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Why bhakts are thrilled about this book

By Vir Sanghvi
Last updated on: May 10, 2016 15:24 IST
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Tavleen's Singh's new bookTavleen Singh's book is less of a Hindutva-loving diatribe against the Dynasty than its detractors suggest, but it is still hard to agree with much of what she writes, says Vir Sanghvi.

Before we go any further, a few declarations of interest may be in order. I know and admire Tavleen Singh. In fact, I admired her long before I knew her. At university I was fascinated by the column she wrote for the short-lived New Delhi magazine and later, I was a fan of the stories she did for Sunday and The Telegraph

At a time when journalists quaked with fear at the very mention of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale's name, Tavleen had the guts to confront the 'Sant' without a trace of fear and her reporting from Punjab was easily the best.

I admired her for her honesty about her private life too. In the mid-1980s, when India was a much more conservative place than it is today, Tavleen told the story of her relationship with Salman Taseer and the birth of their son Aatish on the pages of Savvy magazine with courage and candour.

The honesty seemed to me to characterise Tavleen's attitude to life. She has always lived on her terms, apologising for nothing and being openly contemptuous of political correctness. She was, as she says in the book, born into privilege and has never made any attempt to conceal it.

For a few years in the nineties, we both had flats in the same building in Delhi and this finally gave me an opportunity to see her up close. She would throw elegant dinner parties where guests may include Patrick French, V S Naipaul, a couple of maharajas and maharanis or a model straight from the Paris catwalk. But early the next morning, she would drive off to some grimy little village hours from Delhi to file gritty, on-the-spot reports.

And yet, as much as we admired her, I think everyone in the building was secretly (and sometimes, not so secretly) terrified of her. She was quick to anger, viewed fools with a contempt she did not bother to disguise and if you got on her wrong side, she would lacerate you with her put-downs.

Many of these qualities continue to characterise her journalism, though in recent years she had proved to be a much better story-teller than any of us suspected. Durbar, her book on the Delhi of the seventies and eighties, was easily the most evocative account of that period that I have ever read.

Her new book, India's Broken Tryst has received a rapturous response from what might be unkindly described as the bhakt lobby because, superficially at least, it tells the story they so desperately want to hear: Jawaharlal Nehru made many mistakes, and his dynasty kept India poor; Rajiv Gandhi may have been a nice enough fellow but he surrounded himself with idiots from Doon School, and as for Sonia Gandhi, well, she could well be the criminal mastermind in a James Bond movie with her friend Suman Dubey playing the role of chief henchman.

In this gloomy and depressing scenario in which the hopes and aspirations of millions of Indians have been thwarted by the evil Gandhis and their English-speaking sidekicks, Narendra Modi, a man from the new India, has come to save us all.

And yes, at one level, it is possible to caricature the book in those terms. Interviewers and reviewers have repeatedly suggested that Tavleen is obsessed with Sonia Gandhi, an implication that she has either treated with lofty disdain on television or handed with more aggression on Twitter: 'A gang of hacks who never leave Lutyens' Delhi believes my book defiles their mother goddess!'

The book begins in vintage Tavleen style, when a raiding party arrives at a seaside retreat that she shares with her long-term partner, industrialist Ajit Gulabchand.

The raiders are dismissed in Tavleenisms. One of them is a 'short woman: With a shrill grating voice.' Obviously Tavleen does not treat them with the deference they expect because 'the short woman started jumping around,' accusing her of using the word 'bloody.' Tavleen writes, 'I was tempted to add that if I had used an abusive word it would have been the 'F' one but knew that there would be more hysterical screaming from the woman.'

The raiders eat dinner: Takeaway food out of plastic boxes but Tavleen and a friend eat 'the grilled fish and salad I had ordered for us, and to really annoy the raiders I asked Deepak, my butler, to go ahead and serve the red wine...'

A more politically correct author might have thought twice about retelling this story (how many of us have butlers at home?) but it is somehow typical of Tavleen that she makes no apologies for who she is or how she lives.

And there are painfully sharp and often vitriolic portraits and put-downs of Delhi and Mumbai notables, some of which are clearly indiscreet. If Jayanthi Natarajan is really the unnamed minister who calls Tavleen to say about Sonia, 'You were absolutely right about her,' adding, 'Do you know that she called me in one day and yelled at me because she objected to my friendship with you... I was reduced to tears,' then this book will end any hope Natarajan may have of ever returning to the Congress.

Activists don't get off lightly. Tavleen writes of Medha Patkar, 'there was something contrived about her straggly hair, her crumpled blouse with its sweat stains under the armpits and her cheap cotton sari.'

Nor do journos. (In case you wondered, I am lucky to get off with a gentle rap on the knuckles for my naivety.) Poor old Karan Thapar is portrayed as being so distressed when Modi won the general election that he kept advising caution on an election programme on television ('these are only trends and not results') even when it was clear who the victor was.

But the bhakt view of the book, that it is a Hindutva-loving diatribe against the dynasty, fails to recognise that Tavleen is not so wild about the Bharatiya Janata Party either. She is especially (and in my view, unfairly) harsh on Atal Bihari Vajpayee ('as PM he seemed to lose confidence in his own instincts'), his staff ('he gathered around himself dreary people who wrote dreary speeches that he read in dreary tones'), his family, and even his chief aide, Brajesh Mishra ('arrogant and surrounded by fawning people'). Even Lal Krishna Advani gets the Tavleen treatment ('a pathetic old man trying to look young').

Nor does Tavleen swallow the whole Hindutva package. She talks of touring Gujarat a year after the riots. 'It was a horrible journey. I met terrified Muslim families, who were still in hiding because they were too afraid to return to their villages. And in villages with Hindu Rashtra written before the names of the villages, I met Hindu killers who told me proudly that they would have been in jail if it had not been for the protection they got from Modi.'

Her view is subtler than her critics (and fans!) claim. Much of the book is about the homeless and the miserable children she encounters in the streets of Mumbai. She believes that the reason they lead these wasted, hopeless lives is because the Congress (oh, okay the Dynasty!) has done nothing to remove poverty.

In her reckoning, Modi recognises the problem, offers new solutions and, therefore, represents the best chance for India. But she is worried by the fanaticism of some of Modi's supporters and upset that 'not even when his own ministers have made foolish racist remarks has Modi made a serious effort to express his disapproval.'

'If Modi allows his mandate to be stolen by his Hindutva friends, then India could lose its first real chance to take a new road,' she writes. 'History will judge him very harshly if he does.'

I don't agree with much of what Tavleen writes. But this is a good book, fun to read and evocatively written. You should read it -- if only to see where you disagree.

India's Broken Tryst by Tavleen Singh. Published by HarperCollins.

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