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The Talented Mr. Tharoor

February 2004
The Talented Mr. Tharoor

Featuring Shashi Tharoor, UN Diplomat and acclaimed author, most recently of Nehru: The Invention of India.

By Murali Kamma


When Kofi Annan, the Secretary General of the United Nations, picked Shashi Tharoor for a cabinet-level position in 2001, he sent a clear message to the public with his unconventional decision. Usually at the UN, such high-ranking officials are political appointees who are nominated by their respective nations. But by selecting Tharoor, a career diplomat, as his Undersecretary General for Communications and Public Information, the people-friendly Kofi Annan made sure that he had the best candidate available to handle the challenging task of enhancing the image and effectiveness of his organization. This urbane, handsome diplomat ? who is highly articulate and speaks with a precise, Anglicized diction ? is also an accomplished writer with eight books to his credit, and it's easy to see why he is commonly regarded as the ?public face' of the UN.

Yet, despite all his achievements and high international profile as a top-ranking envoy of the most visible and global organization in the world, Tharoor retains a strong attachment to his Indian roots. "I feel India on my pulse," he remarked in an exclusive interview with Khabar. "I go back frequently and I remain closely in touch with the India about which I write."

If Tharoor's work at the UN fulfills his need to engage with the world and make a difference, then his life as an author feeds his passion for India. All his books ? both fiction and nonfiction ? have Indian themes, making it clear to anybody who has read them that when Tharoor can get away from his job at the UN, what he seeks more than anything else is a connection with the land from which he is circumstantially exiled. Given his demanding schedule, which involves long hours and frequent travel, it's astonishing that he is able to write as much as he does. However, Tharoor seems to thrive on the intensity of his dual life, and as he said in our conversation, he feels a part of his psyche would wither on the vine if he neglected one or the other. One could therefore say that his outward, humanitarian interaction with the world as a UN official perfectly complements his inward, emotional involvement with India as a solitary writer.

Although Tharoor was born in England, he mostly grew up in urban India, and after completing his schooling and undergraduate studies there, he came to the United States in the mid-1970s to pursue his graduate education. He began showing his rich versatility quite early in life. In addition to publishing short stories and articles, he participated in many other extra-curricular activities while attending the prestigious St. Stephen's College in Delhi. Among other things, he started a quiz club and took part in debates at the college. Being an ardent fan of P. G. Wodehouse, the inimitable British author, he revived the Wodehouse Society in Delhi. Tharoor also dabbled in the theater, and in one Shakespearean production, he played the role of Mark Anthony while Mira Nair, the would-be film director, acted as Cleopatra. He has been known to comment, jokingly, that she continues to greet him with the words, "Oh, my Anthony."

At the same time, in Delhi, this gifted and hard-working student completed his honors degree in history and won a scholarship to Tufts University in Boston, where he then quickly acquired two master's degrees and a Ph.D. in diplomacy by the ?ripe' age of twenty-two! Without wasting any time, the young-man-in-a-hurry joined the UN and began his rapid ascent to the upper echelons, and though he's still in his late forties, Tharoor is now the highest-ranking Indian at that influential organization. He headed the UN's Singapore office during the so-called ?boat people' crisis, and later he was in charge of peacekeeping operations in the former Yugoslavia.

Tharoor became widely known as an author with the publication of The Great Indian Novel, which won the Commonwealth Writers Prize in 1991. In this widely acclaimed political satire, which ingeniously uses The Mahabharata as its majestic backdrop, Tharoor weaves a quirky and frequently hilarious tale that's based on historical events and figures from twentieth-century India. Other books include two novels (ShowBusiness and Riot) and a work of nonfiction (India: From Midnight to the Millennium).

Shashi Tharoor is ideally suited to write Nehru: The Invention of India, his fascinating new biography of India's great leader from the last century. Not only is he knowledgeable about Indian history, one of his specialties, but also like Jawaharlal Nehru in his time, the well-read Tharoor is a cosmopolitan intellectual who engages passionately with the world around him and is also deeply committed to improving the lives of ordinary people. Also, with his strong sense of pan-Indian identity, he wholeheartedly embraces the Nehruvian ethos of unity in diversity. Tharoor's description of India as a thali, whose separate dishes mingle on the palate to provide a sumptuous meal, is a memorable metaphor that nicely captures the pluralism of India and the uniqueness of the Indian experience. Last year, in one of his articles, he described the UN as the "indispensable global organization for a globalizing world." Perhaps it's also true to say that Shashi Tharoor today is one of our indispensable global citizens.


