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Five reasons why Tavleen Singh’s Durbar is my favourite book this season

For those who grew up in the seventies and the eighties, political gossip of the old world in India is still so delectable. Those pre-neoliberal, pre-satellite TV politicians had an intrigue and star-quality that any amount of trivia on them made us crave for more.

In fact, those years were not just about India, but also about the ruling elite in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal. All of them had a similar allure that was appealing to us. Journalists who purveyed this trivia were so hallowed because they seemed to enjoy exclusive proximity to the elite; and, more importantly, they didn’t come in hundreds, shouting from cluttered TV screens as it happens today, but in ones and twos.

In fact, there were only a handful of them who were capable of regaling us with palace gossip. So when Tavleen Singh, an old timer, decided to reload it for us in her new book Durbar, it promised to be compelling vintage. It’s an easy read and one can finish it at one go, as easy as reading a longish magazine article.

I have at least five reasons why Durbar has become my favourite this season. They are not in any particular order, but they go from the big to the small.

One: What I loved the most in Durbar is Tavleen Singh’s omnipresence. She appears to be like Spiderman, who is present wherever there is action — whether it’s Turkman Gate, 1984 riots, troubles in Kashmir, Operation Blue Star and Black Thunder, the IPKF interventions in Sri Lanka, innumerable political meetings and elections, and even critical developments in Pakistan — all this and more while zipping from one drinks-and-dinner party to another, with Naveen Patnaik in tow.

I am sure it would have made incredible sense to a penny-pinching boss to have one person do so much, that too when journalism didn’t pay well. I assume that she was a veritable one-person bureau. Such a pity that her editor at The Telegraph and Sunday, MJ Akbar, tried to sideline her.

A screengrab of the cover of Durbar

I have also learned from Durbar the importance of Tavleen Singh in shaping the career of MJ Akbar. Without that first ever interview with Rajiv Gandhi and a subsequent private lunch with him and Sonia, that Tavleen arranged for MJ Akbar, perhaps he couldn’t have fast-tracked his career. But in the end, he clips her wings. So petty!

The name Tavleen is also an inspiring trailblazer. Nobody before her had such a name (it was her father’s invention), but hundreds born after her assume her name. The name even inspires Salman Rushdie to create a character in Satanic Verses. Wow!

Two: While being everywhere, she just refuses to be a petty reporter. Instead, she doubles as an interlocutor, political counsel, messenger, diplomat and even an adventurous good samaritan. She advises political leaders such as Rajiv Gandhi, does a bit of PR/image consultancy, passes on messages, warns rulers about socio-economic and religious trends, saves people who are in life-threatening situations and even dabbles in a bit of diplomacy, particularly after an all-expenses-paid trip to somewhere in Morocco.

I really love the idea of the centrality of a journalist to everything around us. We have seen this only in films, and heard it only in Radia tapes.

Three: It is really enlightening to know how important dinner and drinks parties had been in running the country. They sound thrilling when wine and scotch whisky had to be bootlegged. Her descriptions are immensely revealing to those who couldn’t even reach the outer perimeters of the Mapus and princes of India that she partied with.

Aha, what a wonderful world with all those imported perfumes, chiffons; silver furniture, princes, maharajas, maharanis and the regalia; and the “servants” and maids in a rotten country of ugly people. For once, I pictured in mind retrofitted editions of Hello and People magazines. The best of all the party scenes is the one in which Tavleen sits next to Rajiv Gandhi and asks him about emergency immediately after Indira Gandhi lost the elections and he says how relieved he was that somebody has asked the question.

Four: In Durbar, everything happens in Delhi and the protagonists are the Gandhi family and the khadi-kurtawallas of the north Indian states. I was very happy to note that the likes of Devaraj Urs, Gundu Rao, K Karunakaran, Kamaraj, Moopanar and Brahmananda Reddy, who we thought were among the movers and shakers in Delhi, do not even figure once in Tavleen’s detailed accounts.

I am now sure that they were not even the outliers, in the scheme of things in Indian politics. I guess the only mention in Durbar about south Indian politicians is when Tavleen describes her meeting with the LTTE leader Prabhakaran, who was “fawned over by south Indian politicians”.

This is such a gem — the old world of Madrasis is back, where everybody from South India is the same, whether they are from Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh or Tamil Nadu. But I am still wondering if those who fawned over Prabhakaran were from Andhra Pradesh or Kerala.

Five: This is something to do with my own skill-building in writing. Why keep notes and annoy readers with footnotes and annotations? Durbar is a great exercise of non-specificity, which still has detailed accounts — all easily reconstructed from memory.

Does it matter if some event happened in “either 1986 or early 1987” or what she rattles off her mind is the exact conversation that happened 20 or 30 years back? Not really.

What matters is the story. More than half the characters in the story are dead and the other half, including Sonia Gandhi, have no time to even refute disastrous allegations against her family.

So, let’s just write — this is a skill I have learned from Durbar.

I can proudly note that I hadn’t kept a single note from Durbar while writing this.