Lutyens Delhi’s Shobhaa De

By Mihir S Sharma

“The last thing I want to be,” declared Tavleen Singh at one of the launches of her new book, Durbar, “is Lutyens Delhi’s Shobhaa De.” Perhaps she shouldn’t have written the book, then. It will sell, certainly; people will read it; and it will spark a thousand dinner-table conversations – but all about its breathlessly-related gossipy bits and the smirking innuendo, not about the serious questions of policy and politics that Ms Singh likes to insist she has written it to elucidate.

Yet let us start by taking Ms Singh’s mission, for it is a mission, seriously. The time that Ms Singh wants to chronicle – the 15 or so years between the Emergency and the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi – were unquestionably the high noon of a certain sort of Delhi-centric politics, when India’s policies and politics appeared to mould themselves to the personalities of Indira, Sanjay and Rajiv Gandhi. Ms Singh is completely right in suggesting that, of the many ways in which Indira Gandhi had a pernicious effect on our society, one of the worst was through the power of her example. Across India, people still admire her; and some of those people are politicians who have remade their parties in the image of Mrs Gandhi’s hollowed-out and icon-worshipping Congress.


Ms Singh would claim that all dynasties bother her, of course. In Durbar, which ends in 1991, well before the Badals took over Punjab and M K Stalin took over Chennai, the Pawars Maharashtra and Mulayam Singh Yadav’s family UP, she doesn’t really have to deal directly with any other dynasties. She dodges a bullet there, because her Indian Express columns on UP, for example, have said that Akhilesh Yadav displays less “entitlement” than Rahul Gandhi and is thus acceptable; and although her friend Naveen Patnaik is mentioned several times in this book, his later inheritance of Odisha from his father – although he was as sheltered, surely, as Rajiv or Sonia Gandhi – is mentioned later, approvingly, as “surprisingly successful”. Indeed, as we’ll see later, even Rajiv Gandhi’s own assumption of power wasn’t that problematic in her eyes. So, let’s see – which example are we left with as the problem? Oh yes, just Sonia Gandhi. Odd how a principle can become so quickly personal when looked at objectively.

Unhappily for those who might want to read this to understand what a veteran writer about Indian politics has to say about the reasons underlying, say, Indira Gandhi’s enduring popularity, Ms Singh has little to say beyond stating that most voters are illiterate, and so don’t know what was good for them. Blaming voters’ stupidity and illiteracy for not voting as you would prefer is, of course, Delhi opinion-makers’ premier pastime and Ms Singh – however much she has travelled – doesn’t seem to have stopped revelling in it. (In another of her Express columns, she says of those that admire Mrs Gandhi that they are “illiterate villagers who sometimes think she is still alive because they have just received a house under the Indira Awas Yojana”.)

Indeed, nothing comes through as often in this book than Ms Singh’s genuine lack of any desire to properly understand what lies behind the statements of “illiterate voters”. Once something’s said that could conceivably serve as a proper illustration of the point she wishes to prove (usually Sonia Gandhi Very Bad), it doesn’t need further investigation. Towards the end of the book comes the description of a moment at a Congress election rally in South India when Ms Singh says she overhears people comparing Sonia Gandhi’s complexion to that of a goddess. Ahahahaha, says Ms Singh. They adore her because she is a foreigner! India is a Wounded Civilisation! And so on. Of course, this is Tamil Nadu, where they said similar things about pink-cheeked MGR, and might say the same thing about Jayalalithaa today. But the sad truths of caste, colour, religion and hierarchy are not of interest to Ms Singh. Not if they come in the way of explaining how people are mystifyingly willing to vote for a Foreigner.

So much for Ms Singh’s noble mission to elucidate the effects of Indira Gandhi and Delhi-centric power on India’s persistent problems. What remains is an odd beast of a book indeed. It is best imagined, perhaps, as triumphant performance art: Ms Singh’s elaborate demonstration that Delhi is filled with a particular type of networked, elitist, shallow, back-stabbing insider by setting out to play one herself.

