Dr. Shashi Tharoor was in the international headlines last year when he ran for UN Secretary General. Although he gracefully bowed out of the race by October, the suave and articulate Indian diplomat had won more hearts at the end of the campaign than other contestants. Who then is Shashi Tharoor?
Shashi Tharoor was born of Malayali parents in London in 1956. His father Chandran was a manager with The Statesman newspaper. When Shashi was two, the family moved to India. He went to schools in Calcutta and Bombay. He secured his degree in History from the prestigious St. Stephen’s College in Delhi. Proceeding to the US on a scholarship, he acquired an M Phil and PhD from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy of Tufts University in Massachusetts, by the age of 22. He joined the United Nations in 1978 and has been working with the organization ever since. His work took him to Singapore and Geneva besides New York. He became Executive Secretary to the UN chief Kofi Annan in ’97. He further rose to be the Under-Secretary General in charge of Publications. His UN efforts have been lauded especially during the Boat People crisis in Singapore and the ethnic conflict in former Yugoslavia. He continues to work tirelessly for international peace while living within the framework of the world body. In ’98 he was named by the World Economic Forum in Davos as a ‘Global Leader of Tomorrow’. Separated from journalist wife Thilottima, Tharoor lives in Manhattan. His twin sons Ishan and Kanishk study at Yale. He is passionate about cricket although he never made a mark as a player of it. He once quipped with characteristic humor, ‘I wanted to play cricket very badly and I did exactly that – play very badly’.
Shashi Tharoor would still have his legion admirers even if he had not had any of the above mentioned achievements. The reason is that he enjoys a towering stature in another sphere of activity – writing. He is one of the foremost Indian authors in English, with awards like the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize to his name. As busy as his work schedules are, he squeezes in time to write his books and innumerable columns by night and on weekends. A compulsive reader and writer, Tharoor quotes Bernard Shaw to explain his urge, ‘I write for the same reason that a cow gives milk. It is there inside and it has to come out.’ He contributes regularly to the New York Times, The Hindu, Newsweek and many periodicals. A selection of these was brought out in book form as ‘Bookless in Baghdad’. A lot are archived in his site http://www.shashitharoor.com. Among his books the acclaimed ones are the novels ‘Riot: A Love Story’, ‘The Great Indian Novel’ and a study published during the golden jubilee year of our independence, ‘India: From Midnight to the Millennium’. His ‘Nehru: The Invention of India’ is an objective examination of the life of India’s first Prime Minister. Tharoor who visits his native Palakkad village every year, once teamed up with artist M.F. Hussain to pen a coffee-table book titled ‘Kerala: God’s Own Country’.
Shashi Tharoor is a die-hard fan of P.G. Wodehouse. While in college he headed what was the only Wodehouse Society in the world at that time. The society ‘ran mimicry and comic speech contests and organized the annual Lord Ickenham Memorial Practical Joke week, the bane of all at college who took themselves too seriously.’ A cursory reading of his books would reveal the wit of Tharoor as quintessentially Wodehousian. This should set the context for The Great Indian Novel. The clever title of the book alludes to its literal translation, Mahabharatha. The epic credited to Ved Vyasa is definitely great, thoroughly Indian and one hell of a novel. Comprising 100,000 verses it is the longest poem in the world. This modern day retelling that came out in 1989 is 400 pages long and rip-roaringly funny from cover to cover. The Himalayan intellect of Tharoor undertakes not one but two ambitious projects at one stroke. He endeavors to recreate the epic Indian tale as well as a broad but irreverent history of twentieth century India. It is breath-taking in its scope. Mythology and history blend in a heady concoction, a parody of the Mahabharatha peopled with an assortment of freedom-fighters, politicians and events. Vyasa becomes C. Rajagopalachari. Mahaguru Gangadatta or Gangaji, the leader of the masses, undertakes the Great Mango March. The effete Lord Drewpad who maps into Mountbatten, has a wife whose best friend is the blind Drithrashtra who is Nehru. The latter day Pandu in Netaji Bose perishes while on an escapade with his paramour. Only they are on a two-seater plane and it crashes. There are limericks thrown in for good effect. Mohammed A H Karna the founder of Karnistan, Jayaprakash Drona, Shakuni Shankar Ray et al add to the motley cast. Krishna is a lungi-clad, tea-swigging South Indian with the attributes of V. K. Krishna Menon. The autocratic villain is Priya Duryodani. It is curious that Tharoor’s doctoral dissertation was on the first reign of Indira Gandhi from ’66 to ’72. That thesis, which became a book called ‘Reasons of State,’ had drawn praise from the likes of K. Natwar Singh. The comedy reaches a crescendo where the decadent Maharajah of Kashmir is entrapped into signing the agreement for accession by India. Another kichdi novel with a pan-Indian sweep that comes to mind is Salman Rushdie’s ‘Midnight’s Children’ which preceded this book by almost a decade. Rushdie however had employed magic realism. The leitmotif in both is fun, unlike in another political satire, Orwell’s Animal Farm. Tharoor’s father was an exponent of Ottam Thullal. It seems that the son, who is as good a Xavierian and Stephanian as they come, inherited a love of the lampoon from the dad. I devoured The Great Indian Novel while on a trans-Pacific flight some years ago. I relished it so much as to not want to read another book for days, just so as to let the sweet taste linger. It should not be a different experience for all those who empathized with Tharoor when he said, ‘You can take me out of India, but you cannot take India out of me’.