Durbar, by Tavleen Singh is a memoir set in a time that could perhaps be the most happening times from the pre 2000s period of Indian History. It talks about the emergency, Operation Blue Star, the 1984 riots, the rise and fall of the Gandhi scions and almost all of the key highs and lows of the period. But what makes this memoir special are the dollops of gossip, marginally polarised facts and key political insights that equally reflect the nature and reaction of the journalists, bureaucrats, politicians, diplomats, princes, socialites and the public.
Some of my favourite passages from the book are the ones in conversation with Raghu Rai, one describing why the Sikhs don’t cut their hair, coverage of aftermath of the Sikh riots, starvation deaths in Orissa, Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s speeches (specially related to the Emergency and ‘when a big tree falls, the earth shakes’ comment) , Amitabh Bachchan’s day, Nehru’s economic policy and its aftereffects, influence of television in people’s lives among many others.
At some point Raghu Rai arrived there. He had been driving around the city taking pictures. I hitched a ride with him back to the office. Polling was over and the street that runs along the Zenana. Women’s Hospital was almost empty except for an old man sweeping torn posters into a jute sack. Raghu stopped the car and for the next half an hour took pictures of the old man and his sack. When I asked him impatiently what he had found so interesting about the old man he said it could be a very important photograph if Mrs Gandhi ended up losing the elections. ‘It is a poster of Indira Gandhi being swept into a bag by a man who is obviously very poor, and on the wall behind him is a family planning slogan. It tells the whole story.’ Every time I covered a story with Raghu I learned anew that photographers have a way of seeing things that reporters quite simply do not.
I must admit, this book reminds me of another key idea and that is of historical bias. Tavleen Singh minces no words when she writes. In most cases she is outright frank. But many a times I saw it as highly polarised and judgemental perspective. I must add though, I don’t see it as something bad. It’s just that it reminds me of the idea of historical bias that is usually attributed to have been developed by the Greeks when they wrote about the Persians. This could be because I am simultaneously reading Ram Guha’s book “India after Gandhi”. I remember it to be much more formal and politically balanced but not neutral. But then Guha is a historian, Tavleen Singh is a journalist. Their accounts of history would definitely be different. Also as Guha mentions in the prologue, he makes serious effort to not be biased. Durbar shows no such effort on part of the writer. Again, I must add, I did not feel it is a bad thing.
I would recommend this book to anyone who would love to have a somewhat entertaining and non exhaustive account of key events of Indian History that shaped and defined our present.