Durbar, By Tavleen Singh, Hachette India, November 2012, Pages 324 (HB), Rs. 599
Azadi's Daughter: Journey of a Liberal Muslim , by Seema Mustafa, Imprint One, 2012, Rs 395
‘Tis the season of memoirs, musings if you will, by journalists almost as if they all have something momentous to say, being the first draughtsmen of history, as it were. In no particular pecking order over the last two years B.G. Verghese has penned First Draft: Witness to the Making of Modern India (Westland) followed by S.Nihal Singh’s Ink in My Veins (Hay House); Vinod Mehta’s Lucknow Boy (Penguin-Viking) and more recently, Kuldip Nayar’s Beyond the Lines (Roli Books). Established editors all they have written about the toil and toll of journalism mostly against the backdrop of the 50s, 60s and 70s, decades that contoured the politics as we know it today. Written by the male of the species, these scribes have written about a simpler time when editors were, well, editors — another relic for us to mourn — and news was a homogenous entity.
Suddenly, however there has been a sprouting of titles by a new generation of women journalists. Saba Naqvis’ In Good Faith (Rupa Rainleaf); Seema Mustafa Azadi’s Daughter, Journey of a Liberal Muslim (ImprintOne) and Tavleen Singh’s Durbar (Hachette). With TV anchor Barkha Dutt’s The Unquiet Land: Exploring India’s Fault Lines scheduled for completion by the end of this year, you have a quartet of tomes competing for attention.
In this cluster, Mustafa and Singh have the most in common. Both are the same vintage (more or less); both worked as political reporters for the then Calcutta daily, The Telegraph, often trumpeted as India’s first designed newspaper, and under the editorship of the unpredictable M.J. Akbar; both come from pedigreed backgrounds, daughters of privilege, which actually impacted the course of their careers in completely different ways; forceful and independent both earned their journalistic stripes when they were given prime assignments by the sometimes irascible Akbar. The two journos were also professionally evolving at a time when news was becoming an ever-changing organic beast, moving from print to include television as well. And though they don’t explicitly say so both our worthies see their careers as a tool of empowerment. And, finally, though written by journalists both these tomes are not strictly journalistic accounts. Farewell, ye olde 5Ws.
But the comparison pretty much stops there; these are not ladies-in-arms. While Mustafa’s volume at 189 pages is much slimmer, Singh’s superbly produced book comes in at a weightier 312 pages. Mustafa’s mostly vibrates with the drama of righteous opinion; Singh’s tone is more decadent, even frivolous; Mustafa’s book you read for profit, Singh’s you read for pleasure. Hers is more of a social and political commentary while Singh’s is a racy look into a world of entitlement dotted by Mapus, Vickys, Goodies, fifty shades of royalty and of course Rajiv and Sonia Gandhi.
Through a valuable introduction by academic Zoya Hasan we learn that Mustafa belongs to a well-known Muslim family of Lucknow closely associated with the national movement. In her progressive, enlightened world, women and men, and all religions, are considered equal. It’s when she connects with the outside world that Mustafa stumbles upon her own religious identity and its disadvantages. As a working journalist her frustrations against the injustices met out to Muslims, especially poor ones, grow. Chapter by painful chapter she realises, and the reader along with her, how the State willfully discriminates against its own. A thread of smouldering discontent runs through the book which takes Mustafa on to a path of activism.
Alongside her critique of the establishment is her anger against the orthodox Muslim who does not have the community’s well being at heart. Her contempt for a weak political leadership is evident as she gives us a gavel- by-gavel coverage of the Shah Bano case, the demolition of the Babri Masjid and the Gujarat riots. Her disillusionment deepens when a ticket for fighting the 1991 general election is denied to her by the Janata Dal’s VP Singh but she continues to fight the good fight by standing as an independent from Domriaganj in Uttar Pardesh. She loses. But all through her many disenchantments with polity, Mustafa’s faith in Indian democracy, almost inexplicably, shines through.
Sadly, the plotting in the book is flawed, it is chronologically chaotic, and arguments get repeated. The book is also poorly edited and proofed—artist Manjit Bawa becomes Mohan Bawa; commas and typos jump all over the pages. But Mustafa makes such a strong case for a strong, secular progressive India, unshackled by bigots, that you can’t but help feeling persuaded by her convictions, even though you might have to read the book with the volume muted.
In comparison, Singh’s is a delightful quick, and at times, a trivial read. It’s a romp through Delhi’s upper-crust society spliced with Singh’s reporting assignments, sometimes Punjab, sometimes Turkman Gate, sometimes Kashmir with some resetting of Indo-Pak relations thrown in—and all this takes place between late night partying and cozy lunches. With the privilege of privilege Singh is part of Luyten’s Delhi’s elegant world of entitlement, where pin codes are in single digits, and ladies dress in chiffon saris and Mikimoto pearls. It’s a world that doesn’t resonate with the masses. In fact, it is so far removed from the masses that one wonders whether Singh is in danger of becoming a schizophrenic. Typically, a fine dining at Aurangzeb Road is followed by reporting on starvation deaths in Kalahandi.
Cunningly placed in the centre of this tres hip universe are the Gandhis—Rajiv and Sonia—not the Mahatma. Sonia Gandhi with her default expression set at pout is uber-reserved. With her carefully embellished eyelashes, she, we are told, is a lover of shatoosh shawls and finely tailored fur coats. In the early days of Singh’s association with the charmed couple they were not really amenable to overtures of friendship from Singh or others. Example: In a feeble attempt at conversation Naveen Patnaik compliments Sonia on her ‘white frock’. “Valentino?” quizzes the future Chief Minister of Orissa. “ Made in Khan Market by my darzi, ” responds Sonia, quelling any further communication. Amazingly, Singh has the felicity to recall exactly conversations that took place thirty years earlier and quotes them verbatim.
Singh’s proximity to the decision-makers gives you a clue as to how completely repulsed Sonia is with the idea of Indian politics. She even tells a friend that she would rather her children beg then take to politics.
Singh’s own political analysis sounds naïve at times. The self-conscious intellectualism and the insta-analysis gets to you. She informs us that “Muslims would never vote for Congress” after the Turkman Gate demolitions. She revels in the fact that’s she calls the election results better than her editors. In a career as a journalist, the author wears many hats: powerbroker, counsel, expert, ferrier of political messages, part-time diplomat. She criticises Rajiv Gandhi for not taking her advice to professionalise Doordarshan. Singh’s greatest strength is her persistence; she follows the Gandhi beat with the determination of a bloodhound completely disregarding any other political leaders. And soon enough, the relationship between the Gandhis and Singh warms up enough for the journalist to swing an interview of Rajiv Gandhi for her boss, Akbar. (Such a pity he sidelines her later.)
But the friendship not built on anything stronger than knowing-people-who-know-people is fragile. And it takes, according to Singh, one slightly critical profile of Sonia Gandhi in India Today to finish that bond. By June 1987 Singh realises she has “been dropped” from the inner circle.
It’s delectable anecdotes like these that give you a good time. But it’s not enough. Ultimately you, too, want to break off the relationship and you end up not liking the self-indulgent, main character of Durbar.