A Conversation With Shashi Tharoor


Q. You have analyzed the four pillars of Nehruvianism quite cogently in the book. Since, as you put it, "democracy endures, secularism is besieged, non alignment is all but forgotten, and socialism barely clings on," how relevant is Nehru's legacy in 21st-century India?

I think he is in fact extremely relevant for all sorts of good reasons. First of all, as I've tried to argue in the book, a lot of what we are today ? India ? is very much a result of what Nehru was able to accomplish. Even Indians seem to have forgotten that when he was alive Nehru's stature was so great that our country seemed inconceivable without him. A year before his death, a leading American journalist, Welles Hangen, published a book entitled After Nehru, Who? And the unspoken question around the world was, "After Nehru, what?" And today we have something of an answer to that latter question. It's true little of that legacy appears intact. But if we don't understand what India under Nehru stood for, we are not going to be able to consciously appreciate the ways in which we need to depart from that legacy, what we owe to that legacy, and what we need to fight to preserve from that legacy. So the book is an attempt to examine this great figure of 20th-century nationalism from the vantage point of the beginning of the 21st Century. Looking at his vision of Indianness ? a vision that is, of course, fundamentally contested by many today ? is key to this. To me, his impact on India was too great not to be reexamined periodically. And his legacy is ours whether we agree with everything he stood for or not. That's why his story is not simply history.

Q. In the late 1940s, when India was winning the war in Kashmir, Nehru ? after disregarding Sardar Patel's advice ? declared a ceasefire and took the dispute to the UN. In retrospect, could this be seen as his biggest mistake on the Kashmir issue?

No, I don't think so. As I say in the book, there are many in India who argue that this was a case of Nehru snatching diplomatic stalemate out of the jaws of imminent military victory. And I can understand that some people feel that it was a major mistake on his part. On the other hand, what would have prevented the other side from taking it to the UN? I mean, it's not as if the issue simply went the way it did because of that one action. This was a territory on which two independent sovereign states had a claim for reasons linked to the messy aftermath of partition. And it was always going to be an issue, which the other side would have had every reason to internationalize. And it had a fair amount of sympathy from some of the other states. Other scholars have written on the basis of archives the role that Britain paid, for example, on the issue at that time. I don't know if it's fair to simply blame Nehru for going to the UN because the issue could have ended up in the UN anyway if he'd gone there or not. The status of the issue today does not depend very much on who took the issue to the UN. The issue is still seen as an international dispute.

Q. You noted that Nehru's biggest foreign policy blunder was his failure to manage India's relationship with China. Given Nehru's remarkable stature and expertise in foreign relations, how did this happen?

I think it's an interesting point. There's a lot to admire about Nehru's approach to foreign policy, which was extraordinarily sophisticated, and at the same time it was embedded in a deep sense of principle. But the one problem I have with it was the extent to which foreign policy seemed to be divorced from concrete benefits to the Indian people. It became very much the policy of one man with a very acute and sophisticated understanding of world affairs rather than the policies of a nation that was trying to get the best benefits it could for itself out of the world. I think it did not do enough to take economic advantages out of the new trade relationships and commercial relationships with the West and other Western-oriented countries. On the security front it failed to pay sufficient heed to India's national security imperatives at that time. And I think the failure of the policy then became manifest in the humiliating defeat in the war of 1962 (with China). So I'd say that while there is a lot to admire about the kind of stature that Nehru brought on the world stage to India, there's also a lot to fault.

Q. Although there were other powerful and charismatic leaders such as Sardar Patel and C. Rajagopalachari, Nehru had no serious rivals when he was the Prime Minister. How did he handle dissent without becoming dictatorial?

I should stress that Patel died in 1950 and Rajaji was out of national office before the mid-50s. So, in any case, it was only the first few years that Nehru actually had people of comparable stature around him. For most of his role as Prime Minister he was truly without peer. And that certainly accentuates the importance of your question. He therefore had all the more ability to go the wrong way, which he fortunately resisted. I think the answer to the question lies, first of all, in his own temperament and convictions. He was fundamentally opposed to dictatorship of any sort. On a trip back from Europe, when his plane had to transit through Rome, Mussolini ? the Italian fascist dictator ? sent an envoy saying that he'd like to meet Nehru, who responded, "No, I'll not shake the hand of a dictator. He does not stand for anything I value or respect." In his own domestic career in the late 1930s, at the peak of his rise to the leadership, he authored an anonymous article in the Modern Review of Calcutta ? an article in which he said that we should not give in to the dictatorial temptations of Jawaharlal Nehru because India needs no Caesars. When asked by an eminent American editor, Norman Cousins, of the Saturday Evening Post, what he hoped for his legacy, he said, "Hopefully 400 million Indians capable of governing themselves." The basic principle stays valid to this day that he sought respect for democratic institutions and practices ? the presidency, the independent judiciary and all of that. To this day they're the only guarantee for India to govern itself.

