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The Importance of Being Indian

Shashi Tharoor, UN Under-Secretary-General for Public Information and Communication and prolific writer, talks about how his country defines him

HE’S EVERYMAN, and Superman. He’s the approachable boy-next-door, a Global Leader of Tomorrow as nominated by the World Economic Forum in 1998. He’s the ten-year-old with his first byline in the Free Press Journal, a voracious reader who wrote to take his mind off asthma attacks. He’s one of the highest-ranking officials at the United Nations in New York, a close adviser to Secretary-General Kofi Annan. He’s the silver-tongued, pun-prone orator from St. Stephen’s College, who won every laurel of note at inter-collegiate meets in the 1970s. He has authored five highly regarded books on subjects ranging from Indian foreign policy to Bollywood and Indian history. He’s a cricket buff, and a columnist for The Hindu and The Indian Express, Newsweek International and the International Herald Tribune. He’s a fond son to his Coimbatore-based mother Lily, to whom he’s dedicated two books, and an understanding father to his 18-year-old twin sons, Ishaan and Kanishk, both set to join Yale.


Amidst this plethora of personalities, all contained within a single frame, I’m tempted to shout: Will the real Shashi Tharoor, please, stand up?


I meet him in Bangalore where he is on his first visit in eight years. At first glance, at a youthful 45, he proves to be a grey-eyed charmer in a deep red kurta over black trousers with turn-ups, teamed with very Bata crossover sandals in black. Currently UN Under-Secretary-General for Public Information and Communication, Tharoor found his family holiday transformed into a publicity tour by his publishers, Penguin India, for his new novel Riot.


What does India conjure up to London-born Tharoor? He summons up a flurry of images. Idlis and coconut chutney. Lissome women in saris the colours of paradise. The roar of the white-specked blue ocean lapping at sandy beaches. The cacophony of crowds at cricket matches. Working men pouring out of commuter trains. “I imagine the sun shining off the marble and stone of our greatest monuments, the rain falling vigorous and life-renewing upon the drying plains, the breeze stirring the green stalks of the paddy fields in my village. I remember how, each time that I come home, I stand in the sun and feel myself whole again in my own skin. Fundamentally, my formative years, from the ages of 3 to 19, were spent growing up in India. India shaped my mind, anchored my identity, influenced my beliefs, and made me who I am. India matters immensely to me, and in all my work, I would like to matter to India,” he declares.


From the adulation he receives at his recent public readings—whether at the Taj Connemara at Chennai, or at Sankar’s The Book People, or at the Strand Book Stall event at the more opulent Leela Palace Hotel, Bangalore—it’s evident that he does. As he reads from his work with panache, punctuated by the dramatic delivery honed at Pearl Padamsee’s first theatrical classes at Mumbai’s Campion School, the enunciation of the youth who once played Anthony to Mira Nair’s Cleopatra, he assumes a different guise. As he shares the multiple-voiced narrative of Riot, reissued by Penguin within nine months with a cover based on the recent Gujarat disturbances, his off-the-cuff self-description rings true: “In my work, I deal with everything but India. But I write about nothing but India.”


That’s true in the context of the non-fiction India: from Midnight to the Millennium that marked the 50th anniversary of our Independence, a blend of political scholarship and personal reflection that explores our survival amidst abundant contradictions. It’s equally true about The Great Indian Novel (1991), a satirical recasting of 20th century Indian history through the labyrinth of the Mahabharata, for which Tharoor won the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize. And even more true of Show Business (1992), a spoof on Hindi filmdom, soon translated into a film titled Bollywood. As for his first book, Reasons of State (1982), it was a scholarly study of Indian foreign policy.


But it is Riot, launched in 2001, that is in the current eye of the storm. Based on former IAS officer and protester of conscience Harsh Mander’s account of a riot in Khargone, Madhya Pradesh in 1989, the novel seems eerily prescient in the light of recent events in Gujarat. As each narrative voice rings uncannily true, Tharoor’s fictional account of the death of American student-social worker Priscilla Hart in riot-hit Zalilgarh works at myriad levels. As a thriller. As a story of love and hate. As a disentangling of the skeins of private and public life. As an emotionally-charged, yet intellectually-stimulating, debate about the ownership of history.

