Politician, author, United Nations peace-keeper, refugee worker and human rights activist, Shashi Tharoor straddles several worlds of experience. In a candid interview, he shares anecdotes of his journey so far.
Arguably the most charming politician in India, Shashi Tharoor was once a diplomat with the United Nations, where he rose to the level of Under Secretary General for Communications and Public Information under the able guidance of Kofi Annan, former Secretary-General of the United Nations. Tharoor is also a prolific author and columnist, having written bestsellers such as The Great Indian Novel, The Elephant, the Tiger and the Cell Phone, Reflections on India in the 21st Century and Bookless in Baghdad.
Tell us about your love for books. Where did it all begin?
My love for books started when I was just three and my mother would read Enid Blyton’s Noddy books to me. As I grew older, I started to devour Blyton’s other tales on my own. Back when I was young, we didn’t have cable TV, computers or PlayStation for entertainment. Also, I was asthmatic so playing with friends on the field didn’t happen either. So books turned out to be my only solace. I became so inspired with Blyton’s detective stories like the Famous Five or Five Find-Outers series, that I started writing my own detective series called Six Solvers. It was about six kids who lived in Bombay and visited Kerala annually, where they solved mysteries in their ancestral village. My collection of Solvers mysteries was called ‘Solvers on the Trail’, but no one thought them to be original enough to publish. They are sadly, lost forever now.
What are you writing at present?
I am working on something for the 70th anniversary of our nation, a relatively light-hearted take on Indianness and on the Indian people.
What influence did your parents have on your love for writing?
My father used to work for The Statesman, then a superb newspaper. I am, in a sense, a child of the Indian newspaper world. My childhood in the 1960s and early 1970s was replete with stories of editorial meetings and battles between the editorial and the advertisement departments. My father injected newspaper ink into my veins at a young age. From about six or seven years of age, I remember sitting with my father every morning with chai and multiple newspapers.
He also encouraged me to write. And while I only wrote for my own amusement, my parents took it very seriously. They got my writings typed and circulated to friends. And I was suddenly made to feel at an absurdly young age that I could think of myself as a writer. By the age of ten, my first story had appeared in print with many to follow and that definitely shaped both my sense of confidence in myself as a writer and there being an audience for my writing.
Despite a busy schedule, how do you take time out to write?
I have often been criticised for stretching myself too thin, but it is because I’m a human being with a number of reactions to the world, some of which I manifest through my political work and some in my writing — and I have to keep striving at both. It’s tough and I admit that I’m not sleeping enough, neglecting friends and depriving myself of entertainment — and not watching enough cricket! But as my old boss Kofi Annan used to say, “to live is to choose”. The way you live, what you do, represents a conscious choice every time. And this is the choice I’ve made.
You have spent better part of your childhood in the City of Joy, how were those days at St. Xavier’s school in Kolkata?
During my time, St. Xavier’s was unquestionably the best school in the city, particularly in terms of its intellectual rigour. A young Jesuit Father, Cyril Desbruslais, who actually took us through an epistemological argument for the existence of God, impressed my fourteen-year-old imagination because I was just beginning to flirt with the idea of atheism. When you discover rationality, then religion doesn’t seem so impressive anymore, and when you discover the limitations of rationality it all comes back. I especially admired Father Remedios, an excellent teacher with an extraordinary work ethic, who diligently taught us Shakespeare and ‘values of life’ during the day, and then got on his cycle and visited prisoners in his spare time to teach them.
You revived the Wodehouse Society in St Stephen’s College, as the first of its kind. How were those days in college?
My love and admiration started for Wodehouse when I was 11. I remember when my father suffered a heart-attack and was battling for his life in hospital, it was a Wodehouse novel that kept my fear and panic at bay. I wish I had founded the Wodehouse Society at St Stephen’s, but all I did was revive it after it had gone defunct. St. Stephen’s was the kind of institution in which smart students were given the chance to express themselves in a variety of creative ways, and someone in the 1960s set up the Wodehouse Society, which didn’t outlast his time in college, so as a huge admirer of the Master, I helped resurrect it in 1973 and served as its President the following year. I was thrilled to learn later that our society at St Stephen’s was the very first Wodehouse Society in the world!
