs want to come into power so they can quickly buy an SUV, get a nice house in Lutyens Delhi. It’s very worrying.
What’s different about Modi compared to most of our politicians is the fact of his humble origins. Maybe now the public wants a different sort of person.
The public certainly does. Whenever I’ve talked to anybody – I travelled a lot during the 2014 elections – they said they wanted everything in their lives to change, they wanted a man in Delhi who understood their aspirations and their aspirations are entirely middle class. They are not interested in that whole Sonia Gandhi-Mother Teresa politics, that ‘OK, I will live here in a huge house; my children will have huge houses and for you, here’s a little scrap, here’s some free food grain!’ They don’t want that any more. ‘And here’s a 100 days’ work for you; come here, take that.’ (Mimicking a worthy distributing largesse) I despise it! Not just because it’s disgusting to think that way but also because it hasn’t helped India. Look at India compared to any other country, except maybe Pakistan and Bangladesh. I was in Burma two years ago; Rangoon is a clean city! You don’t drive past streets lined with garbage! We haven’t been able to provide clean water to our citizens; we haven’t been able to provide waste management in our cities; our villages look like sewers. What kind of country have we created? I wanted to tell the stories of how much needed to change but do it more anecdotally than analytically.
You’ve grown up with a lot of these people. How have you managed not to become like them?
Oh, I was just like them. When I joined the Statesman as a reporter in 1975 and went to my first public rally, I couldn’t understand a word. We only spoke English at the school that I went to. I’m very proud to tell you that I write two Hindi columns a week now. Every country needs to speak English, but not as their only language. I actually believe that we’ve been more colonized since independence than before. I run a society called Mehfil-e-Gango-Jaman for very poor writers writing in Hindi, Urdu and Punjabi because I feel so strongly about it. I used some of the advance that I got for Durbar to start that. Think of it: in the 1930s and 40s in India, there were poets and writers like Faiz, Iqbal, Manto, Premchand, Harivansh Rai Bachchan! Where are our great writers now? The only ones you have are those who write in English, often very badly, and they write books that the rest of the world is not really interested in and most Indians can’t read.
I thought this was a more personal book than Durbar.
You think? Why?
Here you’ve spoken about your dog, your partner and your friends in a more personal way. In Durbar, you made references but the person didn’t emerge.
No, I wrote about Naveen Patnaik and Vasundhara Raje in considerable detail.
But the kind of tone... Like that bit about Vasundhara Raje being religious.
I didn’t mean that to... I was just trying to tell the story not…
No, that’s a positive thing; I’m not knocking you for that!
I’ve been knocked around a lot since Karan Thapar interviewed me! I didn’t mean it to be more personal. I write like that. Even in my columns, I write in a personal way because I really believe that what you can contribute in journalism is what you see; not what everybody else sees. Especially in India, the so-called intellectuals are the most boring people on the planet! “And Rousseau said this, and Thoreau said that and Socrates…” I don’t write like that. I see that kind of writing as the writing of show-offs and it’s very unfortunate. What is my contribution is what I have seen happen. So, for instance, Karan (Thapar) asked me why I hadn’t credited Vajpayee with the nuclear tests, which was actually a big deal because it brought the Pakistani bomb out of the basement. For one, I’m not really that interested in bombs, and two, I wasn’t there; I wasn’t in Pokhran. I had no connection with it. I’ve tried to tell the stories that I’ve been involved in, or reported or seen.
Your section on Vajpayee gave a different insight into the man. One didn’t think of him as being quite so respectful towards the Gandhis.
He’s often said what a fan he was of Nehru.
Yes, I meant at a social level.
I don’t describe him as being deferential to them at a social level, but his daughter. I describe her as running, scampering to greet Sonia Gandhi. Vajpayee never did that. But I think there was no reason for him to be at every Gandhi Samadhi. He should have gone to all the others too. Why wasn’t he there at Shastri’s and Charan Singh’s and everybody’s? Why only the Gandhi family’s? I actually have very strong views about that family. I think the family has done immense damage to India, irreparable. So that was my disappointment in him; I used to be very fond of him. I’ve seen him since 1975 when my career began as a journalist. There was so much hope that he would change the broken stuff, the healthcare, the schools. He did do roads; we have to grant him that. But there’s still so much to be done and if Modi doesn’t do it, he’ll be judged very harshly because that is what people want and they are very impatient. They really want to have a chance. They want the opportunity for their children to live in more than a hovel, to have drinking water, to have schools to go to. We haven’t provided the basics and it’s nearly 70 years as an independent country!