While Tharoor read from the journals of the deceased Priscilla or her father or the district magistrate Lakshman or the Hindutva zealot or the disenchanted Sikh police officer, the multiple hues inherent in the daily fabric of Indian life emerge rich enough to touch. In a non-fiction afterword to the novel he had talked about how significant Ayodhya of 1992 would prove to be in Indian political life. And so it has proved to be. “I don’t claim any soothsaying abilities,” Tharoor disclaims. “We need to ask ourselves: what are we doing to ourselves as a society? There are no scriptures that teach us this.”


As a self-proclaimed believing Hindu, Tharoor defends the pluralistic strands that knit India together. Echoing Lakshman of his novel, his April 28 column in The Hindu, titled ‘India for Indians,’ is unambiguous: “I am proud to claim adherence to a religion without an established church or priestly papacy, a religion whose rituals and customs I am free to reject, a religion that does not oblige me to demonstrate my faith by any visible sign, by subsuming my identity in any collectivity, not even by a specific day or time or frequency of worship… I am proud to subscribe to a creed that is free of the restrictive dogmas of holy writ, that refuses to be shackled to the limitations of a single holy book… Above all, I am proud that as a Hindu I belong to the only major religion in the world that does not claim to be the only true religion.”


Tharoor’s wide-ranging columns encompass vegetarianism and Amit Chaudhuri, the appropriateness of names and Shabana Azmi’s New York reading from Riot, P.G. Wodehouse and Ashutosh Varshey’s study of Indian communalism. “They were meant as a sort of extended living room conversation with my readers,” Tharoor confesses. “That’s why they are eclectic. The critical reader feedback is useful because it forces you to rethink and re-examine your assumptions.”

So, I toss an assumption at him. Is the UN relevant in our unipolar world today? Tharoor, who joined the organization in 1978, immediately after his PhD from the Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy at Tufts University, first served under the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Geneva. He headed its Singapore office during the Vietnamese “boat people” crisis. Since relocating to UN headquarters in New York in October 1989, he was engaged in peacekeeping operations in the former Yugoslavia from 1991 to 1996, and served as executive assistant to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan from January 1997 to July 1998. Since 2001, he has been at his current post, the youngest UN Under-Secretary-General to date.


“The UN has become the indispensable global institution in our globalising world,” Tharoor is up in verbal arms in a trice. “Why? Because of what Kofi Annan often calls ‘problems without passports’. Problems which cross all frontiers, problems like human rights, environment, drug abuse, money laundering, terrorism, which no one state or group of states, no matter how powerful, can solve on their own. The only viable solutions to these are international ones.”


How deeply have his experiences at the UNHCR touched him as a human being? “One of the things about working for UNHCR was the extent to which your work directly impacted the lives of people you could actually see and meet, not figures on a piece of paper or statistics,” Tharoor says with passion. “I remember vividly a family that left Vietnam in a tiny boat with a cannibalised tractor engine, with enough supplies for a four-day journey. The engine conked out. They started drifting endlessly, ran out of food, ran out of fuel, ran out of water. They were subsisting on rain water and hope. They had a small infant. So, the parents slit their fingers and made the baby suck the blood in order to survive.”

He continues, evoking the UN’s role in resettling refugees in the US, France or Australia, “When they were rescued, they were literally at death’s door. We rushed them to hospital. To see the same family a few months later—healthy, well-dressed, ready to set out for new lives in a new world—what kind of job can offer you satisfaction like that?”

“I’ve carried my Indianness with me, I’ve carried my Indian passport. I haven’t made that leap of the imagination that emigration entails. I haven’t sought a new identity, a new allegiance… I’m not anything but an Indian writer, who happens to be living in America.”

