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Is that you, Shashi Tharoor?

At a lively question-answer session in the city, diplomat and writer Shashi Tharoor discussed his latest work, "Riot". A report.

COFFEE AND snacks did the rounds religiously while over a 100-strong group waited patiently for Shashi Tharoor, the U.N. Under-Secretary General for Communications and Public Information, to reach the venue — Binny Hall of the Connemara Hotel. It was well past 7 p.m. when Tharoor stepped in. Traffic snarls caused the delay, the gathering was told. The show was sponsored by the Madras Book Club and Penguin Books India.

I was looking forward to hearing Tharoor speak. As a student of La Martiniere, Kolkata, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, he was a formidable debater and it was a challenge to demolish his arguments. But here was this new avatar, who looked familiar but seemed condescendingly polite. And he spoke with a British accent, which was alien to my memory and ears.

His reading from his latest book, "Riot", was moving at times. Especially the section where the nephew of one of the main characters is burnt alive in the car. But there were occasions when I wondered if an American woman was really necessary to bring the cross-cultural differences in perception into sharp focus.

As a writer, Tharoor has his inalienable privileges. As a creator, he knows best why he chose the characters, but I couldn't help wonder whether the inclusion of an American woman was intended to increase the sales graph in the West. A suave, desi character could have done no worse. To recall what he said, ``You can criticise an author for the characters he has created but it is rather unfair to critique an author for the characters he has not created.''

There is no doubt that Tharoor's command over English has scaled several notches in the last three decades, and his subtle sense of humour remains as keen as ever. ``We have a great deal of history — and mythology — and sometimes we don't know the difference'' he said. A very intense and appropriate remark from someone who majored in history from St. Stephen's College, Delhi.

The question-answer session was lively, and Tharoor dealt with each query precisely, taking trouble not only to repeat the question over the microphone for the benefit of those standing far behind but also to clarify his stand on the issue. It was interesting to hear him state categorically that the concept of secularism in India is not used as it is elsewhere. ``In India, it is not an absence of religions but the presence of religious pluralism,'' he insisted.

For a person who poured vitriol through his pen (``Comedies of Suffering'', The Hindu, June 8, 2001 criticising R.K. Narayan for ``the banality of Narayan's concerns, the narrowness of his vision, the predictability of his prose, and the shallowness of the pool of experience and vocabulary from which he drew''), Shashi Tharoor seemed completely at peace with the crowd than he was with the readers' approbation of Narayan's charm. But the contexts were different. He articulated his concerns well and was able to convince the gathering (nothing less could be expected of an excellent speaker that he has been since his school days) that there was a need to "raise our voice against those who use manufactured identities'' and who systematically tear the social and cultural fabric of India. He honestly admitted that his job was important because he had to pay for his Manhattan home and he had to snatch time whenever he could to focus on the Indian civilisation. This openness will certainly have endeared him to the southern readers.


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