Sometimes, true, Ms Singh’s blind revelling in her privilege amuses. This is, after all, the lady who refused to pick up her dog’s poo or pay a fine when the police asked her to, saying it was a stupid law, and why were they implementing it on Marine Drive, was it just because that’s where the rich lived, typical socialist buffoonery. But often it infuriates. For example, given that I detest the way that Lutyens Delhi insulated India’s elected rulers from the rest of the country, serving as a visible example of the benefits of ruling, you’d think Ms Singh’s continual references to “the tree-lined boulevards” she thinks have been usurped by “our socialist politicians” would be to my taste. But when, with barely a breath in between, we are also treated to loving descriptions of those of houses which her powerful or rich friends inhabit – they, unlike those graceless politicians, truly belong there – it stops becoming funny.

Another thing that does not infuriate, but begins to pall over the length of the book is that Ms Singh never once questions that most of her best stories, her advancement as a reporter and commentator, come precisely from the access that she has to the innermost durbars of India’s powerful – as a product of where she grew up, and the schools to which she went. When Ms Singh uses her inherited position as a crutch in her career, it’s apparently OK. She happily regales her readers with accounts of the endless “colour stories” about the Gandhi family she was asked to do by editors, the interviews she was granted because of social connections, and so on. There’s little wrong with that – or at least, it’s the way this insider-loving city still runs. But the dissonance between the claim that this somehow makes one into a political reporter and observer worth listening to and the contempt, repeated practically every page, for everyone in politics who uses family connections to get where they are – unless they’re an ex-royal – begins to first weary the reader, and then to exasperate. No amount of amusing anecdotes about what Naveen Patnaik said Raj Narain said to some bureaucrat, dressed up as social observation, can possibly compensate for this moral vacuum at the heart of Ms Singh’s book.

Ms Singh begins Durbar, appropriately, with the scene where she discovers her foreignness. When a schoolmate reprimands some “Hindi-speaking types” for harassing them in a train compartment, she is called an “angrez ki aulaad”. The fact that at this point Ms Singh is disturbed by what she claims is the truth of the statement, rather than wondering why it was made – how often sexism overlaps uncomfortably with class tensions – sets the tone for the book. Of course, she also claims later that girls who had gone to Welham, like her, already looked down on those who were “convent-educated” for being “less Indian”, so you’re forced to doubt her recollection and truthfulness as well as her understanding – but that’s par for this book, really. Of course, Ms Singh herself has transcended her class, by learning Hindi “well enough to write two columns a week”. (I wonder: can Sonia Gandhi write two columns a week in Hindi? If so, would Ms Singh say that washes out the sin of foreignness, as it has for her?)

Ms Singh’s other examples of her class’ insulation from the Real India of legend are even more amusing. At one point, a little later in Durbar, she says that the circles that she – and Sanjay and Rajiv and Sonia Gandhi – moved in were so distant from the rest of the country that they didn’t even know that Sholay had opened a WEEK after that movie started playing. Ms Singh should stick to political commentary; one of the great wonders of Indian cultural history is that Sholay had a particularly poor start in theatres, and only picked up popularity gradually, on word of mouth, week after slow week, on its way to record-breaking runs.

But this certainty – paranoia, even – that everyone she ever knew is an irretrievably alienated child of Macaulay lies at the heart of this book. The confusions inherent in her central argument – apologies, her only argument – are many. Here is the argument (which I apologise in advance for laying out in syllogisms, a blatantly imperialistic imposition on Indian thought processes):

1. India’s upper class are colonial inheritors, somehow completely detached from that mythical entity visible only to foreign correspondents and BJP MPs, the Real India, AND
2. The Gandhis are part of this class, and surrounded by people from this class.
3. They became a dynasty, WHICH
4. Caused all India’s problems.

