Book Review : Durbar by Tavleen Singh

Published January 15, 2015 by vishalvkale



Of all the books I have come across, this one stands apart all by its lonesome, for being the most disturbing, and at the same time being the most intriguing book I have ever read. At one level, it is a superb and must read book, while at another level, it leaves a lot to be desired for. It explores new areas in our contemporary and recent history post independence without being a history book; and gives a narrative that raises hard questions and introduces varying viewpoints, all while giving deep insights, as well as an inside look at Page 3 Society and Delhi’s hotshot circles.

This is a memoir of the life of Tavleen Singh, focussing on the experience she had during her journalistic career covering political events in New Delhi as well as other parts of India. This is what gives the book a unique flair and attraction, and takes it in a league of its own. Other history books cover history as inanimate packages, and are more analytical; this book is a class apart, as it is written in the form of a memoir.

The book takes a systematic look at all the epochal events during the period from 1974 till 1989 – The Emergency, The Junta Government, The Return of Indira Gandhi, The Punjab Problem, The Assassination of Indira Gandhi, The Sikh Riots, upto The Rajiv Gandhi Era including Bofors and Sri Lanka while also peripherally dealing with the rise of the BJP : years that were so critical for our Indian Nation; years that were so vital in our history; and years about which so many questions remain!

The congress party has been systematically dissected in this book, and both Indira Gandhi as well as Rajiv Gandhi have been thoroughly analysed in terms of their individual performance as leaders of the nation. Their faults & mistakes have been ruthlessly exposed, and some sad events about which we had only heard stray mentions are covered in detail, like for example the Sanjay Gandhi family planning fiasco and the beautification drive. 

The flow of emotions in the people as well as the ruling class has been extremely well documented. This is especially evident in the rise of hope that has been so eloquently brought out in the initial Rajiv years, as also the depressing mood that was rampant during the emergency. The slow and steady disillusionment of the people with Rajiv has also been covered. 

But the key point that I felt was the story of Punjab, and let me freely admit : Tavleen Singh has guts. Her exploits, and the risks she took while covering Punjab and Kashmir are worthy of an award. The book takes you into the center of the entire sad episode; and the book is worth a read for these pages alone. What is more, the interplay of Punjabi-Hindi, and the interplay of politics and religion, are shown to create an ugly triangle {or more accurately quadrangle} of culture, religion, politics and language. I mention this specifically because at no point was the role of Pakistan in either Kashmir or Punjab mentioned with adequate force. I can understand that this book is an internally focussed book, but this is a significant shortcoming nonetheless. 

The book will take you up close and personal with all the key players in the political field during the era in question, as well as quite a few media personalities. You get to see political leaders, who you are used to seeing in impersonal word form in news and in analytical articles and books – in a personal and alive view, adequately covering their emotions, thoughts, reactions, making them appear more human. This is the most vital scoring point of the book. 

The narrative is powerful, and makes which are familiar to us leap out of the words and the pages; they take on a life of their own through the vivid memory and artful and skilful play of words. You are treated to a kaleidoscope of images, as history almost plays before your eyes; that is the level of the skill achieved by the author in the penning of this superlative book. 

This is an important addition to the record, any which way you look at it; this places the tumultuous events of the period between 1975-1989 in a very different, and engaging format, and is almost a living recording of the events, given that it is a memoir. Tavleen Singh has drawn from her extensive interaction with all the key players during this period, as well as her interactions with colleagues, normal people, police officers, bureaucrats to pen an unforgettable work. 

I shall not state much about the precise content given; neither shall I attempt to draw any inferences for the reason that this is a memoir; it is not a history book. There is not one bit of documented evidence, or supporting proof contained in this book. I dont state that the content is wrong – I am merely making & underscoring the point that this is a memoir, not a history book. It should not be taken as such. Sad part is, with a little bit of added effort, this book could have been elevated to a combination history book and engaging memoir, by the provision of proper endnotes, bibliography and references to articles from those days. 

Taken in the right spirit, this is a landmark book, a book that is in the must-read category. If this book disturbs you, and forces you to ask questions, instigates and fires in your mind a desire to do some more research, and understand that era much better, it will have achieved its core task. As I said, the total absence of supporting documents, news articles, endnotes, researches leaves a lot to be desired for; in a book of this genre, given its content and its at times explosive and hard-hitting coverage. Even then, given that it brings us face to face with some of our past mistakes and their repercussions, this negative can be ignored!

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