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Review of India’s Broken Tryst

Before we go any further, a few declarations of interest may be in order.

I know and admire Tavleen Singh. In fact, I admired her long before I knew her. At university I was fascinated by the column she wrote for the short-lived New Delhi magazine and later, I was a fan of the stories she did for Sunday and The Telegraph.


At a time, when journalists quaked with fear at the very mention of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwal’s name, Tavleen had the guts to confront the 'Sant' without a trace of fear and her reporting from Punjab was easily the best.


   I admired her for her honesty about her private life too. In the mid-1980s, when India was a much more conservative place than it is today, Tavleen told the story of her relationship with Salman Taseer and the birth of their son Aatish on the pages of Savvy magazine with courage and candour.


   This honesty, seemed to me, to characterise Tavleen’s attitude to life. She has always lived on her terms, apologising for nothing and being openly contemptuous of political correctness. She was, as she says in the book, born into privilege and has never made any attempt to conceal it.


   Nor does she believe that to report on the realities of Indian politics, from the poorest villages in Bihar, you need to pretend that you are also poor. She wants to be judged, she suggests, on the quality of her work and not by the fragrance of her perfume.


   For a few years in the Nineties, we both had flats in the same building in Delhi --- it was built on the site of her ancestral home and her family had retained many flats while we rented a tiny apartment; just to keep things in perspective! --- and this finally gave me an opportunity to see her up close. She would throw elegant dinner parties where guests may include Patrick French, VS Naipaul, a couple of maharajas and maharanis, or a model straight from the Paris catwalk. But early the next morning, she would drive off to some grimy little village hours from Delhi to file gritty, on-the-spot reports.


   And yet, as much as we admired her, I think everyone in the building was secretly ((and sometimes, not so secretly) terrified of her. She was quick to anger, viewed fools with a contempt she did not bother to disguise and if you got on her wrong side, she would lacerate you with her put-downs.


   Many of these qualities continue to characterise her journalism though, in recent years, she had proved to be a much better story-teller than any of us suspected.  Durbar, her book on the Delhi of the Seventies and Eighties, was easily the most evocative account of that period that I have ever read.


   Her new book, India’s Broken Tryst, has received a rapturous response from what might be unkindly described as the bhakt lobby because, superficially at least, it tells the story they so desperately want to hear: Nehru made many mistakes, and his dynasty kept India poor; Rajiv may have been a nice enough fellow but he surrounded himself with idiots from Doon School, and as for Sonia Gandhi, well, she could well be the criminal mastermind in a James Bond movie with her friend Suman Dubey playing the role of chief henchman. In this gloomy and depressing scenario in which the hopes and aspirations of millions of Indians have been thwarted by the evil Gandhis and their English-speaking sidekicks, Narendra Modi, a man from the new India, has come to save us all.


   And yes, at one level, it is possible to caricature the book in those terms. Interviewers and reviewers have repeatedly suggested that Tavleen is obsessed with Sonia Gandhi, a suggestion that she has either treated with lofty disdain on TV or handled with more aggression on Twitter: "A gang of hacks who never leave Lutyen’s Delhi believes my book defiles their mother goddess!''


   She has found it a little harder to handle Shekhar Gupta. At two places in the book, Gupta is said to have come under pressure to fire her as a columnist at the Indian Express, which he then edited. “After Shekhar Gupta resigned from the editorship of the Indian Express he told me that she (Sonia) had personally asked him to stop my column on the grounds of what I wrote against her" (Page 70). And then, on page 272, Suman Dubey joins the sack-Tavleen effort. “He rang Shekhar Gupta and told him that he should shut my column."


   Except that Shekhar Gupta wrote a column in BS denying that he was ever under any pressure to stop the column.


   But Tavleen has stuck to her guns. She tweeted: “Shekhar Gupta denies he was under pressure to drop my column. He has to, I suppose, but Suman Dubey spoke to others. There are witnesses.”


   Who knows what Shekhar really told Tavleen about the pressures he was under? And I’m not sure it really matters. You can read this book as an anti-Sonia polemic. But it is more rewarding to read it for the portraits that Tavleen paints of Delhi and Bombay in the early years of this century.


 "I don’t agree with much of what Tavleen writes. But this is a good book, fun to read and evocatively written. You should read it – if only to see where you disagree."

   I simply love the beginning --- which is vintage Tavleen -- when a raiding party arrives at a seaside retreat that Tavleen shares with her long-term partner, the industrialist Ajit Gulabchand


   The raiders are dismissed in Tavleenisms.  One of them is a "short woman" with a “shrill grating voice”. Obviously Tavleen does not treat them with the deference they expect because “the short woman started jumping around'' accusing her of using the word “bloody”. Tavleen writes, "I was tempted to add that if I had used an abusive word it would have been the ‘F’ one but knew that there would be more hysterical screaming from the woman.”