Look, several of those points are partly true. Several are also appealing emotionally, especially if you are one of the disastrously many in this country who get angrier at the memory of Macaulay, Nehru and Babar then at, say, honour killings. But even you, angry person, however much dynastic progression revolts you – as it irritates me – surely realise that the logical connection between these points violates all principles of reason. It simply makes no sense whatsoever. If you do recognise this, then rejoice in the fact that you are more perceptive than Tavleen Singh, who is so blinded by ego, self-absorption, bitterness and rage in turn that she doesn’t, even over the 311 pages and two decades that she took to write Durbar.

“If we were more aware of India’s great wealth of languages and literature,” the still-colonised Ms Singh wails, “of her ancient texts on politics and governance and her scriptures, we would have wanted to change many things.” Is perhaps the motivation to deal with malnutrition hidden in the Arthashastra? Do we need to read the Vedas to realise that corruption is wrong? Are mechanisms for reforming the PDS hidden somewhere in the Mahabharata –somehow evading the notice of the various economists who’ve translated it recently? We should, presumably, read India’s ancient texts because we want to, perhaps as a guide to living, but not as signposts to policy making – which they’re unlikely to aid, seeing as they written for what was, to put it mildly, a somewhat different country. Unfortunately, so complete is Ms Singh’s inferiority complex about her upbringing, so bone-deep her superstitious fear of “foreignness”, so elevated her ego about her own apparent transcending of her origins (she can write in Hindi!) that, again, this parody of an argument serves as the backbone of her book.

To these basic errors of understanding and thought we must add questions about Ms Singh’s literally incredible memory. Oddly, at one of the early-1980s dinner conversations Ms Singh reports, recollects or thinks she remembers (“My recollection remains so vivid that I am able to recount it almost verbatim”), it is completely unclear to readers whether we are expected to sympathise with, say, the spoiled guests who understand the Real India (“It is better not to interfere in local customs”) or with a Rajiv and Sonia Gandhi who have returned from a trip to Amethi shell-shocked by the nature of rural poverty. When Ms Singh recounts Sonia Gandhi being “unusually eloquent” about a baby playing with cow dung and putting it in its mouth, it appears that Ms Singh is inviting us to judge Ms Gandhi as being so divorced from Indian reality that this would shock her. Well, guess what – it shocks me. It is those not shocked that I’d worry about.

Indeed, one useful and entertaining by-product of Ms Singh’s unquestioning self-confidence is that she winds up being, perhaps, a little more frank than she would have liked to be. The most obvious case of this is in the true central relationship of this book – not that between Rajiv Gandhi and India, but between Ms Singh and Sonia Gandhi. So convinced is Ms Singh that her readers will despise Ms Gandhi for her initial inability to speak Hindi and her working-class Italian origins that she does not seem to have noticed how her account of their friendship, much to my surprise, winds up being far more sympathetic to the Foreign-Born Usurper than she intended. From the very first time we are introduced – at a party in 1975, where Ms Singh’s friend Naveen Patnaik casually asks Sonia Gandhi if the dress she’s wearing is Valentino, and Ms Gandhi replies “it was made by my darzi in Khan Market”, which Ms Singh seems to think is a bad thing, presumably because Italians should all wear Valentino; through the time where Ms Singh guilelessly reveals that, although she was living in a rent-free flat in Golf Links, she got Ms Gandhi to pay for her son’s clothes – right up to the point at which they fall out, about which  more later, Sonia Gandhi gets some of the best, and most human, lines in the book. I congratulate the editors who worked on this book for wisely not alerting Ms Singh to this fact.

Durbar takes us from 1975, when Indira Gandhi declared the Emergency shortly after Ms Singh became a reporter – fortunately, we are left to make the connection ourselves – to Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination in 1991. The initial chapters are a whirlwind of famous names and acerbic descriptions: Vicky Bharat Ram is “full of bluster”, Suman Dubey is “nervous and permanently distracted”, Arun Singh was “impossible to talk to because of his forbidding reserve”, Satish Sharma a “surly, silent man who did not have much to say”, and “came from a middle-class background”. (Very important to note that, especially as Ms Singh later adds that he was the most “surprising” to her of Rajiv Gandhi’s choices as adviser.) You might notice that a great deal of the men are described by Ms Singh as not having much to say to her for some reason; fortunately, the other women are largely dismissed as “sulky”, “blowsy”, “softly dumpy”, “coarse and bossy”, “may once have been pretty”, and so on, so Ms Singh gives as good as she gets.

