28 August 2013

Durbar by Tavleen Singh

This book is a retrospective of the events covered by high-profile Indian journalist Tavleen Singh from the beginning of her career in 1975 till the assassination of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991. The events are presented not just with the benefit of future perspective, but also from the perspective of Tavleen Singh’s personal likes and dislikes. This makes it more memoir than history book and while it makes the book more interesting, there are parts that I found quite irritating. One of the persistent refrains is her professional rivalry with MJ Akbar and I would be quite interested in reading MJ Akbar’s version of some of the events presented here. Through Tavleen Singh’s social circle, we also get a glimpse into the drawing rooms of some of the most wealthy and influential people in India. Most interesting are her portraits of Rajeev and Sonia Gandhi long before they entered political life. 
This book is easy to read and enjoyable. And it is also much more than a tract of juicy gossip, being a very useful reminder of important and useful historical facts. It traces the rising greed of Indian politicians from the early days of modest lifestyles after Independence. It reminds us of the period in which Sikhs suffered brutal treatment in India. It shows us many of the terrible mistakes made by Indian leaders, which have led to large-scale suffering and ruin.
Most relevant of all, it highlights something we all know but choose to ignore. We call ourselves a democracy, but an alarmingly large number of our elected leaders were handed their positions down from their parents. In that sense we are not a democracy, because our political parties are largely in the hands of princes and princesses, the majority of them greedy and inept.
Tavleen Singh blames Indira Gandhi for having endorsed this system but perhaps it is the honoured tradition of the importance of family and family values in India that are actually responsible. After all, most Indian corporate organizations, and the Bollywood film industry too, function the same way.

12 August 2013

Train to Delhi by Shiv K. Kumar

So the river had three banks

India has been freed by the British, but chopped into pieces. It is a time of hectic vendetta, with arson, rape and massacre being reported every day. Louis Mountbatten has been voluntarily installed as the first governor-general, and is so popular that he has become known as Pandit Mountbatten. In the interstices of the headlines, some significant and some ridiculous, ordinary people continue plodding on with their routines and their longings, and unlikely heroes are created. Gautam Mehta, nondescript journalist, is one of these. Through him, the author shows us a world not so very different from our own. And through Gautam’s conversion to Christianity, and through his love for a young Muslim woman, he also conveys the sheer imbecility of a world divided on religious lines.
This book gives a strong sense of life on the streets during one of the most important periods of our recent history. It shows the rejoicing of common people along with their frustration against their corrupt and illogical new rulers. One of the things it highlights is the innate Indian tendency to adapt and contrive. 
There was just one thing I didn’t like about this book, and that was its title. Why would this strong, original work be given a wannabe name? I went back to Train to Pakistan by Khushwant Singh, reading and enjoying it as much – more, actually – than before. 
Both are set in the same period of history. Both are extremely well written; both sensitively depict the numerous urgent concerns of a brand-new nation. Both deploy sexual need as a recurrent theme. Looking back from our present vantage point, these books show us what has changed in our country in these 66 years - and so much that has remained the same. Both books are extremely important, because they remind us of essential facts in our recent history that we have too easily forgotten. 
And yet, I found these books very different from each other. Train to Delhi has an urban setting and deals with urban concerns; Train to Pakistan is very much a village story. This reflects in the degrees of sophistication in each storyline too: the former is slick and filled with surprises, while the latter follows a rambling, earthy style, and is fairly predictable. One of the biggest differences is that Train to Pakistan is strewn with contextual explanations for non-Indian readers; Train to Delhi which was written in 1998, ten years later (a defining ten years for English writing from India), has none. And when the latter book was first published, it had a title far more charming and poetic: A River With Three Banks.