12 February 2008

Interview with Shashi Tharoor

A Riot of words 

In an exclusive interview, diplomat and writer Shashi Tharoor talks to Sandhya Iyer on what it means to be passionate about books and literature

When one gets a private audience with a man who the whole world pays to listen, it is a unique privilege to get him to talk just on books. But that’s exactly what we did, and Shashi Tharoor, the strikingly handsome former under-secretary general of United Nations and prolific writer/columnist, fell for the suggestion without much persuasion. “It is great when newspapers promote a book page, especially because space for these things are drastically reducing,” he says, as we meet up with him at Mahindra United World College of India, where he had come at the behest of good friend and Harward batchmate, Anand Mahindra.

The latter gave an eloquent account of the days he spent with Tharoor. “My first impression of him was that of a distinguished-looking young man in a navy-blue woolen jacket, staring at a notice board with great gravitas---as if all of the world’s troubles rested on his shoulders,” Mahindra said to an amused audience. “He was always ahead at studies and I consoled myself that he was just a prematurely grown kid and would end up aging faster, but as you see, he’s only grown younger,” he said to packed hall of students, faculty and press. Mahindra later recounted to a rapturous audience how as a charismatic young man, Shashi's canvassing message at one of his campus election rallies was a pithy ‘Shashi Tharoor, Jeetega Zaroor’.

And winner he has been. Tharoor had an illustrious career with the UN, having spend 29 years in diplomatic service and coming a close second in the race for UN Secretary General.
He is also a prolific writer and a highly regarded columnist. He has so far penned four works in fiction(Riot, Show Business) and five in non-fiction (Nehru, Bookless in Baghdad).
Growing up in the 60s and 70s in Indian cities like Delhi, Kolkata and Mumbai, Tharoor has made US his home with his wife Christa. Bristling with wit and wonderful insight, each of his books displays his great pride in being an Indian.
So what is his preferred genre within the scope of what he writes? “Fiction, naturally," he says, "because it gives one the satisfaction of creating another world. But truth is that non-fiction is equally special given its interruptible nature. Even battling busy schedules, one can keep going back to it and pick up the threads. That’s not the case with fiction. Here, you need a space inside your head where you create another world inhabited by different characters and episodes,” he adds. However, the aspect to note here is that Tharoor’s fictional work is also anchored in the real world, so that margin isn’t too pronounced.

As for his childhood literary influences and his eclectic taste in books, he says, “I've always been a voracious reader and my range extends from P. G Wodehouse to Gabriel García Márquez. I haven’t been too great on English classics though. I've always been impatient with them. Their concerns seem so remote. But I've read quite a bit of Charles Dickens. Jane Austen? Nothing apart from Pride And Prejudice, though I can see why she’s extolled to the extent that she is.”

Yet, no great work of literature must be excluded from a scholar’s reading list, believes Tharoor. “I may not have followed every great author or read all their books but I do feel it’s important to know where they were coming from, what their background was. That’s crucial because what they published had an influence on subsequent works and writers. Ultimately, what does a ‘novel’ mean? It means doing something new. So as I said, one needs to have a sense of what has been there before. A well-read person will know the realms of the possible that have already been explored by earlier writers.”

Given his bustling social life and wide interests, does it allow him the leisure of re-visiting some of his favourite books? Much like most of us who carry the guilt of leaving most of the books on our shelves unread, Tharoor too says it was only thanks to a very bad flue recently that he managed to read up Vikram Chandra’s monumental work, Sacred Games. “I always carry books with me but it’s still always a challenge to find time to read,” he says.

Tharoor selects his top 5 books
1. The Discovery of India by Jawaharlal Nehru; a profound vision of what has made India and Nehru
2. One Hundred Years Of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez ; extraordinary, magical reinvention of the Latin-American experience.
3. The Heavy Weather by P. G Wodehouse: One of the great masterpieces, among the many others he’s written.
4. The Saga of Khassak by OV Vijayan: This was originally a Malayalam novel that invented magic realism 20 years before Gabriel García Márquez attempted it.
5. The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by Milind Kundera: A moving, evocative experience of East –European history.


janaki said...

Brilliant !

I just love some of his books. Though i still think his best fiction is "The Great Indian Novel" and best nonfiction is "India - Midnight to millenium". All the others pale in contrast.

Neither riot nor show business can match the scale of GINovel. Good show, Sandhya. I would give an arm and a leg to meet Tharoor !

sandy said...

Thanks Janaki, loved meeting Tharoor and I'm glad I took the initiative to read his latest book, The Elephant, Tiger and Cellphone -a compilation of all his essays and columns. Will be putting up that review as well.

Qalandar said...

One of your interviews that I most enjoyed reading. Great stuff here, Tharoor's personality really shines through in this interview (but then, he appears to have personality to spare!)...

Anonymous said...

A Bit late, but did you know that he doesn't like RK Narayan?

- Sachita

sandhya said...

Sachita: I didn't know what Tharoor felt about R K Narayan but I read an essay recently - actually a review of his Bookless in Baghdad which I believe has referred to Narayan's writing and some reservations he had about it. Lemme me get my hands on the book.

Alexander said...

He doesn't look so elitist.

At any rate, if a writer's personality is singular enough, if he writes well and if has made something out of his life, I don't mind certain amount of elitism.

I am reminded of one beautiful essay by Harold Schonberg, once senior music critic of New York Times. It is called 'Elitism, in arts, is good' and advances the idea, in a nutshell, that elitism is indeed necessary if the layman wants to repeat at least partly the spiritual adventures of an artist. After all, all great artists were elitists by default, and so should we be if we want to get everything we can from them.

But elitism is a dangerous field. One must have very good reasons for putting oneself above others. It's easy to get conceited, much too vain and intolerant. In short: a bigot.

Will check Shashi one day to see about his elitism.