   The raiders eat dinner: "takeaway food out of plastic boxes" but Tavleen and a friend eat “the grilled fish and salad I had ordered for us, and to really annoy the raiders I asked Deepak, my butler, to go ahead and serve the red wine….”


   A more politically correct author might have thought twice about retelling this story (how many of us have 'butlers' at home?) but it is somehow typical of Tavleen that she makes no apologies for who she is or how she lives.


   And there are painfully sharp and often vitriolic portraits and put-downs of Delhi and Bombay notables, some of which are clearly indiscreet. If Jayanthi Natarajan is really the unnamed minister who calls Tavleen to say about Sonia, “You were absolutely right about her," adding “Do you know that she called me in one day and yelled at me because she objected to my friendship with you….. I was reduced to tears”, then this book will end any hope Natarajan may have of ever returning to the Congress.


   Malvika Singh, of Seminar, who Tavleen clearly does not like (obviously there is some history here because she was lampooned in Durbar too) is viciously caricatured as Madam Lutyens. A man who sounds a lot like Martand Singh is quoted as describing Mani Shankar Aiyar as “an arrogant bumptious creature”.


   Activists don’t get off lightly. Tavleen writes of Medha Patkar, “There was something contrived about her straggly hair, her crumpled blouse with its sweat stains under the armpits and her cheap cotton sari.”


   Nor do journos. (In case you wondered, I am lucky to get off with a gentle rap on the knuckles for my naivety.) Poor old Karan Thapar is portrayed as being so distressed when Narendra Modi won the General Election that he kept advising caution on an election program on TV ("these are only trends and not results”) even when it was clear who the victor was.


   But the bhakt view of the book that it is a Hindutva-loving diatribe against the dynasty fails to recognise that Tavleen is not so wild about the BJP either. She is especially (and in my view, unfairly) harsh on AB Vajpayee (“as PM he seemed to lose confidence in his own instincts”), his staff (“he gathered around himself dreary people who wrote dreary speeches that he read in dreary tones”), his family, and even his chief aide, Brajesh Mishra (“arrogant ''and surrounded by ”fawning” people). Even LK Advani gets the Tavleen treatment (“a pathetic old man trying to look young”).


   Nor does Tavleen swallow the whole Hindutva package. She talks of touring Gujarat a year after the riots “It was a horrible journey. I met terrified Muslim families, who were still in hiding because they were too afraid to return to their villages ….. And in villages with Hindu Rashtra written before the names of the villages, I met Hindu killers who told me proudly that they would have been in jail if it had not been for the protection they got from Modi."


   She does not disown her own critical reporting of the Rath Yatra or the demolition of the Babri Masjid, is still critical of Vinay Katiyar (“whose poisonous speeches had persuaded Hindus to go off and kill Muslims'') and recalls that many of those leaders (“a despicable ugly bunch”) are still around.


   Her view is subtler than her critics (and fans!) claim. Much of the book is about the homeless and the miserable street children she encounters in the streets of Bombay. She believes that the reason they lead these wasted, hopeless lives is because the Congress (oh, okay the Dynasty!) has done nothing to remove poverty.


   In her reckoning, Modi recognises the problem, offers new solutions and therefore, represents the best chance for India. But she is worried by the fanaticism of some Modi supporters and upset that “not even when his own ministers have made foolish racist remarks has Modi made a serious effort to express his disapproval”.


   “If Modi allows his mandate to be stolen by his Hindutva friends, then India could lose its first real chance to take a new road,” she writes. ''History will judge him very harshly if he does."


   I don’t agree with much of what Tavleen writes. But this is a good book, fun to read and evocatively written. You should read it – if only to see where you disagree.




  • Sudhindra Haribhat 10 May 2016

    Vir, you seem to have broken your own rule of not commenting on fellow journalists! Welcome views though. I liked Durbar and will definitely read this one too.

  • Agnes 07 May 2016

    it clearly looks like you are doing the good thing by putitng in a word for her.
    Durbar was definitely an easy read, but grated on inconsistencies and her pettiness and naivete sometimes. How can someone this rich claim to stay in a barasaati or not have clothes for her son - where sonia finally helped by providing her new clothes from Italy (couldnt help rolling my eyes in those chapters). Similarly the ones about MJ Akbar and Maneka were both naive and petty.
    But entertaining it definitely is

Posted On: 06 May 2016 06:48 PM
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