In the last two years, there’s already a sense of ‘Hey, why aren’t things speeding up?’ And also, ‘Why are all these idiotic issues being brought up?’
That’s the media. I have no hesitation in saying to you, and I say this very consciously, that the media has been very unfair to Modi, that the demonization that we did for him in Gujarat continues. Every incident is put directly at the Prime Minister’s door. For instance, Christians were running away some months ago because they thought churches were being attacked. Out of those four attacks, three turned out to be robberies. Graham Staines was burnt alive with his two children in a car. How many times did anybody say to Manmohan Singh or Sonia Gandhi, ‘Answer for this’? But with Modi, from Day 1 when the computer student was killed in Pune, it’s been: ‘Answer for this, answer for this!’ If that was the rule then we should ask every prime minister to answer. Nobody asked Rajiv Gandhi to answer for 1984; nobody asked Sonia Gandhi to answer for the Muzaffarnagar riots or the horrible riots in Assam where there is a Congress government. The media has been very unfair. Modi has changed the direction. He has started talking about the things that need to change – sanitation,urbanization, Swachh Bharat. Rahul Gandhi mocks it. What is there to mock about hoping that we can succeed in cleaning? It’s not something that the PM can do. He can only show the direction. It’s for all of us to get involved in doing it. I think we have been very unfair to Modi. The direction he’s pointed us in is a good one but, as I say at the end of the book, he can’t allow his mandate to be stolen by Hindutva, beef bans and all that. If he does that, he’ll lose in 2019.
Will he be able to resist that?
He won the election, the RSS did not. If they were so good at winning elections, why did Vajpayee lose in 2004? Why did Advani lose in 2009? They are not that good at winning elections. They’ve been made into an electoral miracle machine which they are not. They’ve ridden in on his back and like the Republican Party in America, there are some very ugly little undersides to the Religious Right. The Religious Right has now become more obvious but to constantly blame Modi for that is wrong.
A lot of people would say you’re obsessed with Sonia Gandhi.
I’ve answered that question many times but I’m always happy to answer it. Sonia Gandhi is a public figure. Can you name me five journalists who criticise her?
I can’t give you five names.
Give me two.
Exactly. The reason why it seems like I’m obsessed with her is because I believe I would be failing in my duty as a political journalist to not point out that for the past 10 years she was prime minister of India without accountability. Now, if that is Sonia-baiting, well, I’m going to continue to do that. She took a conscious decision to come into public life. You can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen! Every public figure should be criticised. We did not give Manmohan Singh credit for the first four years of very good rule. He won the 2009 election. When it became Sonia as de facto prime minister in the second term, you saw what happened. The economy went down the toilet. Politically, we had more democratic feudalism than ever before and there was despair by the time of the 2014 elections. Now should that be blamed on Manmohan Singh or Sonia Gandhi? Originally, I objected to her coming into politics because I felt that a country that, in any case, reveres the white skin... Had she been… I’ve said this before! Had she been Kenyan like Barack Obama’s father was, would we have treated her this way?
In any case, Indians have a very big complex about white skin. Read the matrimonial ads to find out. On top of that, you have this white lady from Europe with her qualifications. She’s not educated, I think she barely finished school. Then she went to language school, she didn’t go to Cambridge University or anything. Had she been an Indian woman, would she have been revered? Before Rajiv went into political life, she never became an Indian citizen till 1983. He was married in 1968. Between 1968 and ’83, she was the daughter-in-law of the most powerful prime minister in India. How much social service did she do? How many villages did she go to and say I’m going to help you? How much did she do to show her great love for India? I felt that somebody who hadn’t shown any inclination -- and she despised politicians by the way -- should suddenly come into politics and then that “inner voice” of hers was so clever! She didn’t become prime minister, she became the person who was more important than the prime minister! For 10 years she had immense power without any accountability and I have a right to criticise that and I wish there were more journalists that did.
I was a bit surprised at the Tehelka bit, that you didn’t suspect…
What? That it was funded by the Congress party? I had to keep out information. I know how much he (Tarun Tejpal) was funded. I have it virtually from the horse’s mouth as they say and that’s disgraceful for a journalist. But I was introduced to him by the Naipauls, who had a very high opinion of him. I actually have a very low opinion now of Tehelka because if you want to be a fixer and a dealer, don’t come into journalism; go somewhere else. He played a disgraceful role. Even the so-called sting operation that virtually brought down the Vajpayee government, turned it into a lame duck, what was it? It was entrapment. You worked for Tehelka?