What about Tharoor’s stint in the former Yugoslavia? “That was a difficult, challenging and painful period. But we went in at a time when there was no political will on the part of the major powers to intervene decisively to end that war,” he recalls pensively. “In Yugoslavia, we’d work 16 or 17-hour days, day after day, weekends, six-seven day weeks all the time, yet you knew that you were not stopping the blood flowing on the ground.”


Does that experience rate among the dark phases of his life? “I would argue that because of our efforts, there are people alive today in Bosnia—healthy, fed, sheltered—who would not be alive if we had not intervened. The only professional satisfaction one can claim from that experience is that of leaving one’s smudgy thumbprints on the pages of history, or rather on the footnotes.”

As an international Indian concerned about the nation’s contemporary history, would Tharoor wish to turn the clock back at any juncture? “No,” he brushes away the suggestion vehemently. “In fact, in the last 10 or 15 years, India’s gone through four revolutions that might have transformed any other country beyond recognition. You’ve got a political revolution because you’ve gone through an era of single party rule to one of coalition governments. Then, an economic revolution, because you’ve moved away from steep protectionism to liberalization. Then you’ve had a social revolution. After all, look at the fact we’ve had a dalit President, a dalit Chief Minister in the largest, most populous state. Then, you’ve had a kind of cultural revolution with all this talk of Indianness and Hindutva in a way that was not even considered respectable to think about in times when we were growing up.”


Emphatically, he adds, “If America is a melting-pot, then to me India is a thali, a selection of sumptuous dishes in different bowls. Each tastes different, and does not necessarily mix with the next, but they belong together on the same plate, and they complement each other in making the meal a satisfying repast. For me, what is precious about India is the idea that a nation may endure differences of caste, creed, colour, culture, cuisine, costume and custom, and still rally around a democratic consensus. That consensus is around the simple principle that in a democracy you don’t really need to agree—except on the ground rules of how you will disagree.”


Is it tough for Tharoor to nurture the literary muse in the face of professional challenges? “I see myself as a human being with a number of responses to the world, some of which I manifest in my writing and some of which I manifest in my work. So, if I neglected one or the other entirely, then a part of my psyche would wither on the vine,” he elucidates. “It has been a real challenge for me to find the time to write; it’s a Sunday midnight kind of thing. George Bernard Shaw explained it better than I: I write for the same reason a cow gives milk.”


Tharoor, lionised both at home and abroad, perceives himself as “an Indian with a sense of his roots in Kerala, but a pan-Indian sensibility”. He stresses, “I’ve carried my Indianness with me, I’ve carried my Indian passport. I haven’t made that leap of the imagination that emigration entails. I haven’t sought a new identity, a new allegiance. Frankly, I’m not like Bharati Mukherjee, for example, who describes herself as an American writer of Bengali origin. I’m not anything but an Indian writer, who happens to be living in America.”


Is there a schism between Tharoor the private individual and the public persona? “Ultimately, when you go, it will little matter what positions you held or the authority they gave you. All that matters is whether you, as a human being, were truly yourself. That’s what I’m going to try and leave behind when I leave, as it were,” he says earnestly. “And it’s not about what your visiting card says you are, or for that matter a book jacket or a publicist’s press release or even a profile in a magazine. Success is the most ephemeral of human accomplishments. It can vanish over-night. If you rely excessively on it, then you have nothing.”


Will Tharoor pass the test of friendships nurtured with care, bonds that have withstood the test of fickle fortunes and fame? Despite demands on his time, Annan and his wife attended a reading of Riot at the Asia Society in New York, lingering on for the ensuing question session. That matters to Tharoor. So does his 40-year-old friendship with his Campion classmate and host in Bangalore, restaurateur Rakesh Batra. What does Batra like about his old buddy? “He hasn’t changed at all,” he quips.


At the very core of all these enigmatic resonances there is an essential Shashi Tharoor: a man who distils the importance of being Indian today.


Images courtesy Namas Bhojani