The Books of Dr. Shashi Tharoor

A frontline writer who won the prestigious Commonwealth Prize at 35, a leading columnist and speaker exemplar, a keen  history student who rose steadily in the ranks of international diplomacy, an astute businessman and a statesman politician – Dr. Shashi Tharoor is all these and more. A modern day Sri Krishna, he is everywhere – breaking bread with the Palayam Imam on Id night, teasing a tousled hair back during yet another fiery parliamentary debate in Delhi the next day and  holding forth on climate control somewhere in Europe the day after that. Come November you can spot him at the Hay Festival at Kanakakunnu Palace chatting on stage a jet-lagged writer from across the seas.  Literature lovers of the Lord’s city were enraptured in late ’08 as Tharoor, 52 going on 30 came clad in juba, mundu and angavastram and read the Palestinian Mahmud Darwish’s poetry at the inaugural Kovalam Literary Festival. Before long he entered politics and doubly delighted the denizens of Thiruvananthapuram by announcing the city as his constituency. He won hands down to become MP and the toast of the town. His writing has suffered thanks to the busy public life, the demands of law making reducing his once prolific output to a few chiseled book reviews in the odd magazine.  Much is made public about the man – his firefighting political crises from Singapore to Swaziland during his UN days, his oratory skills, a razor sharp wit that marks his writing, a series of three marriages and a knack for wise-cracking that has had few sympathizers among the moronic crowd of India’s political morass.  The last book that he penned, which he co-authored with the former Pakistan Foreign Secretary Shaharyar Khan, is at best a statistical account of India-Pakistan Test matches over the years. The title Shadows across the Playing Fields is borrowed from Ramachandra Guha. It is part of a series authorized by BBC’s Test Match Special. It is a welcome addition to any cricket buff’s collection. Let’s look at the other books of Tharoor.

Shashi started writing when quite young and published a story in the Illustrated Weekly of India before he was ten. His doctoral research work was a study of Indira Gandhi’s first reign from 1966-72. This became the material of the first book, Reasons of State (’82). The work earned plaudits from the likes of seasoned diplomat and later minister, K. Natwar Singh.  The writer had even interviewed Mrs. Gandhi many times as part of his work.

In ’89, Tharoor aged 33 (significantly the same age as Rushdie when he wrote his magnum opus Midnight’s Children), brought out his masterpiece novel, the cleverly titled The Great Indian Novel. He undertook a story of Himalayan scope, a retelling of twentieth century Indian history juxtaposed with the mighty epic tale of the Mahabharatha. Tharoor who spent three decades abroad once said, ‘You can take me out of India, but you cannot take India out of me’. This book is living proof. It is one of our best political satires yet.

In ’90 The Five Dollar Smile came out. It is a collection of 14 short stories that he had written for various magazines while still a teenager and heralds the vivid imagination of a fertile mind taking wings.

Tharoor’s love of Hindi cinema (while in St Xavier’s school, Mumbai, he played a hero part in a play opposite today’s big time director, Padma Bhushan Mira Nair. Buddy Rishi Kapoor had but a minor part) triggered his ’92 novel Show Business. The protagonist, the Bollywood film hero Ashok Banjara is modeled after Amitabh Bachan. Banjara’s life story is wackier than the weirdest film scripts out of Mumbai and we are led by the nose on a wild journey, part hilarious, part laborious. The portrayal of love including the carnal can make the ancient love-seers of India blush. Banjara is no bunny in the bedroom.  The hero also dabbles unsuccessfully in politics. The narrative is such as to ape a formula film script itself.

Tharoor displayed a remarkable sense of timing by coming out with India: From Midnight to the Millennium to coincide with the country’s fiftieth anniversary of Independence.  It is a gem of a non-fiction account that was part of US President Clinton’s in-flight reading when he visited India two years later. The book was revised and updated later.  

Jawaharlal Nehru had greatly influenced Tharoor and it was but a logical step for him to pay literary tribute to the first Prime Minister. The book Nehru: The Invention of India is dedicated to another international figure, Ghanaian Kofi Annan who was Secretary-General and his boss at the UN. It is a very lucid narrative on the eventful life of the man who ‘discovered’ India for us. It is readable despite the fact that the Kashmiri Pandit with the red rose in his buttonhole is possibly the second most written about Indian after M.K. Gandhi.

Tharoor wrote columns in innumerable papers and journals including The Hindu, Indian Express, Newsweek, Herald Tribune, Foreign Affairs, etc. A collection of these articles have appeared in the form of two books, Bookless in Bagdad and The Elephant, the Tiger and the Cell phone.  ‘Bookless..’ is wholly about things literary and includes pristine essays on greats like P. G. Wodehouse and Pablo Neruda. The 39 essays aren’t all adulatory ones. A holy cow like R.K. Narayan is taken to task for manufacturing characters that lack depth, Nirad C. Choudhary is shred to smithereens for his India hate and there is a strike back at the Empire that the likes of Kipling patronized.  ‘The Elephant…’ is meatier and is divided into distinct sections. This reviewer personally loved the one on people.  Sunil Gavaskar stands out. Tharoor watched the Little Master play University cricket much before his ’71 Test debut. In fact his scathing opinion piece in the Illustrated Weekly on Gavaskar’s defensive cricket had prompted the latter among other things to relinquish captaincy in ’85.

Tharoor is an avowed liberal who wears his secularism on his sleeve. Therefore communal violence that pops up every now and then in some parts of India have tormented the pacifist in him. That pain and angst found vent in a ’01 novel titled Riot: A Love Story. It tells of the romance between an Indian bureaucrat and an American lady called Priscilla Hart who visits India to volunteer in health programs. The backdrop is a terrible riot.   

When his friend the late M.F. Husain did a series of paintings based on the theme of Kerala, replete with majestic elephants and voluptuous women, Tharoor had the good fortune to pay tribute to his home state by penning the text for it. The coffee table book is titled Kerala: God’s Own Country in English and Kalyanikkuttiyude Keralam in Malayalam.

So here’s hoping that Dr. Shashi Tharoor finds time from his hectic job and serve his literary fan constituency in a different, but no less rewarding way!

(February 2012)

One thought on “The Books of Dr. Shashi Tharoor”

  1. Very much unknown details here, about Dr Tharoor ! Very astonishing and I feel so proud that he is representing TVM as its member of Parliament. TVM should utilize his services irrespective of Political inclinations.

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