Q. Nehru's economic policies were influenced by Fabian socialism, which had been fashionable among the British-educated Indians of his generation. Is it also fair to say, as some have suggested, that Nehru's aristocratic and intellectual background ? combined with an elite education in England ? made him distrust free enterprise and the business community?

I think that's partly true. He approached it slightly differently. I don't see very much evidence of statements or letters in which he expresses such mistrust. But it's implicit in many of his actions because he certainly did not give Indian entrepreneurs the chance to grow and develop. Even those entrepreneurs who under the British were able to carve out something of a role for themselves ? Tata, Kirloskar and so on ? were stifled under the Nehru Raj. Tata started a successful, highly regarded airline . . . and Nehru nationalized it. Kirloskar wanted to manufacture cars . . . and Nehru controlled the number of licenses given out. And of course he did give it to another Indian capitalist, Birla, but still there was no question of widespread competition. So you're probably right that there was that mistrust. In fairness to Nehru, I think one can say that it was not just a question of intellectual fashion. He was genuinely convinced that India's problems of poverty and suffering were so great that he could not rely upon those motivated purely by profit. He felt it was necessary to have the state to be the disinterested ma-baap (father and mother) of the people who would act in the interests of the common person because the state would not be motivated by profit. Of course, what he failed to realize was that as a result he'd put bureaucrats in charge of the commanding heights of the economy rather than businessmen. And these bureaucrats were better at regulating stagnation and distributing poverty than actually generating wealth.

Q. Do you think the UN has to evolve or change substantially in order to stay relevant in the 21st century?

I think the UN is relevant. It should not be reduced to one issue ? Iraq ? as those who have been accusing the UN of irrelevance have tended to do. The fact is that Iraq is an important issue for the UN and for the world, but the UN is about much more than Iraq. It's about crises in various other parts of the world where the UN's role has made an enormous difference to people's lives. I mean, places like Congo, Liberia, Western Sahara, Cyprus, Afghanistan, East Timor, and so on. But beyond that, it's also about ?problems without passports', to use Kofi Annan's phrase, that bedevil the world, problems that cross all frontiers uninvited, problems that no one country or group of countries ? however powerful ? can solve on their own. Problems like human rights issues; refugee problems; war and peace; terrorism; AIDS and other dread diseases like SARS that cross all borders; poverty and development. In fact, in southern Africa, the combination of poverty, AIDS and famine threatened ? and continues to threaten ? more human lives than Iraq ever did. These are all problems. And I haven't even mentioned climate change and drug abuse, which cross borders all the time and for which the solutions too have to rise above borders. And the UN is the only institution that brings together all the countries of the world to do these things.

Q. Its been said that the Security Council is out of date and that it's not enough to have just five permanent members. Your comments?

Well, the question of institutional reform is very much in the mind of the Secretary General. He has appointed a panel of eminent persons to study this question and report to them in the course of next summer so that he can submit a report to the General Assembly when it meets next September. What I wanted to say, though, is that institutional reform is more than just the Security Council. There are so many aspects to the way in which the UN is organized to cope with the challenges facing the world today ? in particular, issues on how to respond to unconventional threats, including terrorist threats, where the UN has a major role to play because it's the one place that brings every country around to deal with these problems. On the composition of the Council, you're right to say that there is no denying the fact that the five permanent members reflect the geopolitical realities of 1945 and not those of 2004. These are realities that reflect the ending of World War II, and these are the five major powers that emerged from that global cataclysm. Today there are other powers that in many ways have as valid a claim to that sort of recognition. The difficulty, however, is in getting the 191 members of the United Nations to agree on expanding both in terms of numbers and in terms of which countries should get in. That debate has dragged on for over a decade at the UN without any agreement.

Q. Some expatriate authors who write in English reject the label ?Indian'. Since they no longer live in India, these writers may find this description constricting or misleading. How do you view yourself as a writer?

