18 February 2008

The Elephant, the Tiger and the Cellphone

A pocketful of India

Author: Shashi Tharoor
Pages: 380
Publishers: Penguin
Price: 495

This book by former under-secretary general of the United Nations and prolific author Shashi Tharoor is a compilation of several of his essays and columns that he wrote in the last decade or so (Tharoor writes for a number of national and international newspapers.)

I, for one, had not read much of him, save for a column here or there. So for me personally, this was an enormously enriching experience with its wealth of knowledge and keen insight on a variety of subjects. It helps that Tharoor is such a P G Wodehouse fan because his writing invariably sparkles with wit and flamboyance. In addition, there's such ease and elegance to Tharoor's writing that anyone with the slightest ardour for the English language will take to his style immediately.

Tharoor demonstrates how intensely protective he is about his roots - and that goes beyond his feelings for India alone. He extols the virtues and spirit of Hinduism and the sense of plurality that it propagates. He adds how fundamentalism that divides people on the basis of religious and other identities, is in itself, against the principle of Hinduism.
He says, "No one identity can ever triumph in India; both the country’s chronic plurality and the logic of the electoral market place make this impossible. India is never truer to itself than while celebrating its own diversity."
Tharoor displays his love for his native land-Kerala, pointing at how the place has shed many of its Labour Union problems --one of its biggest banes in its route to development --- and is being viewed as a hotshot destination by investors. Tharoor constantly points towards the pristine beauty of the land (that attracts foreign investors against over-populated and polluted places like Bangalore or Mumbai) and the fact that it's the only State whose demographics comes closest to that of the US, in terms of education and sex ratio.

The interesting part of Tharoor's writing is that there is not only much insight to be found here, there's also a clear stand that he presents at the end of every essay.

The only places where he stumbles is in his assessment of the Hindi film industry. It’s clear that Tharoor's understanding of the Mumbai film industry is limited and his perception narrow. It's especially difficult to digest what he says about the Big B of Bollywood, " To appreciate Amitabh Bachchan, you have to confuse action with acting and prefer height to depth"
That apart, there's much to reflect and take home from this book. An exceptional guide in the understanding of India and its myriad moods.


Anonymous said...

I stumbled on to your blog today when I was browsing naachgaana[a regular browser there though not registered].I'm a fan of good reading[ mainly travel, humour& non-fiction esp India in relation to world]and good cinema[Tom Hanks, Aamir Khan, Irfan Khan, Tabu...].Love reading intelligent pieces onlne, hence enjoy reading you, Satyam and Akshay Shah Qalandar and the like at naachgaana.

Ok, enough about self.I have recently read Tharoor's new book[ my hardback copy has a different cover--a sadhu on a mobike] and enjoyed it totally.I especially enjoyed reading his even handed view and analysis of present dayIndia's communal divide. I have actually written about this book on imdb's book board
My moniker on imdb is lali_leo. I think you can read it only if you are registered with imdb. Not sure. Check it out in any case. I started the thread on Tharoor's book and there was a bit of discussion.

Tharoor is not the only Indian writer to write in an ignorant fashion about the Hindi Filmi duniya. Another writer Pankaj Mishra wrote a whole chapter filled with inaccuracies and assumptions in his last book 'Temptations of the West'. The book was otherwise good. Read my review, if interested, at
I have not blogged there since a year and a half, busy as I am writing on messageboards all over the net. I do however plan to visit my pond again! Sorry if I've bored you with an overlong post.And please say hi to the guys at naachgaana from me.
Regards, Lalita.S, Chennai

sandy said...

Thanks for your comments Lalita, i did try checking out your review but yes, one needs to be registered.
Glad you started a thread on Tharoor. And yes, his knowledge on Hindi cinema seems to be that of a bemused outsider and corresponsingly his views lack depth in this regard.
Glad to know you are fond of books and will hope to see you commenting on other reviews as well.

Anonymous said...

Wow, that was a prompt response from you Sandy! I have returned to this page to copy paste my own two cents view from the imdb book board.I had started the thread on imdb by quoting from Tharoor's book. Someone else responded that India shining was a lie that people like Tharoor perpetrate. This was my response:

"The reason I recommended this book was that it DOES NOT talk merely about a shining India. Shashi Tharoor writes about his hopes and fears for India.He writes about the good and the bad that is present day India and how important it is to understand the very real problems like religious fundamentalism and environmental degradation.It is a sincere work that needs to be read. A few reviewers have criticized it as a superficial book. I feel that these reviewers have not read the book properly, just browsed thru' it and written a review. Actually the title of the book is misleading and makes it look like a book about a shining 21st century India. But what the book gives is a picture of India today, warts and all.However, like most people, Tharoor is hopeful that India will become the new Asian Tiger.

Reading the newspaper and watching tv news however, one wonders seriously, about this country's future. Women are going to work in larger numbers, but they are also getting molested, being disfigured with acid, the works. Politicians are dividing India on caste, communal and language lines; the media is obsessed with Bollywood and cricket.There are some valid tv discussions, but not enough.Still, we live in hope."

I have also commented on your review of Vikram Seth's Beastly Tales. See you around.
Regards, Lalita.S

Qalandar said...

Good review, and interesting discussion here in the comments section...I hadn't heard about this book but now am tempted to add it to my list. Sandy, have you read Tharoor's novel, The Great Indian Novel?

sandy said...

A few reviewers have criticized it as a superficial book. I feel that these reviewers have not read the book properly, just browsed thru' it and written a review. Actually the title of the book is misleading and makes it look like a book about a shining 21st century India. But what the book gives is a picture of India today, warts and all. However, like most people, Tharoor is hopeful that India will become the new Asian Tiger."

Lalita: You raise a very important point. I agree the title of the book is rather tame and unwittingly pigeon-holes India with a set of clich├ęd metaphors. The book certainly deserved a better title and that's where I think critics have been hasty in labeling it as superficial.
I think there is great deal of insight to Tharoor’s writing and there are some wonderful ideas he shares with his readers.. I think Shashi is one writer who can wonderfully articulate even difficult ideas -that should not be confused as being simplistic.
His idea on 'soft power' etc are real gems.

sandy said...

No Qutie, haven't read The Great Indian Novel, have you? I believe the books is Tharoor's best and Show Business his worst.

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