It is a measure of the Indian media’s current mood of collective self-importance that many journalists believe their life stories are worth telling. Tavleen Singh, a much-admired member of the journalistic tribe, has reached that age of seniority and accomplishment which prompts her to tell her story.
She has the reputation—and a well-deserved one—of being an intrepid reporter. There has always been an unmistakable robustness to her journalistic voice. And that voice, booming and brassy, jumps out at you in every page. Durbar was the tag-line she used in a ‘colour’ story in 1977 to describe the ritual of morning darshan performed by the then PM Morarji Desai, deputy PM Charan Singh and the ousted PM, Indira Gandhi. In her reckoning, the ‘durbar’ in the book’s title allegorically represents the geographical site of power in New Delhi.
However, an unkind reporter may want to know the exact point of this self-indulgent book. But, if the reader has a little patience and is prepared not to be distracted by its cattish moments, he may ultimately find the book rewarding at least on three counts.
First, and most importantly, Tavleen offers us a fascinating social and anthropological glimpse of the morals and manners of that ‘tinny social set’ of the ‘ruling class’ to which, by her own admission, she belongs. She got an entree into this exclusive set because of her own pedigree and because she grew up, in her own words, in “a secure, privileged India of boarding schools, gymkhana clubs, summer holidays in the hills and Enid Blyton books....”
This parasitical world consists of “princes, scions of high officials, the occasional business tycoon from Bombay”, who had studied in “the best private schools in India and many who had gone to Oxford or Cambridge”. Members of this set come into their own when they have their tribal gatherings in “the drawing rooms” of Lutyens’ Delhi. Tavleen notes, with a hint of amusement, that “almost nobody in these drawing rooms had a serious job or a serious interest in getting one”. Yet, it is to these rooms that Tavleen is invited or returns again and again. In these drawing rooms, she says, “during the Emergency my social life seemed to become an endless series of dinner parties”, even though she agonises aloud “how deracinated our little set was”. Unwittingly, Tavleen ends up providing an insider’s pen-portrait of the old order and its decadent, frivolous core.
It is in these drawing rooms that “Rajiv and Sonia” are befriended. This preoccupation with “Rajiv and Sonia” becomes obsessive, and perhaps the only raison d’etre of this book: “...when I met the friends of Rajiv and Sonia...”; “in the drawing rooms Rajiv and Sonia spent their evenings...”; “...at the dinner parties where I would run into Rajiv and Sonia”; “Rajiv and Sonia were dropping me home after a dinner party...”; “I saw Sonia more at cosy lunches in Nina Singh’s elegant farmhouse”; “...the first real conversation with Rajiv Gandhi” took place “in the salubrious setting of a dinner party at Vicky Bharat Ram’s home...”. The familiarity begets a presumptuous sense of entitlement, eventually breeds contempt, and the journalist ceases to look at men and events with unprejudiced eyes.
This leads to the book’s second notable aspect: the implausibility of a reporter being a friend as well as a critic of the king. Membership to the ruling clique is at odds with the obligations of a professional journalist. Tavleen gives in to a sense of disappointment, then bitterness, when suggestions are not accepted: “Rajiv could have changed things had he wanted to and I tried, one evening, to persuade him to see the wisdom of this change”. Or, “I could not help thinking had Rajiv listened to my advice....”
Durbar is equally important for a third reason. Tavleen subscribes to that enduring theme of our national narrative: one, just one, good, wise, charismatic, clean leader can rewrite our destiny. And, when that talisman does not work its magic, we dump all the blame on that one individual, absolving others of their responsibilities and obligations.
Perhaps the most insightful chapter in Durbar is the one titled Turkman Gate. Tavleen observes perceptively how censorship ensured that slum clearance and family planning drives during the Emergency in the walled city of Delhi easily coalesced into collective fears, enflaming passions: “It became easy for Muslims to believe that the Emergency was being used to target them as a community”. The Muslims were never to vote again for the Congress. This insight alone makes the book worth a read.
Thank you to all those who have taken the trouble to read the article and share their thoughts. Out of the arguments made here, there are two that perhaps need answering. So here they go.
1. The first part of the article compares outcomes (relative percentages of population of the religions concerned) irrespective of the process that led to those outcomes - whether immigration, relatively faster population growth or conversions. This was for two reasons. One, to put the figure of 2.3 per cent in "numerical perspective", as the article itself explained. The second reason was that outcomes are ultimately what the crux of debate is about. The rest of the article in any case dealt with process - or conversions in this case, from both a contemporary and historical perspective.
2. Some commenters have tried to cast doubts on the reliability of Census 2001. Those who do this should bear in mind that Census 2001 was conducted by a BJP government. Considering the extreme importance that BJP gives to this issue, it would be reasonable to expect that IF it had perceived a problem with the methodology that was distorting the numbers, it would have fixed it. As the article mentioned, BJP or BJP-supported governments have been in power for 10 of the last 40 years, or about a quarter of the time, and the only reasonable conclusion one can arrive at is that any misreporting of numbers, real or perceived, would be marginal and hence, not of importance.
To all other arguments made, my answer is the following: Please read the article again, with particular focus on the quotations of Vivekananda and Monier Williams, and the history of the missionary efforts in Bengal and their outcome.
"This leads to the book’s second notable aspect: the implausibility of a reporter being a friend as well as a critic of the king. Membership to the ruling clique is at odds with the obligations of a professional journalist."
Really!!! And I thought this was all about you scratch my back and I scratch yours. As far as I can tell it is quite a symbiotic relationship. For the powers that be, all publicity is good publicity and so "criticism" doesn't really matter - time on the idiot box, number of time names appear in the print - these matters - the aam-admi is the idiot in all this so the content really doesn't matter except for a short while may be.
"First, and most importantly, Tavleen offers us a fascinating social and anthropological glimpse of the morals and manners of that ‘tinny social set’ of the ‘ruling class’ to which, by her own admission, she belongs." says Harish Khare. The man is so much in love with his voice and words, he doesn't pause to read before he clicks "Submit" "Save" or whatever on his PC. Because this is the sort of self-obsessed wordy nonsense that has made our yarnsmiths look foolish, irresponsible and dishonest. what's a social vs. anthropological glimpse? What are morals and what are manners here? Harish, while you were busy bending and scraping before the dynasty and its current retainer-in-chief, Tavleen has been reporting tirelessly on the incompetent, amoral dynastic political families that have hobbled this once great nation and denied millions of its citizens a just and fair shot at success. Learn from Tavleen
Feminist authors are always shrill, as exemplified by todays Arundhati.
Tavleen Singh was her predecessor in the 70s.
Just Joe King >> I am a fan of Tavleen Singh & her son.
But Who is Harish Khare??
Harish Khare is one of the important Paid Journalists who works non stop to preach on the glories of the UPA dispensation and the greatness of the dynasty rule of Sonia-Rahul.
He has done immense work and put large investment in his preaching and his favourite preaching ground used to be the usual Congress Paid News outlet, The Hindu, but of late he is being seen in the other Paid news outlet , OUTLOOK since outlook's usual paid news preachers (Saba et al) are increasingly looking stale.
What if, the people saw Pt. Nehru as the first P. M. of India, and respected him, and then, people found that because of the Indo-China war, that the criticism of Nehru being an unsuitable modern political leader was feasible, and after removing him from the pedestal, were disappointed that they still respected him and regarded him greatly? It appears, the political leadership, apart from Mr. Bajpayee, and Mr. Advani, to many, is to perception, a development and continuation. It appears, that to respect the political identity, is to be anti-state.
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