Were you ever in a lift with him?
No, never. He never tried anything with me. Maybe I’m too old! (laughter). But I’m surprised you didn’t know the bazaar gossip about the funding.
I had a very high opinion of him because of the Naipauls so I didn’t expect that he would be the way he turned out to be. I saw another side of him because of the Naipauls. He was very different.
He has a nice side.
He has a good image.
He did. I have to say that I began to ask Nadira Naipaul some questions when I noticed he had a huge house in Goa and a resort in Nainital. We all know that books don’t make that kind of money and Tehelka didn’t sell enough. He wrapped himself in this moral cape, which was even worse. There are a lot of fixers in journalism as we know and they don’t hide it. They are quite open, they are fixers. No names shall be mentioned; you’ll get into trouble!
But why do you think Delhi journalism has so many fixers? Is it just the proximity to power?
It’s the absence of the checks and balances. All political journalists everywhere in the world are a little bit in danger of getting seduced into the system. It’s very easy. I have very strong views on this. I really believe that journalists should never take Rajya Sabha seats. I really believe that journalists should not take Padma awards.
But this is a regular thing.
Once you do that then you should give up journalism and go into politics. There is no harm in that. If actresses can become politicians, then journalists can become politicians. Political journalism is really almost the cousin of politics because we cover the same ground but from the other side of the stage. I feel very strongly that in India, that line is being crossed too often, and it’s not just in Delhi. You should go to the state capitals and see what goes on there. You have journalists who have been given free land to build houses. How do you do any reporting once you’ve been given a government house? I’ve written often about Lutyens Delhi being occupied by elected representatives and bureaucrats but the reason nobody (else) wrote about it for many years is because journalists also were beneficiaries. This is the people’s money, this is the taxpayer’s money. I have a little flat in this building, I don’t want to tell you how much I can rent it out for but please believe me that we are paying through our noses for our elected representative to live like billionaires. A private house in this area would sell for something like Rs 150 crores. We are not talking about five acres; we are talking about maybe one acre on Amrita Shergil Marg. Why do journalists not write about this? Because they have all been co-opted. Journalists should not do that. It doesn’t happen anywhere else in the world.
Maybe not so blatantly perhaps.
No, journalists do not get favours from government. It’s against the rules of journalism. Find me one journalist in America, even the most famous of them, who’s been given a government house! Or any favours? When the White House correspondents travel on Air Force 1, I’m not sure they travel free. But here, it’s all freebies. This is the socialism we copied from the Soviet Union.
That’s changed since Modi, the travelling free.
And it should change. You want to cover the PM’s tours? Pay your ticket and then cover them.
You’ve made some bitchy comments, like the one about Renuka Chaudhary looking like a genial buffalo!
I like to spice things up. I get a lot of flak so why should I not! That’s the fun part. But the serious part is -- I keep saying this -- that journalism is the first draft of history. I think Herodotus was the first journalist. We are supposed to write what we can see with our eyes. So when somebody reads this, maybe a 100 years from now -- hopefully the book will sell -- they’ll realise what those people look like, what were the tables like and the cutlery at the Taj Palace. I like to read about those details, and I find that too many history books in India don’t have those details. I would really like to know where Noor Jehan really took those baths; where did she make the little rose ka attar. We don’t know anything.
Where do you think we are headed with this feudal democracy? Is it going to persist? Dynasty?
Modi has stopped it to some extent. He doesn’t have any children, luckily, and he hasn’t brought his whole family here. He adores his mother but she’s not living on Racecourse Road.
Does he really adore her?
I don’t know him that well but I suppose he does. He goes to see her as much as he can. I hope he changes these things. I would have been very happy if he had said, ‘There should just be the PM’s house in Lutyens Delhi’, which means he moves right back into Teen Murti House and moves the Nehru Museum into another place. That should be the PM’s house. I really hoped that he would move back in there and say that MPs should live like everybody else does. Give them rooms in a hotel. No MPs anywhere in the world live like princes. Look at ours! Once they move into a Lutyens bungalow, the air changes. They start to walk in a different way. They are living on taxpayer’s money in one of the poorest countries in the world. It’s shocking. I actually asked Arun Jaitley about this and he said these are things we should discuss in the second term because if we throw the MPs out of their houses, there’ll be trouble! (laughs).
India’s Broken Tryst
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