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Tharoor: In the best of traditions

He works on everything but India in his UN role, and writes about nothing but India in his books. Shashi Tharoor, who describes himself as a `believing Hindu', kept the two roles strictly apart even during his visit to the City to mark the relaunch of his book, Riot. And the audience at the reading session found his good looks and mild theatricality as charming as his words.

Shashi Tharoor: Articulating an alternative vision for India.

THE MOST impressive moment of the question-and-answer sessions with Shashi Tharoor was when he prefaced a sentence with, "As a believing Hindu... " In an age when most people shed religion, unable, or, oftentimes, unwilling, to navigate its fiery depths, it was certainly refreshing to hear a thinking man not refer to himself as "a secular Indian". But more than all that, it lent credence to his wish to "articulate an alternative vision for India... one that respects all its diversities". Tharoor also said that he wished the Hindutva factions would "become better Hindus".

Shashi Tharoor was at Sankar's the bookshop as well as the Leela to do readings and answer questions. The session at Sankar's was organised partly by Penguin to mark the reissue of Tharoor's last novel, Riot, with a new cover only nine months after it was first released. Such a thing is unprecedented - using the post-Godhra mood (the cover had a Godhra picture) to set the sales soaring - but nobody questioned that. Instead, they asked whether it was not "wrong" to have the American edition's sub-title describe the book as "A Love Story" on its exoticised cover. Tharoor said that when Riot was first out, it was described as a "necessary book" and post Godhra, it was being hailed as a "prophecy", and a "warning" and laughed off any soothsaying abilities.

In answer to a question about whether an English book such as Riot was not self- defeating because the kind of person who would read the book already knew what he was trying to communicate, Tharoor said that it was very optimistic to think that all the people, or even the majority of the people who could read Riot, were liberal. He described the shock with which he found, on returning to India in the 80s, that people in their homes were talking about things in ways that would not have been respectable in the 70s.

In Riot, Tharoor attempts to tell the story of an actual riot (recounted to him by none other than Harsh Mander, who resigned from his IAS post, following Godhra), and incorporates a number of voices and viewpoints in describing the cruelty, violence, and human suffering that such riots bring. Asked whether he felt any guilt for "marketing the dark side of India to the Americans", Tharoor was firm in his denial: "I feel no guilt," he said. "No guilt whatsoever. Writing has nothing to do with marketing." He also said that the "dark side" was crucial to the story he was telling and that had it been stuffed in for effect, he may perhaps have felt some guilt. He also pointed out that the voice of Hindutva was given as much space in his book as any of the others and that he thought he had done a better job of representing their point of view than they themselves had.

Tharoor has a way with words and he is so intelligent that when he speaks, you can almost overlook his good looks, though not the woman sitting behind me who whispered to her neighbour with a tinkle in her voice: "His form's better than his content!" Its difficult to imagine the charming, well-tended Shashi Tharoor with an asthmatic childhood during which, confined to bed, he read "eclectically and indiscriminately". Starting with his father's books and moving onto all the classics (Dickens and so forth), modern writers (Kundera and Updike), and pulp and trash as well (Harold Robbins and Irving Wallace).

Tharoor's mild theatricality elicited a question about whether there was not an unfulfilled actor in him and Tharoor recounted how he had acted right through school and was one of the first batch of students in Pearl Padamsee's acting school, and how he had been Antony to Mira Nair's Cleopatra. "To this day, she calls me `My Antony!'"

This Antony is also a cricket fan, having written about half a dozen articles on cricket, mainly The Illustrated Weekly (when Nandy was editor) one of which got Sunil Gavaskar's hackles up because the magazine gave it the title, "Is Sunil Gavaskar the worst captain India has had?" He hopes someday to write a book on cricket. Talking of writing and the role of the writer, Tharoor said that the writer could only "scratch the consciousness" and that his own writing was didactic, that the story was a good vehicle for ideas.

He wrote, he said, for "people like us"; the concerns he addressed in his writing were those of English educated Indians.

In her introduction of Shashi Tharoor, Bangalore's own Shashi - Shashi Deshpande - had spoken of how wonderful it was to meet a fellow writer, of how this rarely happened among those who wrote in English, and wished for a little more closeness among the members of this community. When speaking of the need for good translations, Tharoor said that Riot was very easily translated, a woman in the audience said that she had already begun to translate the book!

When asked why he had provided no answers in Riot, Tharoor said that he meant for his writing only to raise questions and that the answers had to be found collectively, adding that he still had hope in India's democracy.

Shashi Tharoor kept his UN role in strict view all through the question sessions, refusing to answer those about Kashmir, and one about the "kind of leadership that would be suitable for India." He said that he kept the two worlds strictly apart - in his UN role, he worked on "everything but India" and in his books, he "wrote about nothing but India".

At the end of the evening at the Leela, one man fervently told Tharoor that he had been moved by what he heard, and wished Tharoor would enter politics. "We need people like you," said this man who described himself as a "humble Indian".

Let us entertain ourselves with the idea of a khadi-clad Shashi Tharoor addressing the masses. Let's hope Mira Nair remembers not to address him as "My Antony!"


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