This is all delightfully entertaining, as are bits like the time where she tells us that journalists reporting a raid on her friend Arun Singh’s brother discovered that the tax inspectors had found silver chairs he was holding “for a Gujarati prince”, and “were somehow bedazzled by the idea of silver furniture,” and so they got bigger headlines than the seven air-conditioners in someone else’s house. These middle-class journalists, so easily bedazzled by silver furniture. In fact, the hopeless adulation for India’s broken down ex-royals that permeates this book is first nauseating and then a little embarrassing. One gets the sense that Ms Singh’s opposition to “dynasty” comes simply from the fact that the Gandhis are of too recent a vintage, or possibly that they don’t ride on enough elephants.

The best chapter by far in the book is the one describing the election of 1977, when Indira Gandhi was voted out of power in a landslide. So little has been written about this time in our history that Ms Singh’s recollections of the first Opposition rally at the Ramlila Maidan, when Atal Behari Vajpayee extemporised a verse about the air of freedom; or of the crowds in Old Delhi angrily shouting “Jai Nasbandi, Jai Bulldozer” as they voted against Congress; or of the Shahi Imam on the steps of Jama Masjid holding hands with RSS leaders; or finally of the vast crowds blocking ITO till late into the night as they watched the returns going up over the Times of India building and finally cheering for minutes when the billboard announced that Indira Gandhi had lost Rae Bareli to Raj Narain, are all electrifying. Of course, sadly, within a page we return to the ridiculously personal, with a story about how Maneka and Sonia Gandhi quarrelled about dog biscuits that Ms Singh credits to an impeccable and trustworthy source, Sanjay Gandhi’s “best friend”, Akbar “Dumpy” Ahmed.

Ms Singh then tells us how she “in the summer of 1982 returned to India with a young son to bring up and desperately in need of a job.” M J Akbar, at the Telegraph, gave her one. Unfortunately, Ms Singh says, the paper’s Delhi bureau “consisted almost entirely of women who had taken charge of covering all the important ministries and were fiercely possessive about them.” (While this statement is quite in keeping with Ms Singh’s attitude to other women throughout this book, it does also sort of help illuminate the fact that she wasn’t quite alone as a female journalist at that point.) This is the point at which Durbar, which has so far largely been a chronicle of tony dinner parties and how Ms Singh fell in love with Amitabh Bachchan, turns suddenly darker. Ms Singh’s description of the growing power of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, the lead-up to Operation Bluestar, and the assassination of Indira Gandhi is strikingly well-written. Of course, there are inevitable moments of dissonance – when you hear all Sikhs being described in “permanent conflict with the Mughal emperors… [because of] the imperial mission to impose Islam on the communities who had refused to become Muslim”, which is, at best, a heroic feat of undereducated oversimplification that would make even V S Naipaul proud. Yet she effectively conveys the terror of being summoned by Bhindranwale to explain yourself in front of his army of fanatics; of being in curfew-ridden Amritsar with trucks of Sikhs, alive or dead, blindfolded by their own unwound turbans. (Ms Singh has gotten that far thanks to imperiously waving around a letter written to the general in command in Amritsar by her father, a former army officer, but the rest of this section is so good one is tempted to let that little bit of dynastic privilege pass.)

Similarly powerful is Ms Singh’s description of the hideous aftermath of Bluestar and Indira Gandhi’s assassination, the anti-Sikh violence of November 1984. It clearly reveals how that mammoth crime – riots, pogroms, call them whatever you will – is an eternal blot against Rajiv Gandhi’s name, one which Manmohan Singh’s recent apology on behalf of the Congress cannot completely wash out. Ms Singh reveals how unconcerned the Congress establishment was by the spreading violence; remembers how Doordarshan showed loops of Congressmen chanting “khoon ki badla khoon”; describes the Congress’ underhanded election campaign with its newspaper advertisements that asked if you could trust your taxi driver; tells of a dinner party in Arun Singh’s mother-in-law’s house where Rajiv Gandhi’s friend Romi Chopra, “shaking with rage”, told a room full of Sikhs – including the ex-princes of Kapurthala and Amritsar, the latter now a prominent Congressman – that Sikhs were “on trial”, and must “prove their loyalty” to India. Those were horrific times, and Ms Singh’s tone of outrage fits the events she relates.