I'm entirely an Indian writer, primarily because I'm still an Indian. I haven't made the leap of the imagination that emigration entails. I happen to be living in New York, but that's because my UN job places me here. I mean, I could be in Timbuktu tomorrow and I would still be Indian ? as I had been while I was living in Geneva, Switzerland, while living in Singapore. In fact, I was born in London and I'm theoretically eligible for a British passport, but I have never exercised that right. I've felt that my Indianness is what stares at me when I look in the mirror. My Indianness is also shaped by the fact that I grew up in India. All my, shall we say, fundamental views of the world, my intellectual convictions and interests were shaped by the experience of growing up in India. To me, I'm very much an Indian writer, writing for Indians. It so happens that I live abroad, but I don't think any critic has been able to point out any error or oversight or misunderstanding about India resulting from my living abroad. I feel India on my pulse. I go back frequently and I remain closely in touch with the India I write about.���

Q. So you don't necessarily agree with Bharati Mukherjee's stance . . . ?

She says she's an American writer of Bengali origin, and she is entitled to that. That is indeed her situation. In fact, several years ago you would say she was a Canadian writer of Bengali origin. And, you know, she has migrated. She has chosen a new country, a new society to live in, and she is entirely entitled to do that. I haven't made that choice. I just happen to be living here; this is where I'm posted. And I can be posted, as I said, to Timbuktu tomorrow without becoming Malian or African. And I'll carry my Indian identity and my Indian passport with me wherever I go. I don't think that one physically needs to live in a country to feel part of it because a writer essentially lives inside his head and on the page. And the forces that have shaped what's inside that head are ultimately of fine use to me. I'm quite comfortable sitting in America, as I was when I began work on a new novel a week before Christmas, trying to imagine the rural Kerala village I was writing about. But that's fine because you don't have to be physically there to do it.

Q. Last year you attended a large Indian literary gathering (Sahitya Sammelan) in New York. At least one author ? I believe it was M. T. Vasudevan Nair ? felt that the literature in the regional languages of India did not get the attention it deserved. What's your opinion on this?

I think he is right. It doesn't get the attention it deserves in terms of its quality. One reason is of course the quality of translation, which has been fairly indifferent, even mediocre, for a long time. But it has improved dramatically in recent years as more and more Indian publishers are putting in an effort into good quality translations. But then the second problem relates to the untranslatability of some of the ethos and the assumptions undergirding some of this fiction. The sad truth is that when writing about rural India, for example, in Malayalam or Tamil or Telugu or Oriyya, you can assume certain things that your readers can understand, which don't need to be explained. Anybody reading in that language will understand certain things about the way in which people relate to each other, about certain practices, rituals and habits, and so on, which ? once translated ? either don't come across to a reader or don't come across at the same context and with the same emotional wallop. This is a greater challenge for Indian writing. One possibility would be for the translators to themselves weave in at a certain level of explanation, not in from notes but into the text itself so that the reader understands what's going on and does better.

Q. You've remarked that if America is a melting pot, then India can be seen as a thali. It's an interesting observation. Does this correspond to the Nehruvian ethos of unity in diversity? Would you care to elaborate?

Yes, I think you can connect the two. My point is that the melting pot essentially induces conformity. You have a society where whether you've come from Croatia or Italy or Scotland or Ireland, you essentially ? within the span of a generation ? are speaking the same language with roughly the same accent, wearing the same sorts of clothes, eating the same sorts of food, celebrating the same sorts of holidays. That will be the idea of the great melting pot ? the creation of an American out of this hybrid background of European races. In India we don't do that. We have people who are quite conscious of their separateness: their different clothes, their different food habits, their different appearance, their different languages, their different religions, and so on. And yet, of course, there's a common shared identity as well. And that to me is the magic of the Indian thali with all these bowls on one plate. But each of the bowls contains a separate dish. They don't necessarily mix with the next and they don't certainly flow into each other. And yet they belong together on the same plate and they combine on your palate to give you a satisfying meal. And to me that is a better metaphor of the Indian experience than the melting pot because, aside from the elite urban English-educated Indian, there's not the same sameness about, say, a Kerala rice farmer and a Haryanvi jat peasant. And yet they are conscious, at a certain level, of sharing a larger roof over their heads together ? this idea of Indian civilization. To me, that's part of what India is all about. I think I wrote in one of my books that the whole thing about India is that we're able to endure differences of color, creed, caste, custom, costume and conviction, and still rally around a consensus. And that consensus is that in a democracy you don't really need to agree all the time so long as you agree on the ground rules of how you will disagree and where you will disagree. And that ability to contain the real differences we have is one of India's great strengths as a nation. And that's why I've made such a virtue of Indian pluralism in all my writing.

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