The book is a great opportunity lost to write a political thriller on New Delhi. ANVAR ALIKHAN
D elhi Durbar has received a good deal of media coverage, but it's like the curate's egg: good in parts. One part, in fact, is right there on the back cover. I mean the blurb that says, “Ex-Army Chief, and now President of India, General Dayal, defies his rubber stamp status to take on Prime Minister Yadav, head of the ruling Third Front coalition government, as the fate of India teeters in the balance. Caught in the crossfire between the two warring leaders, will private banker turned wheeler-dealer, Jasjit Singh Sidhu, allow the enigmatic Azim Khan and the irrepressible Karan Nehru to arouse his dormant conscience, or will he – a child of the Emergency, born into Delhi's power elite, brought up in a culture of rampant corruption… remain true to type?”
Yes, that part is very good, indeed. It's what made me pick up the book in the first place. And it turned out to be the best thing in the entire book. There are some other good parts, as well. Also the wonderfully ironic observation (page 168) that RAW spelt backwards, is ‘WAR'. But that, more or less, is it. Am I being unnecessarily harsh? Perhaps.
And the reason is that Delhi Durbar is such a great opportunity lost. The basic idea of the book – a face-off between our famously corrupt politicians and the military, the devil and the deep sea - is a powerful one, which taps so effectively into today's zeitgeist of middle-class cynicism and disgust. The protagonist Jasjit Sidhu, a high-society lobbyist and fixer, evokes great fascination, especially in the light of recent media stories of Niira Radia and her tribe. The plot, involving a venal cow-belt Prime Minister, rake-offs from defence contracts and the alternative threats to the country of total mandal-isation or military coup sounds as real as if it was from tomorrow's newspaper headlines.
But the book starts to fall apart almost as soon as it begins. The characters seem to be cut from cardboard. Their dialogues sound phony. The writing is sloppy and immature. The promised atmospherics of the insider's Delhi – its Lutyens' drawing rooms, Page 3 parties and chambers of political, bureaucratic and military power – are never ultimately delivered. The structure stays flat when it should have been pushing you right off the dome of Rashtrapati Bhavan, so to speak.
Just one example of the juvenility of the writing is the part where a senior member of Parliament and friend of the protagonist, Karan Nehru (!), is discovered in a hotel room, semi-comatose with drugs and accompanied by a similarly comatose, naked film-star. The protagonist's only observation on discovering him in such a state is to say sympathetically, “Karan had manfully faced up to the consequences of his action (in Parliament) but one-man armies need to unwind and freak out a bit…” Come on, this is a top politician who has gone missing from his wife and family for days, is finally tracked down by a private detective to a hotel room, so far-gone on drugs that he has to be dragged under the shower to be revived, and all that the author can say is that he justifiably “freaked out a bit”! That, I'm afraid, indicates the level of maturity of Delhi Durbar.
To be fair, the book does have a couple of highlights. Like the part where Sidhu is instructed by Prime Minister Yadav to fix the BCCI elections so that his hoodlum son should win (which would tie in conveniently with the latter's fondness for betting large amounts on cricket matches). Those few pages, which take the reader through a series of Machiavellian moves and counter-moves, pay-offs and blackmail threats, sequestrations and double-crossings, are riveting. It's a pity that this kind of writing doesn't run through the book.
The basic idea of Delhi Durbar may be great, but an idea by itself, of course, is nothing; the important thing is what you do with it. And that, unfortunately, is where Krishan Partap Singh falls short. They say that to be a successful novelist you need four things: imagination, real-life experience, writing talent and damned hard work. Singh seems to have the first; what he needs to do now is sit down and concentrate on the other three.
Meanwhile, the definitive New Delhi political thriller is still out there, waiting to be written. The question is, who's going to write it?