Although columnist Tavleen Singh’s new book Durbar (Hachette, Rs.599) touches upon India’s contemporary history (the Emergency, the insurgencies in Kashmir and Punjab, the massacre of Sikhs in Delhi, etcetera), it focuses on the inner circle of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, especially when Rajiv Gandhi was prime minister. In her introduction, Singh wrote, “I started to write it (Durbar) soon after Rajiv Gandhi died. I knew him well from the days when he was not a politician and found myself in a unique position to tell the story of how a prime minister with the largest mandate in Indian history ended up as such a disappointment.” While the book takes you inside Delhi’s power corridors as they functioned in the 1980s and the earlier decades, parts of it double up as a mirror to the drawing room society of that period.
Singh, whose widely-acclaimed first book dealt with Kashmir, responded to questions through e-mail.
The Gandhis are the most powerful. Your book is supremely critical, sometimes almost cruel, about them, especially Sonia Gandhi. Was it difficult to get a publisher?
No, it was not hard to find a publisher. But, the book was first bought by Tranquebar and had to be withdrawn because this publisher wanted to pre-censor the manuscript by showing it to the Tata Sons board before publication and I refused. Hachette were the second highest bidder but many others bid for it. Only in India, where we (and certainly you) continue to believe that powerful people are above criticism would such a question be asked. The President of the United States is the most powerful man in the world and the White House is obliged to hold a daily press conference to explain the President’s position on every issue of public or national interest. When people make the decision to enter public life they must accept the right of the public to criticize them. Why do you find it so odd that I should criticize ‘the most powerful people in the country’? Is it because you are as much a victim of our colonized, slave mentality as most Indians are?
The book deals with the social and political life in Delhi when Rajiv Gandhi was in power. Why read about it now?
Either you have not read the book or not read it well enough. If you had read just the introduction you would have gathered that the reason why I believe it is an important book now is because the political culture and political problems created when Rajiv was prime minister continue to be important. These are dynastic inheritance of parliamentary constituencies, a culture of courts and sycophancy that is the natural result of democratic feudalism and the rise of political heirs who are, in the end, just princes and not products of a political process. Today nearly half of the MPs under the age of 30 are linked to political families. States like Punjab, Kashmir, Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Andhra have political dynasties as leaders. This trend began in the period this book deals with. If you do not want to read about it, that really is your problem but I think there maybe others who may see the relevance of the book.
You had fun writing about the friends of the Gandhis. You describe Suman Dubey’s wife as “a legendary beauty but had about her a cold, supercilious air.” You talk of another woman as “a plump, blowsy former airline stewardess who looked as if she may once have been pretty.” Isn’t it bitchy?
What you describe as ‘bitchy’ descriptions are descriptions of people who surrounded the Gandhis then and continue to be their closest friends. I offer descriptive details to make them come alive for the reader. If I had wanted to be ‘bitchy’ there are many more things I could have said.
Tell us about some parts in the book that you had to censor.
I did not have to censor any part of the book.
There is a perception, thanks to your weekly columns over the years, that your dislike for Sonia Gandhi veers on the personal. Is that true?
Once you were Sonia’s friend. You mention in your book that she would bring Italian clothes for your son. What were her conversations like? What were her views on the Indian life and politics?
On the one hand you charge me with revealing personal details about my friendship with Sonia Gandhi and on the other you ask for more details. You seem not to know what you are asking. Read the book to find out details about what she thought of India and Indian politics. And, it is very unwise to send a list of questions to an author on the basis of reading extracts of the book instead of the whole book. This is clearly what you have done. Please have the courage to print this answer as it is.
There are places where you make insinuations against the Gandhis without concrete evidence. Take this: “According to the story I heard, Sonia’s taste in fur coats was so refined that she was not satisfied with Soviet tailoring and had the coat sent to Rome to be redesigned by Italian fashion house Fendi. These were the stories that are never possible to confirm, but gossip rarely needs confirmation to be believed.” Is this a serious book on the court politics of the Gandhis, or a drawing room gossip story?
Whether the sable coat was redesigned by Fendi may be a matter of speculation, but if you google images of Sonia Gandhi you will come across one of her pictures in which she is wearing the said sable coat on a visit to China. If you had actually read the book you would have known that the ‘court’ is a juxtaposition to the rest of India. The whole point of the book is to show how India with all its complexities and problems was so distant from the rulers in Delhi. Once more I urge you to never again ask an author questions without reading the book you want to talk about. If you have read it, which I doubt, then you have understood nothing of it.
You note that the only legacy Rajiv Gandhi left behind were his wife and son. Is it possible that 50 years later our most powerful Congress leader might be one of Robert Vadra’s children?
If Robert Vadra’s children do come to power in 50 years then it will be because that is what India deserves. It would be proof that we have not overcome our slave mentality honed during centuries of foreign rule.
India is a family enterprise. In politics, in films, and even in the literary world. You are an author, so is your son. Will we ever get out of the rut of dynasty?
My son is an author and I am a journalist. He did not inherit my job and I did not have a country to which he grew up believing he was entitled. We will never get over the ‘rut of dynasty’ if this kind of question continues to be asked.
Shobha De’s new novel Sethji is also set in Delhi and focuses on corrupt politicians, greedy businessmen, and, yes, manipulative women. How will you feel if we compare your latest non-fiction to her fiction?
Shobha De made her name writing soft porn and is trying to expand her oeuvre by writing about a fictitious political character. For you to ask me whether my book can be compared to her latest novel is final proof that you have not read Durbar .