06 December 2009

Shashi Tharoor's Bookless In Baghdad

Author: Shashi Tharoor
Year Of Publishing: 2005
Price: 325
Publishers: Penguin

Shashi Tharoor in his present role as Minister may have come under sharp attack for a variety of reasons. When he recently put himself up at a five star suite for months on end because the government bungalow was not ready, many thought it was unbecoming of a public representative. I felt the same. The intellectual elitism and the accompanying lifestyle that perfectly complimented him all these years while he worked for the United Nations started to stick out like a sore thumb in his new role.

However, what emerges clearly from reading Bookless In Baghdad is Tharoor's acute literary bent of mind. One is aware that he has constantly stolen time from his busy schedules to write all his books – most of which have won rave reviews. And Bookless... which is a rare and exceptional collection of his literary columns over the years, doubly confirms his deep passion for books. He himself mentions it more than a dozen times saying his literary pursuits are as important to him as his (erstwhile) role at the UN. He couldn't possibly give up or live without either. In any case a true literary enthusiast can be sniffed out only by another – that unique breed that can't pass a bookstore without entering it. The kind who are thrilled by a clever turn of phrase, or a refreshing epigram. That is certainly true of Tharoor.

Spread over 40 essays, Bookless In Baghdad offers Tharoor's excellent commentary on all matters literary. He talks about the authors he loves and dislikes, offering delightful anecdotes. He expounds on topics like literary criticism and reviewing patterns. Also, for those who have read his earlier books like Riot, Show Business and The Great Indian Novel, there's a great deal about them here, where Tharoor explains the themes he tried to tackle and even puts up a spirited defense for one of his books that was not well-reviewed in India.

One of the things to admire about Tharoor's writing, besides his immaculate language, is his ability to make a definite point at the end of every essay in the most lucid manner. And even if the book focusses on writing and books, it is underlined by Tharoor's serious concerns about society, culture and politics.

The author acquaints his readers with the utter joy he derived from reading books all through his childhood. He started very early. At 3 years he was reading Noddy and soon moved on to other stories by Enid Blyton. He says he preferred British books to American ones in his growing up days. “We had access to Bobbsey Twins and Hardy Boys, but there seemed to be something brash and spurious about them. British books, we were brought up to believe, set the real standard,”

The other great British passion for Tharoor is P G Wodehouse for whom his admiration and warmth brims over. He analyses Wodehouse's popularity in India when elsewhere in the English speaking world, he is no longer much read. Is it because of a lingering nostalgia for the Raj? Tharoor doesn't believe so. He says it is precisely the lack of politics in Wodehouse's writing, one based in an idyllic world...a never-never land with stock figures, almost theatrical archetypes that charms and attracts Indians to his books.

The other very interesting essay is his observations on R K Narayan. Tharoor does not hold back from expressing his utter disappointment with Narayan's prose, calling it 'flat and monotonous' among many other things.
“Some of my friends felt I was wrong to focus on language – a writerly concern - and lose sight of the stories, which in many ways had an appeal that transcended language. But my point was that such pedestrian writing diminished Narayan's stories, undermined the characters, trivialised their concerns.” he writes.

That is no malice in Tharoor's observations, merely candour and straight-talk.

There is an essay on Winston Churchill, where Tharoor calls him an 'overweening imperialist” whose fame primarily rests on his bombastic speeches – revisionists since then have called it 'sublime nonsense'
Then there is a sharp criticism of the late Nirad Chaudhari for his nauseating allegiance to the British, while looking down upon his own people.

Tharoor pays rich tribute to authors like Pablo Naruda, the Russian author Pushkin and V S Naipaul. But his most passionate and heart-felt essays are those about Salman Rushdie, who he respectfully addresses as “the head of my profession”
He expresses his deep anguish about the fatwa on the writer who he says revitalised and stretched the boundaries of the possible in Enligh literature. “Mention Rushdie, and some see a stirring symbol of the cause of freedom of expression in the face of intolerant dogma, others, particularly the Islamic word, find a blasphemous crusader for secularist social subversions. Neither image may be inaccurate, but reducing him to this emblematic figure has only served to obscure his true literary contribution”
He also regrets him being reduced to “a haunted symbol of Western literary freedom under assault from Oriental despotism”

From the 'illiterate' reader of America, to the French who know how to honour their literary geniuses, Tharoor offers a complete world-view of the literary scene.

But the most touching chapter is the title one, where he describes his visit to Baghdad and a book bazaar where a cornucopia of books were laid out for sale. Crippled with US sanctions and with their greatly diminished currency, many Iraqi families were selling off their precious books. Many things come to light in this chapter. For one, the Iraqis are a highly literate population and lovers of books. There is something very poignant about this essay, where Tharoor had gone as representative of the UN, but the book lover in him was clearly moved by what he saw.

The author's sharp wit comes in full force when he defends his second book, Show Business, which many believed was a comedown for him since it wasn't as ambitious as his first, The Great Indian Novel. Tharoor uses the opportunity to talk about reviews and critical assessment, all of which makes for great reading.

This is a must read for those who love books, authors and all things literary. There is a tremendous wealth of knowledge, insight and ideas here.

- Sandhya Iyer

1 comment:

Alexander said...

Looks interesting, and a suitable introduction for a layman par excellence. Mr Tharoor seems to be one who doesn't mince words; I personally like that. Only I don't know if I am sufficiently literate to read him. We shall see.