Yet even then, Ms Singh trusted and continued to trust Rajiv Gandhi, making the endless excuses for him that one makes for a beloved monarch – that he was “cocooned” by his bureaucrats, for example, or alienated from the people by his wife’s foreignness. She doesn’t reveal who she voted for in 1984, or even if she voted at all, but she does say: “I was still prepared to give him a chance.” For most Indians, she adds, that was “a brief shining moment” when Rajiv Gandhi was “a living symbol of hope.” She doesn’t explicitly include herself in that number – and the reader can’t help assuming that she trusted Rajiv Gandhi because, perhaps, she knew and liked him. Nor does she, even once, mention dynasty as a problem when it comes to Rajiv Gandhi taking over from his mother. Odd, when you come to think of it. Dynasty, it appears, only comes to matter to Ms Singh when she is dropped by Sonia Gandhi from her circle of friends.

In describing Rajiv Gandhi’s own dismal tenure as prime minister, Ms Singh is justifiably and satisfyingly harsh – especially since the UPA tries to project the chaotic late 1980s as a period of visionary reform. However, she’s frequently harsh for the wrong reasons, confusing administrative ineptitude and arrogance of the sort we are familiar with in our current government for some sort of inability on Rajiv Gandhi’s behalf to comprehend India’s real problems. She describes Sam Pitroda’s many “missions” – oilseeds, IT, water, goodness knows what else – as failures because Rajiv Gandhi was “unaware” of the need for “massive investment and institutional and administrative changes”. Right – it was a failure of “awareness”, and not of politics or administration or policy. It is, in fact, on anything to do with real policy that this book is weakest – which is a pity, since its author tries so hard to discuss it at the slightest opportunity. She derides the need for population control, for example, something not even the most diehard defenders of the “demographic dividend” do. However, given that Ms Singh has in her Indian Express columns said that no such thing as crony capitalism exists in India, perhaps it would be uncharitable to expect any particular economic insight from her. These sections, frequent and turgid, are frankly best skipped.

Fortunately, the section on Rajiv Gandhi’s also contain the book’s most gossipy bits. It is here that one is told about the mysterious falling-out between Rajiv and Sonia Gandhi and Arun and Nina Singh, once among their closest friends and advisers, and how it was prefaced by the famous locking, by Sonia Gandhi, of the garden gate that connected their two houses. It is here that one is told that the Quattrochis were the “closest” to the Gandhis, had privileged access to Race Course Road, and kicked its security guards when angry. It is here that one is told about a sable coat that Ms Singh claims was given to Ms Gandhi in Moscow and was “sent to Rome to be redesigned by Fendi”; and that Ms Gandhi was “buying shahtoosh shawls in large quantities… which only very rich Indians could afford to.” It is here that Ms Singh claims “Rajiv’s poorest friends” were spending large amounts of money abroad. Her editors helpfully interpolate a sentence saying “these were the sort of stories that are never possible to confirm,” but Ms Singh seems not to have noticed, given that I’ve heard her since on television telling people to Google pictures of Sonia Gandhi from the 1980s, look, she’s wearing a sable coat. (Only very rich Indians can tell if a coat is sable from tiny Google images.)

And it is here, too, that the relationship between Sonia Gandhi and Tavleen Singh – once a thing, or so Ms Singh claims, of lazy afternoon lunches and shared confidences at parties – comes to an end. This is how it happens.