Your views on Indian newspapers compared to the world?
On the positive side, our newspapers are more readable, better edited and usually better written than their foreign contemporaries. Investigative stories are frequent and expose wrongdoing before any official institution does so. The role of newspapers in rousing the social conscience of the Indian public about apparent miscarriages of justice, most notably in the Jessica Lal and Ruchika Girhotra cases, has been remarkable. On the negative side, newspapers seem more conscious than ever that it is not they, but TV, that sets the pace. They too feel the need to ‘break’ news in order to be read, to outdo their TV competitors. They seem to perceive a need to reach readers each day with a banner headline that stimulates outrage rather than increase awareness.
How were you hooked on to the world of theatre?
Theatre was a part of my growing up. I did a lot of acting in school and college, contesting against Bollywood legend Rishi Kapoor in ‘inter-class dramatics’ at Campion School in Bombay, where I won Best Actor award three years in a row, and culminating in playing Antony to Mira Nair’s Cleopatra. Even now, every time she (Mira) sees me, she says, ‘My Antony!’ I enjoyed the stage and acting but the closest I come to it now is doing a book-reading from my novels. I wrote several one-act plays in my childhood too, for my sisters and friends to perform. I even published a play in one of my books, The Five-Dollar Smile and was delighted to discover it had been performed without my knowledge at some university. In 2015, a group of law students in Delhi sought permission to perform my novel Riot as a play, and I thought they did rather a good job of it.
Do you miss acting in plays? If given a chance would you want to like to act again in a play or a movie?
I don’t really miss it any more. For decades now I have known my life would not allow me the time to pursue my interest in theatre. As for the movies, since my return to India I have been approached by many filmmakers, mainly in Kerala, to appear in their films and I have consistently said no. Once the Bollywood director, Kabir Khan, approached me to play the Indian Foreign Minister in Salman Khan’s Ek Tha Tiger. I thought about it but I concluded that if I ever really wanted to be India’s Foreign Minister, I shouldn’t play India’s Foreign Minister. It’s a decision I remain very ambivalent about!
How did you land up at the United Nations?
It was a chance meeting in Kolkata in 1975 with Virendra Dayal, who was a senior official with the United Nations (UN). He was visiting Kolkata and had liked an article of mine in the newspaper. By an amazing coincidence he was staying with a member of the cast of The Mousetrap, a play in which I was performing. I had a chance to speak to him at the cast party. He had asked me to visit him in New York which I did in 1976 and 1977 while I was studying at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. The following year he encouraged me to apply for a post in the UNHCR and on his recommendation, I received an appointment for an interview. That was the beginning of thirty long and rewarding years I spent at the UN.
How has working with the UN influenced your life?
The UN has always been an inspiring cause and my motivation in life has always been to try and make a difference. For me the UN is far more than an institution. It represents the vision and foresight of the leaders of the world who wanted to make the second half of the twentieth century better than the first —a first half that witnessed two world wars, countless civil wars, mass displacement of populations, genocide, the horrors of the Holocaust and Hiroshima. If the world had gone on like that, frankly, we would not be sitting here today talking to each other. The UN was part of an attempt to genuinely make a better world and I believe that for all its limitations and failures, it did succeed in doing that.
What inspired you to write the great Indian novel – The Mahabharata in a new format?
I had heard stories from the Mahabharata as most Indian children still do. I had even read earlier C Rajagopalachari’s translation, which is not really a translation—it’s an episodic retelling. His Mahabharata has been one of the best-selling books in India for a long time. So this was there in the back of my mind, but I was reading P. Lal’s Transcreation which was published in the mid-seventies. He has a very interesting introduction in which he makes the point—and it provoked my thinking—that no ancient epic is sacred in itself. What is important is what is relevant to our times. If it means nothing to me now, it’s irrelevant, it’s dead. And it struck me in reading it, that the Mahabharata had a continuing immediacy and relevance that meant it could actually work in twentieth century terms. So I thought about it, and I said, “Well, this ought to be worth trying.” I dashed off thirty-two pages of double-spaced typed script, and found, as I was doing it, some of my ideas of Indian nationalism- -how some characters affect other characters—were coming in. That’s how the book came about.
Written By: Partha Mukherjee