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Whispers in despatches

In old power capitals, gossip and rumour are more convincing than fact. Durbari Delhi is no different

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Delhi is the city of Muhammad Shah “Rangila” (the colourful), who lost the great treasures of the Mughal Durbar, including the Peacock Throne — and the Kohinoor — to Persian marauder Nadir Shah.

Serious historians tell you Muhammed Shah (1719-48) was a great patron of art, music and scholarship. He gave himself the title of “Sada Rangila” (forever joyful/colourful). Over the centuries, however, his reputation as a decadent, profligate wastrel has been engraved in the walls of Old Delhi and folklore which says that when he heard of an invader called Nadir Shah heading for Delhi, he rounded up his capital’s eunuchs and sent them to fight the Persian. I called the popular historian of that period, William Dalrymple, to check on this. There is no historical basis to the eunuch story, he said, adding that “Rangila is a much more politically successful ruler than is made out.”

Rangila actually maintained a strong army with formidable commanders, led them into battle against Nadir Shah in Karnal (at least for this defeat my nearby schooling town Panipat is not blamed) but was routed. Except, rather than have his and his key commanders’ heads on top of the customary skull mountain, he surrendered, sued for peace, and ultimately parted with his treasures. Such a significant ruler is remembered only for the eunuchs he never sent into battle. It has been repeated over and over and over again through the generations and become a fact. This is exactly how benighted old capitals work, and Delhi is among the oldest.

Jump three centuries and leaf through Mark Leibovich’s 2013 classic on how Washington works, This Town. A Washington veteran for The New York Times, Mr Leibovich takes a brutally funny and factual look at how the power city and its networks operate. What Americans call “ inside the Beltway” is what we call Lutyens’ Delhi or the Mughals called Dilli. Among Mr Leibovich’s most memorable passages is a powerful personality’s funeral at the Kennedy centre. “The big ticket Washington departure rites can be such a great networking opportunity,” he writes, and talks about how rivals and friends all network desperately, trading information, using it as a currency fungible with power and profit. He talks of a media-industrial complex. In Lutyens’ Delhi, I’d say, the more interesting is the media-political complex. Lutyens’ Delhi, like Washington or any other great old power city, is a continuing durbar fed on rumour, hearsay, I scratch your back/you scratch mine — and meanwhile we poison each other’s wine.

Also read: Delhi’s Nizamuddin — a bustling blend of history and spirituality, until Covid-19 struck

This is precisely what my friend Tavleen Singh was trying to say in her earlier book called, no surprises, Durbar. In her latest, India’s Broken Tryst, she takes her argument forward with more contemporary “stories”, all of which will be repeated and retold over time and become fact.

From Rangila to Rajiv Gandhi to Manmohan Singh and now Narendra Modi, Delhi’s durbar culture has given institutional continuity to India’s power structures. Mr Modi was hailed by his admirers as a “man from outside the Beltway” who would change the way Lutyens’ Delhi works. My view then was, six months into power, any government becomes “a” government and any ruler, “a” ruler. That is the power of capital cities run by whispers except that the whisperers sometimes change. But whispers, hearsay, gossip, are the most tradable commodities. Remember the whispers on Prakash Javadekar being made to “return” from the airport to dress more modestly than in western casuals, or Rajnath Singh’s “son being told to desist from corruption” — which became “facts” through repetition? And you want to understand the power of whispers: see how it reduces the most successful of post-Aurangzeb Mughals into a drunken, corrupt fool. Because where gossip is information which, in turn, is power, it is the carriers of tales that ultimately rule, and make history.

How does a political journalist function in this environment where her basic tool, “access”, is viewed with suspicion? One way is to retreat into your bunker, a tiny echo chamber peopled by those you agree with — friends, family, your dogs and cats — and pour scorn on the state of the world. The other is to go out and engage. Mr Leibovich says he is asked often if he too isn’t a part of the world he makes fun of. He pleads guilty and uses a Yiddish proverb: “Who discovered water? I don’t know, but then I wasn’t a fish.” Then he admits, “I am a fish.” Being a Haryanvi, I would rather use the kabaddi metaphor. Political journalism in and around the durbar of Delhi, or DC, is like the game of kabaddi. You cross to the other side, tease, touch somebody and return with points, without getting trapped. And you do all of this while holding your breath. It isn’t easy, but it is possible, and fun.

In the new mood, it would be immoral to be Mr Leibovich’s fish. You’d rather hide in your virtuous rat-hole. Belief that you can transgress the dividing line, touch the bad guys and return unscathed is not in fashion. A couple of years ago, talking for several hours with the bright, diligent, young reporter of a magazine doing probably a 30,000-word profile on me, I was fascinated by the question he asked most persistently and earnestly: so was I trying for the Rajya Sabha, and who all had been helping me? My query as to why an active and successful journalist would want to go to the Upper House when it can’t pay him a bigger wage, provide a larger platform for his views or greater access than his journalism was tossed away, in all sincerity. It intrigued me then that a reporter with an Ivy League degree should believe that the crowning glory of a journalist’s life should be a nomination to the Rajya Sabha.

Also read: Rana Safvi’s new book is a great way to discover Delhi’s historical treasures 

Earlier this week, I reached the launch of Tavleen Singh’s Tryst as her conversation on the book with fellow journalist and (for her) Welhamite Madhu Trehan ended. But as the book launch regulars headed for the bar, one caught me. “So you were under such pressure from Sonia Gandhi to stop Tavleen Singh’s column (in The Indian Express which I then edited), poor you sir. even Suman Dubey called and threatened you… you didn’t give in though you finally had to leave because of that, etc, etc.”

Now, where was this coming from? I went home and checked the index of the book and found my name mentioned on nine pages. All references, by and large, were complimentary, including that I bounced pressures from Ms Gandhi (who “called” me directly) and my former editor Suman Dubey to drop her column. Except that no such thing happened. I did tell her, as I would tell anybody, that people close to 10 Janpath routinely made snarky comments about her column which they described as mythical and repetitive — and the reason I gave for carrying it: that she writes provocatively and has a large, captive, anti-Establishment (Gandhi family) audience. My sympathetic interlocutor at the bar, would have none of it. “Yours was truly journalism of courage, sir,” he said.

It was a bit like somebody giving you a gallantry award while you had never fought a war, I told him. So I have to choose between saying, thanks Tavleen Singh but no thanks, or inventing an entire history of a battle I never fought. That would’ve been easier in the city of Muhammad Shah Rangila.

Also read: India’s oldest toy store is a lens to view Delhi’s history


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