When, in end-1986, Rajiv Gandhi is shot at in Rajghat, Ms Singh calls Sonia Gandhi to ask her what happened. Ms Gandhi chats away about it. Ms Singh – as one does in Delhi – promptly talks about it to everyone in her office at India Today and then is charmingly surprised when its proprietor, Aroon Purie, asks her to interview Ms Gandhi since they’re such pals. Ms Singh duly calls up Ms Gandhi to ask; the prime minister’s media advisors didn’t want to do it, but Ms Gandhi conspires with her friend to “disguise it as a profile”. Ms Singh thought what she wrote was “anodyne” but was told by Mr Purie that they’d “put some bite into it”. When it came out, Ms Singh considered it “unflattering but fair”, given the rumours about the Quattrochis. Ms Gandhi thought differently, apparently, telling Ms Singh icily that she “wasn’t like the person I had described in the profile.” When Ms Singh asked how, Ms Gandhi said she didn’t let friends presume to use her name. Ha. I winced when I read this line, but I needn’t have. It seems that Ms Singh, all these years later, doesn’t seem to realise that it was a pretty effective put-down of someone who used her closeness to get a story. Instead she told Barkha Dutt on NDTV the other day she was dropped by Sonia Gandhi after the India Today profile because “being a politician means you need courtiers”. Sonia Gandhi had gotten used to “no criticism in some ways”, she added. In just two years! Amazing. Perhaps it was because she is Italian. They are known to be a changeable people.

Whatever else I have learned from this story, I think I have understood at least some of why Ms Gandhi doesn’t trust the media enough to make herself available to them often. Ms Singh, amusingly, is part-cause of one of the habits in the Congress’ president that she most noisily decries.

That was too, the birth of Ms Singh’s self-image as a proud and persecuted critic of the Gandhis and of dynastic privilege. She has also served over these years the useful purpose of being a strident, if not always progressive, voice for reform; and in her willingness to always speak her mind, whoever it may offend, sets an example that more in India should follow. On the increasingly frequent occasions, however, when that self-image takes over, it results in some truly awful attempts at analysis.

Indeed, her last word in Durbar is as specious a piece of such analysis as I have ever had to process, though it fits in well with these blame-the-media times. Journalists have been insufficiently outraged, she says, by hereditary succession – because they then “get treated very well by governments”. You know, of the many reasons I could think of for media corruption or conflicts of interest, that would perhaps be the last and least. Some journalists could, say, not mention to their readers their long relationship with the industrialist whose planned city is being defended in their columns. Other journalists and media houses can pass on planted stories, they can ignore scandals, they can extort money, they can lobby for this or that; but, really, they don’t hesitate to question or mention the existence of dynastic politics. Yet, in this one-trick book, all good sense and political nuance is abandoned in the service of Ms Singh’s ruling obsession.

Ms Singh wants Durbar to be “taken seriously” as an explanation of where, since the Indira Gandhi era, we’ve gone wrong. However, if it is indeed taken seriously, it reveals little more than the danger to your credibility of constructing a political philosophy around personal antipathy. No reader should be expected to take a facade of twisted and misshapen “principles” sheltering a decades-old grudge seriously.

So – for your sake and Ms Singh’s – expect little explanation, and less insight, from Durbar. But large bits of it are certainly very readable indeed. It isn’t the book we were expecting or that it’s being touted as in Ms Singh’s combative Q&As and on television. Instead there’s a steaming load of entertaining gossip, reminiscent of a conversation with that one snarky auntieji who claims she vividly remembers what Romi Chopra was wearing that night in 1983.  That’s why it’s probably best described as what I heard it called the other day – “a bit of an auntie-climax.”

Still, the innuendo and the gossip will help it fly off the shelves, right behind Shobhaa De’s Sethji.  Ms Singh may not like to be known as Lutyens Delhi’s Shobhaa De, but, sadly, your average potboiler might well reveal more truths to you about India than this product of a life in those tree-lined boulevards. If that’s not the most depressing of comments on Lutyens Delhi, the seat of power and privilege, I don’t know what is. 


Tavleen Singh
Hachette India
311 pages
Rs 599

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